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.)
1. The Office
Something strange and unexpected happened last night: The Office made me laugh. More than once actually. At first it was a guilty snicker that slipped out when Phyllis accused Dwight of mispronouncing a female client's name in the most OMG/GYN way possible and Nellie muttered "Ugh, that's not good." Confused and a little concerned, I looked around the room. Had anyone heard me? (No. I was alone.) Was I getting soft? (Inevitably, but maybe not all the way just yet.) Then a gloriously porn-stached Toby leaned into the face of a passing female pedestrian and brayed "Smile if you love men's prostates!" and I lost it again. No shame this time. This was really happening. "The Whale" was a legitimately funny episode of The Office. Like a less-addled Ahab, it seemed my years of searching had finally come to an end.
And you know what it made me think of? Ruby. You remember Ruby, don't you? She was the old dog Kevin adopted in one of last season's many nadirs, the comatose terrier whose new trick was playing dead. In April, when "Fundraiser," the puppy-peppered episode, aired, the gag about how the dunderhead of Dunder-Mifflin didn't know he had a festering canine corpse at home seemed to me to be a clear indication that The Office was as bankrupt as its parent company. And when a hastily stapled-on tag proved that Ruby wasn't actually dead — just lazy — it was a wibbly equivocation that removed all doubt. The dark joke was an attempt to prove that there were laughs still to be mined from these increasingly barren characters; the walk-back was proof that there really was nowhere new for these people to go.
But "The Whale" suggested that, for one night at least, there's a more charitable way of considering a possibly dead dog, that maybe a resurrection, however temporary, is nothing to sneeze at. Written by Carrie Kemper — sister of Ellie — the episode managed to shuffle the well-thumbed deck just enough to feel fresh. It also accomplished a major feat of addition by subtraction: By exiling a sunburned Ed Helms on a slow boat to The Hangover III: The Caribbean, Kemper was relieved of the increasingly awful duty of dealing with the impossible Andy Bernard. (And, in the process, she provided her sister with a killer line about taking the advice of that instructive Bob Marley classic, "No Woman, NO CRY!")
Freed from the pressures of an unsalvageable boss, the worker bees of The Office proved plenty capable of handling the load. I thought Kemper did smart and unexpected things with the worryingly harsh Oscar-Angela shenanigans. Uniting them as friends and potential fellow cuckolds before twisting in the knife — in the form of a verboten cell phone call — somehow made the situation both more palatable and, ultimately, more sad. (Special kudos to the often undersung Angela Kinsey, who did a nice, understated turn away from caricature last night, moving from distaste at the Senator's predilection for "downward dog style" to silent shock and awareness at the close.) And Jim's years of prankish indulgence finally caught up with him at the worst possible time: the moment he (an adult man in his 30s!) actually was excited about work. For once he was forced to experience his co-workers the way we often do: as distracting, potentially insane clowns. The conference call from hell reminded me of that old Simpsons arcade game in which a protagonist must cross a crowded landscape overflowing with bit characters and background gags. Jim should really know better at this point than to mess with Meredith's van.
Yes, the return of Jan was amusing; few people do icy entitlement quite like Melora Hardin. (And, it turns out, no one does creepy lip-synching like Melora Hardin.) But even with a clever nod to The Wire (no one on television can say "Where's Wallace?" unintentionally), the reunion was undercut a bit by sloppy resolution — would anyone really want Clark Duke for a plaything? Even with that alopecia-stricken caterpillar growing on his upper lip? No matter how crap Molly was, it beggars belief.
Thankfully, though, it didn't much matter, because I thought Dwight's lady-sensitivity training was some of the best scene work The Office has managed in years. Everything was pitched just right: Dwight as clueless but not cartoony ("This will work out best for you if you just relax and do nothing"), countered by Pam and Phyllis at their quietly exasperated best. And it really was an ideal showcase for Catherine Tate's underserved comedic charm. Her sly reading of a simple question — "Have you ever killed a woman? How many women have you killed?" — suggested something I've long suspected, that Nellie is far more effective as a supporting character than as a chaotically broad lead.
As surprised as I was to be laughing, I was even more surprised by the actual feelings generated by the ending. The Dwight-Pam friendship has been one of The Office's long-running, subtle strengths, and after weeks of exhausting character growing pains it was a relief to see Rainn Wilson fall back to Earth and choose to underplay a moment. (Perhaps he already had an inkling that NBC would soon dash his leading-man dreams.) His "you are my friend and you are a woman" was a fitting capper on an unexpected treat. With 15 episodes still to come, we can only hope for one or two more like it. I won't get my hopes up, but, as Herman Melville once wrote about another great whale, "I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing."
2. Parks and Recreation
In various articles, reviews, recaps, and podcasts, I've made the in no way controversial argument that casting child actors is, essentially, a crapshoot. If you discover real ability — as with Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men or Morgan Saylor on Homeland — it's a happy accident and one smart showrunners are quick to take advantage of. If you discover the opposite, well, there's always room for another Bobby Draper. (Which is worse? Recasting or day-player exile like what happened to poor, overmatched Chris Brody?)
