NBC Comedy Recap: Finales, Pickups, and the Twilight of Must-See TV

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

Last night, Andy Bernard debased himself to an absurd degree, begging for a temp gig unflushing the toilets, gargling with bourbon, and lapping up spilled soup from his sleeve. It was all part of an elaborate ruse, of course: Underneath the soiled sanitation onesie was a slick black suit. What Andy wanted was a dramatic moment, a big reveal that would take him from, in his words, “zero to hero” and leave everyone laughing – both at his clever trick and at themselves for ever doubting him in the first place. New York Magazine critic Matt Zoller Seitz has mused that much of this near-catastrophic eighth season of The Office has been meta-storytelling the likes of which we’ve never seen on an NBC Thursday night. (In fairness to Seitz, he wrote the piece before seeing last night’s Community, in which the study group was convinced the past three seasons had been a shared hallucination because their actual adventures were far too crazy to be real. The only thing that could top that would be if Marshall McLuhan suddenly tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You know nothing about how to joke about me in your work.” And he’s got a point: We’ve had 24 episodes about a power vacuum from a show with a serious power vacuum. Last night’s season — not series — finale took it a step further. Andy’s grubby quick-change act was a clumsy metaphor for NBC itself.

After years of obvious buffoonery, new network head Bob Greenblatt has had to play a double game in his first full season at the helm, attempting to class up his circumstance while stuck wallowing in the basement. It’s not an easy job by any stretch, and it’s not helped by the fact that the closest things to hits he’s got on his scripted slate — the Thursday-night comedies — are popular only in the non-monetizable, modern sense. If tweets were Nielsen families, then … well, Parks and Rec would probably still trail The Big Bang Theory by 10 million viewers, but at least Greenblatt would know where he stood. The way it is now, he faces an uncomfortable choice: piss off the boardroom or the message boards. The future of the once-proud Must See TV lineup is caught uncomfortably between the directives of business and the positive buzz of creativity — but neither side is particularly easy to read. All spring Greenblatt and his PR team have pointed to so many wildly opposing metrics — Community is doing great and we support it! (But we’re burning off the final three episodes of the season next Thursday.) Our comedy pilots are phenomenal! (But those with the highest profiles, from Sarah Silverman and Roseanne, have yet to be picked up.) We’ll give anything a fair shake! (Except Bent and BFF) — that he sounded like Andy Bernard yammering about David Wallace coming to save him. Just when he wanted to be serious is when everyone started to think he sounded crazy.

But as news began to trickle out yesterday afternoon about the Peacock’s fall plans, it became clear that, like the once and future regional manager, circumstance was going to deny NBC any face-saving theatrics. The full schedule will be announced on Monday, but what we know is frustratingly half-assed. Community will be back, but only with a partial season order. The same is true for 30 Rock, only these 13 will definitely be the end. (Parks just received an order for a full 22-episode season.) These semi-returning favorites will be mixed and matched with newcomers like the Matthew Perry bereavement laffer Go On, Animal Kingdom, about a cranky veterinarian, and 1600 Penn, in which President Bill Pullman has to deal with a threat more loathsome than an alien invasion. At first, Greenblatt’s strategy appears more complicated than organizing an all-day family photo booth just to steal a used diaper, but really it’s quite simple: Throw a ton of shit at the wall and hope something sticks.

The one stain that won’t be wiped away anytime soon is the post-Carell Office. Despite a season of manic flailing, the show was never in any real danger of cancellation — its ratings, while cratering, are still far too valuable to a network desperate to launch new hits. One can only imagine the leverage this knowledge provided stars like Ed Helms and John Krasinski — while they both re-signed yesterday, it’s clear the contracts were extremely favorable, with lots of built-in downtime for Thai vacations and games of telephonic footsie with Alec Baldwin. Even with the stars in the fold — and Rainn Wilson hoping his spin-off dreams don’t go the way of Joey Tribbiani’s — the ninth season will face all sorts of challenges. Kelly Kapoor will be gone, swapping dealing with dicks like Ryan for life as an ob-gyn on her own Fox sitcom (a sitcom, we should note, that was developed for NBC) as will showrunner/HR doormat Paul Lieberstein and, mercifully, James Spader’s Robert California, who was dispatched last night in a manner befitting his equally ludicrous arrival: dreaming of post-Soviet gymnasts and guzzling coconut penis juice.

