NBC Comedy Recap: Parks and Rec Stays Sneakily, Quietly Great

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

“Lucky” was everything that’s good about Parks and Recreation — warm humor, subtle character beats, sly satire — which, unfortunately, are very often the same things that keep people from realizing the show’s greatness. Sure, it’s hard to maintain a finely tuned joke machine like 30 Rock or a creaky, but still seaworthy, ocean liner like The Office. But to my mind, what Parks is doing is even more difficult: consistently making us laugh while still drawing us in. The jokes on Parks are always inclusive, the pace gentle instead of manic. It’s a show deeply informed by a love of traditional sitcoms like Cheers, where the goal was to make viewers feel welcome, not necessarily dazzled.

Pawnee, despite its 19 toxic-waste depositories, is also a place where everybody knows your name, probably because they learned it while running an old-fashioned metal detector over your body at an airport security screening. We watch Parks and Rec because it’s strange and calming and beautiful, not unlike Jerry stuffing envelopes. We watch it because it is almost never anything less than good.

The problem is that good isn’t always good enough. “Lucky” was cut from the very same high-quality cloth as the rest of the show’s fourth season — although it’s possible it’s not cloth, it’s leather, with the word “nympho” stitched across the butt — and it was also the last episode we’ll be getting for over a month. The reason is network shenanigans. 30 Rock, a valuable show with a high-profile cast, is getting murdered in the 8 p.m. slot, up against Big Bang Theory and the slightly lesser bang of American Idol. The Office, despite all evidence to the contrary, is still The Office, and pulling in the highest ratings of any comedy on NBC, which is sort of like being the dunk champion of the NBA D-League — and by “D-League” I don’t mean developmental, I mean the one with dwarves. Up All Night isn’t a good show but it has good DNA; NBC wants it to work even more than the folks at Room & Board who have grown used to the free advertising for their hipstamatic chairs. With Community’s unaired episodes burning a hole in their pocket — and Greendale’s easily miffed army of keyboard assassins cracking their knuckles in preparation of another volley of testy tweets — the network had to make a move and the team players in the Parks Department were the natural fall guys.

Prime-time oracle Alan Sepinwall has opined that this may actually be a good sign for the show’s prospects: When Parks returns on April 19, the remaining episodes promise to build Leslie’s campaign to a crescendo and will feature Paul Rudd as her know-nothing opponent. Running the new episodes back-to-back-to-back, during May sweeps, will build a nice momentum going into an uncertain summer. But even with NBC’s famously snarked-upon ratings woes, a much-deserved fifth season for Parks is far from a sure thing. For one thing, recent events in world cinema have proven that Paul Rudd, while a wonderful fellow, doesn’t bring many eyeballs to the movie theaters, let alone to the televisions that are mounted on the wall directly across from the couch those eyeballs are already resting on. And two, as Leslie Knope’s troubled race against the brain-challenged Bobby Newport is proving, smart and competent doesn’t always win in the end. In fact, in high-stakes pander-paloozas like network television and American politics, smart and competent usually loses. Just as the week-to-week quality of Parks is taken for granted by many, including the authors of instant reaction columns like this one, so, too, is its survival. Just because Ron Swanson is the GIF that keeps on giving to the Internet’s noisy bear and bacon communities doesn’t mean he can’t be canceled.

So let’s pour ourselves a flaming tequila shot, park the Jacuzzi limo, and try to take the time to appreciate all the little things that made “Lucky” great, from Andy’s dogged pursuit of the elusive “P+” in his Women’s Studies final (luckily for him it was an oral exam and the one thing he knows is that “my fantastic is talk”) to Leslie’s inebriated interview with bitchy Indianapolis celebrity Buddy Wood (played with bitchy elán by Sean Hayes). The episode was written by Nick Offerman, who deserves kudos not only for the strong set of LOLs (particularly good were Chris’s book “Limb-itless,” about a quadriplegic who attempted to swim the English Channel and, of course, immediately drowned, and Leslie’s dreamy-eyed evocation of Ben as a sexily strict MILF), but also for the sturdiness of the structure. Perhaps it should be no surprise that a man accustomed to crafting canoes out of massive planks of wood would have no trouble nimbly welding three disparate plots into a unified whole.

