NBC Comedy Recap: The Return of Community

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. Community

Despite all appearances to the contrary, the suits at NBC and the legion of hashtag-tweeting Community obsessives have something in common. Like a convention hall full of Bronies or a gathering of Ron Paul 2012 supporters, they, too, are a group of disparate individuals united by a shared belief in an outlandish fiction. In this case, it’s a bedrock faith in the existence of a creature more elusive and legendary than the Sasquatch or the Undecided Voter: the New Community Viewer.

NBC’s hope for a new class of freshman eyeballs at Greendale Community College is no surprise: NBC needs new viewers for everything, all the time. Despite yanking the show from the schedule for three months, network dean Bob Greenblatt doesn’t seen to have any true malice toward his inherited, paintball-stained underachiever. The remainder of Community’s third season was always going to air sometime this spring and a renewal is certainly possible — no one wants to risk the wrath of an enraged fan base perfectly capable of inundating Burbank with Wallace Shawn DVDs and 12-sided die. But within the #SixSeasonsAndAMovie crowd there always seems to be a whiff of fanaticism, a wild-eyed conviction that if only the average television viewer would give Community a chance, they’d see it correctly. They’d see it as the superfans do: as a visionary comedy operating several levels above anything in this reality or, in fact, many others; that within the determinedly wacky walls of the study lounge, an otherwise middle-of-the-road The Middle-viewer might find the strangely involved high-five partner they’ve always been seeking. But if this straw viewer — heck, let’s call him Nielsen — had tuned in at 8 p.m. last night for Community’s long-awaited return, he would not have found salvation. He would have merely found a sitcom. And a very good one at that.

To quote St. Morrissey, “Has the world changed or have I changed?” Probably a little of both. “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” was as charming an episode as Community has yet managed, unmistakably odd but with a pleasingly traditional structure and an undeniable heart. (So what if said heart was filled with images of rocks glasses and decolletage that shuffled like a racy slots machine? This was still Community.) It’s not just that I — a Greendale skeptic of the first order — have softened in the show’s absence. (Although I probably have. Six weeks of Up All Night can do that to a fellow.) It’s that Dan Harmon’s creation seems to have come into its own in its junior year — finally able to match its outsize ambition with dependable results. In a typically gushing New York Times piece over the weekend, Harmon used an analogy I’ve often employed in the past, likening his all-or-nothing approach to a slugger always swinging for the fences. Last night proved that Community has learned to play small ball.

I’m unsure if it was by design or happenstance that the show returned with such a solid, relatively straightforward episode, but I’m grateful that it did. With the challenging Chang happily banished for a week, writer Vera Santamaria was able to work wonders with the cast’s other trouble spots. Pierce especially was rehabbed, his desire to succeed in business (without really trying) offered glimpses of humanity, while still providing Chevy Chase ample opportunities to do the sort of physical humor he does best (getting stray bits of inflatable bench caught in his butt, arm-wrestling a never-ending flow of fro-yo) and keeping him from the serrated meanness that has often been his, and his character’s, undoing.  An impromptu wedding allowed Gillian Jacobs to be on her best Britta — and by best I do mean “best,” not what Britta usually means — drunkenly embracing her destiny as just another cog in a long line of “wives and mothers.” She may prefer talking Kony, but she was born for arranging peonies. And Yvette Nicole Brown was finally given something to do other than try to split the difference between pious and Miss Piggy. Shirley’s feminist flowering was both tough and funny — although half the credit might belong to Malcolm Jamal-Warner, a grown-up “vision in hypercolor and hammer pants,” as her once and future husband Andre.

Of course, the direct tin-can telephone to Harmon’s psyche was provided by Troy and Abed, who, in an effort to make a good impression at Shirley’s re-nuptials, “dewhimsy” themselves via an epic closed-door session of Holodeck-inspired tomfoolery. Suitably cleansed, the two dress dull, smile big, and even do the electric slide. It’s clear what Harmon thinks of conventional types when Andre mistakes Abed’s sincerity for sarcasm and Community obsessives’ deepest anxiety was also expressed: “What if once you go from being weird to normal you can never go back to being weird again?” Inevitably the show will go back to chasing monkeys down air vents. But I was impressed with Community’s emotional growth. Sure, the diehards all like the early, punky stuff better. But I’m fascinated when a rogue talent learns to harness his skills instead of throwing them against the wall to see what sticks. And I bet any potential new viewer would agree.

2. 30 Rock

Back in my crankier days (roughly 1977-February 2012), one of my common criticisms of Community was that it would seemingly sell out any emotional beat for a joke, that very often the characters felt less like (Greendale) human beings and more like action figures ready to be reconfigured into whatever wacky set piece Dan Harmon had designed for them on a given week. I no longer feel this to be the case, and yet a similar version of this argument has been lobbed on occasion at 30 Rock. The TGS gang, the theory goes, are cartoon goofballs as close to reality as Tracy’s lizard is to a gay man in a champagne flute. I’ve never agreed with this — Liz’s multi-year evolution from stress-eating mess to Pringles-hoarding success is, in its own way, as moving and far-fetched as any Eric Taylor-coached upset — but the character work on 30 Rock often plays a very distant second fiddle to the wildly spinning joke turbine at the show’s core.

“St. Patrick’s Day” was a wonderful reminder that not only does the U.S. Rodeo Association not lift lifetime bans, but 30 Rock, like Soylent Green, can also be about people. As the nightmare debauchery of March 17 in Manhattan unfolds outside and the gutters of Fifth Avenue run green with festive vomit, Liz and Jack’s dueling ethnic curses each spur the other to Hulk out — emotionally, anyway. (Special mention needs to be made of Tina Fey’s epic early-episode jag of anti-Irish zingers. “Oh, what are they going to do about it? Write a long, meandering play about how awesome the Irish are at not overcoming adversity?” One gets the sense that she’s been saving this stuff up ever since accidentally strolling past East 7th Street the day Leprechaun 2 was released.) A return visit from the incomparable Dennis Duffy — “like The Terminator in cheaper sunglasses” — leads to a long-overdue confession of both Liz’s lack of romantic confidence and her love of Criss. (Although it should be noted that in most cohabitated households in the greater New York City area, “I ordered Thai food” is a perfectly acceptable reciprocation of feelings.) It also led to a truly masterful joke about “that lez movie,” The Kids Are All Right. Meanwhile, Jack gets drawn into a game of Colonizers of Malaar (“from the makers of Goblet Quest and Virginity Keep”) with the dangerously punchable writers. There, beset by orcs and bereft of Rockefeller, his smallpox-ridden yak, Jack regains the alpha-male mojo he lost somewhere in Philadelphia, all thanks to a well-used fire spell and a self-administered pep talk in front of a priest with a book of knock-knock jokes.

All of this was buoyed by priceless punchlines that were sprinkled throughout like emerald jimmies on a doughy, overpriced holiday cupcake. (Best in show: “Live TV is like sex when your husband isn’t looking at a picture of a bridge”; “I passed out laughing on 69th Street”; and the future hall-of-famer “Siri: Kill Jenna” b/w “I killed Jenna Elfman. Is that right?”) Still, the strength of the episode was in its cracked heart, not its humor. As Tracy deadpans into the parade camera lens at episode’s end, “it sure is rewarding as a TV viewer when someone you’re invested in shows growth!” A meta-wink even Abed would be proud of.

3. The Office

While everyone who’s been watching The Office from its domestic beginnings (seven years ago next week!) is in agreement that the show’s best days are long behind it, those hardy fictional souls poring over the accumulated documentary footage would most likely disagree. Provided that they’d made it all the way through the thousands of hours of repetitive boredom, it’s not hard to imagine their experience being the exact inverse of ours. To them, following up a number of years of relatively subtle workplace interactions between unremarkable, marginally silly people with the events of this season would have been a revelation. Michael Scott wasn’t the only thing that departed last spring: Dunder-Mifflin also left Planet Earth, rocketing into a bizarre, alternate universe that’s at times crushingly dull and others terrifyingly manic. After staring at endless loops of Diversity Day training exercises and company picnics, wouldn’t it be refreshing, if not downright invigorating, to suddenly be immersed in a laugh-desperate fantasia spread across multiple states and featuring a magical fairy boss who gains a promotion via applause and Darwinian sex metaphors? I feel for those never-seen documentarians. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but fiction is almost always more entertaining.

That’s probably why I enjoyed “Get the Girl” as much as any episode in this strange, bipolar season of The Office. The psychology of it seemed to boil down to: when in doubt, throw a crazy English woman into the mix. And Catherine Tate’s Nellie certainly fits the bill, whether she’s dismissing the local Harry Houdini museum (“Oh look, some Hungarian just found his way out of a sack. Let’s build a shrine to him”) or generating the first, honest-to-goodness LOL of the season when she incorrectly intuits Kevin’s name as “Chumbo.” Nellie as an unqualified, raise-and-nap-providing branch manager doesn’t necessarily suggest much of a story blueprint for the future, but The Office is sort of past the time in its life when making long-term plans is a priority. Accepting that — and the complete lack of logic to Robert California’s est-esque approach to managing human resources — allowed me to enjoy Scranton’s new energy without worrying too much about the Harrisburg-sized logical fault lines lurking beneath it.

I wasn’t able to be quite so forgiving with the B-plot, Andy’s desperate overshooting of his heart map on the way to Erin (with a quick detour into the ocean). Mainly because this relationship, while cute, was never anything less than a writers’ room construction, a papier-mache Jim and Pam with less chemistry and more eye-rolling roadblocks to happiness. But throw my eggplant parm out the window: I’m still a sucker for just about every aspect of Ellie Kemper’s performance. While the pursuit left me as cold as a shirtless grandson smoking on the roof, the aftershocks of Andy’s road trip were more promising. After all, who can resist a girl who has never bought a toothbrush?

4. Up All Night

Even with the unfortunate absence of Parks and Recreation, last night’s comedy lineup was so remarkably strong that the goodwill almost carried me through Up All Night. But then Up All Night started. Outside of Will Arnett’s occasional flashes of comedic charisma (or outright nostalgia trips, as with a mailed-in “I made a huge mistake”), this show continues to spiral into an unfunny sinkhole of smugness and self-regard. There’s a version of these characters that the writers desperately want to sell us on, one in which the Brinkleys are relatable Everyparents, struggling with the challenges of kids and work and sex. But the reality on-screen is that Chris and Reagan are smothering ego monsters, unpleasant to be around and impossible to cheer for. Last night Chris lashed out at a random mommy who had the temerity to accept an offer of kindness (kindness in the form of a blue sundress from Ann Taylor Baby, but still), while Reagan and Maya Rudolph’s truly incomprehensible Ava traded jokes about an underprivileged teenager maybe having bulimia. In between there were topical jokes about Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch and the suggestion that Ava gets faded in the Brinkley’s kitchen on the reg while Chris wears a porkpie hat in the bathtub. Real talk: If people in real life called each other “honey” and “sweetie” as often as they do on this show, there would be a lot more dead people.

Filed Under: 30 Rock, Community, Dan Harmon, Friday Morning Qb, The office, Up All Night

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald