NBC Comedy Recap: 30 Rock Leads With Its (Porno-Role-Playing, Train Wreck–Staging) Heart

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.)

1.30 Rock

After an entire season of dithering and delay, NBC finally put its best lineup on the field last night. The quick Community batted leadoff with comeback player of the year 30 Rock and a fresh-off-the-DL Parks and Recreation providing protection for aging slugger The Office. It’s NBC’s very own version of the “Core Four” and, on paper, it’s a squad you can win some ballgames with, if not some key ratings demos. With only a month remaining, network manager Bob Greenblatt wisely quit overmanaging and gave up on his various experiments — shoehorning in all-offensive, no (g)love newcomers like Whitney; wasting precious playing time on overmatched rookie Up All Night — and decided to let it ride with the horses that brung him. (Brung him to last place, that is. This was the same schedule that didn’t exactly set the world on fire last spring, either.)

While it was a relief to have a pedigreed two-hour block worth writing about again, we probably shouldn’t get too attached. All four of the shows face uncertainty in the offseason: Community and Parks due to low ratings, 30 Rock due to Alec Baldwin’s Twitter feed, and The Office due to network clusterfuckery of the highest order. (As of this writing, The Office could be renewed, replaced with a Dwight spinoff, or rebooted as a reality show featuring Howard Stern and Adam Levine judging a faxing competition from swiveling Aeron chairs.) Come this fall, NBC might decide to stock Thursdays with some of its promising new comedies, or give up on the “Must-See TV” concept altogether, replacing it with a potpourri of the paltry things that have been paying dividends for the struggling network (perhaps a calorie-burning football game between the New Orleans Saints and the cast of The Biggest Loser, officiated by Donald Trump and Cee Lo Green wearing one of Debra Messing’s scarves). Regardless of what the Peacock does, it seems inevitable that the other networks, smelling weakness, will treat television’s most watched weeknight the way Jenna Maroney treats a Panda Express she’s fallen in love with: by taking it over and burning it the ground. CBS already wins the night with Big Bang Theory — a complete lineup of comedies seems inevitable. ABC might make a power move as well. The idea of a night of NBC comedy might soon become as much of an outdated oxymoron as “jumbo shrimp,” “Chelsea Handler joke,” or “NBC ratings success.”

So, as happy as I was to see the gang back together last night, it didn’t give me much hope for the future. Community completely disappeared up its own self-perpetuating dreamatorium. Parks, while wonderful, felt marginalized at 9:30. And The Office, meant to anchor the night with its warm familiarity, felt as cold and clammy as a corpse. Thank goodness, then, for 30 Rock, which saved the evening in an utterly unexpected way. It wasn’t only the funniest half-hour of the night by a considerable margin. It was also the sweetest.

30 Rock has been called many things during its lifetime — “hilarious,” “insane,” “insufferably elite” — but rarely sweet. And perhaps with good reason: No show on television is able to match either the quality or the frequency of its jokes. But no one who has been keeping up with this remarkable sixth season could accuse it of being unfeeling. While the zingers have been flying (and landing) with the same extraordinary consistency — this is really something; as even Stacy Keach will tell you, “Nunchucking can wear a guy out” — much of the best work this year has been character-based: the slow, self-abasing transformation of Jenna from celebrity to human being (albeit one who Kanyes spelling bees and follows up a kleptomania relapse with orgasm and incarceration), the pained yo-yoing of Kenneth up and down the corporate ladder, Tracy’s grudging surrender of all attempts to de-Urkel his eldest son. Pacing all of this has been the slow but sure evolution of Liz Lemon. Despite what some have argued, Liz of late is a wholly different person from the panic-eating, pratfalling stressball in a Princess Leia costume we first encountered. She’s steady in her job and happy at home with the goofy, Ikea-resistant Criss. She and Jack are close friends who respect one another. She may get her hand stuck in a Pringles can on occasion, but the days spent coated in a fine dust of Sabor de Soledad flavoring are long gone.

“Murphy Brown Lied to Us” was one of the best episodes 30 Rock’s ever produced, precisely because it managed to thread the needles between the show’s manic past and its more affecting present. Liz and Criss are cheerily co-habiting, cleaning out the second floor and getting hot and bothered over Mythbusters. The only hiccups come from Liz’s gay porno role-play (“Brent’s back from the hardware store!”) and the specter of children, adopted or otherwise. And while Jack is overwhelmed when his brilliant Kouchtown initiative nearly founders on the rocks of American non-ingenuity (the stress-position disasters are explained away by chief foreman Bobby Moynihan thusly: “All they teach us is how to build roller coasters and Survivor challenges”), placing him in dire straits both with Hank Hooper and the freaky weirdos who populate the furniture industry (Ethan Allen is a cosplay enthusiast, Raymour & Flanigan are conjoined twins), he still finds time for his kindest act of mentorship to date. By setting Liz up not with the douchey, four-iPad-having Kevin but with his brilliant, Boo Radley–loving daughter, he reminded Liz of her maternal instincts, and even fired up Criss’s good-natured jealousy. It may have been slightly transvaginal, but it was effective. (Though the Clint Eastwood-aping Kouchtown commercials — “Do you know what this country used to sit on? Logs. Girders. Poles” — and Jack’s own monologue about the origins of popular chewing gum — “What did Theodore Bazooka Joe do when his eccentric millionaire father left him nothing but a tiny pink rock quarry? He baked those rocks. And sold them to children. As gum” — might have been arguably even more effective.)

Even Jenna found happiness, when her Tracy-assisted celebrity meltdown succeeded in luring Paul back from his sexual walkabout. (Tracy’s help came in the form of a still-burning resentment at Angie’s insistence on taking advantage of New York City theater and Twitter, a media-savvy crackhead he knows.) The end of the episode, with its suggestion of Avery’s return and the potential for little Criss-crossed Lemons, was legitimately emotional. America has gotten soft. So what if 30 Rock has too?

2. Parks and Recreation

What did we miss most about Parks and Rec during its forced time on the shelf? Was it the way Aziz Ansari says words like “puppy” and “cashmere,” like a Muppet Baby faded on sizzurp? The sight of Chris Pratt buried under a mountain of baby kittens? Or indelible reaction shots, like when Nick Offerman is asked to wear yoga pants? All of the above, of course, but more than anything else it was Parks’s implacable reliability. On a night filled with shows that specialize in zigging and zagging, Parks always stands out for its professional constancy. This may cost it some kudos — it’s rarely the squeakiest wheel — but it’s always the smoothest ride.

“Live Ammo” picked up right where we had left things — minus a small, admittedly delicious detour into Tom’s Snuggie-laden, cheese-proffering bachelor pad (“He’s deeply in debt!” squees a smitten Ann). Leslie is still trailing the AWOL Bobby Newport but making herself known in other ways. Chief among them is as “the blonde pain in the ass,” endlessly nudging her potential future colleagues on the city council. The recipient of most of the nudges this week is retiring Councilman Pillner, played by West Wing alum Bradley Whitford. Pillner wants to slash the Parks Department budget. Leslie, showing her loyalty, talks him out of it. Which leads to the closing of a pet shelter — forcing April, the temporary Leslie, to organize an adoption event that actually ends up collecting more unwanted animals than it gives away, despite Donna’s fake IMDb entries on the cages — and then, potentially, the loss of Ann’s job. There was a lot going on here, though it was paced well enough to allow for smaller moments, like Ben eating a dog biscuit and Ron threatening an entire shawarma with imminent ingestion. At episode’s end, the crisis has been averted thanks to some backroom gamesmanship with the water-spitting Kathryn Hahn, but the stakes have been raised even further: If Leslie doesn’t outwit Newport at next week’s debate, she’s cooked. And, we learn, so are Chris and Ron. If Parks is going out, at least it’s going out swinging. (Except Ron. He’s going out meditating.)

3. Community

It’s hard to analyze “Virtual Systems Analysis.” Like Abed with his cardboard boxes, I’ve run the scenarios and it seems pretty plain. People who love Community, those who have the #sixseasonsandamovie hashtag preset on their iPhones and don’t bat an eye when they spy half-transvestite bald men carrying “Puttin’ On the Ritz” sticks in line at the bank, saw it as another genre-bending triumph, a sensitive and self-aware exploration of the nature of friendship and the true cost of being “quirky.” Skeptics found it to be another impenetrable and frustrating example of a show no longer the slightest bit interested in allowing anyone else into its study group, a low-rated series using a parody of an even more obscure British cult to muse indulgently on its own complexities. Anyone on the fence gave up on this divisive, fascinating mess months ago in favor of Big Bang Theory, or overrating Carson Daly or, heck, just trying to avoid sitting on their balls.

I had a different reaction. The episode was indisputably audacious, wildly creative, and technically precise. I appreciated the show’s insistence on demonstrating the cost of Abed’s childlike meta-quirkiness and his real fear of spending the rest of his life abandoned, trapped in an emotional locker. But all the twirls and flourishes and Matrix-y face-melting broke my brain more than it did his. What interested me most about the episode was the part that Dan Harmon seemed absolutely set on denying us: that lunch with Britta and Troy. I accept that Community will, like Inspector Spacetime, continue down its own wormhole, Blorgons be damned. But I can’t help the fact that, like Annie, I tend to prefer cute weird to scary weird.

4. The Office

In the closing moments of last night’s delightful 30 Rock, Liz Lemon could barely contain herself. “Life is happening!” she enthused. Life, yes, but also the kind of thrilling forward momentum that’s only possible when a series is just starting or preparing to end. That came to mind midway through yet another sad and soggy edition of The Office, a show that’s playing out the string more listlessly and egregiously than the Golden State Warriors.

For the second week in a row, the teaser had promise. Phyllis’s oft-repeated cliches about the rain were the kind of small, keenly observed smile the show once specialized in. Now it’s all it’s capable of. Andy and Erin’s sex life, the very public discussion of it, the preposterous installation of the deeply implausible Nellie — all of it was flaccid, limp storytelling. James Spader’s Robert California is a titanic failure of a character, a toneless, charmless wheedler whose supposed authority lasted as long as his marriage to Maura Tierney. Even the welcome sight of Kelly Kapoor finding love with an attractive, non-baby-shaking pediatrician was wasted by focusing on the tired bro-testations of Ryan instead of her own changing circumstance. It was either a sad irony or a cry for help that it fell to Toby — played by actual showrunner Paul Lieberstein — to admit the obvious: “I can’t do anything about anything.” So Andy and Erin got their groove back, but maybe lost their jobs. With stakes-free flailing like this, The Office is making the same mistake Andy did: confusing impotence with importance.

Filed Under: 30 Rock, Community, Friday Morning Qb, NBC, Parks and Recreation, The office

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald