It seems like May sweeps was just yesterday, but here we are on the cusp of the return of Thursday night TV-pocolypse. Luckily for our DVR, Survivor was shifted back to Wednesday nights, and Parks and Recreation is (egregiously) on the shelf until mid-season (of course, while that might be good for our DVR, it’s terrible for our collective well-being). But we’re still left with what is now the NBC comedy old guard, The Office & 30 Rock, and the returning sensation, and probably the best of the bunch, Community. And later we have a little cable fun with It’s Always in Philadelphia and Delocated (if you’re eyeballs aren’t bleeding by then). But, for now, let’s quickly focus on the NBC line-up.
The big story on NBC Thursday nights, as we noted above, is not what’s on, but what’s not, that being Parks and Recreation, benched in favor of the already critically reviled Outsourced. Sure, NBC has the right to air whatever it wants, and if it thinks another show will be more successful, and has the potential to be an anchor the way that The Office is and shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier and Cheers were, then we can’t begrudge them that. But Outsourced hasn’t even aired yet and it seems the verdict is already in: it’s a waste of valuable space. One has to wonder if NBC, who proved with the Jay Leno Show that they’re willing to sacrifice quality programming for profit, chose to promote Outsourced because it’s an in-house production, even knowing its an inferior program. Because even if it pulls in rating as low as Parks and Rec, maybe even lower, NBC will still grab a bigger slice of the pie. That’s just conjecture at this point, but there’s certainly a precedent for it, and we know that TV, network television in particular, is a business above all. Let’s just hope that Outsourced is so terrible that it’s yanked sooner than planned and Parks and Recreation can reclaim its rightful place (especially since they rushed the show back into production for its third season to accommodate Amy Poehler’s pregnancy).
On the bright side, we do get the return of Community, which we maintain developed into strongest, funniest, creative show of the night by season’s end, even though Parks and Rec garnered more critical adulation (and, tragically, neither earned an Emmy nod. Or should we say, “received” an Emmy nod, because they certainly earned one). It was sometime around the Goodfellas-parody episode, “Contemporary American Poultry” or even a bit earlier with Joel McHale playing pool in the buff in “Physical Education” that the show really started to put it all together, began to completely fire on all cylinders (you could also argue that this began around the Christmas episode, “Comparative Religion,” featuring a mustachioed Anthony Michael Hall, and we wouldn’t disagree). And then when we thought the show had really found its stride, that it was operating at the top of its game, it comes out with the already legendary paintball episode, “Modern Warfare,” that lived up to and exceeded the hype (the “hype” being more a bevy of NBC promos and lots of chatter by the cast members on twitter). There’s really no way to describe the episode other than fucking brilliant and pitch-perfect. It elevated the show from an updated, variant on the a classic Friends-like sitcom to a truly original, confident and daring series. It became the show we were most excited about on Thursday mornings, and it’s the show we’re most excited about now. The only concern is that its ambition might outstrip its sensibility and its heart, which keeps the show grounded. It’s the characters, stupid, and hopefully that don’t forget that.
Whereas the new kids on the block Community and Parks and Recreation served as the low-rated critical darlings, providing the best laughs of the night, it was a distinct down season for The Office, and to a lesser extent 30 Rock. This felt like the season when The Office finally ran out of genuine, real ideas, and began to play to the funny bone instead of the gut. There were many hilarious moments, but a lot of them rung hollow, forced and incongruous with the Scranton that we know and love (last season’s “Mafia” springs to mind immediately). For much of the season the characters fell on the wrong side of the line between character and cartoon. And at the forefront, not surprisingly, was Michael Scott, who as anyone who reads this blog knows, is the pivot by which whole of The Office turns. And this was certainly the worst year Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, at least since the rocky six episode first season. Obliviousness fell too far into obnoxiousness, naiveté fell too far into stupidity, and misplaced confidence fell too far into unbearable arrogance. But there are two things that will hopefully get Michael, and the show, back on track. First is the planned return of Amy Ryan’s Holly Flax, which will provide Michael the romantic and emotional foil he so desperately needs to remain human, and second is the announcement that Steve Carell will be leaving at season’s end, and thus Michael Scott will be exiting Dunder Mifflin, one way or another. Michael’s departure is a long time coming because he should have a) been fired for gross incompetence or b) if he actually was a great manager in spite of his flaws, he should have been given a promotion or explored other job opportunities. And the fact that the show will be playing for keeps with this scenario will hopefully alleviate one of the critical problems with last season, that being that they continuously presented conflicts only to resolve them nearly as quickly as they began. Michael Scott will be leaving, and it will be permanent and it will be good for the show. It’ll let the writers get out any great Scott stories they were holding back, and it’ll allow for the current cast members to receive more screen time, while also ushering in some new blood that will hopefully provide a much-needed shakeup. The Office is probably our favorite comedy of the last five years, and we think it’s unlikely that the creative staff has forgotten how to tell a compelling a story. Yes, they’ve lost their way, but we believe (and sincerely hope) that they can get back on track. And, if not, it might not be a terrible idea for the series to end when Michael Scott does. Because, really, seven seasons of an American network show is roughly equal to two 6-episode seasons on the BBC, right?
And, finally, what of 30 Rock? The sad truth is that at my excited for the show took a big dip last season, and by the time we got around to the 4th comedy of the night (and often 5th show if we started with Survivor) my heart wasn’t really in it. And that’s not entirely their fault. They didn’t force me to exhaust my laughter reservoir and they didn’t plan the schedule that has them coming at the end of a night of very intense comedy. But I could and usually DVR the shows and watch them in any order I please. I think the greater truth is that the show, while still consistently brilliant, is more consistently brilliant and less consistently brilliant. The writing has not noticeably declined, the performances still top-notch, and the cut-aways just as clever. It’s still the quickest, smartest show since Arrested Development. But it’s also become more dependable and less exciting, not quite what Family Guy has become to us, but a show that we’ll watch and enjoy but we’re not entirely dying to see. And, truthfully, that’s a shame because it is so undeniably good. And, of course, if Jon Hamm and/or Jason Sudeikis guest star then it instantly becomes Must-See TV once again.
And we do recommend washing down that hour and a half of superior network comedy with the dirty, offensive It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on FX, and the absurd Delocated on Adult Swim.
Hopefully we’ll be back tomorrow to let you know our thoughts on the premieres. Until then, get your pizza and beer ready, because it’s going to be a long season.