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I am Thankful For NBC’s Thursday Night Lineup (Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock).

November 29, 2009

A few weeks ago, Marc Maron’s WTF podcast referenced a group of Maine radicals that protest American pop culture by shooting televisions. After a decade where an insane run of my favorite programs died a prematurely painful death (Action, Freaks & Geeks, The Norm Show, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Studio 60, Undeclared, Arrested Development); not to mention the early demise of programs that I would love to have seen succeed (Firefly, Andy Barker PI, Swingtown, Kings, Veronica Mars, Lateline, Sports Night, Las Vegas, Quarterlife), I was almost ready to unearth my great-grandfather’s BATFE-exempted Colt Dragoon revolver to join them.[i] As one of the few children of the 1970s that could not gain interest in Star Wars, the segment of my brain that appreciates sci-fi (and, by proxy, SyFy) was removed when I was abducted by the Mothman (that’s about all I got). Now if I want to see any of those I have to go through a muti step process of acquiring the best VPN services and finding where to download or stream them, which I won’t do. My approach to programming that depicts the clash between Good and Evil was encapsulated by Dark Helmet’s words to Lone Star, although I would like to revise the aphorism to say “…because good is dumb, and often really boring”. I like my villains to be well-rounded characters, with a human side, and outside of The Wire (where D’Angelo Barksdale, Omar Little and Brother Mouzone were three of the coolest characters in TV history), antagonists are portrayed with the depth you’d find in a high-school play with dudes donning pasted-on sideburns. Enter NBC Thursday Night. The four shows, like the Atlanta Braves’ pitching staff in the early 1990s, open with the John Smoltz-like rapid-fire of Community, followed by Parks and Recreation and The Office, both of which draw their humor from measured responses and lingering camerawork. After the Maddux and Glavine of the rotation, 30 Rock’s Steve Avery-level heaters require a double-dose of Ritalin.

Community is based on creator Dan Harmon’s experiences in community college, where he enrolled in a Spanish class to reunite with an ex-girlfriend (had he asked Cheryl Hines to portray Brita, the universe would have switched sides on its Mobius strip). Community’s ragtag collective, mirroring his college days, serves a clever compendium of personality types often neglected by sitcom casting directors. Joel McHale, whom I only knew from appearances on Adam Carolla’s radio show, portrays a selfish, egotistical, self-aggrandizing narcissist (you gotta love the guy). This Evolutionary George Costanza occasionally – gasp – does the right thing, but thankfully, not too often. Danny Pudi plays Abed, approximating Bill from Freaks & Geeks after discovering quintuple espresso. In one of my favorite TV moments on the year, Abed makes short films with actors portraying members of the group, accurately predicting their future behavior (I was awaiting the hypermeta joke “…because he’s MY butler”, to no avail). Mad Men fans will instantly recognize Alison Brie, adding another character to her “manic pixie dream girl” credentials. Pierce, played by the one and only Chevy Chase, proves that his innovative spirit wasn’t crushed like Clark Griswold’s Family Truckster.

Parks and Recreation and The Office, two mannered faux-docs, reward the patience of viewers (and hopefully that of NBC). Greg Daniels, executive producer of Parks and occasional writer for The Office, packs a resume the size of a backyard open pit, with writing/producing credits for Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, King of the Hill, and the proto-Daily Show brilliance of Not Necessarily the News. The Office has pulled off two difficult sitcom maneuvers: maintaining the “juice” of the series after the romantic union of two protagonists, and successfully adding new characters, such as Andy “The Nard Dog” Bernard’s  (Daily Show alum Ed Helms) foil to Rainn Wilson’s devious scheming as the irrascible Dwight Schrute. Mindy Kaling’s increased role on-screen (Kelly Kapoor), as well as in the writer’s room, has been a long time coming. Parks and Recreation’s first episode recalled I’m Alan Partridge, the often-hilarious Steve Coogan vehicle. Like Partridge bouncing around his hotel room shouting (in that measured, British way, at least) along with Paul McCartney & Wings’ underrated rocker “Jet”, staff manager Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) looks over at his framed photographs, raises his fist in the air, and yells “BOBBY KNIGHT!” (Offerman has a bizarre imdb.com profile: in addition to multiple roles simply entitled “Big Guy” or “Cop” – including the sergeant that almost busts the rave in Groove – he’s appeared in projects entitled RSO: Registered Sex Offender, Pee Shy,  Golf Cart Driving School and Wristcutters: A Love Story).

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Without the whiz-bang style that bookends these two comedies, Parks and The Office require a longer story arc to establish the characters’ personalities. Echoing her role in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Parks’ Aubrey Plaza perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the apathetic, over-(prescription) medicated teenager. Aziz Ansari, known to comedy fans for his stand-up, in addition to roles in Human Giant, throws a curveball our way in most episodes. (His appearance on episode 2 of Comedy Death Ray’s podcast is hilarious – check itunes and click “subscribe”, you’ll thank me later).

In what will be remembered as a weird social experiment, NBC tested the boundaries of market saturation by bringing two programs into primetime that took a behind-the-scenes look at the reborn Saturday Night Live. While Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip burned out after one occasionally-excellent season – especially the Christmas episode with the New Orleans-themed musical ending – 30 Rock is still kicking, and sometimes where it hurts. While Tracy (Tracy Morgan) Jordan’s friendship with Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) has led to a treasure-trove of quotable moments, I’m hoping the writers give us more Judah Friedlander hat-quotes.

Not so long ago, when we referred to our entertainment portal as a “television set”, popular TV performers aspired to abscond from the small tube to the silver screen, hoping never to return. The audacity of TV has overtaken the boring, emotionally-manipulative world of Oscar-worthy film. Alec Baldwin’s choice to star in a sitcom would have been laughable 20 years ago. Now? After sitting through middlebrow snoozefests like The Curious Case of Benjamin zzz…, we are laughing – at his brilliant performance as Jack Donaghy, “GE’s vice president of East Coast television and microwave oven programming”. In season four’s opener, Baldwin confidently predicted success for Jenna’s TGS by declaring “We’ll trick those race-car loving wide-loads into watching your lefty homoerotic propaganda hour yet!” At the very end, he looks toward Liz (Tina Fey) and  says “There’s nothing wrong with being fun and popular and giving people what they want!”, then turns his head toward the camera for “Ladies and Gentlemen, Jay Leno!”

One understated feature of greatness involves the randomly-appearing talent. For alternative-comedy obsessives, Community has given us Patton Oswalt as “Nurse Jackie”, The Daily Show’s John Oliver as a professor and Mr. Show-alum Dino Stamatopoulos as “Star-Burns”. Parks and Recreation has a three-episode arc with Louis C.K. as a love interest for a drunken Amy Poehler (a Curb Your Enthusiasm-level move would be to repeat every Louis CK scene, but recast with Dane Cook). After The Office’s Michael Scott (temporarily) left Dunder Mifflin to form his own paper company, The Wire’s Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) was brought in for a few shows as the Bizzaro Michael. Mad Men’s Jon Hamm appeared in 30 Rock, with similar results as Louis CK. In true NBC fashion, I would be surprised if we were not privy to a character crossover. We’ve already seen The Office consolidate Dunder Mifflin branches, where Rashida Jones played Karen Fillipelli, a pre-Pam (Jenna Fischer) fling for Jim (John Krasinski), and now she’s Ann Perkins, former nurse, on Parks. Imagine Jack Donaghy as Pierce’s old polo buddy on Community.

“More Colorful” is NBC’s new tagline, and based on the cast of Thursday night, they couldn’t be more accurate. With casts that contain several ages and ethnicities, I’m hoping blogger Angry Asian Man eventually offers his insightful take on how Community, Parks and The Office are ending the era where “Harajuku Girls”-style casting was considered progressive (if NBC is worried about revenue, perhaps India’s 100 million English speakers can entice would-be advertisers). 30 Rock, with Tracy Morgan as a co-lead, also features an oft-forgotten demographic – my proud Appalachians, where Kenneth the Page serves as the show’s moral center.

While the foursome of powerhouse programs may be a huge hit with this author, I’m afraid that the ratings reveal a general public that does not share my affinity for this incredible agglomeration of network television comedy. In an era where a producer can notch high ratings by throwing a handful of low-paid unknowns into a semi-controlled competitive environment, I worry that the smart scripted show may become an afterthought for mindless fluff like Dancing With the Stars. A recent profile in New York magazine spoke of the struggles of fourth-place NBC, trying to regain its leadership status. The lack of a CSI/NCIS-level hit, combined with the economy and DVR/Tivo, has cut ad expenditures to a point where ABC subsidiary ESPN matched NBC’s $6 billion 2008 revenue.  Unfortunately for the Peacock, their properties (USA, Bravo) can’t command the high cable franchise fees of ESPN to pad the profits, leading to a cash flow of only a couple of hundred million, compared to ESPN’s $1 billion-plus. We may one day longingly look back at NBC’s current Thursday night lineup as the last occurrence where two full network hours were devoted to smarter comedies – programs that entertain on the textual level, sure – but also invite the mental exercise of the audience, rather than spoon-feeding them “jokes” that are constricted by the Banality Spectrum that runs from the Fighting Married Couple to Annoying Neighbors to Pooping Babies. While I have to admit that the other networks have stepped up their comedic offerings since the darker than “reading Sylvia Plath in an opium den” days of According to Jim; Yes, Dear and Major Dad, NBC’s Thursday night lineup is the first two-hour block of programming to catch my attention in years, and I truly hope it receives the patience and support it deserves. Ben Silverman, one of the people who helped bring this primetime to life, needs a high-five sometime. Consider this your five.


[i] Just reading that list makes me bummed. Norm Macdonald has some transcendent comedic moments – the Dennis Miller Live episode where he talks about smoking is worth a venture to S*ulseek – but wow, that show was funny. Andy Richter has been hosed twice, and Jay Mohr’s Action could have been a massive hit on HBO, especially with a recasting of some of the male leads with UCB/Comedy Death Ray-style comics. Freaks & Geeks endures in a splintered existence, with Paul Feig producing Parks and Recreation and The Office episodes, and Judd Apatow’s expanding solar-system of actors, writers and directors (Greg Mottola, most notably). Arrested Development will receive a sendoff in motion-picture form, unless it spawns a few sequels.

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8 Comments
  1. Jay St. Orts permalink
    November 29, 2009 1:15 pm

    Tony, you simply have to watch McHale on The Soup. It’s soooo meaty.

    Plus, he’s still doing standup all over, which I don’t think I’ve seen (except for maybe back in the day when Comedy Central showed mostly standup, er, comedy, and not Dude, Where’s My Fucking Career every other day). He’ll be in Iowa this week, I think. I will see him soon. Oh, yes.

    Also I think they should have considered the girl who played Kitty in AD for Brie’s role, although I wouldn’t switch ’em now (I like her too much). That would have tossed depressed AD fans a, um, bone.

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