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.
“Remedial Chaos Theory” was primarily concerned with alternate realities, a wildly apt topic for Community and not only because of Abed’s Uatu-like attitude towards the universe — or multiverses? — that surrounds him. For those of us who remain stubbornly immune to the show’s charms, it often seems that there are two versions of Community: the one that causes ordinarily sane, rational television watchers to collapse into rapturous, oddly-defensive ecstasy at the mere mention of Greendale Community College (let alone their Pavlovian reaction to the sound of a plastic rifle being cocked), and the show that I’ve been watching for over two years now, a messy tangle of pop-culture references and jokes about jokes punctuated with the occasional awkward lurch towards sentimentality.
No one could ever question Community’s (paint)ballsy ambition, but its inherent mania, its abrupt tonal shifts, its Chang addiction all left me cold. By the time of this season’s low-rated premiere, Community’s attitude seemed spiteful and bitter, openly mocking the sort of “popular” show it insisted it could never be via song and dance and doubling down on intra-textual strangeness. None of which mattered, of course, to Community’s chicken-finger devouring true believers who react to each perceived slight against their beleaguered series like Kickpuncher reacts to a cinematic criminal or Jeff Winger when confronted with a pair of pleated plants.
Call last night a wormhole, a temporal quirk or (let’s hope) a sign of things to come, then, because for 30 minutes I suddenly caught a glimpse of the show Community’s fans insist has been there all along. “Remedial Chaos Theory,” written by veteran Human Being Chris McKenna, was a witty, heady delight. Nimbly splitting the difference between the skyscraping Season One highlight “Modern Warfare” and Season Two’s more modestly wonderful “Cooperative Calligraphy”, the episode tracked the six different outcomes of a single toss of a Yahtzee die. The setting was the housewarming party for Troy and Abed’s new “apartment of perpetual virginity,” to which the study group brough their usual potpourri of issues, booze, Nordic trolls, and other signs of a nervous bakedown.
Some outcomes of Jeff’s random toss teased the future (Troy’s newfound interest in Britta, the illicit doobie-smoker he once dubbed “the AT&T of people”) and some mined older terrain (the perpetually inappropriate courtship of Jeff and Annie). In one iteration, Shirley’s pies were burnt, in all of them Jeff’s head was banged (as was Eartha Kitt; by Pierce; in an airplane bathroom). When it was Troy’s turn to get the pizza delivery he returned to an apocalyptic vision of Pierce spraying arterial blood from a gunshot wound while a blazed Britta fanned the flames of Shirley’s fury and then the actual flames that swept through the apartment. (This “dark” future led to a dystopic tag in which Pierce was dead, Jeff was armeless, and Britta had a blue streak in her hair. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we see of evil felt coatee wearing Troy and Abed.)
All of the reboots, though, were exhilarating thanks to the sheer rush of creativity required to maintain all the formalist trickery — one way or another, someone was making it to the bathroom to enjoy the toilet olives — while still revealing and revisiting character quirks and beats that felt earned and right. There was no Chang, no Dean, no stunts outside of the one core chaotic conceit. The jokes were naturally tied to the events at hand and, more important, of course, they slayed, from Troy pulling a candy cigarette from a classy pewter holder to his hystical demand to be “housewarmed.” This, at last, was what Community could be — and should be, able to deliver on both idea and execution. No matter your relativity, “Remedial Chaos Theory” was a sui generis triumph that both exploded and affirmed everything that matters about sitcoms in the first place.
2. Parks & Recreation
While Community was still trying and, for a night, succeeding in its existential quest to reinvent the wheel (or at least the rolling boulder of doom) Parks & Recreation was content to take its finally honed sportscar out for a victory lap. The show’s fiftieth episode was a master class in what showrunner (and prop-neckbeard wearer) Mike Schur doesn’t, but probably could, call humanist comedy: a series of increasingly silly events that never poked fun at anyone, not even the self-declared fun averse like Ron Swanson.