Parks is on a peerless roll at the moment, with cast members being name-checked by the President, downing three steaks, and even saving room for after-dinner omelets. So why is it that I’m feeling more confident about Community’s long-term survival? With the caveat that I’d like to see both back, the disparity in audience ardor between them disheartens me. Community makes waves by embracing its underdog status and builds vocal allegiance by very cleverly flattering its fans through Easter eggs, callbacks, and references to the very sort of pop culture minutiae a small but loyal base of comedy nerds would be proud to get. Midwestern to the core (even though it films in the Valley), Parks just goes about its business. I’m not asking for six seasons, necessarily, and certainly not a movie. Like Greg Pikitis getting busted by Officer Dave, I’d be happy just taking the fifth.

2. The Office

The paperweights in Scranton are also sprinting toward an uncertain fate: While a ninth season is almost guaranteed, there’s absolutely no consensus yet on who might be acting in it. But rather than hamper the show, the looming upheaval has led to some of The Office’s most entertaining half-hours in years. Not necessarily good episodes, mind you. But there’s something fascinating about seeing the show’s stultifying stasis suddenly shaken up. The effect has been like watching Stanley overshifting his rented Camaro out of neutral and leaving messy rubber burns in the Comfort Inn parking lot. These Florida episodes have felt like the handiwork of someone sick and tired of being bored, willing to wear the loudest shirts possible and say whatever comes to mind for the first time in eons. It also wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the writers’ room, like Stanley’s suite, was also littered with Bacardi empties.

The biggest beneficiary of this creative chaos has been Dwight. Long the most aggravating personality on the show, the megalomaniacal beet farmer has been freed of his seemingly fatal character cul-de-sac, becoming something darker, weirder, and more compelling. Rainn Wilson also seems aware of his second chance, digging deep to find new layers in his alter ego in a desperate attempt to stave off what had seemed to be an inevitable, if lucrative, post-Office life sentence in Kramer Jail. (I also would have accepted the Fonzie Sanitarium and the Urkleplex.) The Sabre store initiative wrapped up in ridiculously abbreviated fashion last night, with James Spader wielding his smirk like an ax, chopping the entire project off at the base. But if the company’s corporate structure came off like a farce — who entrusts a retail strategy to a crazy English person, anyway?  — it served its purpose in making Dwight Schrute less of a joke and more of a potential heavy. (Not heavyweight, I should add: No one will ever mistake his sloppy tackle-fighting with a just-trying-to-do-the-right-thing Jim for the Rumble in the Jungle.)

The problem with Andy Bernard — now headed to the Sunshine State himself to rescue the adorable Erin from a hopeless life of boiled Gatorade and elder-care — was always that he simply wasn’t plausible as a boss because he wasn’t good at the job. Competence matters, even in sitcoms — it was the fine line that Michael Scott walked and a balance that took Leslie Knope a season to perfect. Almost nothing would surprise me at this point with The Office — it’s less the classic sitcom it was and more of a weekly exercise in plate-spinning — but it’s intriguing to see Dwight stepping into the lead role he was so clearly unsuited for last season. He may be cruel and he may even be homicidal (putting poison-tipped darts in your treasure box will give that impression), but the man does good work. Forget Kevin: At this point Dwight could probably sell 100 boxes of cookies to Angela.

