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. The Office
I recently read Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel The Marriage Plot, which really has little to no bearing on a night of NBC sitcoms. Except for this: in the book, there’s a remarkably nuanced description of what it’s like to be around a biploar friend when he goes off his meds. One minute he’s the same, familiar, slightly dull dude you’ve grown comfortable with. Then there are a few flashes of excitement, wit, and surprise that you didn’t know existed. The next thing you know, you’re chasing a total stranger while he gambles away money he doesn’t have in Monte Carlo casinos. While wearing a cape.
It may not be logical — and it’s certainly overly reductive to real-life sufferers of bipolar disorder, not to mention to novels and to Monte Carlo — but I couldn’t stop thinking about the parallels between Leonard in The Marriage Plot and the overall state of The Office last night. All season long the show has been lumpy, predictable, and safe. Clearly the writers were aware of this, too, because, beginning a few weeks ago, they ditched their lithium and committed to a fairly radical plan of upheaval: splitting the storyline in two and packing off key characters to a work retreat in Florida. Under the wilting panhandle sun, these normally staid Scrantonites have transformed into ravenous plot monsters, lusting after forbidden desires with a hunger the previous seven seasons never suggested: Dwight after a promotion, Todd Packer after Brit boss Nellie, Ryan after Erin, Cathy after Jim, and Stanley after mini-bottles of spiced rum. Last week the effect of all this action was exhilarating. For the first time all season — heck, maybe for the first time since “The Michael Scott Paper Company” arc — The Office felt alive with possibility. The jokes were good, the interpersonal relationships felt charged, and even Jim’s pranking seemed inspired, not pathetic. By comparison, “After Hours” felt manic, like too many people egging each other on, like the sort of overexcitement in the writers’ room that demands a time-out, not encouragement. It was practically wearing a cape.
And so, for one night at least, the goings-on in dreary old Pennsylvania were more enjoyable than those in the Florida hothouse. The teaser was grade-A prime, a fun and catty spin on the shifting interpersonal allegiances familiar to any workplace. (In fact, I wish there were more of this going forward, how Oscar’s opinion of Angela changes depending on who he’s with; ditto Andy’s opinion of sailboats.) It turns out there’s still actual humor to be mined from the sight of these eccentric weirdos actually doing work — particularly when it involves Mindy Kaling having a vocal boredom meltdown — and the collective awkwardness of Val’s Jamaican “goop”-peddling boyfriend accusing Darryl of inappropriate texting was a callback to the show’s cringier past.
Down in Tallahassee, the Ryan/Erin pairing was, other than the Stanley/Captain Morgan romance, the most palatable. B.J. Novak is generally either underused onscreen or trapped in the back closet with Kelly. It turns out his deeply douchey macking actually has notes of kindness, sort of like the overwhelming taste of French oak in his preferred glass of bad Chardonnay. That he and Erin found themselves stuck, waffle-less, underneath a counter in a busy hotel kitchen was dopey and inevitable. (It also led to Ryan’s panicked, nearly heartfelt declaration of love for his bored paramour some 1,100 miles away. He may be whipped, but life with Kelly is infinitely better than waiting six months to snog your “roommate.”)
Less appealing was the sight of powerful, brain-penis-possessing Nellie Bertram reduced to a slutty shuttlecock in a tawdry game of sexual badminton. At first it’s unclear whether Packer (who looks “like Ed Harris if they stretched him a little bit”) or Dwight are serious in their ardor for the James Bond-defending Nellie, but really, it doesn’t much matter. Gabriel Susan Lewis spikes Packer’s pint glass with asthma medicine, causing him to yak on a quickly fleeing Packer (as well as on GSL’s precious boot-cut cords), and Dwight decides to abandon generations of Schrute wisdom, including “win at all costs” and “don’t respect women,” and instead chooses to pursue the promotion with his pants on. The real loser here is Catherine Tate, who seemed well on her way to creating a strong and memorable lunatic in Nellie. To see her so easily seduced by subordinate maniacs is a shame. Like Jason Bourne, she clearly needs a better support staff.
Also mishandled was Cathy’s inevitable play for Jim. This was always going to be the series’ most controversial move: to see Jim tempted would fundamentally alter the audience’s perception of the stalwart character. But there had to be a better way to get his eyes wandering than the juvenile tank-top games we saw last night. That Cathy was angling for Jim out of boredom, not romance, was an interesting wrinkle. Yet her middle school gamesmanship (“I’m cold,” “Why are you sitting so far away?,” “Can you please turn up the Jesus Jones cassette?,” etc.) only made her seem petty and Jim seem like a child. Ironically, it was Pam who unintentionally suggested a better way for this to play out: in her pep talk to Darryl she speaks admiringly of Jim’s “going for it” in taking their friendship to the next level. Obviously screen time is at a premium in a show with 43 regular characters to service, but was there really no time to establish the slightest hint of a Jim-Cathy bond before last night? Jim is a social animal who has overstepped the bounds of friendship before. It would have been far more interesting to see him maneuver himself into harm’s way rather than having to pathetically cry for Dwight’s disinfectant-spraying assistance to get out of it. The final image of man-children Jim and Dwight sharing sundaes in bed, safe from the prying arms and open legs of predatory women, was creepier than the thought of a mature adult wearing a cape in public, even in Monte Carlo.
2. 30 Rock
TGS with Tracy Jordan is the sort of robot-farting diversion that few people watch, let alone pontificate about. But 30 Rock, despite its low ratings this season, remains a popular cultural football to toss around and dissect. (Do people dissect footballs? I assume that’s what goes in sports medicine classes.) This season alone has produced a raft of articles declaring Liz Lemon a childlike shadow of her former feminist self as well as much, much better articles rebutting them. But within the twisted world of 30 Rock itself, life spins madly on, impervious to critical gamesmanship, big-ticket fretting about meaning and significance and, when you get right down to it, logic itself. Six seasons in and the show is better than ever, most likely because, like an elderly man with gills and fish fangs, it no longer cares what society thinks — if it ever really did at all. This genius run of episodes has been the equivalent of Liz shaking her 40-year-old bottom on center court at Madison Square Garden. She’s out there, it’s crazy — and she thinks she likes it.
“Leap Year” was 30 Rock at its cartoonish best, not only inventing an entire holiday based around February 29 but firmly establishing it as a preexisting civic obsession with attendant traditions (blue and gold bunting, rhubarb consumption), mascots (creepy merman Leap William), and lousy Jim Carrey tie-in films (Leap Dave Williams, costarring Andie MacDowell). It was fun seeing Eastbound & Down’s disturbing Stevie Little pop up as the only slightly less disturbing Thad, a techie geek who did enough Internet to transform himself from Star Wars figurine-collecting virgin nerd to an actual-Ewok-imprisoning virgin billionaire. During his sparsely attended Leap Day party, Thad indecent-proposals Liz to the tune of 10 — no, make it 20 — million smackers, more than enough to get sozzled Mos Eisley Cantina for life. Jenna, who normally doesn’t notice people who look like that, gets in on the competition because of her sexual walkabout and because Thad is quite a catch on all the gold-digger message boards. (Just don’t ask her about turtles.) I also loved Jack’s Scrooge-like visions of his cigarette-coveting past and his daughter’s horrific liberal future — all seen through his winter crystal eyes (and a haze of rhubarb poisoning) — and especially Tracy’s heroic attempt to eat $50,000 worth of Benihana in a single night. (Which apparently, like all great art, came from a place of truth.) Soon, the models wake up from their coke binges and steal Thad for themselves, leaving Liz and the rest to the real-life doldrums of March. It’ll take more than a new calendar page to knock 30 Rock off this hot streak.
3. Parks and Recreation
“Sweet Sixteen” was the episode being filmed when I visited the set of Parks back in December. It turns out nearly all of the scenes I observed on that legitimately freezing California morning came at the beginning of the half hour, when Leslie’s stubborn adherence to a decades-old campaign law gets her locked out of the building and, in the process, convinces Ron that his best employee needs to take a sabbatical. The majority of the episode was set at Donna’s immaculate lake house, outfitted with a hot tub you can’t use, towels you’ll never see and wall space dedicated to her cousin, sexy R&B semi-star Ginuwine. (I can only hope that the DVD extras will include an Aziz Ansari a cappella rendition of “Pony.”)
All told, it was a pleasant episode, if far from essential. That day on the set, showrunner (and director) Mike Schur waxed poetic with me about his longstanding admiration for The Wire. In that spirit, “Sweet Sixteen” was the sort of installment that filled in story and connected dots; it was better when viewed as a part of the larger game than an individual adventure. Still, Leslie’s slow realization of her own professional limitations was redeemed by her clumsy URL-illustrated election poster (made inexpertly by the heshers at Sign-tologist) and especially Ron’s patient, bananas speech about how working at both the sheet metal factory and the tannery while trying to finish middle school taught him never to half-ass multiple things. The goal is to whole-ass one thing.
The latter advice might help interpret Tom Haverford’s shameless full court press of Ann, a.k.a. “Tommy’s Girl.” At first it appears that not even the same Kangol Samuel L. Jackson wore to the Latin Grammys can thaw her frozen, Blu-ray-denying heart. And with good reason! Tom is acting like a Viagra-popping Satyr who just chugged a Four Loko while power-skimming The Game. So the realization that he and his boobery might have different priorities in life and thread counts was reasonable and amusing. I’m still unclear, however, when this unlikely pairing left Tom’s sandalwood-scented imagination and became reality. Seeing them arm-in-arm at the finish had me feeling like drunk April: groggy and convinced I’d missed something. If they’re going to whole-ass this thing, it might be best not to skip a plausible step or two.
4. Up All Night
The exhaustingly one-note yuppie yokel neighbors were back last night and brought their improbably large family with them, thus providing Chris and Reagan with an entire house full of cheese-touching, laundry-doing lames to skewer with their aging-hipster superiority. Molly Shannon was prowling the edges of the A-story like a non-kosher cougar, coating every scene she was in with thinly sliced deli ham. And, once again, a meandering plot was resolved with a needy, emotional freak-out on an unstable surface (two weeks ago, a water bed; last night, a bouncy castle), leading to heart-warming realizations and hugs. But I’ll be damned if “First Birthday” wasn’t an enormous improvement after the past few weeks and one of the more successful episodes of Up All Night all season.
Why was this, exactly? Could it be that the increased screen time for the indisputably cute twins who play Amy managed to melt the hypercritical heart of the only currently child-free thirtysomething living within 20 square miles of Park Slope? Perhaps. I’m no monster, and that kid really did seem to love the chicken suit (almost as much as the comedy nerds in the audience loved Will Arnett’s initial understated cluck.) But more likely it was because the episode, written by Tucker Cawley and directed by Lonely Island-er Jorma Taccone, managed to maintain a consistent and appropriate comedic point of view. Between the now-familiar bouts of off-putting condescension (guests wearing pleated pants were forbidden from enjoying the free sushi), Reagan and Chris were allowed to grow and change like reasonable adults, the former learning to go with the flow and the latter realizing he’s not a good-time Charlie after all, but rather a stressy headcase able to say “no” about as well as Amy can say “kiosk.” Whatever it was, I’ll take it. Up All Night may be the only show on television where baby steps are both a sign of optimism and thematically inevitable.