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. 30 Rock
All truly great comedies are at least a little bit serious. It’s a delicate, delightful balance to mix purely goofy laughs with those that resonate on a deeper, Homer Simpson–y level. In the past few years, as 30 Rock has pushed its jokes-per-minute ratio to nearly unheard-of proportions — in our recent podcast, former staffer Kay Cannon talked about how her job went from two jokes per page to a joke every line — it’s been easier to overlook the sharp satire lurking behind all the silliness. But the archly brilliant, Tina Fey–scripted “Stride of Pride” proved that, just like Jenna doing Kegels and thinking, it’s more than possible to do two challenging things at the same damn time — and look awfully good in the process.
Just a week ago in this space, I noted how the broad and buffoonish “Governor Dunston” took a tentative step toward a fascinating real-world issue, namely the inevitable, behind-the-scenes collision between the left-leaning creative types making jokes on TV and the right-minded corporations that issue their paychecks. But at the end, the episode fell back onto a whoopee cushion rather than taking any sort of stand. Fey certainly didn’t make the same mistakes last night, perhaps in part because the issues in question really do bring her simmering cauldron of nerd-rage to a furious boil. “Stride of Pride” brought the reliably depressing biannual public dustup about whether or not women are funny home to Rockefeller Center. Only the messenger of misogyny in this case wasn’t recent standard-bearers Christopher Hitchens or Adam Carolla, it was in-house clown Tracy Jordan — with an assist from his hype man, noted prop comic Stephen Hawking.
What made Liz’s non-gender-neutral confrontation with Tracy so artful was the way Fey allowed herself to work through her own discomfort at being a standard-bearer — or a “list maker” — of any kind. As any comedy writer — not to mention anyone who’s ever seen a monkey carrying a suitcase — will tell you, funny is funny. The job is to get laughs, not score points, something Fey did at her own expense when her sudden sex-positivity quickly degenerated into a tutu-wearing Carrie Bradshaw vodka party, freaking out all her women co-workers in the process. And it was well done to have the lovable Tracy — a man who carries his pet snake in a chafing dish — dispense the sexist venom; that way it was merely wrong-headed, not mean-spirited. Similarly, it was a neat trick to show only the reaction to Lemon & Maroney’s classic, Roe v. Wade–referencing “Doctor” sketch (winner of Chicago’s prestigious Piven award!), not the comedy lest some snarky recapper find it wanting. It goes without saying that women can be funny in the same numbers that Asians can be good drivers — just ask Tracy’s threes of friends! The struggle is the double standard of constantly having to prove it.
And prove it Fey did. In many ways, the B and C plots were even finer than the A story. The Jack-Jenna pairing is one that’s been underplayed by 30 Rock in the past. Yet it made perfect sense to twin them here, aging alphas forced to accept their changing fortunes as they transition from sex idiots to (in Jenna’s case) “more of a Diane Lane type ageless beauty.” Jack wants to compete with (the amazingly well-cast!) Ryan Lochte as much as he wants to go to Brooklyn to hear dubstep or listen to Liz prattle on about her bathing-suit area (which could be anywhere; he’s seen her bathing suits). There was a graceful, almost elegaic air to Jack’s tennis-playing, calzone-heiress-wooing, soup-sipping nonsense, a nice recognition that all these years of patiently empowering Liz have come at the start of his own Steve McQueen–esque decline. (Even his beautiful hair is no match for the thicket nesting atop Ken Tremendous, who, it must be said, looks nothing like the “real” Ken Tremendous, the decently coiffed showrunner of Parks and Rec.)
But Jack at least can fall back on casual racism and hot broth. The script’s greatest achievement was the almost casual skewering of Hollywood’s very real problem with actresses of a certain age. It was the night’s funniest line and its most sobering when Jenna announced that she was skipping ahead to her late 50s because it’s a better alternative than “losing a push-up contest to Julie Bowen to see who gets to play Kevin James’s mean wife who he’s sick of having sex with.” This isn’t a pop culture reference gag, this actually happened. Not the push-up contest — it was probably lat pull-downs — but everything else did, and it happened to the luminous Winona Ryder at the ancient age of 39. Sly, smart, and hilarious, “Stride of Pride” was a 30 Rock all-timer, an impressive feat considering only 10 episodes remain. Tina Fey is clearly uncomfortable climbing atop any sort of soapbox. But the one she’s constructed these last six years is remarkably sturdy.
2. Parks and Recreation
At this point, we’re spoiled. “Sex Education” was a typically wonderful episode of Parks, with three clever plots clicking nimbly along. There were delightful zingers (best was Donna’s “It’s not my favorite shirt, but it is my least favorite shirt”), clever dollops of physical comedy (Andy eating post-condom bananas), and a hall-of-fame appearance by one of the show’s deep bench of supporting weirdos (Jay Jackson’s amazing Perd Hapley: “Here are some statistics I’d like to share with you now and they are numbers”). Leslie’s showdown with Pawnee’s prancing version of Marcus Bachmann and his stern Mrs. was typically wily, as was Ben and April’s realization that they are in the employ of a handsome, soul-dead robot — and that this is exactly what makes him a dream politician.
But I don’t want to talk about any of that. I want to talk about Aziz Ansari’s performance as Tom Haverford. Ansari is so reliably funny without a script that his performance on Parks is often overlooked in plot-and-writing-centric recaps like these. But last night was a near-perfect fusion of Ansari’s IRL tech addiction and writer Alan Yang’s character-building skills. This entire plot was keenly observed perfection, from the car accident live-tweeting at the start (#BLESSED) to the so-good-it-demands-an-outtakes-video monologue/venture capitalist start-up report delivered while Luddite Ron shoots geese and rolls his eyes (“Podcasts: There are a million of them and they’re all amazing!”). One of the signs of a good sitcom is that the writers let the actors inform their characters, bringing organic bits of themselves into the heavily scheduled and even more heavily rewritten scripting process. The nuance and edge that Ansari has brought to Tom is often obscured behind the ferocious heft of Nick Offerman’s mustache and megawatt gleam of Amy Poehler’s smile. Luckily there was no reflective shine off the homemade Pinterest board or the cardboard iPhone to cover it up last night. Feel free to AltaVista it if you don’t believe me.
3. The Office
If possible, I’d love the chance to sit down with one of The Office’s current writers and ask them about the decision-making process behind transforming Andy Bernard into a cruel, insufferable prick for the final season of the show. Does it add anything to the still-lackluster Dunder-Mifflin dynamic? Does it help Ed Helms’s flagging big-screen career? Last night, in the exhausted “Work Bus” (directed by NBC page-program applicant Bryan Cranston), the hapless would-be leader was caught vacillating between recycled Michael Scott–isms — only with Andy’s J.Crude air of patrician superiority, the softball video felt vicious, not dopey — and a bizarrely muscular sadism toward Catherine Tate’s Nellie. Watching the writers’ room twist itself into Pennsylvania pretzels trying to make the British import likable and compelling has been frustrating for us all, but even her latest 180 — now she wants to adopt! — was no excuse for the strangely savage treatment she received from her boss.
The season’s first two not-bad episodes notwithstanding, it’s been quite clear for some time that not only is Steve Carell irreplaceable, Michael Scott is, too. His (theirs?) was a rare mix of warmth and incredulity that allowed others to be aggrieved but ultimately happy. Andy’s clueless anger goes down worse than rhubarb pie. The wheels on The Office’s work bus go ’round and ’round. But the engine gave out months ago.
4. Up All Night
Can I cry uncle on this show? Or will it make you think of Luka Jones’s character, a forgettably bearded zero whom this week was tasked with selling a joke built around a song released in 1993 and making out with a babysitter? Never mind Andy Bernard, the craziest character decision on NBC’s air is that this dud was the best Up All Night’s producers could think to add to the show’s already dull mix; it’s like dipping Wonder Bread in milk. (And not breast milk, either — although that’s certainly in the fridge.) Last night we learned again that Chris and Reagan are terrible, braying, self-obsessed people — and, judging by their behavior at the concert three years ago, always have been. They steal babysitters, hate “weird” things like gin and calamari, and mercilessly judge every sucker outside of Amy’s binky who’s sorry enough to cross their path. At least guest star Rob Huebel got to chow down on samosas between heapings of abuse.
I’ve said it before, but I guess I’ll keep saying it — at least until NBC wises up and replaces this no-hoper with the infinitely better no-hoper Community — successful sitcom characters have foibles obscuring an innate goodness and likability. These two have smug vanity and ego draped across a gaping maw of resentment and need. Oh, and denial, too: “It’s not gross when we do it,” Chris said to Reagan as they PDA’d in a graveyard. Real talk: I fear for the kid.