In the A-story, Leslie led her purple-clad Pawnee Goddesses on a candy, puppy, and public-form filled overnight excursion. Of course, their civil discoursing (and Ann-denigrating) tent happened to be pitched directly across a damp field from Ron (and Andy “Brother Nature” Dwyer) and his Pawnee Rangers, a dour group of outdoorsboys who have only a rough cloth, a cardboard box, and terse credo (“Be a man.”) to entertain them. When Ron finally realized times had changed and that young people preferred homemade bulgogi to digging trenches, Leslie created a new group, the Swansons, for those stout youngsters who march to a different drum and most likely made the drum themselves. Ron’s moustache-twitching happiness was a silence far more moving than what happened at his first wedding. Meanwhile, “Donatella” and a particularly exuberant Tom “T-Mobile” Haverford transform their annual “Treat Yo’self” day of spa-treatments and bling-binging into a rescue mission for high-strung Bento Box Wyatt. When even a face full of needles doesn’t chill out the stressed Game of Thrones fan (“They’re telling human stories in a fantasy world!”), the only recourse is a full-latex Batman costume and good crimefighting cry. And even Jerry gets in on the charity, offering up his knockout cyclist daughter Millicent to a beaming, oversharing Chris.
It’s becoming hard to write about Parks & Rec with any regularity: its finely toned precision can be lulling like a ride on the Autobahn or whatever they call the ring road around the Eagleton Plaza. Even on a night when Community shakes things up it’s worth paying tribute to Parks and its diametrically opposite, far more consistent approach: it’s as smooth, funny and deeply satistfying as a crystal lapel beetle.
3. The Office
The Office, in its classic-ish years, was built on two things: the clueless charisma of Steve Carell and the idea that a somehow solvent paper company in Northeast Pennsylvania could afford to have a party every week. So perhaps it wasn’t a bad idea to see if the old beet farm was still fertile after all these years, even with a new man at the top. But the results, like a rarely seen elderly beet farmer, were weak.
While Michael Scott could get by on boyish bravado, Ed Helms’s Andy Bernard is a much more fragile protagonist; all of his posturing comes from a place of shame and insecurity, not misplaced ego. And “Garden Party” doubled-down on his agony, as the entire event was more than an excuse to have Mike Schur drive Toby’s Hyundai into a corn field and Jim play another overly busy prank on the consistently credulous Dwight (although the “closing ceremonies” with torches were pretty excellent). It was an opportunity to meet the singing Bernard men, extreme (and Extreme aficionado) paterfamilias Walter (played with WASP-y wit by Stephen Collins) and younger brother Walter Junior (played by good sport Josh Groban) and have them undercut Andy, the third wheel in their folkie duo, in front of marmalade indian giver Robert California. (Does anyone else have the impression James Spader accepted this role under the condition that he didn’t have to make an effort? At anything?)
When Michael freaked out, the Dunder Mifflin staff buoyed him because they had to — now Andy’s naked pathos demands a more uncomfortable (and comedy-killing) level of sympathy. The Office can still slay with a single line (Ryan’s toast to “all” the troops; Erin’s hat) but falters when asked to tell a coherent story. Last week Andy went too far and his work family came to his rescue with an ass tattoo. This time, they merely handed him a cheeseburger. Somebody stop them; we’ve heard this one before.
I hate Whitney (the show) but something about the vitriol directed at Whitney (the person) makes me uncomfortable. Take these compiled tweets, for example, a lame list of bitter snark and anger directed at a comedienne who worked hard enough to get a TV series that, as far as I can tell, accurately reflects both her humor and worldview. The source of the snark? Other comediennes. As a wise t-shirt once said, don’t hate the player, hate the game. The reason to be angry about Whitney is that it’s a terrible television show, not because Whitney Cummings found a way to make fun of vegans that transported her to a different tax bracket.
Because no one is debating that her show is bad. It is! It is so, so bad. And not because Whitney doesn’t do NPR jokes like Tina Fey or because a laugh track is inherently evil (I’d imagine Abed would classify it more as chaotic neutral.) It’s bad because it’s lazy, conventional, and deeply unpleasant.
Last night, for the fourth consecutive week, TV Whitney and her long-haired, long-suffering companion faux-fought their way through another interminable relationship stalemate, this one about who was more romantic. At a certain point, any actual couple who found themselves expending this much energy on spicing up their sex life via silly accents and indulging in weeklong childish games of relationship chicken should probably consider seeing other people. But then again, in Whitney’s vision of Chicago (until last night, I had been under the impression the show was set in the San Fernando Valley; or Hades), the pickings are slim: either simpering sub-yups like the couple who got engaged last night in an emotional tableau as fradulent as Bernie Madoff tracing the Mona Lisa or rancid gender-baiters like the crass cop and the cougar-y blonde. No wonder these two spend so much time hate-loving each other. “I guess I have a dead soul,” Whitney smirked at one point. After another miserable half-hour it was at least nice to hear her say something relatable.