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
Showrunner — and Grantland-affiliated cricket enthusiast — Michael Schur has often name-checked The Wire when discussing his inspiration for Parks and Recreation. And while the people of Pawnee, much to Tom Haverford’s chagrin, have little in common with the corner boys of West Baltimore, both shows do share an altruistic, almost literary desire to be something greater than the genres to which they are arbitrarily assigned. For David Simon, the adjective was Dickensian. For Schur, I’m suspecting it might be something like Steinbeckois.
Sure, John Steinbeck wasn’t known for his blowout parties featuring not one, not two, but four VIP areas (and rumor has it he hated grilled cheese sandwiches), but the author did know a thing or two about America (even if his book about driving around turned out to be mostly made-up). His best books, like the slyly charming Cannery Row, were expert at teasing out the larger themes of community, camaraderie, and fellowship that make this country if not great, than at least damned decent. The Schur-penned “End of the World” — played out over the course of a single night that, if Pawnee’s local apocalyptic cult is right (and they’re usually not), just might be the last one the universe ever sees — was a genial and gentle half-hour that was occasionally satirical and often very silly. But more than anything else it was sweet.
The death-obsessed cultists in Pawnee call themselves “the Reasonablists” primarily to discourage anyone from taking a public stand against them. But watching Schur’s patient, character-based storytelling one can’t help but think it’s a name he’d be proud to stitch across his own tinfoil hat. Everything in this episode unfolded logically and at its own untroubled pace. It was utterly free of wild mood swings — even Rob Lowe’s hair was safely back under control. In the A-plot, Ron babysat the local “Zorpies” as they cheerfully played the pipes (only $80 apiece thanks to flute profiteer Swanson) and awaited the arrival of the demon god who will turn them all into “fleshless, chattering skeletons” while Leslie attempted to free Ben from the flirty, actually quite pleasant clutches of Pawnee’s only reporter, Shauna Malwae-Tweep. For a while Leslie reverts back to the panicked Pelosi of old, driving Ben to an old abandoned gas station that she claims might have once been owned by Mick Jagger. But eventually reason wins out like the victor in a fifteen-hour match of Chess/Risk and Leslie lets her little bird man fly away — for now.
Across town, Tom and Jean-Ralphio send Entertainment 720 off in style with the greatest experiment ever to emerge from Dr. Haverford’s party laboratory. With caged tigers, Nutcracker uniforms, and even de facto Pawnee-an Roy Hibbert, the bash is a hedonistic success ripped straight from the Ben Silverman playbook. I kept waiting for the worm to turn or Jean-Ralphio to do the worm at an inopportune time, but there was no trick: The dopes actually pulled off something dope. Those who found Tom’s swagger-jacking in last week’s episode unsavory might wonder just why he deserved such a complete redemption — he thoughtfully provided designated drivers for everyone and even got a kiss at dawn from his ex-squeeze Lucy (who was only there because forgetful Jean-Ralphio was trying to hit that) — but in Schur’s world, Napoleonic fragrance designers can be people too. And even bankruptcy can occasionally be beautiful.
But the real heart of the episode was nearly removed from it entirely. In defiance of Andy’s belief that “repetition is the key to a good marriage,” April leads her lovable lug on a night-long exploration of his bucket list, checking off items as diverse as holding $1,000 in his hands (it’s more exciting as singles, even better as nickels) and making Jerry and her wonderfully sour sister Natalie assist Andy in living out his stuntman fantasies via the inimitable Burt Macklin and his daring Russian rescue of sassy heiress Janet Snakehole. By episode’s end, as the two stole her father’s car and drove 30 hours to gaze at the Grand Canyon, we were beyond looking for jokes and just enjoying the ride. It was far from the funniest episode of Parks and Rec but if it wasn’t great it was certainly damned decent. And I’ve got a feeling hearing that would be apocalyptic flute music to Schur’s ears.
2. The Office
“You can’t have a favorite Iron Chef. It depends entirely on the secret ingredient!” So blusters Robert California to Andy Bernard, one of the many very funny lines that peppered “Doomsday.” The cooking metaphor seems particularly apt, however, for an episode that continued to demonstrate this eighth season’s dominant, depressing theme: You can have some of the best ingredients in the world and nearly impeccable technique and still produce something distasteful.
The episode, written by the always clever Daniel Chun, halfheartedly resurrected a dependable character conflict from years past, the aspirational passive-aggressive wrestling match between Andy and Dwight. It was a solid play call but it fell apart in the execution. As boss, Andy has become even more needy and desperate — his inability to accept even a fraction of his newfound authority makes him both pitiable and downright boring. As for Dwight, his cartoonishness has been so overinflated over the past seven years that trying to bring him back down to earth is like corralling an errant Macy’s parade balloon. So while aspects of Dwight’s “accountability booster” strategy were inspired — five strikes equals an office-ending home run! — the premise was fundamentally nonsense. Is Dwight such a villain that he would willfully ruin everyone’s lives just because he was passed over? (A more plausible explanation would have been to blame the 105 Semisonic covers.) But rather than deal with the sticky implications of his actions, the episode punts. Pam leads an expedition over to Schrute farms to try to convince Dwight to change his mind — which he eventually does, but only after Andy and Erin help him dig a terrible equine grave and Kevin doesn’t smash his head in with a frying pan. Also, Gabe flirted inappropriately with a new warehouse worker — much to a smirking Daryl’s delight — and Jim battled an impossibly sweaty Spader at one of those clubs where you either “eat squash or play squash.” The moral, of course, is that everyone is friends and Stanley’s catchphrase isn’t as funny as he thinks it is (his singing voice, on the other hand, was surprisingly fine). At this point, criticizing the increasingly diminishing returns of this zombie season of The Office isn’t necessarily beating a dead horse. But it is burying one.
Community has a lot to be proud of after its last two episodes, and I’m not even talking in the rainbow-colored moist towelette way. So if “Advanced Gay” was a bit of a step back from the dizzy conceptual highs of “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” it was still enjoyable, not quite a pharaoh but certainly no palm frond. In many ways it was reminiscent of “English As a Second Language,” the late first episode that got a callback here via the return of Jerry, the Jedi-like plumber, and Troy, the handyman savant. Back then, Community was occasionally faltering with the big-ticket items but nailing the small stuff. And here, the jokes were consistently killer even if the serious bits sagged. So good was the pile-on of not-gay gay jokes (“I’m going to eat his ass alive!”), the feeble emergence of Dr. Britta and her frequent diagnoses of “edible” complexes, and the climate-controlled craziness of John Goodman’s air-conditioning annex, replete with a panini-pressing astronaut and Black Hitler, that it’s possible to overlook or maybe even forget entirely the awkward emotion that kept cropping up. Case in point: Was Pierce’s ivory-headed father supposed to be a serious character? I spent half the episode thinking it was just the Dean in ornery old-man makeup. His entire arc — coupled with Jeff’s misplaced patricidal fury — was as mixed-up and bizarre as the bloodline of a Laplander. Community gets extra credit for effort, as always, but it’s not always necessary to try to repair a window unit blindfolded. Sometimes, like Troy, you just want to watch TV on the couch with your friend.
Here’s something about this sour show that is legitimately sweet: After Alex’s extended, drunken jag in which he talked like the girls at the beginning of the “Baby Got Back” video and finished by feeling up a pillow, the camera lingered on Whitney’s smiling face. It wasn’t the only time that the creator and star of the series seemed to be taking real pleasure in the way it all played out around her. Which is good, because it means at least one person in America is enjoying this dreck. OK, dreck is a harsh word: In reality, this was probably the best episode of Whitney to date. Why? Well, for one, it didn’t feature a dated caveman conflict between Whitney and Alex (who, it turns out, aren’t nearly as off-putting when they’re not trying to be awful); this time it was between Alex and Mark. And two, growly guys really would make up by quoting one-liners from Fletch. As they went back and forth about steak sandwiches and steak sandwiches, Whitney was perched on the ottoman watching them, as pleased as a kid putting on her first puppet show. Far be it from me to begrudge the woman her happiness. I just wish she didn’t have to inflict it on the rest of us.
Andy Greenwald is an author and screenwriter in New York. He covers pop culture for Grantland.