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. Parks and Recreation
Celebrities are usually the first to know when the party’s over. Call it an eighth sense in their tiny, perfectly formed brains — located just to the left of sight and slightly below cocaine tolerance and Thetan susceptibility — but as soon as a former hotspot begins to cool, the boldface names scatter in the wind like Trick Daddy. And yet, to tune into NBC last night was to see an abundance of riches (and the downright rich — Paul McCartney alone could write off Jack Donaghy’s Kouchtown debacle as vegan grocery expenses). Despite the thousands (and thousands, and thousands) of Thetan-addled words scribbled in this column since last fall about the Peacock’s cratering fortunes, it was striking to see just how starry Thursday nights on NBC still can be. And I wasn’t just gawking at the Who’s Who of Lorne Michaels’s Rolodex that showed up for a truly breathtaking live edition of 30 Rock. Seeing the night’s Core Four sitcoms back together made me appreciate just how stacked these ensembles are, chock-full of movie stars, Oscar winners, sneaky geniuses, and legendary assholes. NBC’s must see-or-be-seen Thursday may be facing foreclosure, but the talent appears willing to rage all night long.
Still, with cable oddities like Pawn Stars regularly outrating episodes of Community by a factor of the population of Slovenia, it seems strange that NBC still manages to field four distinct all-star teams on a weekly basis. What keeps them coming back? Is it Lorne Michaels’s aforementioned Rolodex? Or does the now-faded glamor of what was network television’s marquee night still hold some indescribable allure, a potentially toxic addiction not unlike what Conan O’Brien felt for The Tonight Show or Nazi Doctor Heinrich Spaceman had for Chatterton’s cigarettes? (Because as Up All Night has shown, big names may attract an audience, but they don’t do much to sustain one.) Regardless of the reasons, last night provided a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the majesty of a truly stocked ensemble. It was also revealing how each of the four shows used their embarrassment of cast-riches: Community to be clever, The Office to stay alive, 30 Rock to have a fucking blast, and Parks — dear, sweet, Parks — to tell a story.
“The Debate” was a tour de force for Amy Poehler, who wrote, directed, and starred in the episode. It was the high point, to date, of Leslie Knope’s candy-crossed campaign for City Council and culminated in a beautiful, straight-faced speech about the power of people over corporations, delivered with real grace. But Poehler’s trademark generosity as a performer came through in her other duties as well; it was Leslie’s moment in the spotlight, but an entire team had her back. This magnanimity is a central tenet of all the comedy feeder programs that provide NBC with performers, like the Groundlings, Second City, Poehler’s own UCB. And so it can’t be a coincidence that Poehler had Leslie’s rising comedic tide lifting all boats, from Andy and April — their viewing party for donors is interrupted by an unpaid cable bill and then temporarily buoyed by Chris Pratt’s Matt Foley–esque interpretation of Road House (“Takes the esophagus out of the neck area ... You can’t eat. You’ll starve to death!”) — to Ron Swanson, who sternly serves ribs and then merrily sings “Wichita Lineman” while suckling free cable from the corporate teat. Poehler also provided Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones with their strongest material in ages, as the two prove to be better together in the press room (a potentially gassy Leslie is “literally overflowing with ideas for this town”) than in the bedroom. The only hiccup came from a familiar place. The douchey romance between Tom and Ann has been played like a joke from the beginning — has there even been a single intimation of intimacy between them? Or does Ann just stay over at Chez Tom for the chenille throws? — and so it’s nearly impossible to gin up feelings about it now that it’s suddenly in real jeopardy. Yes, Aziz Ansari deserves some quieter beats to add depth to his flashy swagger, but he’d be better served offering up flowers to Natalie Morales’s MIA Lucy than dismissive, spinning Ann.
The debate itself was a delight. Much to opponent Brandi Maxxxx’s chagrin, Leslie found herself playing the straight-woman to the freak menagerie onstage with her (including Friday Night Lights vet Brad Leland as a bolo-tie wearing Freeper dead-set on putting concussion grenades in our nation’s movie theaters) — and in front of her: Nothing made me laugh harder than Perd Hapley’s time-consuming explanation of Leslie’s remaining seconds. Paul Rudd para-sailed in for an amusingly vacant turn as Bobby Newport, the Sweetums scion whose airhead generalities (“Can’t we talk about things we like?") are gobbled up by the insulin-challenged crowd. But eventually even the jokes fell away as Leslie made her heartfelt plea to the town, and showrunner Mike Schur made his own case for the uniqueness of this series: government, like sitcoms, can be frustrating, infuriating, hilarious, and often very dumb. But it’s also necessary and well worth fighting for. Like Leslie, both Poehler and Schur only seem too passionate because they care. Even when Parks gets goopy, it still manages to hold it together. Which is more than one can say about Jerry when left alone in a room full of nuns.
2. 30 Rock (East Coast feed)
A balletic, inspired, and insane live half-hour about the importance and visceral thrill of live television sounds like the sort of winking meta-stunt that Community would love to attempt. But only 30 Rock could have pulled it off with such aplomb. With both the pace and stakes of a high-speed game of chicken, “Live From Studio 6H” was a rousing and ridiculous success of the first order — and on three distinct levels. First, the jokes were outrageous, particularly Chris Parnell’s two-part jag about the gory glories of smoking while with child (“Recent studies have shown that while pregnancy is disgusting …”) and Kristen Schaal’s Jenga-like vision of her future (“… it goes viral, I take medicine for it. Next stop, Hollywood ... Florida to get the car from my mom. Next stop, California ... Pizza Kitchen to tell my old boss Nadine to suck it. Next stop, Tinseltown ... because Christmas decorations are really cheap this time of year”). Second, the performances were otherworldly, a palpable sense of ecstatic fun present in every one of the shows within the show: Fey and Baldwin playing a fatal version of The Honeymooners, Baldwin’s soggy Dean Martin serenading Jane Krakowski’s “Donkey Stringbean,” and the jaw-dropping majesty of Jon Hamm in partial black-face needling Tracy Morgan with stolen catfish. Could it be that this was the best episode of Saturday Night Live in history? Certainly the degree of difficulty was higher — all of this in 22 minutes! — but there also wasn’t a dead catfish-like host to service nor weak links in the cast to endure.
These two planks alone would have gotten Joey Montero’s cabal of Jew writers to exclaim dayenu! But somehow Fey and cowriter Jack Burditt (presumably on loan from his day job testosteroning around Last Man Standing) added a GE-inspired third heat to the equation, allowing all this sound and furious funny to signify something after all. We learned that live television is what made our collection of kooks who they are today, as younger versions of the central trio (played with varying degrees of wonderfulness by Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, and a coccyx-bruising Donald Glover) all experienced transformative flashes during a female Fred Armisen–manned telethon years ago. All that, and the most romantic rejected proposal in history featuring a flying, Zooby-zoo-ing Will Forte and Tracy Morgan dressed as Prince, a time-traveling fart detective. It was dizzying and it was great — full of glamor, excitement, and what we today would call alcoholism. Even when it was celebrating itself, the end result of all that live adrenaline was pure joy. As Alfie (or was that Abner?) might say: Banjo!
One of the main tropes of the Law & Order franchise is that no time is wasted — even suspected murderers never pause from their busy bits of business (usually stacking papers or carrying crates of produce) to focus on the cops there to interrogate them. So it’s only fitting that I do the same. “Basic Lupine Urology” was a brilliant parody of what Michael Ironside’s couch-crashing commander might call a “target-rich environment.” The look, the chung-chungs, the coroner, the terrible hot dogs — all of it was pitch-perfect and very, very funny. But unlike 30 Rock, the episode — nimbly scripted by Community all-star Megan Ganz — never quite came together for me as anything other than satire. The opening was undoubtedly invigorating (I particularly loved Shirley Epatha Merkerson knocking on the aquarium glass, detectives Troy and Abed haggling over zingers, and Britta Instagramming the evidence) but the triple-red-herring-laden conclusion was more messy than memorable. Ultimately, Community just can’t help itself, and its freaky, self-aware heart bursts through at inopportune times — having Professor Omar intone about the importance of codes, dragging Jeff in front of the class for one more creaky speech. Weirdest of all was the conclusion. On the screener disc sent by NBC, Michael K. Williams’s last line was redacted to avoid spoilers. The big, terrible, devastating secret? That Starburns had died when his portable meth lab exploded. Only Community would go to such lengths to build an emotional shock around a background joke.
4. The Office
It’s been interesting to observe that as actual episodes of The Office have deteriorated this season, the teasers have actually gotten better. Once again, this week began with a gem: Ryan parading in front of the crew, live-hashtagging himself with sadness over the hoaxed death of Smokey Robinson. But this is where the show has always excelled, with keenly observed character beats, the humor deriving from familiarity and comfort. Unfortunately for the producers, once the teaser is over, there are still 20 minutes or so to fill. And that’s where the problems start.
“Fundraiser” was, like everything in this desperate-to-be-euthanized eighth season, all over the place. There were stray funny bits — Oscar’s desperate need to be hit on by Angela’s husband, Dwight’s fundamental misunderstanding of a silent auction, Nellie eating a taco — but the squishy backbone of the plot came from the show’s weakest quadrant: Andy’s desperate, impotent rage in the face of Robert California’s bland omnipotence. No matter how many wrenches they throw at these two, how many sick, diaper-wearing dogs they adopt or references to Scranton strangle-sex clubs they make, there simply isn’t enough reason to care. (And it was a strange business that, after spending four fevered episodes attempting to get the audience invested in the Andy-Erin pairing, the two were immediately put on the brink of such grubby unpleasantness. “This is my life now,” a surprisingly self-aware Erin said at one point. “I’m a dog nurse.” You should have stayed in Florida!) Nothing symbolized this season’s flailing better than the kicker, in which we were led to believe that Kevin was caring for a dead dog. Shocking as that was, the final reveal — the dog is just smelly and lazy, like its owner — was even worse, a half-ass of a half-ass. (Call it a quarter.) At least the show got one fundamental thing right: Andy getting fired from Dunder-Mifflin wasn’t pathetic. What’s pathetic is that he — that any of them! — refuses to leave.