3. 30 Rock

The never-ending cavalcade of jokes on “Standards & Practices” more than met the high-humor standard of 30 Rock’s impeccable sixth season. (And, in the case of many of the Tracy gags, just put a comma between “high” and “humor”: “I finally get the ending of The Sixth Sense: Those were the names of people who worked on the movie!”) So perhaps I’m just another in a long line of Jewish executives “trained from birth to argue” when I say that it didn’t quite hang together for me. I loved the return of preternaturally terrifying teen Chloe Moretz as Jack’s lacrosse-playing nemesis Kaylee, a pint-size powerhouse who peer-pressures America’s singing sweethearts into shotgunning beers and works a long con involving getting expelled and shacking up with her boyfriend in Nowhere, the hip new Manhattan neighborhood that’s just north of Where Street. And, like Dwight Schrute on The Office, the seemingly stunted character of Kenneth Parcell has been reinvigorated this season, now firmly ensconced in the Standards department beneath head censor Gaylord Felcher, wearing leisure suits and live-bleeping every forbidden utterance like “dingbat” or “doctor.”

But I think I was mostly disappointed in the backsliding of Jenna this week. After all the good work accomplished this season in transforming her from a one-note harridan into a more harmonious, even occasionally human assemblage of unchecked vanity and cosmetic botulism, she was back to her old nightmare tricks last night, harvesting her donated eggs — now grown into a blonde assemblage of backstabbing ego monsters who thought The Girls Next Door was a show about some cool chicks hanging out with a creepy boat captain — into a TLC-friendly career stepping-stone. Sure, they wound up finding her emergency pistol and ditching their ovo-mom, leaving Jenna to have coffee with her one brown-headed quasi-child. But it still seemed a bit much, even for a show that also took the time to introduce Liz Lemon’s mannish alter ego, Kenneth Toilethole. Still, complaining about 30 Rock this season is like a rich malcontent complaining about getting into USC. We should always remember to be grateful for every tile granted to us in the rich mosaic that is Liz Lemon’s menstrual history.

4. Up All Night

One of the advantages, from a critical standpoint, of a column such as this is that it gives me the opportunity to watch a show attempt to find itself in real time. If that sounds a little hippie-dippie, fine — that’s just one more lifestyle choice for Reagan and Chris Brinkley to look down on, like noisy children or dubstep fandom. But I come not to bury Up All Night — though I can’t quite bring myself to praise it either. Because for every clusterf— of an episode like last week’s, there’s one like “Couple Friends,” a rough-around-the-edges half-hour that nonetheless hinted at the sort of reasonable, personal foible-based comedy that everyone involved — with the possible exception of Maya Rudolph — seems to be interested in making.

All to the good were the presence of recent unlikely Oscar winner Nat Faxon and unlikely Oscar-nominated spouse Ben Falcone as the Brinkleys’ new prey, a gay couple who seem to be a perfect match for our heroes. Why? Because it turns out they’re equally unbearable in all the same ways: Faxon is a Spin Doctor-bleating overcompensator and Falcone is an anal, competitive egoist. Still, the two Groundlings vets kept things pleasantly grounded enough, even allowing some memorable lines to whiz by about Vince Vaughn movies circa 1996 and Napa Valley weekends being our entitled generation’s equivalent of good old Updike-ian four-way. But even this storyline eventually went the way of Ava’s entanglement with the over-his-head Army vet (?) who is inexplicably in charge of the show (??), but spends most of his time jamming out to Bob Seger and playing Texas Hold ‘Em at the High Stakes Stereotype table, which is to say: It went south, and fast.

Up All Night wants desperately for us to relate to the quotidian struggles of Chris and Reagan as they try to hold on to their best selves in the face of their new reality. But telling other people how to raise their kids is as bad as calling a foot fault in bowling. No matter how the writers try to sweeten the pill, the diagnosis remains the same: These two are judgy assholes. And as Ava herself learned from her past dalliances with Suge Knight and Ira Glass, nobody wants to spend time with people like that.

Filed Under: 30 Rock, Amy Poehler, Friday Morning Qb, Parks and Recreation, The office, Tina Fey, Up All Night

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald