NBC Comedy Recap: Community’s Polarizing Pillow Fight

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

These past few weeks, as NBC has mixed and matched reruns and overstocked new episodes like an addict’s final pass through the medicine cabinet before rehab, one thing has become abundantly clear: Thursday nights, like sailboats and pirate business cards, need an anchor. In this case, an anchor would be a steady, passably popular show, most likely in the 9 p.m. slot. A show with universal appeal, tangible warmth, and a forward-moving plot. A dependable, viewer-attracting sun for the more out-there sitcoms in the network solar system to orbit, a different rhythm to diversify the night. The Office served this function reliably for years and, it must be said, even the diluted version we’ve had this year would have sufficed last night, when the extremes of the remaining shows, both good and ill, were on full display. (Parks and Recreation, of course, is an ideal candidate for the job but it’s on hiatus for another two weeks and lags behind Dunder Mifflin in viewership by a factor of the population of Dubai.)

The scheduling and pilot-ordering habits of Peacock President Bob Greenblatt suggest that he’s in total agreement. No matter how many hashtags Community engenders, it’s likely to remain a deeply beloved, deeply niche show — the sort of thing NBC should keep on its air for quality and consistency, but not as part of their necessary, if a bit serial-killer-like quest for fresh eyeballs. The concern, of course, is that Greenblatt, like Mitt Romney raving about grits, has overdone it with the craven populism. The antidote to excellent shows with ratings ceilings like 30 Rock isn’t Whitney or Chelsea or any of the eyebrow-raising projects he’s greenlit involving Dane Cook or Snoop Dogg. These shows only serve to alienate the latte-scarfing coastal elites (including the one typing this paragraph) just as reliably as Tina Fey’s gags about maple syrup smells in Manhattan confuse and frighten Midwesterners. The real trick would involve discovering, ordering, and shepherding a new generation of classic-style NBC sitcoms, ones with healthy ratios of humor and heart, series whose growth potential can be measured by the immediate likeability and chemistry of the cast, not the writing staff’s ability to mine fresh Mickey Rourke jokes on a weekly basis. I’m not suggesting this is easy — it’s exactly the opposite. But it’s galling that NBC had just such a treasure in its back pocket this spring  and promptly treated it like a pirate with business cards: by burying it.

Bent lived and died over the past three weeks. If you didn’t know about it, you aren’t alone: The six-episode season was burned off like fallen leaves in autumn, two every Wednesday night for the last three weeks with almost zero promotion. What that math adds up to is almost guaranteed cancellation. The horrific ratings only confirmed what NBC’s behavior already did: We’re more likely to see Conan O’Brien on NBC this fall than new episodes of Bent. This is a great shame — and if you’ll allow the digression, it’s also relevant to last night. Written by Scrubs vet Tad Quill, Bent wasn’t as funny as 30 Rock and it was nowhere near as creative as Community. But it was delightful nonetheless. A charged romantic trifle about a shaggy-dog contractor (a terrific David Walton) and the uptight lawyer who hires him (a never-better Amanda Peet), the show got by on the tremendous interplay between the leads and the nearly effortless way it managed to transform a recycled plot from Murphy Brown into a fully realized world. (Also helping were the outstanding supporting cast, including Jeffrey Tambor, Curb’s JB Smoove, and the spunky Margo Harshman, and also something increasingly rare for a network sitcom: a real sense of place. Bent’s Venice Beach was a wonderfully specific community of weirdos, dreamers, and one-night stands, a far cry from the bland, back-lot Everycity of most new comedies.) Bent wasn’t perfect, but it had room to grow, potentially into the kind of mass-appeal sitcom that can anchor an entire night. That it was DOA does not fill me with optimism about the future of Thursdays — or NBC in general.

Its steady presence certainly could have helped yesterday. Because last night’s Community was exactly the sort of episode the show does best, which is to say it was inevitably polarizing. Those who adore the show had their core values reinforced: “Pillows and Blankets” was a note-perfect satire of Ken Burns’s “Civil War” documentary — replete with voice-overs, mixed media, and appropriately old-timey music — that veered into darkly emotional terrain, yet was resolved by the donning of two slightly scuffed, imaginary friendship hats. Those who find the show’s closed-circuit insularity off-putting would have been off-put for precisely the same reasons listed above. To quote Generalissimo Troy Barnes, “It was awesome. But also it wasn’t.”

As for me, I found myself in my usual place: neutral Sweden, caught unsatisfyingly in the cushiony crossfire between those who passionately adore Community and those who ardently ignore it. If anything, I sauntered through the episode like Jeff Winger, above the fray and distracted by the birthday cake emoticons on my cell phone, only drawn into the action intermittently. Which isn’t to say I didn’t find much of it funny! Writer Andy Bobrow did a lot with the little gags: Leonard as a veteran of the North Korean Army, Britta as a terrible war photographer (“Just because something is in black and white doesn’t mean it’s good”), the cover of Friends Weekly magazine. And my aging, Monty Python-saturated heart quickened at the inspired silliness regarding the location of the North Cafeteria (in the East Hall) and the true origins of the English Memorial Spanish Center (named after English Memorial, “a Portuguese sailor who discovered Greendale while looking for a fountain that cured syphilis”). I also admired the grown-up hurt lurking below the childlike behavior; Dan Harmon showed real teeth in the brutal way Troy and Abed stabbed at each other’s faults and failings.

But ultimately I remained mostly (and frustratingly) immune to the charms of this impossibly plush juggernaut of a show. I tip my infantryman’s cap to its accomplishment — everything about it was impressive. But it was still just a pillow fight. To me, Community works best as an acquired taste, not a main course. It challenges the Thursday-night lineup — and challenges me! — but it’s too sui generis ever to anchor it.

2. 30 Rock

Even though I adore the gang at TGS and am on record — or at least on Twitter — as thinking this shortened sixth season of 30 Rock is the finest since the first, not even the hilarious highs of “Nothing Left to Lose” can escape the increasingly weighty shackles of my argument. It was, in the words of Jack, a farce. But not, as Pete suggested, like Frasier. That show was a hit. 30 Rock is wittier and more precise than Community, certainly, but at this point, it’s no less a niche show. It’s just one I happen to enjoy more. Even so, that doesn’t make it suitable for general audiences: While last night was impeccably constructed and as tasteful and insane as a California Kong Bed, it still revolved around Tracy regaining his sense of smell (thanks to the decades-overdue removal of a Buck Rogers decoder ring that had been improperly stowed in his nostril) and immediately becoming a well-behaved daddy’s boy toward Liz, whom, he discovered, smelled just like his family-abandoning father. (The reason? A lifelong investment in the hair-sculpting cream known as Midnight Symphony, a hair product so outdated and Afrocentric its advertising campaign revolves around a dude in a dashiki strangling a white cop.) No, you could no more build a night of comedy around 30 Rock than you could a sitcom around Chris Parnell’s Dr. Leo Spaceman.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not both wildly, tremendously funny. Parnell especially had me laughing like a Jew watching The Daily Show, whether he was opining about gender roles (“You know what else is from the ‘70s? Women staying quiet”) or gendered erotica (“May I suggest messily eating an orange while I photograph it?”) and his dry delivery found its way into many of the episode’s other best lines, from the Sorkin-esque repartee and the gay rabbi chasing Pete — and his penis-swastika scalp birthmark — through midtown, to Tracy’s inspired list of favorite smells: “The Knicks, a mop from a strip club, a carefree hobo, a box with a new giraffe in it, and broccoli.” (Tom Haverford, if not Dennis Feinstein, would definitely approve.) Even though 30 Rock is having a remarkable renaissance and should be remembered as one of the finest sitcoms of the last decade, if not all time, it works best in the margins, away from the harsh ratings scrutiny that will transform NBC into a T-shirt company — if Kabletown doesn’t manage it first.

3. Up All Night

One of the benefits of being completely undefined as a TV show is that you are free to occasionally luck into an identity that works. Up All Night managed just such a fortuitous roll of the dice last night, most likely thanks to master dice roller, string puller, favor caller inner, and executive producer Lorne Michaels. His strategy of flooding the zone with comic talent — a twangy Megan Mullally, a guido Fred Armisen, and a deeply stoned Will Forte — managed to make the first half of “Hey Jealousy” an unexpected pleasure. Particularly strong was Armisen as a Don Henley-obsessed personal trainer. When you think about it, his sketch-y performance had absolutely zero place in the quasi-reality yuppie biodome the Brinkleys normally inhabit. But luckily he was quarantined off in Ava-land with Mullally, where the three were free to chow down on hot clam jambalaya, trade rosé shots and get foot-freaky with a bed-full of silver fox Asians.

This surprisingly amusing digression ultimately only served to once again reinforce how barren the child-rearing couple at the core of this show truly is. With Reagan suddenly (and sort of inexplicably) makes friends with Luke, the vague himbo at the office, Chris becomes insanely jealous. But instead of tracking Reagan’s POV for all of this — which would at least have been unique — we’re stuck with Arnett flop-sweating his way through a familiar loopy husband routine, staking out restaurants and smashing pretty Chinese boxes. The purpose of this existential threat to the show’s central relationship was typically unclear: Are the writers raising the stakes of the show for real? Or was it just a chance to pratfall and have the Brinkleys outwit yet another inferior outsider? By the time the jambalaya was finished, we were back where Up All Night too often resides: with Chris and Reagan talking to each other. In pajamas. It’s cozy, sure, but it leaves the impression that they’re barely trying any more.

I never thought I’d say this, but: The Office, come back! All Much is forgiven!

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

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald