Every week in this space, Grantland’s 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.)
When this column launched one year ago, the intent was both to celebrate and chronicle the ill health of a beloved institution. NBC’s Thursday-night comedy block had gone from Must See to Might See to Mercy! in just a few short years, its ratings decline in perfect alignment with the overall fortunes of its parent network. Yet at the same time, the quality of the shows had never been higher: In the preening Peacock glory years of the ‘80s (Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Cheers) and the ‘90s (Friends, Mad About You, Seinfeld), there was always the 9:30 black hole, a rotating placeholder for room-temperature turkeys like Grand, The Single Guy and Veronica’s Closet. In contrast, the lineup in 2009 and 2010 was stacked top to bottom, a simpatico salsa of cleverness, quirk, and the familial warmth that historically has separated NBC’s best comedies from those of its competitors. There’s a legitimate case to be made that Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock, taken as a whole and in their primes, might be the best Thursday-night lineup ever fielded. (Note: This definitely depends on your feelings about Night Court.) It’s too bad no one was watching to agree.
And so last season, instead of a final victory lap, NBC president Bob Greenblatt elected for aggressive treatment. With 30 Rock slotted for mid-season (because of Tina Fey’s pregnancy), he slipped the very off-brand Whitney into the mix with predictably dire results. In January, with his schedule cratering around him like Gotham Stadium post-Bane, Greenblatt swapped out the ailing Community for the flailing Up All Night and then benched Parks. By late spring, however, the “core four” were back for a final go-round, ending the season the way it probably should have begun; it turned out Greenblatt had bigger problems than what had once been his network’s biggest night. But even if the malignancy of Whitney can’t be entirely blamed for falling viewership and, in the case of The Office, seriously diminishing returns, it certainly didn’t help. Greenblatt has publicly declared an institutional move away from the sort of smart sitcoms that once defined the brand — and have been popping up on other networks with disturbing frequency — and the renewal of 30 Rock and The Office (for final seasons) and Parks (for what most likely will be) are more a sign of the Peacock’s empty comedy coffers than a reprieve. (Poor Community has been decapitated and banished to Fridays, the broadcasting equivalent of Elba, bringing to mind the inevitable pillows-and-blankets version of Waterloo.)
What’s that terrible Smashing Pumpkins song? (I know, right?) “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning”? That’s sort of where we are at the moment, stuck chronicling a night that has more in common with the antagonists of The Walking Dead than the young hopefuls currently saving Greenblatt’s bacon on The Voice. Fox’s Tuesday and ABC’s Wednesday are arguably better nights of comedy, and even NBC is more focused on hyping its problematic newcomers than tossing flowers — or even billboards — at its retiring veterans. Even though it’s an election year, it’s very likely we won’t have to wait until 2013 for serious change on Thursday nights — and because it’s an election year we’re not even starting with a status quo: Saturday Night Live election specials are camped out at 8 p.m. until 30 Rock returns next month. Things are looking up for NBC on other nights, but Thursdays are gaining a reputation more for mustiness than Must See. If last season began with a comedy lineup in trouble, last night put us firmly in hospice care: The just-released ratings are scarier than anything that’s ever been aired on Grimm. It doesn’t require a seat on the Comcast board to know NBC’s legendary comedy Thursday will be gone after this season. The only question is whether it will be allowed to pass with dignity.
1. The Office
On television (unlike, say, reality), there’s nothing quite as freeing as a death sentence. Last season was The Office’s first without Steve Carell, but also its first without any clear sense of purpose. Instead of taking advantage of the changed circumstance to make real changes to the status quo, Dunder-Mifflin doubled down on business as usual, spackling the gaps with the combined flailings of Ed Helms and Catherine Tate and the increasingly diminishing LOLs of the show’s talented but overtaxed bench. Lacking a leader — or any sense of purpose — The Office, in its eighth season, saw its central joke about the repetition and hopelessness of modern drudgery curdle into something far from funny. A show about dead-end drones found itself trapped in a creative cul-de-sac.
But earlier in the summer, Greenblatt announced that The Office would finally be allowed to die in peace at the conclusion of its ninth season. And while it’s too early to say if killing the elderly show has given it one last shot at life, last night at least cleared some of the cobwebs from the corpse. Greg Daniels, the man responsible for adapting the British original for American palates, has returned to a more active role (the low-grade conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but wonder if this may have been one of the reasons why Greenblatt didn’t greenlight Daniels’s Friday Night Dinner pilot this last cycle) and his sure hand was immediately apparent, writing and directing “New Guys” with a brisk professionalism. Change was the order of the day — still a strange sell for a show so predicated on sameness — and it wafted through the episode like the bracing blue stench of beet juice: Kelly Kapoor was sent (over)packing to her new digs on Fox with garbage-bag-laden Ryan right behind her. Andy, newly empowered by the return of David Wallace, has been sent to Outward Bound training, the result of which seems to have boosted both his flannel budget and his Michael Scott–like buffoonish confidence. Two new white bros have been added to the cast, Clark (“body by Cheez-It”) Duke and Jake Lacy, to push their graying doppelgängers, Dwight and Jim. Even Erin has a fetching new hairdo.
But last night also indicated that the final story The Office has to tell is really the conclusion to its first: Jim and Pam. Back in January, I wrote about the “slow stagnation of ... once bright characters whose sad, slow embrace of mediocrity has transformed them from America’s sweethearts to candidates for the leads in Revolutionary Road 2.” So Jim’s sudden claustrophobia in the face of his staid existence — well-played by John Krasinski, especially in his moments of palpable fear before calling a pal in Philly about joining his start-up — was overdue but no less welcome. I’m not entirely sold yet on the arc (or even the necessity) of this final season, and I’m less than convinced that the ghost documentarians need to play more of an onscreen role. (Daniels hinted that they would and last night certainly indicated as such; is it any more plausible that these guys would be camped out for nearly a decade in Scranton to chronicle a suburban marriage instead of a paper company?) But all successful network shows are inevitably caught in the impossible tango of maintaining continuity and advancing the story. The Office, mercifully, has finally been freed to dance itself into the great beyond.
2. Parks and Recreation
In programming, recapping, and basic automotive care, the squeaky wheel always gets the most attention. This is a shame, particularly so in the case of Parks and Recreation, the smoothest-running comedy on television. While all of its neighbors are lassoing headlines for being badly rated, badly in need of euthanasia, or merely being bad, Parks is in the midst of a nearly unprecedented run of excellence. Real talk: Since figuring itself out in its second season, Parks has strung together dozens of episodes of such high quality and remarkable consistency that it hearkens back to the golden age of NBC’s Thursday nights. Such is the mastery of Mike Schur and his supremely talented writers and cast that the dependability of their little show, set in the littlest (and occasionally smelliest) big town in Indiana, can be favorably compared to Schur’s own favorite show, Cheers. It’s not just that Pawnee is a place where you know everybody’s name (Perd Hapley won’t let you forget his), it’s that it’s become a place where you want to stay for as long as possible. (For those interested in how much work goes into making it look this easy, check out GQ’s excellent Q&A with Schur here.)
The only downside of this stability is that one tends to run out of things to say about it. (How many synonyms could there possibly be for “delightful”?) Still, it’s probably worth saying this: The fact that Parks is still in its prime probably won’t help its chances past this season. The show’s ratings have never been great and, in fact, have barely cracked the threshold for good. The outstanding ensemble — and the presence of actual stars like Aziz Ansari, Rob Lowe, and Nick Offerman’s mustache — never seems to move the needle, and guests like former baller Detlef Schrempf and Senator Olympia Snowe don’t seem to be quite the draw they used to be. So it’s best to appreciate the unique, handgun-and-river-water aroma of Pawnee now while we can, not to mention Schur’s brave insistence on pushing his story forward.
In many ways, Parks appears to have been conceived as a direct rebuttal to the stasis of The Office (where Schur also did time). Here, change appears on the daily call sheet more frequently than waffles. Season 5 opens in Washington, as Leslie and Andy lose themselves in “the sweet sugar of bureaucracy” and get a different kind of sweet sugar from their long-distance loved ones (and Leslie, it must be noted, gets mistaken for Beverly D’Angelo by a group of Japanese tourists). Written by Aisha Muharrar, “Ms. Knope Goes to Washington” was a mini master class in everything Parks does well, mixing bright laughs (Ron’s bare-bones BBQ and antipathy toward corn, Tom and Ann’s glittery grudge-love) with a genuine appreciation for public works and the greater good (even if some war-hero senators don’t know enough to leave a lady alone in a coat closet). Marooning Adam Scott (and his butt) in D.C., that “stupid swamp town,” presents a challenge for the show, but probably a necessary one, considering that the permanence of his relationship with Leslie can, on occasion, be as cloying as raisins, a.k.a. “nature’s candy.” But if Parks can successfully execute a joke about enjoying the bladder of a freshly slaughtered pig, it’s probably safe to assume that it won’t have a problem balancing sweetness with the savory in the weeks to come.
3. SNL Prime Time: Election Special
It was a solid first outing for Studio 8H at 8 p.m., with a particularly nice showing for utility player Bobby Moynihan, who killed with his vapid Brian Kilmeade in the cold open and murdered as “Drunk Uncle” in the close (“I wasn’t voted most likely to suck seeds ”). I could pick nits about the lack of specificity in Jason Sudeikis’s Mitt Romney — still a little too much Biden in him for my liking — but the jokes were solid and the increased opportunities for the supporting cast around him could pay off later in SNL’s post-election season. (I loved Kate McKinnon in her wordless turn as as Cash Cab–strapped Ann Romney.) And any opportunity for Bill Hader to unleash his James Carville is one worth taking — I particularly liked the addition of “Vegas blackjack dealer” and “choogling drum soloist” to his repertoire of shoulder-shaking hand gestures. Schedule-wise, this is nothing but a placeholder for NBC until they figure out a better plan — as Carville put it, “everyone has parents and hardships,” even the mayonnaise eaters in Rockefeller Center — but it’d be hard to find a better one.
4. Up All Night
Last season, Up All Night survived — barely — on its potential, not on its track record. During its floundering freshman season, the sitcom, starring Will Arnett and Christina Applegate, jerked and flopped like Gob Bluth doing the chicken dance as it tried to find a workable weekly formula for its one-note pilot premise. Was it a broad and wacky farce, top-lined by whatever show good-sport co-star Maya Rudolph was marooned on? Was it a touchy-feely family comedy centered on the relatable foibles of first-time parenthood? Or was it merely enthusiastic if empty, free advertising for the Room & Board catalog?
It seems that the producers — including showrunner Emily Spivey and executive producer Lorne Michaels — may have been asking themselves those very questions during their long summer recess. Season 2 opens with a reboot more drastic and sudden than Spider-Man’s: In a flash we’re introduced to Reagan’s handy-boy brother (Luka Jones, a new series regular) and Ava’s talk show is mercifully canceled. Gone also is Up All Night’s initial pitch — that Applegate would be the breadwinner and Arnett would provide the daddy day care, as the former takes to sweats and Stevie Nicks while the latter gets rehired at his law firm in a heartbeat. (The lesson, it seems, is that TV stereotypes exist for a reason.) These are welcome changes, to be sure — though losing the inane Ava workplace mishegoss isn’t nearly as surprising as all the weight the already skinny Arnett appears to have lost. But the central flaws in Up All Night can’t be so easily swaddled.
The show made it past the pilot phase because it successfully asked a compelling question: What happens when one category of sitcom characters (fun-loving wealthy white people) suddenly matures into another category entirely (child-rearing wealthy white people)? But Up All Night still seems incapable of answering its own query. Like its underdeveloped protagonists, the show is torn between the workplace and the home, between story-generating, partying youth and story-reacting, responsible middle age. So far in Season 2 — as Arnett parades around in jockey shorts and starts a business with his browbeaten bro-in-law and Applegate and Rudolph hug over individual servings of Greek yogurt — the problems remain the same: The grown-ups want to be kids, and the kid, well, so far she has nothing much to say.