Still, it’s hard to imagine The Office getting any worse. After a year of increasingly silly twists — including the instantly shuttered Sabre store and Nellie Bertram claiming the manager job like it was a five-pound note left on the sidewalk — “Free Family Portrait Studio,” written and directed by B.J. Novak, was an inoffensive attempt to walk nearly everything back. Not only is Andy restored to a position he was never really suited for in the first place, but reliable David Wallace is back in charge. Even Dwight and Angela are once again illicitly sucking face like uncontrollable prototypes for that company Wallace sold to the military. After so much unearned tumult, I didn’t even have the heart to protest when Andy hired Nellie as the head of special projects, a job even the writers didn’t bother to pretend meant anything. At this point, it’s best to think of The Office as both David Wallace and Bob Greenblatt do: a purely financial investment. Silly, but probably necessary. At least the show was good enough to provide its own slogan for the fall: “It gets better. Maybe not much better.”

2. Parks and Recreation

In contrast with the slothful drones at Dunder-Mifflin — behind and in front of the camera — the Parks crew wrapped things up in style. By providing big answers — and asking just enough of the right, smaller questions — “Win, Lose, or Draw” was smartly constructed to function as both a season and series finale. After a long year of hard work, sleepless nights, and endlessly braying Gloria Estefan loops, Leslie and her campaign team deserved the victory. But the win worked on a macro level, too, the perfect resting place for Leslie Knope’s lengthy, Washingtonian march from irritating Madeleine Albright fangirl to lovable elected official. Much of it was, of course, hilarious, from the Sweetums-sanctioned ballot boxes that offered candy for voting the right way (honestly, it was this, not Bobby Newport’s guileless endorsement, that for a second had me believing that Leslie might not vote for herself) to Ben Wyatt attempting to choke down Scotch (because, as Ron rightly declares, “clear alcohols are for rich women on diets”). And the suggestion that Andy Dwyer will be going to Police Academy — where, if there is a God, he’ll bunk with a guy who specializes in hysterical sound effects — was typically canny, a big shift that felt as natural as putting cream cheese on your cell phone. But showrunner Michael Schur is as savvy a manager as Ben: He knows that sitcoms, like candidates, are at their best when they’re being themselves. So Ron’s whiskey-fueled pep talk about the value of friendship was more memorable than Chris and Jennifer’s stockroom shenanigans. And best of all was the purity of Leslie’s moment in the voting booth. There was no joke — at least until amateur go-cart champion Bobby stuck his inky hands under the curtain — just a fully realized character realizing her greatest dream.

When I say I would have been satisfied with last night being the end, I mean it as a compliment. Few if any shows get to make their own concession speeches — and even fewer are able to build so consistently toward them. But don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for more. Leslie may have reached the pointy top of her own personal monument, but there are other dreams to pursue. (Personally, I’m hoping for more of Tom’s game of high-stakes baccarat with Drake, the T-Mobile girl, and a high-fiving Blue Ivy Carter.) Parks is the rare show that always pushes forward into the unknown, despite what Ron Swanson and his one bowl may think about it.

3. Community

I still think we’re more likely to see Inspector Spacetime: The Movie directed by Brett Ratner on the big screen than the Greendale Seven, but dedicated human beings nevertheless have good reason to smile today — assuming, that is, that the strain of tweeting insidery hashtags 24/7 hasn’t left them permanently Britta’d. Community was guaranteed its senior season on Thursday afternoon, providing a plausible endpoint for a show that has never followed anything remotely close to a straight line. As Troy might have learned had he taken a bite of his Bagel Bites and deconstructed Hot Pocket reduction with a Dorito glaze, it’s not always easy to stomach getting what you think you most want. I often have the feeling that Community fans aren’t clamoring for additional seasons as much as for a signed statement from the rest of the viewing public admitting we were wrong and they were right. But hey, like Jeff says: “What you call insanity, we call solidarity.” If it works, it works.

“Curriculum Unavailable” followed Dan Harmon’s muse even deeper down the rabbit hole to bananapants crazytown. Two months after the gang was expelled, they’re all still hanging together, pretty much unchanged — Britta demanding organic relief for her Jagerbombed brain, Jeff mistaking a dead battery for a pack of Life Savers — except, that is, for Abed, whose eccentricities have curdled closer and closer to the darkest timeline. After a run-in with an otaku Keystone Kop, Abed is forced into a psychiatric evaluation at the mustachioed hands of John Hodgman. The gang goes along and the session soon devolves into a riotous gallop down made-up memory lane (Community excels at these sorts of manufactured clip shows where speed and weirdness are valued over anything else — “How long does peyote last?” b/w “It’s all-terrain, dummy!” As good as the writers are, I imagine they’d be even better tweeters). Then, as is increasingly the case, things got weird, and not adorably weird like Mork from Ork, either. Dr. Hodgman tells the group that Greendale was actually a mental hospital, their pleasant memories a shared delusion, “like that time all those people got into swing dancing in the ‘90s.” There are cuckoo cut scenes of the doped-up reality behind the Glee parody; sad screw-ups in straitjackets mumbling their way toward a better reality.

It was a smart tack for such a self-aware show. Abed — the so-called certifiable one — has always made references to being on television. To him, organizing bottle episodes and jousting with special guest stars is par for the course. But if the rest of the group can’t quite see into his Dreamatorium, what does that say about their chicken-fingered, paintball-stained lives? And what does it mean to be in a comedy — even if you aren’t laughing anymore? Before the questions could be answered, Hodgman scurried out the window and attentions turned toward rescuing the Dean. The shift helped make this the rare heavy episode of Community that managed to keep things light. I’m dubious of any season finale that involves Chang, but I’ll get over it. Like Donna Martin, Community has more than earned the right to graduate.

4. 30 Rock

As we approach the end of 30 Rock’s Lady Lazarus season — as in, it came back from the dead, it didn’t muff the Cool Whip account — it’s tempting to view it as an argument against yesterday’s decision that next season will be the last. Even with series that haven’t been repaired like Mitt Romney 4 (i.e., they’re still killing hobos at night), it’s become almost knee-jerk to respond to news of cancellation by taking to Twitter and demanding justice. (“D’fwee D’fwan!”) The idea of talking about quality shows ending their runs respectably, possibly even a tad early, has become as taboo as conversations about soccer, jazz, and infidelity.

But just as when Avery stopped Liz’s culture rap before she even got to Channing Tatum’s meteoric rise, sometimes it’s best to quit while you’re ahead. In the midst of this season’s Uncle Scrooge–like vault of comedy gold (last night’s bullion included “Feminism promised us two things: fatter dolls and an end to traditional gender roles,” Tracy’s Fanta-and-cop-sponsored wedding and the Crisspoints board, featuring favors like killing spiders and referring to Liz as “Khaleesi”) has been a remarkably nimble bit of behind-the-scenes navigation. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock have done real work steering each character’s ship a little closer toward safe, if not quite normal, harbors. (Perhaps Tracy was able to help thanks to his lifetime subscription to Black Yacht magazine.) Liz and Criss are beating back the faux-Muppets of fear and anxiety and might start a family. Avery is home and managed to out-truth-grenade Jack. Jenna is betrothed and comfortable with her true self, part Eliza Doolittle, part Paula Deen. And Frank, well, with no lines at all last night he mainly looked happy to be there. 30 Rock could pen jokes about Jenna’s sex column for Cosmo (Cosmo is her 14-year-old neighbor) forever. But it can’t keep these characters afloat for nearly that long. As wonderful as it’s been, sometimes you just have to let Zombie Jessica Tandy die. You hear me, Siri? Siri?!?

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

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald