Every week in this space, Grantland pop-culture correspondent Andy Greenwald will run down the happenings and mishappenings in NBC’s Thursday comedy night done mostly right. (Note: The order reflects newsworthiness, not quality. Although occasionally the two just might overlap.)
1. Up All Night
Not every Thursday night can be memorable. In the course of any long season, there are going to be at least a few “must see” evenings that are so named only because it is literally my job to watch them. Last night was just such a Thursday, a tepid two hours in which no show was at its best and — frustratingly for the ardent recapper — no show was at its worst. It was Kabletown CEO Hank Hooper’s sort of night, one in which every citizen tuned in to NBC could experience that most American of pastimes, sitting “on a couch talking on the phone about a TV show they’re watching based on a YouTube clip.” With even the reliably newsworthy Office having an off night (literally; it was a rerun), I’m sure Hank wasn’t the only one longing for a half-hour version of that cat “who jumps into boxes." At least Whitney wasn’t around to make her own version of a joke about cats and boxes. Rest assured, it would have been less cute.
So on a night when nothing made waves for being good, it seems appropriate to revisit something that surprised for being fine. Up All Night has been a punching bag in this column ever since it washed up on Thursday nights. There’s something about its entitled witlessness that rubs me the wrong way, like a million smug baby-related Facebook status updates come to life. The talented Will Arnett and Christina Applegate have seemed adrift in unlikable roles. Their Chris and Regan Brinkley are blinkered buffoons who constantly seek to reaffirm their faded hipster cred by either scrabbling onto the backs or taking out at the knees everyone around them: their less-cool neighbors (who actually seem nice), their potential gay BFFs (who don’t meet the Brinkleys’ impossible child-rearing standards), Sharon Osbourne. Orbiting them at an oddly intimate distance is Maya Rudolph, whose undefined ego monster of a character seems improperly grafted on from a wackier, potentially funnier show. But beyond any week-to-week criticism, much of which is common in a first-year show trying to find its legs, it’s become more and more clear that there might not be a show to find. Up All Night was a cleverly written pilot about first-time parenthood. Since then, it’s swung more wildly than John Updike at a key party, one week striving for 30 Rock-esque mania and the next settling for intimate oohs and ga-gas. Even last night it was hard not to notice that the Brinkleys' perfectly appointed, perfectly sterile hipster pad featured not one but two large glass display cases full of lemons. The characters weren’t making a granita or setting up an elaborate Yugo joke. It was merely something that looked nice but, upon further consideration, made absolutely no sense. Sort of like Up All Night itself.
“Letting Go” didn’t fix any of the structural problems, but it helped ease them, if only for a week — the main reason being that it was occasionally funny. Credited scribe Tucker Cawley may have leaned too heavily on the return of clubland caricature Julian, but at least the guy oozes laughs along with metabolized quarts of Red Bull and vodka. (Best: “Is he a rescue dog?” “I don’t know what he can do.” And Reagan’s post-Julian cavil of “Again, I smell like the break room at Armani Exchange!”) It also helped that the episode was built (bizarrely) around the presence of Stevie Nicks, whose mere mention reduces Ava and Reagan to scarf-clutching puddles. (Is it worth quibbling over the unlikelihood of Ava — whose most popular song was the asstastic “Back It Up (Beep Beep)” — being such a fervent acolyte of a crystal-fueled spirit witch like Stevie? Probably not. Let’s move on.) Being a human being on Planet Earth, my pet raven and I also got irrationally excited at the promise of a sitcom appearance by Rhiannon herself, even if it turned out to be nothing but a two-minute gag about silencing babies and using a lace pashmina as a kind of gypsy Clapper.
Classic rock icons aside, what worked about the episode was that it didn’t seem to be trying so hard. Arnett’s B-plot about trying to coax his aging, brittle (but somehow more handsome) body onto the ice with a younger gang of horny slapshooters was fine, and Applegate’s aggro anal alpha tendencies — she won’t let Amy on a two-foot slide by herself — were at least paired with Ava’s unlikely dog adoption. And even though it’s wildly out of place for a Thursday-night comedy to end with a straight-faced musical montage of happy baby moments, it felt right for Up All Night. Even at its best, the show simply isn’t very funny (a “you go, girl” gag followed by a “poop loop”? Seriously? Show some respect for yourself, writers' room!), and trying to keep up with the night’s joke machines in Greendale and TGS makes Up All Night look as silly as Will Arnett pre-cringing at the sight of an impending bodycheck. The show’s high-profile cast and Lorne Michaels’s pedigree will most likely earn it a second season. Here’s hoping it can find its true calling as an agreeable, occasionally sappy light comedy elsewhere on NBC’s minefield of a schedule. As Stevie once sang, “I’ve been afraid of changing ... but time makes you bolder.” So would a new time slot.