Anyway, I bring that up not because Parks is on the lookout for a precocious, type-A toddler to play Hillary Rodham Knope-Wyatt — this show moves fast but not that fast — but rather because I feel like my child-actor theory also applies to special guest stars, particularly of the political persuasion. A government-centric show like Parks — run by a legislative fanboy like Michael Schur — would never hesitate to shoot a scene with a sitting Vice President. But let's be honest: Do you think they were at all prepared for the performance they got? Joe Biden was shockingly good in his brief encounter with a smitten Leslie Knope, underplaying his naturally hammy tendencies and reacting to Amy Poehler's inappropriate ministrations with a remarkable level of ease. (Of course, it probably helps that the Happy Warrior is no stranger to intimate moments with female voters.)
I found the rest of the episode to be equally wonderful, even if it did lack the Amtrak jokes I was expecting. The April-Leslie relationship is one of Parks' best and least utilized — perhaps with good reason. The relative lack of focus has allowed us to observe April's quasi-maturation — I mean, she still suggests triple-sexing a sitting councilman — in real, gradual time. Having her outflank her surrogate mom on Lot 48 (Lot 48! The forgotten-with-good-reason casus belli of the entire show!) provided much needed fluster for the increasingly-able-to-have-it-all Leslie and a chance to put Orin, the world's creepiest ectomorph, in a sheepskin. (Leslie also has the same taste in experimental theater as I do. Her reply to April's question about which part she liked best? "The heavy-handedness.")
Maybe it was gilding the lily too much to suggest that Ben would be so overwhelmed with incredible job offers in rural Indiana that he wouldn't for a second mourn the jet-setting career he just gave up for love. But, again, the anti-devil is in the details: I was too busy laughing at Sweetums' "slow-moving ecological disaster" and Snail Mail, Tom's failed escargot delivery business, to mind. To paraphrase future security guard Andy Dwyer, "The game is the foot." And when it's hopping like last night, Parks can be the best game in town.
3. 30 Rock
Maybe everything is just topsy-turvy these days. Tracy Jordan is attending the philharmonic (and not with special guest Phil Harmonic, "the worst rapper of all time"), Sunkist is the new black (coffee), and I liked last night's episode of The Office more than 30 Rock. It's actually two weeks in a row that the nearly finished show has left me unsatisfied, like a half-hour spent sucking on a non-alcoholic baby wipe. Is it me? Or have I merely reached my lifetime tolerance for foot babies?
It feels strange criticizing "Aunt Phatso vs. Jack Donaghy" because all of the things I usually laud 30 Rock for were front and center. And by "things" I mean "jokes." There were so many jokes! Luke Del Tredici constructed his clever script with the care and precision of a lunatic building a boat in a whiskey bottle. Some of the rejoinders weren't merely LOL-able, they were worthy of applause: "Make like a woman driver and get lost." b/w "I'd rather make like the father I never had and stay." "I have heard you say 'guards, seize him.'" b/w "That was at a Knicks game. They needed to stop the clock." "I thought you'd be at home licking your wounds." b/w "No, that's why they put that cone on me." And that's without even getting into the inspired lunacy of having an orchestra play a four-hour version of the Sanford and Son theme or Tracy Morgan's effortlessly accurate Madea impression.
But the overall effect left me not exhilarated but exhausted, like Liz Lemon after her one pushup last year. I'm actually hopeful for the much-hyped wedding episode on tap in two weeks because the committed zaniness has started to feel manic and teeth-grindy, not zippy and light; the difference between enjoying some Pixy Stix and freebasing them. This isn't Seinfeld. Hugs are allowed as we build toward the finale. If only because the physical contact might allow all of us a moment to catch our breath.
4. Up All Night
New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells got plenty of attention this week for framing a review of something he clearly hated all in questions. I am not above theft, so:
Were the producers of Up All Night actively trolling me when they brainstormed the Ava/Sean Hayes charity plot? Or are they actually clueless as to how the characters' lightly racist entitlement actually reflects badly on everyone involved?
And is Sean Hayes on this show now? Because doesn't it just seem like he's merely hanging around the set while his Prius is getting detailed?
Were we meant to be cheered by the Brinkleys' selfless decision to share a 35-pound steroidal Turkey with a bunch of lonely guys on Thanksgiving? And did it really take three writers to craft this would be heartwarmer?
Do you think it was this episode that convinced NBC to pull the plug on the show's current format? Or the last episode? Or the 29 that preceded it?
Are dickey jokes funny in 2012? (Especially ones not about baseball?) Does Paul Thomas Anderson ask his wife how her day was anymore? Or does he just leave a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc waiting by the door? Could there be anything more depressing than pizza in Los Angeles?
Is Hostess really going out of business? Is Luka Jones firing his agent? Should I get this mole looked at?
Can someone remind me how to feel alive?