NBC Comedy Recap: Community Returns to Its Casual-Viewer-Alienating Wheelhouse

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. Community

Over on Grantland’s sports blog, my friend and podcasting partner Chris Ryan has been diligently chronicling the roller-coastery ups and downs of the Denver Nuggets’ JaVale McGee. McGee, a power forward, is indisputably talented, yet often seems completely unable to harness his abilities, particularly within the framework of a professional basketball game — which, unfortunately, happens to be one of the more necessary attributes of a professional basketball player. McGee’s bumbling is often endearing and occasionally hilarious — to everyone, that is, except his befuddled teammates. And then there are days like Wednesday, days when JaVale McGee suddenly pulls it all together, dominating on the court and reminding his supporters why, exactly, they became so invested in him in the first place. With highs this high, sometimes wild inconsistency can be its own form of consistency.

Community, of course, is not JaVale McGee. (Although they both reside in Colorado and enjoy a good song now and again.) But JaVale’s unpredictable shifts from comedy to solemnity came to mind during last night’s uneven “Contemporary Impressionists.” I think even those who spend their downtime sketching fan-art of Dean Pelton as a potbellied blue genie would agree that it was far from Community’s best episode, overly broad and containing an emotional 180 so dark I half expected the screen to go black, Sopranos style. But after three seasons on this roller coaster, I’ve finally made peace with the fact that to enjoy Community is to accept these swerves as an integral part of Dan Harmon’s grand experiment. The show, like Walt Whitman (and, yes, JaVale McGee), contains multitudes.

Last week, Community returned from its midseason benching in fine form, effortlessly assembling a multifaceted episode that combined the three things Harmon, and the characters of The Wizard of Oz, are always striving for: heart, brains, and monkeys. “Contemporary Impressionists” opened with anachronistic, if welcoming, hugs (Alan Sepinwall notes these last two weeks have been shown out of order), but quickly started throwing up defenses. Abed, it seems, has been blowing out his bank account by hiring celebrity impersonators to reenact his favorite movie scenes with him. As amusing as it is to be chased down by a real fake U.S. marshal, the situation is actually dire: Abed, clearly never having impersonated any usable gambling advice from, say, Casino, is in deep debt to Vincent, the French Stewart-impersonating owner of Doppelgang. If he doesn’t pay up, Abed will get his legs broken, and not in a fun, reenacting Misery sort of way. And so the group agrees to don some costumes themselves and work a bar mitzvah in order to save their skinny friend’s fragile stems.

This dressing-up had its moments. Britta and Troy’s reenactment of Kanye West’s verse from “Slow Jamz” was aces, as was the not-Dean as not-Moby gag. But most of it felt like overly busy wheel-spinning, particularly Jeff’s mystery-pill-fueled ego Hulk-out. (All that just to get him to take his shirt off? I’m sure he would have done it if they had just asked nicely.) Still, just as with Kansas City barbecue, it was clear that the real meat was saved for the end. Troy, genuinely angry, confronts his best friend about the real danger of his total disconnect from reality. Abed, in return, goes off to play in his Dreamatorium alone. Alone, that is, until he’s visited by the goateed Abed from the Darkest Timeline and his memorable, Buster Poindexter-ganking catchphrase, “Hot hot hot.” “This is really crazy, inaccessible, and maybe too dark,” Good Abed says. And he was probably right.

After returning last week with surprisingly high ratings and a groundswell of rabid fan support, Community, the perpetual underdog, finally seemed to have found itself in a situation more flattering than Jeff in a softly lit gay bar. But the deep weirdness of “Contemporary Impressionists” lost a million viewers last night. (This is a serious hit. If it weren’t, I doubt I would have received a publicity spin e-mail within moments of the ratings being released trumpeting Community as the highest-rated show on NBC last night. This is sort of like being the most literate roommate on Jersey Shore.) I watched the episode with a group of comedy-loving friends who were Greendale-ignorant, and it wasn’t so much that they couldn’t understand what was going on (though they kinda couldn’t), it was that I didn’t even have the words to describe it. The core problem with Community remains that it’s not for everyone. Ironically, this is also its greatest strength. I’ve learned to appreciate the undercurrent of sadness that runs beneath the manic merriment of the show’s cracked leads. But what makes me fear for its future is that such admiration is, like JaVale McGee fandom, very much an acquired taste.

2. 30 Rock

30 Rock, miraculously rejuvenated in its sixth season, is comedy gold. And so, having a cache of stockpiled episodes is, for a creatively challenged network like NBC, money in the bank. And yet for some reason peacock president Bob Greenblatt seems intent on following in the questionable footsteps of businessmen like Allen Stanford and the owner of Real Madrid by burning through his wealth like a Supermarket Sweep contestant on PCP. For the second time this season, Greenblatt knocked off two excellent episodes of 30 Rock in a single night, diminishing them both in the process.

Tina Fey’s comedy style is maximalist to the extreme: The first six minutes of “Grandmentor” alone featured more LOLs than an instant message conversation between 12-year-olds. Yet by the end of the episode, even its credited writer, Sam Means, seemed exhausted. After a riotous Roman orgy of hilarity — Chinese baby miners being paid in yogurt and fed by puppies, “It would be a waste of time to talk about Krang on television,” “It turns out Amnesty International is nothing but a company that makes and sells candles” — came a post-zinger refractory period, with Kenneth feeding anti-crazy pills to Tracy Obama and some broad jabs at the banking industry. Even a third-party observer as humorless as Steel Hammerhands — excuse me, Wolf Blitzer — would agree that this gradual fade had to have been intentional. A nonstop barrage of jokes, even amazing jokes, can eventually feel like being sat on by Hazel two years ago.

And so it was that the no-less brilliant “Kidnapped by Danger” suffered slightly by proximity. It was richness on top of richness, like chasing a butter-drenched T-bone with a palate cleanser of foie gras. It’s only in retrospect, looking over my notes, that I realize the material in the second half hour might have actually been stronger, like Tracy and Jenna’s desperately overthinky attempt to avoid being Weird Al’d and the welcome return of Mary Steenburgen as Jack’s classy, classist MILILF. (Steenburgen to Liz: “I’m glad to see the endgame of feminism is women dressing like Dennis the Menace at work.” Steenburgen to Jack: “The train was disgusting. I flew here but I saw a train from the window.”) A meta-streak on loan from Community also delivered, with the next-level appearance of pebbly voiced Billy Baldwin as Lance Drake Mandrell, the yoga-loving actor cast as gravelly voiced Jack Donaghey in Liz’s terribly written, terribly accurate telemovie about Avery’s plight. (This was of a piece with the first episode in which Tracy, freed from medication and Kenneth’s strict anti-crossbow policy, bellowed, “We’re in a show within a show! My real name is Tracy Morgan!”) “Kidnapped” also went at Lemon with zest, branding her “The Blocker” for her uncanny ability to disrupt sex and her later admission that she refuses to buy larger underwear even though it “looks like when you tie a string around a roast.” (Anytime hotshot boinker Liz gets it worse than poor Subhas, it’s a pretty clear indicator that Tina Fey herself wrote the episode.)

No comedy on TV is delivering like this and it’s a shame 30 Rock’s own network doesn’t seem to appreciate it. Giving away episodes as if they were Brewster’s millions is the biggest aberration since Chubby Checker took the original Standing Dance and corrupted it with a twist.

3. Up All Night

It’s not fair for any sitcom to air after an hour of 30 Rock. It’s like a Little Leaguer tossing batting practice at the All-Star Game. During the height of the steroid era. In Denver. But it’s particularly unfair for a show as unformed as Up All Night. Sure, it’s an amateur in comparison. But, honestly, it’s not even playing the same sport.

I’ve railed against the failings of this show in this spot for weeks now and, to its credit, “Daddy Daughter Time” didn’t raise my hackles in quite the same way. Mostly it bummed me out. Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph, and even guest ponytail Henry Winkler are all talented and nimble comic performers. They’re also professionals, willing to sell bits that seem well below their pay grade, ranging from Arnett’s handsy talk-show debut (and remind me why an Oprah-like show needs an unemployed legal adviser, anyway?) to Rudolph’s tepid tussling with guest-star Sharon Osbourne and, saddest of all, Winkler’s tired jive talk. But performance can only make up for so much, and it’s unable to do much for a show that, 20 episodes in, is still attempting to find a consistent voice. (Even Winkler’s bizarre character was in better shape, having long ago settled on the voice of “a young black boy.”) It never a good thing when the best joke of the half hour is about multiple sclerosis. Soggy where it should be sharp, the episode flopped like a dead fish.

Filed Under: 30 Rock, Community, Dan Harmon, Friday Morning Qb, NBC, Up All Night

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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