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. The Office
How do you know when the spark is gone? For a romantic naif like Andy Bernard it’s pretty simple: You fall in love with someone else, drive to Tallahassee, share a few laughs, a couple sandwiches, and then crash a bachelorette party to tell your soon-to-be-ex the great/terrible news. But with a sitcom, it’s rarely that clear cut.
The Office has been a mess all season, but the last run of new episodes before a not-particularly-earned spring break were at least an interesting mess. The banishment of half the cast to the Florida panhandle enlivened the writers' room like nothing since the Michael Scott Paper Company, creating an arc that, while manic and bizarre, at least demonstrated the 8-year-old (that’s 150 in sitcom years) still had some fight left in it. The hot Southern sun brought out a strange sort of crazy in familiar characters — Stanley the rum head, Dwight the sympathetic psychopath — and there was a palpable charge that resulted from pushing such a well-established franchise to the bleeding edge of plausibility. It wasn’t good, necessarily. But it was something. After a stuttering, frustrating start to the season, it seemed possible that The Office had somehow survived the loss of its head.
But last night made it clear that what we saw wasn’t life, or even rebirth: It was the last, futile sprint of a decapitated chicken. In most ways “Welcome Party” wasn’t bad. The opening bit, in which no one could remember if Stanley had a mustache or not, was fine and the notion of having the party-planning committee go rogue and design an intentionally bad shindig was, almost shockingly, original. (This is really saying something. Dunder-Mifflin has more parties per annum than the Duggar family .) Some of the jokes landed too, like Dwight wondering if “king-sized sheets are called presidential in England” and pretty much anything spat out in indignant, shiny-vested anger by Brett Gelman as the frustrated magician. But the entire affair felt as flaccid as one of the gummy penises Andy so eagerly offered to Erin, as tiresome as an intimate concert with Creed (one in which he plays all originals).
When even Catherine Tate’s Nellie Bertram seems exhausted by her played-out Michael Scott routine, all clueless, racially insensitive peacocking (“No offense, but are there a lot of Irish people living around here”) followed by an inevitable humanizing softness (Henry, her boyfriend, dumped her, leaving her with nothing but a broken heart and Benjamin, the name she gave to a box of photos of Henry), it’s a clear sign of trouble. The new blood The Office is desperate to transfuse isn’t taking; the host rejected James Spader months ago and now it seems not even Tate is safe. This is a show going through the motions.
With the uninteresting Andy-Erin romance now settled (did anyone else feel a Twin Peaks–like charge of horror when Erin briefly chose napping over her not-gay new boyfriend’s kiss? They couldn’t delay this unasked-for union even further, could they? Oh no! It’s happening again!), there is nothing left for the show to do but pilot itself gracefully and finally back into dry dock. Just as Paul Lieberstein and company found their footing last year while steering Steve Carell to the exits, putting a ribbon on our time in Scranton is the only rewarding story left to tell. What else do we have to look forward to this season? The integration of Nellie into a job she claimed like her countrymen once claimed the Falkland Islands? The continuing decline of Spader’s already evident disinterest in this part until he delivers his lines propped up on a hospital bed, like Elaine Stritch on 30 Rock? Or the consummation of Darryl’s season-long courtship of Val, a character who exists only for the purpose of being wooed by Darryl? No. Let it go. The only compelling reason to keep The Office on the air at this point is to give the cast further opportunities to burnish their director’s reels. (Last night was helmed by Helms; previous episodes this season have been directed by John Krasinski, Rainn Wilson, and B.J. Novak.)
But as often is the case with NBC, it’s not so simple. The peacock has plenty of promising pilots on tap for autumn — first and foremost among them is Friday Night Dinner, from Office adapter Greg Daniels — and they need a tentpole to build around. Still starved for hits and facing the unenviable task of rebuilding (yet again) with no legs to stand on, the network has little choice but to try and revive The Office. Only it’s beginning to look a lot like Ed Harris giving CPR to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss , the sort of painful, futile pounding that ends up hurting the patient in the process of saving it. And so, after a few months of stilted stories about cast renegotiations, we get stories like this, suggesting that with showrunner Lieberstein leaving and Mindy Kaling most likely following him out the door (her own pilot is looking good for Fox), the next best thing would be to “reboot” the show for a new generation of workplace drones. There’s talk of inking Krasinski and other bigger names to smaller deals; they could appear in fewer episodes but provide continuity for new cast members. But this, coupled with the potential Schrute Farms spin-off, seem suspect at best, pathetically desperate at worst. NBC can try all they want to squeeze juice from this desiccated beet. But it seems like a wasted effort. The Office isn’t in the graveyard, but it is in hospice. There are flashes of the old personality — the warmth of the cast, the experience of the writers — but they’re few and far between. Instead of pumping it full of drugs and attempting risky, expensive procedures, why not let the patient go out with a little dignity? It’s what Stanley’s tonsils would have wanted.
In the case of Community, it’s not a question of having enough stories to tell — the previous two and a half seasons have certainly demonstrated that anything is fair game within the unhallowed halls of Greendale — but rather deciding which ones are worthy. As is the show’s wont, “Origins of Vampire Mythology” was a screeching 180 from the high-concept silliness of last week’s Ken Burns–aping “Pillows and Blankets.” But it did maintain that episode’s dark and squishy heart as well as its sense of boundary pushing: Other than one (admittedly wonderful) nod to the classic Boogie Nights bedroom coke scene, this was Community at its most raw and vulnerable, putting its soft, pajama-clad self on full display without the benefit of meta bells and whistles. I found it interesting that the episode was credited to Dan Harmon, a guy who seemingly has no problem putting his innermost flaws on display, intentionally or not. Harmon’s grubby rewriting fingerprints are all over every episode, of course, but unlike, say, Matt Weiner, Harmon rarely feels the need to give himself the glory. Since the pilot, there have only been two other episodes listing him as the writer, including an insane zero in Season 2. Since last night was a pure expression of Community’s creator, it’s worth considering it as such, meaning the emotional intensity wasn’t a one-off, like zombies or chicken fingers, but actually a fair reflection of the show Harmon is interested in making. And to my mind, that’s a very good thing.
Of course, it also helped that “Origins” offered a too-rare chance for Britta to go nuts. Gillian Jacobs is plenty good in her usual role as “the King Arthur of bad taste in men,” the famously named “AT&T of people” whose self-deluded judging keeps the group on its toes and in hysterics. But she’s even better when allowed to uncork the crazy, and her turn as a jittery, untrustworthy carny addict was well worth the price of admission. (“You’re the opposite of Batman!” “You don’t know what that means!”) Her self-imposed lockdown at Troy & Abed’s opened the show up to some overdue character pairings as well, tamping down the formerly feuding duo (the episode opened with them playing friendsy hand games) and focusing instead on Jeff and Shirley (a.k.a., “the only one” who really understands him) and, for a time, on the comet-like best friendship of Pierce and Chang. (It was a nice, if unintentional nod to current events to begin with Chevy Chase pouting about his lack of BFFs.) Even the suddenly train-obsessed Dean Pelton choo-choo-chose to enter into the A-plot for once, packing his jammies for a night of movie watching and confusing all of the main characters with his presence.
But the part I enjoyed the most was the clumsy sweetness at the core. Sure, much of it was on the nose — particularly the Jeffiest Jeff monologue in the show’s history (“None of us have to go to anyone” sounds like an outtake from a breath mint commercial starring Sandra Bullock) — but it was undeniably sweet, particularly the loving looks exchanged by a shocked, post-Blade Britta and a sulky, potentially smitten Troy. Donald Glover’s character has been doing a lot of growing up this season for a guy who still hangs out in a Dreamatorium. Last night proved that his show is capable of doing the same.
3. 30 Rock
Speaking of surprisingly mawkish turns, even snarky 30 Rock softened itself up for a night. The reason was the welcome reappearance of the aforementioned Stritch as Jack’s indomitable mother, Colleen. Though wheelchair-bound, Stritch was in fine fighting Irish form, lying about her heart surgery, accusing her Indian surgeon of feeding personal items to his “cow god,” and disparaging her son — whose name she keeps on a list of disappointments in her shoe — for “eating fruit like a Frenchman.” The auxiliary madness was no less tender, with Tracy desperate to stop his eldest son, George Foreman, from tumbling into a hopeful life of purpose and achievement and Jenna using the latest tick on her Sexual Walkabout checklist (“Yoko”-ing a color-coded Australian kids group called The Woggels; it came right after doing a liberal Supreme Court justice) to discover her true, unfinished feelings for Paul. In the center of the tornado was Liz, transformed from merely being the scent of a father last week to a full-on mama grizzly. It was a nice touch for Liz’s own perennial case of the zanies to be back-burnered just in time for a necessary hat trick of competence: She gets Tracy to stop flashing his belly on the set of the Rachel Maddow show (and Grizz to stop the entourage paperwork) and talk to his ignored offspring and forces Jenna to confront the sad reality that Paul has left her for another woman — and an anthropomorphic couch. But Liz’s best work is saved for the Donaghys. Despite a family aversion to saying serious things out loud “like a couple of gays getting married in jean shorts in Provincetown,” Liz’s insistence on the mother and son having “the talk” before it's too late led to a rare 30 Rock scene: half a minute, at least, without a joke. The tenderness between Baldwin and Stritch was real and sweet and proof that Tina Fey does have a heart. Or at least a heart battery that she just threw across the room. Quick! Find it!
4. Up All Night
Of course, there’s 30 Rock emotion — where even the fondest moments are interrupted by an inappropriate hug, potentially by a dancing piece of furniture — and then there’s Up All Night emotion. The former is a tasteful wooden box engraved to Unclaimed Irish Stowaway, and the latter is a steel-and-sap enforced safe dropped from the top of the Empire State Building.
On paper, the idea of Reagan and Chris re-creating their semi-botched proposal is perfectly fine. But it’s in the execution that Up All Night usually falters, and last night was no exception. The faux farce was centered on Reagan losing her gargantuan ring, made from one of Chris’s diabolical Gammy’s earrings. Despite her panic, Reagan doesn’t let on about the ring’s absence, instead she roots through fetid diaper bags and hantavirus-bearing tanks of plastic balls to retrieve it. Finally, she womans up and confronts the hated Gammy — played by a still-got-it Marion Ross — and, after attempting to steal her one remaining diamond earring, Reagan leaves victorious and has a replacement made in what appears to be a matter of hours. But the thing is, Chris had the ring all along: He was resetting it to include the birthstone of Amy, the baby who is remarkably and conveniently absent for nearly all of the action. (Was she with a sitter? Having a play date on a better show?) This is patently nonsense, of course. What husband would steal his wife’s engagement ring and not expect her either to notice, hyperventilate, or call the national guard? But I suppose it was all in keeping with a show with such screwy internal logic as to keep riding the dorky neighbor couple (who, we learn this time, are both religious and snippy about restaurant bills) to puff up our already over-ego-stuffed leads, and one that gives us the line-dancing return of Jason Lee, who possesses as much chemistry with the cartoony Ava as he did with Alvin the Chipmunk.
The ending, in which Chris recruits a bar full of papier-mâché West Hollywood actorbots to belt out “Total Eclipse of the Heart” while Reagan melts like a cheap sundae in the Santa Monica Boulevard sun, was borderline unbearable. From the pilot to last night’s finale, Up All Night has been an unearned celebration of people who already feel pretty fantastic about themselves. If a second season is ordered, here’s hoping creator Emily Spivey puts as much thought into fixing the show’s tone as Chris did into his re-proposal. That way maybe the next time she makes an “Amy left to find better parents joke,” we’ll laugh instead of thinking it might have been the right move.