TV creators often claim that none of their characters are specifically autobiographical. Rather, they often say that they spread their caffeine-damaged psyches throughout their fictional children: a fetish here, a catchphrase there. This is most likely the case with Community as well. And while the jury is still out on whether Dan Harmon has Jeff Winger’s abs or Annie Edison’s sleep-study death shriek, he certainly possesses Abed’s mechanical single-mindedness. How else to explain the devotion of an entire episode to his complicated feelings of anger/gratitude toward Subway and its very evident underwriting of the second half of Season 3?
The mid-season premiere (which, admittedly, was aired out of order) had a perfectly fine plot about Shirley and Pierce’s burgeoning business relationship and how it was squashed by the sudden arrival of the little-guy-crushing national chain. This week upped the ante, doubled down on the bet, went all in, and French-kissed the croupier by introducing “Subway,” an Aryan action figure who is enrolled in Greendale as the sandwichery’s first Corpo-Humanoid. [Full disclosure: Subway is a Grantland sponsor.] This blond beefcake (although delicious veggie options are available) comes with his own catchphrase, directive (“to hang out, take weird classes, and party as hearty as my morality clause allows”), and somber backstory: Before he became an Orwellian nightmare, “Subway” was merely an Orwell fan, a normal guy who wants to open a clinic for handicapped animals and engage in some rough trade with Britta inside a pillow fort. It was classic Harmon to push what could have been a potentially subtle sponsorship way out in front, and it led to some typically excellent work from Gillian Jacobs and some typically weird stuff from the writers (Pierce knocking back shots of ink; the Subway exec’s incredibly drawn-out boner joke, which ran longer than any fort Troy or Abed could ever dream of constructing).
But was it worth an entire episode? (And it did feel like the entire episode, considering Jeff was questioning his shallowness just last week and even Troy and Abed knew they were recycling old bits.) I’m actually looking forward to seeing the pillow vs. blanket war continued in the next episode (again, I must note: This is a show about adults); there’s some surprisingly heavy lifting being done with Community’s most likable, and childlike, characters. I’m not looking forward to the sight of John Goodman in sleeper pajamas, thank you very much. But all told, “Digital Exploration of Interior Design” was yet another in a long line of examples of Dan Harmon’s stubbornness. For good or ill, once he’s committed to a joke — or a plotline, or a character — it’s clear he’d rather pull the self-destruct sheet than compromise his vision. All that’s left for the audience to do is accept the command with a resigned “pop pop.”
3. 30 Rock
Tina Fey is so clever about the business of television, she often gets to have her cake and shame-eat it, too. “The Shower Principle” was an episode about repetition and stagnation — two hallmarks of any sitcom approaching its seventh season. So of course the creeping awareness that everything had been done, that there were precious few original tantrums for Jenna to pull or self-improvement schemes for Liz to fixate on, became the driving plot of the episode. Tying it to the dull inevitability of Tax Day was another bright touch. (Has any show ever made more hay of holidays than 30 Rock, particularly this season? It’s another smart move for a veteran show, and a savvy one, too: The more tied to calendar dates your episodes are, the less likely they are to be preempted by the capricious non-sofa-makers in the real 30 Rockefeller Plaza.)
So if the the episode wasn’t stagnant — and really, how could it be, with a “Summer Horse Grave” aromatherapy candle and a running gag about Mayor McCheese performing the lead role in The Scottish Play — it was, unfortunately, repetitive, from Tracy’s latest headache (“5 Now Dog 5!”) to Jack playing with himself (though the yogi garb was new). Even Hazel, the newcomer, has become slightly stale. I love the looped energy that Kristen Schaal brings to the character’s possibly criminal sexuality (“Eyes down here! I have breasts, you know”), but find her stalkerish tendencies tiresome.
But the thing with 30 Rock is that, like pantsing Deepak Chopra or riding on a catamaran with Mickey Rourke, even when it’s not great, it’s still awfully good. This season’s gentle but dogged advancement of Happy Liz continued apace — she’s even eating the lettuce underneath her onion rings now — and the cockeyed co-dependence between her and Jack has never been sweeter, nor more rat-infested. “You people are the reason my life is a stagnant, monotonous hell!” Liz bellows at her co-stars at one point, mirroring words that could be said by any sitcom star at any time. Luckily for us, Liz just manages to keep finding funnier ways to say them.