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. 30 Rock
Of all the disasters that have plagued NBC over the past decade — Ben Silverman, Emeril, Maria Bello’s millinery — none have managed to disrupt the network’s standard-bearing Thursday night. In an era of divided loyalties and narrowcasting, the network’s slate of classy comedies has been an ocean of consistency and comfort. But lately not even Thursday has been immune to the Peacock’s drooping feathers. NBC’s self-chosen “Must-See” label for its lineup was, in the heyday, a redundancy: Everyone did see shows like Seinfeld and Friends; they were among the highest-rated in all of television. But while The Office has maintained the 9 p.m. tradition of being the network’s biggest draw, that encomium now carries as much weight as The Biggest Loser. Being the highest-rated show on NBC is like winning first place in the fourth-place competition. And so new president Bob Greenblatt felt compelled to tinker.
Greenblatt’s first attempt at transforming Thursdays came last fall when he swapped the on-maternity-leave 30 Rock for the dreaded Whitney at 9:30. The goal was reasonable enough: to broaden the appeal of what had become regarded as an insular, brainy night of comedy. Greenblatt was attempting to play Henry Higgins and shock the world — or at least the advertisers — with the red-state potential of his foul-mouthed Eliza Doolittle. But the plan backfired, damaging new and old shows alike. A hastily rejiggered Plan B, with a focus on defense, went into effect last night. Whitney has been exiled to Wednesdays, where it provides cover for noxious newcomer Are You There, Chelsea? and, to the chagrin of Andre Gregory fans everywhere, the wildly low-rated Community was banished to detention until spring. In their places are the more simpatico single-cam freshman Up All Night and, in the lead-off spot, the returning 30 Rock.
The scheduling may be fresh, but the feeling is familiar. With more radical, populist changes looming for next season, this new Thursday lineup may well represent the last gasp of a dying institution.
Not that you’ll hear any wheezing from 30 Rock. Tina Fey’s Studio 60 knockoff began its sixth season last night — which is 14 in dog years and 157 in sitcom years — in predictably fine form. Few shows play the ebbs and flows of a season better than 30 Rock; like a veteran basketball player or, perhaps, a veteran of a women’s basketball dance team, it knows when to sit a couple plays out and when circumstances demand placing extra pressure on its creaking knees. “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” felt like it was made with midseason in mind, prioritizing dependable gags over September razzle-dazzle. In fact, much of the episode toyed slyly with familiarity, offering new (or new-ish) iterations on old predicaments: Tracy, at 42, remained the world’s oldest, pants-forgettingest baby while Jenna, her career reinvigorated by a judgeship on NBC’s newest reality cash cow, America’s Kidz Got Singing, delights in bitching out babies with her newest catchphrase, “Go jump back up your mother.” (And while Jenna may refuse Jack’s advice to “make more money pretending to be nice” like Betty White, at least she has friendlier costars, including Queen of Jordan standout D’Fwan and a surprisingly huggy John McEnroe.) Back in the (redesigned?) writer’s room, it’s also business as usual: Kenneth, trusting “Reverend Gary’s” prediction of imminent apocalypse, blithely goes about his chores in green spandex, confident that soon enough he’ll be enjoying his “72 virgin … margaritas” in heaven. (And if Tracy is doomed to black hell, at least there’s a jukebox there.) Pete, Frank, Lutz, and Toofer all play their prescribed roles in the faux-rapture, tormenting and then treating their friend to the sight of a Coney Island sunrise, with Santa costumes and fake machine guns in tow.
All of this sameness was actually clever cover for the episode’s central conceit: Liz and Jack are changing. The former freaks everyone out with her cheery disposition, proud displaying of her midriff, and willingness to giggle at rectum jokes, while the latter has a daughter-induced crisis of conscience — as in, he’s worried he might have developed one. Jack is soon back to normal thanks to little Liddy proving to be a chip off the old H&R Block — her first word is “money,” although it did sound awfully like “mommy” — but his supposed omniscience in all matters Lemon is put sorely to the test. Not only is she wearing Dickies instead of ugly Christmas sweaters, she’s shoulder-shaking herself to happiness and sharing secret smooches with a mystery man, one who, presumably, ticks all her boxes short of “burned his groin off” in a cake shop accident.
Did 30 Rock provide the same tightrope thrill as an ambitious episode of Community? No, of course not. But the professionalism of the jokes — from “super-gay” flaming horses as harbingers of the end of the world to the marquee advertising The Help 2: Still Helpin’ — is nothing to liz at, either. If you take 30 Rock‘s casual brilliance for granted, then, in the words of Pete’s father, you deserve to be disappointed, Merry Christmas.
2. Parks & Recreation
If any comedy deserves the 9 p.m. anchor slot of a revamped Thursday night, it’s Parks & Recreation. Midway through its fourth season, the show’s creative hot streak remains undiminished; few programs on television are willing to go as deep with its characters or take as many risks with direction and tone. Unfortunately, Parks’ ratings continue to dip lower than Leslie Knope’s poll numbers, so it’s hard not to look at the title of last night’s episode as wishful thinking. “The Comeback Kid” not only set the (tiny) stage for the underdog Knope 2012 campaign — it was also as inspired a piece of comedy writing as we’re likely to see all year.
Written by Simpsons veteran Mike Scully, the half hour was rife with that show’s signature animated mania. Amy Poehler, of course, is at her best when at her broadest, the unspooling of her carefully organized plans leaving her spinning like a top, or a painfully bad breakdancer. Drafted into an ad-hoc campaign for a candidate currently polling in the low — or is it lowest? — single digits, the supporting cast each brought a signature flaw to the planning of the Leslie’s big candidacy reboot. Andy’s new three-legged dog, Champion, and his love of horns nearly gets them all arrested (Ron’s semantic debate over what constitutes a “law” doesn’t help much either) and the subsequent lack of wood forces Ron to go minimalist on the podium. April’s lack of interest in anything leads her to ignore the fact that the basketball arena is currently an ice hockey rink and Tom’s limited funds (coupled with his dependably extravagant taste) leaves them without enough sumptuous red carpet to make it to the dias. And Jerry, of course, pulled a classic Jerry: doing everything right the one time he needed to get it all wrong, thus guaranteeing a full house to see poor Leslie as she literally slides on thin ice. All of this occurs under the watchful, creepy glare of an unfinished banner that, in Andy’s words, demonstrates once and for all that “windows are the eyes to the house.” (A good scene was elevated to greatness by the dronelike repetition of a particularly banal Gloria Estefan snippet. All that was missing was the sight of Jean-Ralphio dougie-ing in the DJ booth.)
Still, to my mind, the finest moments of the episode were reserved for Adam Scott, whose Zen-like commitment to underplaying the role of straight man reaps huge dividends when he’s finally allowed to go wobbly. Unshaven, clad in a Letters to Cleo T-shirt, his hair reaching Henry Pollard-like heights, Ben is wildly depressed over his predicament. He just doesn’t know it yet. Instead, he putters around Andy and April’s adolescent paradise, whipping up calzones and working on his “claymashe.” It’s up to Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger (finally put to good use here) to rouse him from his stubbly stupor.
By episode’s end, Ann has been mercifully fired from her ill-fitting role as campaign manager (proving that sometimes life really does dunk you) and Ben is back in the saddle. Is there a perfect candidate? Knope. Neither is there a perfect sitcom. But sometimes they can get awfully close.
3. The Office
Earlier in the week I wrote a lengthy piece about the catastrophic rut in which The Office is currently stuck and whether it might be possible to get the show rolling again. My gut feeling then as now is that positive change is impossible for a series so committed to celebrating — or wallowing in — the status quo. “Trivia” did nothing to change my mind, but it did suggest that showrunner Paul Lieberstein is aware of the problem. The episode attempted to break its way out of samey Scranton quite literally, though in questionable ways.
In the A plot, Andy, in search of a face-saving “rounding error” of $800, decides to stop filling his backseat with purchased paper and instead chase Oscar to Philadelphia, where a trivia night at a local gay bar offers $1,000 in winnings. This was promising enough, and the thought of a diverting road trip with the cast’s leading lights — Helms, Krasinski, Robinson — had potential. But with the same touchy-feely streak he brings to garden parties and inappropriate back rubs, Andy couldn’t help himself and somehow brought the entire office on the two-and-a-half-hour drive down the turnpike. The construction was solid and it was amusing to see the self-deduced “C” team — featuring Creed, whose “reverse engineering” of a question about Ray Charles provided the episode’s biggest laugh (“You’re a black singer. Where do you go where you’re a novelty?”) — win the day. Still, it felt slight, and not only because I’ve never attended a straight trivia night that featured questions about the NBA and Albert Einstein.
The B plot was more problematic and yet somehow more satisfying. Of all the characters in desperate need of ambition on The Office, Dwight K. Schrute is nowhere near the top of his list. But it was nice to see at least someone ready to flee the beet farms of Northeastern Pennsylvania for greener, swampier pastures. Unfortunately, Dwight’s foils down in Florida (“America’s basement”) are the extraneous Gabe (who apparently splits his time between the Keystone and Sunshine states) and the increasingly aggravating Robert California, a man who never has anything to do except when he does — and even then it turns out it’s just man-on-man sparring in his work-subsidized condo. When confronted with this creepy tableau, even Dwight has enough sense to refuse Robert’s offer of Oreos. It’s a sign of The Office’s sad decline that Dwight is beginning to look saner and saner.
4. Up All Night
The thing about Up All Night is that they had a baby. Scratch that: The only thing about Up All Night is that they had a baby. Not terrible and certainly not good, this rookie comedy is glittering proof that a killer concept does not a series make. While there’s plenty of decent work being done on the margins — particularly by Will Arnett, whose portrayal of an amiable Borat-quoting, stay-at-home dad with only mildly regressive douchey tendencies is a masterclass in pitch control — there’s nothing going on at the core. Arnett and a flop-sweating Christina Applegate play Chris and Reagan, the harried, uninteresting parents of an uninteresting baby. The fourth wheel of their family is Maya Rudolph as Ava, a broad character beamed in from a different, potentially better sitcom, whose creepy involvement with Arnett and Applegate suggests exactly the sort of marriage flexibility that haunts Rick Santorum’s nightmares.
Last night’s inert professionalism — Applegate is overly competitive, Jason Lee (whose fixed, mildly shocked facial expression suggests that he only just recently learned about this) feels slighted by Ava, and the kooky Missy is annoyed by her outrageously handsome boy toy — at times felt more exhausting than Whitney’s diabolical badness. (In fact, Chris and Reagan’s back-stabby whiteboard of petty grievances seemed like just the sort of unrewarding relationship jujitsu practiced regularly on that show.) Things are hard for these people, but times are tough all over. If we don’t care about the characters, why should we whip up any tapas over their petty troubles?
The talent is there, of course, and Up All Night certainly makes sense in the comfy, White People Problems milieu of Thursday nights. But so far it’s falling into the same trap as many new parents, mistaking private inconveniences for general entertainment.
Andy Greenwald is an author and screenwriter in New York. He covers pop culture for Grantland.