Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Now we are joined in a cobweb of rainbows.

For someone whose TV is constantly on when I'm at home, I watch a remarkably small amount of actual television shows. I don't know who should win "American Idol" or what the deal is with "Lost" (from what I've heard, people who actually do watch it don't know what's up). I never watched "The Sopranos" and have seen only a handful of episodes of "The Simpsons". On close analysis, it seems my TV must be tuned to some kind of sports telecast most of the time.

But it's dawned upon me during the last few months that I have returned to a mode of television viewing that has--now that I think about it--defined a lot of how I watched TV during my teen and even pre-teen years.  And that is NBC's "Must See TV" lineup.

Television still has its zeitgeist moments.  It still has its cliffhangers and networks still have their sort of pillar shows around which they program their entire night or even week.  But it appears as if these are singular events built around individual shows.  A "24" season finale, a "CSI" season premiere, or an "American Idol" showdown are water cooler events for sure, but they exist independent from any progression of shows.

Apart from Must See TV on NBC Thursday night, which had its real origin (before the term was coined by the network) I believe with "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers", then moved into its official incarnation with "Friends", "Seinfeld", and their cohorts, there was ABC's TGIF lineup with, among others, "Perfect Strangers" (a childhood fave of mine) and "Family Matters".  A few years ago, NBC tried to rebrand "Must See TV" as "Comedy Night Done Right" with "The Office", "30 Rock", "Scrubs", and "My Name is Earl".

The slogan doesn't exist anymore, at least as an official piece of promotion, but it should.  "The Office" and "30 Rock" have won multiple Emmys and have earned the right to anchor the lineup, but it's the addition of two other sitcoms, "Community" and "Parks and Recreation" that I think returns the Thursday night slate of shows to a certain degree of distinction.

What's crackin', boo?

There's an interesting symmetry to the way the four shows are put together.  "Parks and Rec" was co-created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur.  Daniels adapted the BBC version of "The Office" for American television and Schur is a producer/writer of the show as well.  And the two possess the similar conceit of a documentary crew following the characters around, allowing them to interject directly towards the camera either as an aside or during a confessional-style talking head.

I have to admit I didn't like much of the first season of "Parks and Rec".  After the first few episodes, I decided to take a pass on the show.  It was only recently I returned to it.  The comedy now is more self-assured and the characters are more fully-defined, especially Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler).  Leslie is the counterpart to Michael Scott, the buffoon Dunder Mifflin (now Sabre) manager of "The Office".  Leslie, though, is both a more realistic character and a more likable one.  The buffoonery never ends with Michael; he's a never-ending escalating source of dumbass ideas.  If it's not eating a giant bowl of chicken alfredo before (or was it while?) running a 10K, it's thinking he could jump off the building's roof onto a children's bouncy castle, or driving into a lake because he couldn't understand what his GPS was telling him.

But Leslie's misguided deeds and ideas are simply that--misguided.  You never get the idea she's trying to undermine anybody else in her office by what she's doing, whereas Michael has repeatedly attempted to throw his employees under the bus for whatever idiotic transgression he has recently pursued.  The farce that is Michael's interaction with the world around him masks his own selfishness, something more apparent in right-hand-man Dwight Schrute, or more pointedly, in David Brent, Michael's predecessor in the original BBC version of "The Office".  Leslie's efforts seem to be born out of a genuine attempt to improve the community or help her close friends.

The other characters have filled out quite nicely as well.  Ann and Mark were given a nice romantic storyline that filled the entire season.  Same for April's crush on Andy.  Even Tom was given a mini-arc, marrying a Canadian friend so she can get a Visa, then eventually falling for her.

Don't say family.

"The Office" does have its charms despite its lead character's inherent meanness.  Much of that lies in the heart of the show, which has always been the relationship between Jim and Pam, a love at first unrequited that has now moved onto full-on family bliss.  And that dynamic really extends throughout the entire office, allowing itself a sort of moral self-regulation.  It's this particular balance that doesn't allow the show's more villainous characters (Michael, Dwight, some others at various times) to hurl themselves into fully irreparable unlikability or, perhaps worse, complete self-destruction.

And it's why, despite all the in-fighting and double-crossing, that a scene like Jim and Pam's wedding procession can work without being corny.  Or, maybe, it works because it is corny.  There's no reason that half of the office should have been invited to that wedding to begin with.  But when it's all said and done, the people in the office are really a family. 

I hate people too.

The bookend shows are similar to each other as well.  While the two middle shows, "Parks and Rec" and "The Office", are ostensibly "reality" shows, "Community" and "30 Rock" exist without that type of pretense, reveling in their absurdities and goofy surrealism.

Similarly, too, is the way both shows are so postmodernly metatextual.  "30 Rock" is, with its "SNL" alums Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan and producer Lorne Michaels, somewhat obviously a reference to that long-time late night variety show.  It's also a satirical jab at network television and its corporate structure.  It's also, I still think, consistently the funniest show on TV.

The goat's mustache is Cameron Diaz.

While the "30 Rock" angle is somewhat satirical, "Community" goes for full on parody.  Everything from John Hughes to "Sesame Street", from buddy cop movies to ensemble network sitcoms suffers the slings and arrows of the show's ridicule/homage.  One of the best episodes was a Goodfellas-inspired story of Abed becoming the brains behind a cafeteria, chicken-fingers, mafia-like consortium and the power struggle it causes between him and Jeff. (Yes, the episode is just as silly as the sentence that it just inspired, including its own "Layla" montage that includes a murdered... backpack.)

It's Abed, despite how Jeff and Britta seem to be the lead characters, who really drives the show.  He acts not only as a conduit for the audience, putting into context the relationships among the other characters, but for the other characters themselves.  It's as if he not only comments on the proceedings, but pushes it (and his study group mates) to fulfill the narrative tropes he thinks fits the situation.  In a lesser-written comedy, or a lesser-performed character, this overt self-consciousness would fall flat, adding unnecessary narration.  But because it's tagged with this winking metatext, it's somehow extra funny.

Now that the season has ended, the future of the current lineup looks a bit up in the air.  Come this fall, "Parks and Recreation" won't appear until probably early 2011 (along with a couple of other debuts) as a midseason replacement for a new comedy, "Outsourced".  Steve Carell has already said that next season will be his last on "The Office".  (The show has been on a downward turn the past couple of seasons.)  It's head-scratching that NBC would mess with a formula for sustained comedy that has finally worked ("Seinfeld" went off the air, amazingly, 12 years ago).  This could mean that either this lineup is done before it barely got started or, if the other new shows are any good, that it is the beginning of a new golden age of comedy on network TV.  I happen to think neither extreme will be the case.

But in the meantime, we still have a summer of awesome reruns!

Just for fun, here's some more funny:

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