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.)
Could there be a more perfect metaphor for Community’s relentless, occasionally foolhardy individuality than the sight of Greendale students looting and pillaging the Subway franchise that arrived to save them? The well-buffed corporate façade is an on-screen reminder that, going by the ratings, Greendale’s popularity with the greater American viewing public is on the level of olives and onions. This clearly galls creator Dan Harmon. It’s a lame and visible tax levied on him for his intransigent strangeness. And so of course the staid sandwichery would bear the brunt of three years' worth of underdog frustration, its sneeze guards shattered under scrawny undergraduate fists, its turkey sandwiches ruined by the rogue actions of a study group going H.A.M.
Deeply weird, outrageously self-involved and, yes, often brilliant, Community in its third season remains the most punk-rock show on television. Subway may underwrite it, but Harmon won’t stop undercutting them. He can choose the bread but you won’t let him toast it? Fuck you, man. He won’t do what you tell him. Case in point: Last night’s episode was an extended memorial to Star-Burns, a one-note background character played by indie comedy groundhog (and Harmon drinking buddy) Dino Stamatopoulos who, we were informed a week ago, died in an off-screen meth-lab explosion. This sort of masturbatory myth-making suggested to me the worst sort of Community-ism, another ginned-up, high-concept scenario standing in for actual development. But Harmon proved me wrong — and certainly not for the first time. “Course Listing Unavailable” turned out to be one of those Community episodes where all the circle-pit flailing came together: the jokes, the ambition, and the heart hanging as smoothly as the can-do can-can dresses in the Dean’s secret closet. (The one in his office. Not the metaphorical one where he makes his home.)
Trapped in the “Fallujah of higher learning” with no escape — save for cancellation — our gang treated Star-Burns’s passing as the non-event that it was. What really reduced Jeff to a quivering puddle of what even Dr. Britta might recognize as “grief” was the news that Professor Omar had quit and their Bio grades would have to be made up in summer school. The children’s revolution led by Generalíssimo Chang was another shrug-worthy turn from an aggravating character, but it was hard to quibble with all the gags surrounding it: Troy’s pen pal, Pierce’s desperate search for his comb, “this is my school and I’ll enter whatever I want.” The ending was like most things on Community: odd and surprising. The gang was expelled — leading to a round of tequila shots because, as Annie fumes, “My life can’t get double-ruined” — but amid a callback to the dice-rolling darkest timeline, they realized they were happy because they were at least together. The fact that there was no extra dash of bitters in the final shot may have been Star-Burns's greatest legacy. That and the kickass Styx homage Abed worked up for his "In Memorium" video.
2. 30 Rock
Lately there’s been some grousing in the comments of these things about how 30 Rock is overrated, how its best days (which were never that great) are behind it. Some even go as far as to call it “unfunny.” I can’t even pretend to understand this attitude, not even from those who, like Tracy Jordan, aren’t really TV watchers and are primarily interested in masturbating. At an age when most sitcoms are either headed to the glue factory or coasting till syndication, 30 Rock has produced one of the best seasons of pure comedy in recent memory, a Jenna & Paul–worthy orgy of outrageous wordplay and character chaos. Yes, humor is always subjective, but 30 Rock’s critics seem willfully blind. It calls to mind what the Supreme Court famously said about pornography: If you’re not watching it, I feel sorry for you.
Like last week’s live show, “Queen of Jordan II: Mystery of the Phantom Pooper” was a well-timed callback to a previous triumph. Last year’s Bravo parody was both a welcome change of pace and a remarkably sharp send-up. The sequel was even better. Sherri Shepherd is once again a force of nature as Angie, this time in full reality-diva mode, a self-actualized “singer/songreader, perfumist, IBS survivor,” and bestselling author of a book she didn’t write. Her camera-hogging efforts to launch Cheek, a line of “stretchable formalwear for elegant plus-sized women and huskier gays,” was the perfect cover for a whole host of bigger-picture issues, including Liz’s baby-mama drama and the “Watch What Happens” revelation of Jack’s affair with his mother-in-law. (Who knows what other secrets are hiding in their overheated Samovar?!? Somebody call Professor Gus! Or at least text Hannibal Buress.) The entire half-hour was so overstuffed and giddy I felt like I’d been downing whole bottles of D’fwine — and D’fwar from responsibly. Bill Clinton’s sex plane, Kenneth’s racist power cord, Cerie’s contractual obligations to beautiful black babies, the Coney Island beet market … this was high-class stuff, fit for Yale and juiced on the sun’s electricity. I particularly got a kick out of Tina Fey’s judgy interactions with Virginia, the neck-snapping baby (they were wearing the same dress!) and a pretty remarkable performer. Serious question: Why would Jenna waste future paychecks on Adrien Brody’s unaccredited acting school when this kid is around for pointers and scene work? All told, another feather in what’s become a very funny cap and the sort of episode worth a special reminder: No one should ever mistake the Battle of the Bulge for a comment about an African American lady’s legs. How do I know? Because, like Angie, I read World War II history, motherfucker!
3. Parks and Recreation
The smartest decision that Parks showrunner Michael Schur ever made … smarter than individually massaging the hair follicles on Nick Offerman’s upper lip just before shooting or power-swapping hound dog Paul Schneider for hummingbird Adam Scott … was to gently recalibrate Leslie Knope’s dogged do-gooderism. In the abbreviated six-episode first season, Leslie’s mania was a Michael Scott–like source of mockery. But when the show returned, it was a source of inspiration. The Parks department, we learned, operated not on civic pride or an unlimited tank of cheap coffee, but on the optimism and drive of one particular woman … and those who came into her orbit adopted varying levels of grudging respect and acceptance toward her. The move better suited the creator as well; Schur is a good-hearted dude, always more interested in the humor that can be gleaned from the struggle to bring together wildly opposing types, not the cheap laughs that can be scored by highlighting the differences between them.
It’s fair to say this relatively minor tweak saved the show. But I’m afraid it may have doomed last night’s episode. The inevitable consequence of Leslie’s heroic, come-from-behind campaign for city council is that her resolute decency must not only unite her casually fractious workmates but, eventually, a large swath of Pawnee itself. This, in turn, removes the small but consistent conflicts that have helped keep Parks from sliding into full-on emotional mush. Much of “Bus Trip” was as sharp and zippy as any of the last few episodes, but for some reason I reacted to it like April watching Leslie and Ben suck face: enough already. Sure, there was the welcome return of FBI agent Bert Macklin, a chance for Adam Scott to unveil his best Admiral Ackbar act, and the sight of Paul Rudd Wii bowling (next to a real bowling alley), but this was the rare Parks where the show’s romantic heartbeat drowned out everything else, even the suspiciously expensive campaign bells and whistles Knope 2012 is carting around town in a massive tour bus (how much are T-shirt cannons these days, anyway?). Once Tom is willing to throw away a billion-dollar idea like Yogurt Platinum and Donna is willing to sacrifice the only thing in this world she holds dear (her Mercedes), the entire enterprise becomes uninterestingly smoothed out and safe, no matter what the polls say.
So thank goodness for Kathryn Hahn’s barracuda-ish Jennifer. When she propositions Chris Traeger at episode’s end it’s the one glimpse we’ve gotten of pure, unadulterated desire … free from sentiment or civic duty. Even better? Sex is something she’s very good at. Here’s hoping Parks gets back to its own wheelhouse in time for next week’s finale.
4. The Office
Look, what more is there to say? As craven as it is for a nominally grown man like Andy Bernard to still be hanging around Dunder-Mifflin, it was considerably more desperate for the show to so shamelessly recycle its own best plot. Of all the places the sight of a bloated, wine- and cocaine-hangovered James Spader might lead us, none of them pointed to a redo of the Michael Scott Paper Company. (Most of them pointed to the trash bucket to perform a similar act of voiding as Robert California himself.) What is it with these people and paper? Are there no other jobs available in this desiccated economy … and no shortage of rich businessmen played by Homer Simpson willing to entrust their company’s core product to a guy with a spare key instead of a warehouse? It’s all ludicrous, exhausted hooey, and no number of smaller pleasures (Toby as the “no-nonsense” Lloyd Gross, the still enjoyable prank pairing of Jim and Dwight) could change that. It’s sad to see a once-sharp show reduced to acting like sandal-shopping Nellie Bertram: nakedly desperate for anyone’s approval. “We won’t be doing this in six months,” says the angry salesman from Syracuse (who clearly picked up efficiency tips from the Scranton office; no one else would drive back and forth across state lines when an angry phone call would suffice). “Robert’s gonna run this company into the ground.” Sadly, his isn't the only failed stewardship on display.