NBC Thursday Night: Respect Your Friends, Respect your Coworkers, Respect Your Lovers, Respect Your Characters, Respect Your Viewers

Yesterday we gave our brief thoughts on the then impending return of the NBC Thursday night comedies, reflecting on the last season while looking forward to the next.  And on the morning after, how do we feel?   Impressed, pleased and disappointed, in that order.  With the night going from Community to 30 Rock to The Office, we found that the first continues to improve, the second is showing encouraging signs of life, and the third is still struggling to return to its glory days.  Taken has a whole, it was a good night, and two out of three ain’t bad.  But really, we don’t want “ain’t bad.”  We want great, we want three out of three.  And, unfortunately, that just didn’t happen.

But let’s first focus on the highlight of the night, which was, not surprisingly, the triumphant return of Community, having lost no steam from its fantastic season finale.  Sometimes you see a movie or watch a show or read a book and get the sense that you’re experiencing a director or creative team or writer at the height of their game, and we get this feeling with Community. It reminds us of when we saw Inglourious Basterds and felt immediately like we were in the hands of a master of his craft, that Tarantino was completely in control, operating with an advanced degree of confidence, ambition and skill.  And that’s how we feel about Community right now.  They continue to raise their game, continue to get better when you thought they had plateaued.

What the show has so expertly managed to do is balance classic sitcom drama and relationship dynamics with Abed’s meta-obversations, Troy’s dim-witted exclamations, Pierce’s oblivious racism and Annie’s innocence, along with inside jokes, pop-culture references, slapstick comedy, satire and homage.  It can be at once a traditional sitcom, like at resolution of last night’s episode when Jeff (as he’s wont to do) realizes the error of his ways and makes an impassioned speech extolling the importance of respect, and then seconds later the show spoof the Lord of the Rings with Professor (now student) Chang as a crazed, conflicted Smeagol.  And it all manages to work.  In other hands this could get muddled, the tone and perspective murky (see Glee, which doesn’t so much blend comedy, drama and musical performance as so much jam them together into a clunky mess), but Community manages to keep adding more and more layers, lengthening, raising and narrowing the tightrope, and rising to the challenge.  Special bonus points for utilizing Betty White’s natural comedic gifts instead of resorting to the lazy raunchy grandma character that has lately become her bread and butter.   There’s no denying she’s a legendary talent, and it’s refreshing to see them respect that ability instead of exploiting her age and figure.

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Ironically, the best line on The Office referred to Betty White’s recent ubiquity, with Creed commenting that everything on Twitter is “Betty White this, Betty White that.”  Unfortunately, just like last season, the Creed moment was the highlight of the episode, as the premiere felt on par with that somewhat disappointing sixth season.  Many other reviewers felt like this was a strong start, a return to form even, but we felt it still lacking, still mired in the same rut of last season.  And what’s alarming is that it’s getting harder to pinpoint the flaws, and thus an easy fix grows more remote, and the chances that the show has suffered irrevocably loom greater.  We’ll stick with it to the end, for sure, but for the first time since we started watching the show it almost felt like a chore.

The beginning itself was promises, a lip dub to “Nobody but me.”  But it still proved disappointing for a number of reasons, a) it was already posted online, and thus felt more like bonus content in the way of Kelly and Erin’s Subtle Sexuality music videos, b) having already seen it, the pleasure was diminished, c) it felt somewhat redundant after they already spoofed another internet meme, the dancing down the wedding aisle to “Forever”, for Jim and Pam’s nuptials, and d) the performance had no relation to the rest of the show.  I would have been intrigued if this was one of Michael’s ideas, or Kelly’s or Erin’s or Andy’s, and interested to see how the other employees were convinced to take part.  Instead it just feels like a throwaway opening, a gag, more at home on The Drew Carey Show.  Which speaks to one of the main problems with last season, the lack of consequences.  In this case, it was more a lack of a cause, the reason for the performance, but it’s a similar symptom.  And whereas on Community you get the idea that the actors are as much fun being in the show as you are watching it, you get the sense that on The Office the cast and writers are having fun in spite of the audience, just doing what makes them laugh even if it doesn’t entirely serve the story or the characters.  That dragged the show down last season, and it looks like that may continue.

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But a cold opening doesn’t make or a break a show.  Unfortunately, the main plot itself didn’t do much to engender the show back into our good graces.  The Office has had a history of playing it rather coy in season premieres, putting the main stories in the previous season’s finale on the back-burner, whether it be Jim kissing Pam, Phyllis walking in on Dwight and Angela, or Michael pining for Holly after the company picnic.  The show doesn’t abandon these storylines, but it typically doesn’t immediately pick up where the story left off, usually catching up on what the gang did on their summer vacation before starting in on a new, often self-contained story.  But the problem with this premiere is that I didn’t remember what happened at the end of last season, there wasn’t that cliffhanger or major plot point hanging in the balance (for example, totally forgot Dwight bought, or was going to, buy the building).  And this time around the biggest question is not what happened over the summer, looking backwards, but when and how will Michael Scott leave Dunder Mifflin.  Now, this shouldn’t be addressed in the first episode, but because there was so little that left us hungry over the summer, the show should have offered a more central storyline in the premiere.  It briefly informs us that Erin and Gabe are now dating, but then shelves that story for another day.  And, if we recall correctly, there was no mention of Pam and Jim’s baby.  Granted, we commend the show for keeping the story office-centric, and not excessively bringing their baby life into the office or vice versa, but she should be acknowledged.  The producers have said before that they want to be true to their characters, which is why they allowed Pam and Jim to tie the knot instead of dragging it out over seven seasons.  Well, if the truthful thing to do was to have them marry, then the truthful thing is to not ignore their child; not make it the central story, but permit it to be a genuine presence.

And as for the main conflict in the premiere, Michael’s obnoxious, disobedient nephew, it felt like a device specifically designed to get to the awkward moment of Michael spanking his kin in front of the Dunder Mifflin staff.  This reminded us of Michael’s uncomfortable kiss with Oscar in the season three premiere “Gay Witch Hunt” (below), except that one felt more organic, and more forgivable.  The earlier moment is born out of Michael’s usually poorly timed desire to do the right thing, to better himself and his employees.  Spanking his nephew is a moment of greater weakness, emerging from anger and exasperation, and done less with good intentions and more out of desperation.  The real problem is that Michael let the situation devolve to that point.  He had put his company at risk, the people he considers his family, so their reaction should have been less gleeful appreciation and more tempered gratitude.  We know that Michael yearns for a family, that’s a lonely man, so it does make sense that he would feel so attached to his nephew and by extension the good graces of his family, but this was just another example of Michael Scott acting in a dangerous, reckless, selfish manner that is just too far over the line to be taken seriously.  Even more, at this point, we continue to just see a variation on a theme.  But, as we said yesterday, when Michael Scott begins his departure, and the stakes are raised, the show will pick up.  We’re counting on it.

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And then there was 30 Rock, which came through once again with a wire-to-wire laugh out loud funny 22 minutes, as we’ve come to expect.  But it was somewhat impressive in that it seems that it realizes that the show suffers from Liz Lemon’s inability to settle on a dude, that her struggle was amusing, but now feels stale, and somewhat sad.  30 Rock doesn’t have and will never have the heart of The Office, or even Community, but it seems to realize that it needs to better serve its characters, let them emotionally connect with other characters and with the audience.  It was, and for now still is, the only show of the night (including Parks and Recreation which we’re still going to pretend is still rounding out the block), that we wouldn’t mind watching out-of-order.  Miss an episode of Community?  No!  Watch The Office without seeing it prior week?  Never.  But we’ve done that for 30 Rock, because while there have been many ongoing storylines, there’s not much to miss plot-wise and there’s not that same emotional investment.   I don’t think the show is going to get to where The Office was and Community is going emotionally, but it does recognize that it can only go to the “Liz finds a seemingly perfect guy only to ruin it/find out that he’s a weirdo or her cousin or a douchebag or a moron or a brit” well so many times.  And, on top of that, last night’s episode was blisteringly funny, referencing the Muppets yet again, giving Scott Adsit’s Pete some well-earned screen time, seamlessly integrating Matt Damon and calling attention to the superfluous number of Geico mascots.  However, it’s telling that while 30 Rock was moved to 8:30pm, we still watched it after The Office, and while we think it was the superior program last night we still wrote 1000 more words about Dunder Mifflin.  But, then again, maybe that last part is a compliment.  If they give us little to write about then they’re doing their job.

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It was an exhausting night of TV that for us began with Survivor (look for that post this weekend or early next week) and ended with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Delocated.  But the core of the night was these three shows.  And as long as they respect us that won’t change.

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3 Comments

Filed under Analysis, Dunder Mifflin, this is Pam, Good Humor, Must See TV

3 responses to “NBC Thursday Night: Respect Your Friends, Respect your Coworkers, Respect Your Lovers, Respect Your Characters, Respect Your Viewers

  1. Pingback: In Memoriam: ‘Lone Star’ « Jumped The Snark

  2. Pingback: No Clever Headlines, Just the Best ‘The Office’ In A While « Jumped The Snark

  3. Pingback: ‘The Office’: Eee Party « Jumped The Snark

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