NBC Comedy Recap: Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and the Battle for Thursday Supremacy

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. Parks and Recreation

To be warm, fresh yet familiar and never stale — this is the impossible challenge of every successful sitcom. (Also of every loaf of bread, but despite recent evidence to the contrary, Grantland is not a food blog.) Last night, Parks and Recreation pulled off this tricky feat as it has for much of its campaign-centered fourth season. “Operation Ann” was as cozy as a throw pillow with Joseph Stalin’s face on it, deftly playing with the audience’s expectations and well-earned trust in ways that left me as giddy as Ron Swanson on a scavenger hunt.

From the beginning, the episode was old but new. The return of Leslie’s invented holiday of Galentine’s Day reveals much, including that Mama Knope and new beau Steven are highly . . . compatible, but the ladies’ celebration mostly serves to highlight the current plight of Ann Perkins: single and not quite ready to mingle. (Somewhere out there, perhaps in Troy & Abed’s Darkest Timeline, there’s a version of Ann Perkins’ life that portrays her past few years — going from a stable, successful nurse with a live-in boyfriend to a loveless, adjunct meetings-attender in the Parks department — as the quarterlife meltdown it really is.) With a government funded dance looming (sure) and the politics on hold for a week, Leslie is inspired to find a match for her “beautiful spinster” BFF. (It’s also quite possible that she feels slightly guilty about her own nerdy bliss with Ben. I mean, they gift each other stuffed otters. It’s enough to make anyone say “congrats” insincerely.)

Part of what made the rest of the half-hour such a delight was anticipation: We’ve certainly seen and enjoyed the results of Leslie’s manic sweetness before. But what made it memorable was observing, yet again, how each episode of Parks builds so artfully on the last. After striking out with her initial dream team of potential suitors for her friend (including Ryan Gosling, Vice President Joe Biden and Sam Waterston), it’s no surprise that Leslie would call Pizza Hut and desperately attempt to order a pie with extra cuteness. But it was reflective of the natural evolution of the character (and her current happiness) that, ultimately, Leslie backs off from her man-dating mandate and even avoids tossing Ann’s car keys onto the roof. One of the great joys of long-running shows, after all, is not just establishing recognizable traits in our leads, it’s naturally deepening and subverting them.

On that score, consider Ron Swanson. Addressing himself to a plate of ribs, cracking a code by hitting it with a hammer and swaggering in (and out) of a gay bar like Paul Bunyan at a blue ox convention are all par for the course for the legendary mustache. But while Ron’s rigid exterior will be a dependable rock quarry of humor from now until the end of the show, script-writer Aisha Muharrar was right to dig deeper for the jiggly, giggly marrow beneath those manly bones. Recruited to help Ben solve Leslie’s WTF/OCD treasure hunt through the obscure minutiae of their relationship (including a welcome appearance from Martin Starr as an employee of Pawnee’s uncelebrated Snow Globe Museum), Ron’s descent into geeky bliss was wonderfully weird, a surprising turn that never felt false. The same could be said of Ann’s gradual warming towards Tom, who began and ended the episode with his typical Massengill-esque macking, but paused in the middle to reveal a human-sized heart. (The suitors he adroitly swatted away from Nurse Perkins included both a guy who made the mistake of using his love of amateur juggling as an opening line and the on-screen debut of Grantland contributor Harris Wittels, pushing credibility as a Phish obsessed “manpiece” named Harris Wittels.)

But no one represents the show’s remarkable ability to make change seem vital, gradual and earned like April Ludgate. In her initial incarnation, as a corner-dwelling snarkbot with eyes that rolled harder than a Skrillex fan in a glowstick factory, April was amusing but limited, a character that deadened stories instead of inspiring them. Now she’s glammed up her looks and toned down the bite. As the prickly yin to Andy’s bubbly yang, she’s become a vital part of the Parks machinery, no longer merely commenting on it from a distance. And while this unhurried transformation from sour cynic into well-intentioned skeptic may have seemed effortless, from a television perspective it’s ten times more challenging than being stuck with Oren by the punch bowl. Credit, of course, goes to Aubrey Plaza for broadening her performance, but also to those behind the scenes for taking a risk and messing with a good thing. Reliable jokes — be they April’s sneer or Ann’s exasperation with Tom — are the lifeblood of a writer’s room, but can quickly turn into a crutch. As “Operation Ann” proved, pushing past them can reap big rewards — and help sustain a show for the long-term. I may not be able to pinpoint the exact combination of writing, acting and plotting that keeps Parks & Rec running so smoothly but, like Andy when confronted with a cryptex, I know what things are I see them.

2. 30 Rock

It may sound immodest, but it certainly felt as if Liz Lemon was addressing a wider audience than just Jack Donaghy when she remarked that “after six years there’s still room for growth in this friendship.” If there were recappers, cynics, SAG members or any of Jenna Maroney’s nine dependent vibrators that had begun to fear that Liz and Jack’s macho-master/prudish-padawan dynamic had run its course, they certainly must have changed their tune by now. 30 Rock has blasted out of the gate in its sugar anniversary season, producing a run of episodes that rival any in its often hysterical history. At at time when most shows are just grateful for an occasional dribble of dog milk to keep the remaining fans happy, 30 Rock seems to determined to be more than just another broom in the corner.

Last night’s B-plot was another variation on Tracy and Jenna’s reliable “celebrities aren’t people too” schtick, but their no-doubt short-lived revelations were enlivened by the setting. Having the two booked as unacceptable entertainment for an unhappy kid’s bar mitzvah was an inspired (perhaps even Party Down-inspired) touch, as was Jane Krakowski’s subtle turn as the racist Transformer and Tracy’s sage advice to Adam, the insecure birthday boy whose only knowledge of girls comes from a Japanese videogame where you slap prostitutes to death. “Put money in the girl’s mouth,” Tracy counsels his young charge. “Also, my friend Darryl is your real father.”

In the A-story, Liz also gets helpful advice from an unlikely source: an old videotape of negotiating advice made by a younger, but no less magnificent, Jack Donaghy. After firing Simon — her overmatched agent who still buys his suits from the David Byrne Collection for Undersized Weirdos (and had to be inspired by this guy, right?) — Liz leaps into her contract talks re-energized and with perfectly immobile hair. What follows is a classic 30 Rock-ish bit of Jenga-esque joke escalation, culminating with Jack, having already moved his office furniture into Liz’s “home base” (a Tasti-D-Lite on the Upper West Side, natch) ecstatically beating himself in a classic Jack-off. With every passing week 30 Rock is making it clear that that white males with hair aren’t the only things in this world with limitless potential for success.

3. The Office

It is absolutely damning with faint praise to say that “Jury Duty” was likely the strongest episode of The Office’s woebegone eighth season. The revelation that easy-breezy Jim Halpert lied about his obligations as a citizen and, in fact, spent an entire week helping Pam out with the kids instead of acquitting a reckless driver and gorging on delicious empanadas was welcome new territory for the aging show. Until now, there’s been a maddening disconnect between Jim’s continued boyish behavior and the underlying reality of his extremely adult situation. He’s a career paper salesman with a growing family, not a pranking hipster with an unwritten future and a fondness for the haddock chowder at the Spotted Pig. So it was refreshing for a change to see the actual cost of his conduct, including Darryl getting chewed out and poor Stanley being forced “sit through damn Rizzoli and damn Isles.”

But as has happened so often of late in Scranton, when the show bumped up against a challenging plot point, it punted. First Andy abdicates his authority by lying to cover up Jim’s cover-up. Then Pam and some child actors are shanghaied into an obnoxious attempt to win everyone over with fake drawings and finger nibblings. (Not Creed, of course; a line has to be drawn somewhere.) For the second time in recent episodes it was only Dwight who maintained his sanity: personal vindictiveness and dreams of global subjugation aside, it really is a fireable offense to just disappear from work. The anger is earned and to see it spark made what has become a comatose program lurch suddenly to life.

Not for long, of course, as the burst of recognizable human emotion quickly gave way to the network-mandated status quo. Everyone forgives Jim and even gives him more time off — after all, babies are hard. And the potential arrival of a baby of his own — a giant baby, one that, in the funniest line of the episode, may in fact have devoured another baby — neuters Dwight’s rage too. Perhaps he’s changing in his middle-age. The same, sadly, cannot be said about The Office.

4. Up All Night

Unlike the previous occupant of the 9:30 slot, Up All Night is a hard show to get too exercised about. It has a talented cast, an inoffensive premise and is filmed, lit and decorated with all the smeary professionalism of a Williams-Sonoma catalog. But make no mistake: its faults run nearly as deep as Whitney’s, its superficial charms barely able to mask some fundamental, perhaps insurmountable flaws. In “Preschool Audition,” Chris and Reagan were yet again busied with the unappealing yuppie struggles of a very self-involved minority. Yet unlike 30 Rock, which had a preschool admission plot involving Will Arnett of its own last week, Up All Night wanted us to take our heroes’ lust for the Little Nudge Academy seriously — and the eventual humble lesson learned about liberal self-determination doubly so. All of this played out against an atonal backdrop of Maya Rudolph gamely vamping in a different, broader show (her pashmina shackle nearly made the episode bearable) and the dependable Dean Winters being wasted as Chris’s bro-tastic brother. Again, there is a lot of comedy to be extracted from a collision of such talented alpha-douches as Winters and Arnett, but everything about their relationship here rang false. The canned, escalating gamesmanship to avoid the truth — that Chris was happy as a stay-at-home dad and Casey had lost his job as a Deutsche-mark-dealing dick — was straight out of the Whitney playbook. And the mawkish finale, in which laughs were replaced with sentiment-drenched understanding and three-point shots, was something far worse.

Filed Under: 30 Rock, Friday Morning Qb, NBC, Parks and Recreation, Sitcoms, The office, TV, Up All Night

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald