Thursday Night 'Lights: NBC's New Must-See TV (and Whitney)
Like many people in the '90s, I tuned into NBC's enormously popular Thursday night comedy block for Friends, Seinfeld and many other shows in that time slot over the decade. At the time, it was like the TV equivalent of seeing Jurassic Park on opening weekend: It just felt like the thing to do.
Thursday nights on the Peacock Network are a completely different experience today. Unlike their '90s counterparts, Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and The Office aren't huge rating successes. (And 30 Rock is currently on hiatus until midseason due to Tina Fey’s maternity leave, replaced by a little show called Whitney. Maybe you’ve heard of it?)
But the key difference with this lineup is that it's not that NBC is telling me it's "must-see TV," it's that I'm the one who believes it. And if you’re reading this now, maybe you feel the same way.
On to the recapping!
"The table is magic."
So Community knows it’s weird. And the show owns it, even as it begins its third season with an elaborate song-and-dance number that promises not to be outlandish and weird.
Show creator Dan Harmon told TV Guide that he has to "continue a promise to the audience to always engage them in every part of their brain that loves television. But at the same time [he's] got to get [his] mom more comfortable with the show."
That's a difficult balance to achieve. And despite the tongue-in-cheek bid to attract new viewers, Community knows it’s likely to continue to have modest ratings. So why not continue to serve the audience who loves Cougartown as much as Abed, and would recognize the 2001: A Space Odyssey reference in a dream sequence?
This was a busy episode, as season premieres often are, tying up the "Is Pierce coming back to the study group?" cliffhanger and introducing new characters and storylines featuring guest stars John Goodman and The Wire's Michael K. Williams. Last season, there was an excess of episodes that showed the group in chaos before a Jeff epiphany and/or speech leads them to realize how much they mean to each other. Now that Jeff realizes the pain of being excluded from the "magic" study table and sort of made amends with Pierce, hopefully Community can have its characters finally move forward with their status as friends firmly intact.
- The musical number was framed as Jeff's dream, so it's interesting to see Jeff and Annie pledging to sleep together. If I was one to be a "shipper," it would be for Jeff/Britta. I know I'm in the minority with that one though.
- I would totally watch Cougartown Abbey. And I expect a YouTube mashup any day now.
PARKS AND RECREATION
"I'm Ron Swanson. And you're Leslie F*** Knope. Are you with me?"
To watch Leslie in this episode, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she began her TV existence as the female Michael Scott, a delusional, over-exuberant city employee that no one took seriously. Thankfully, Parks and Rec's writers retooled the show very early on, resulting in one of the best characters on network television.
Like Community, this wasn't the funniest episode of Parks and Rec. There was too much business to handle, namely whether or not Leslie would choose her dream relationship or her dream job. The great thing about Leslie is that it wasn't surprising that she would choose to run for city council—not to viewers, and certainly not to her boyfriend Ben. Leslie has made her political ambitions clear since the pilot, and has demonstrated her smarts in plenty of episodes since then.
So it was incredibly gratifying not only to see Leslie receive unanimous support from Ben, Ann, and Ron, but also realize that the series has taken her political ambitions seriously and is now giving her a chance to fulfill them.
As for Leslie and Ben breaking up, although it was sweet and sad, it was also fine. Ben is an incredible guy of course (Twitter was swooning after his "Knope 2012" gesture), but they're not calling it quits for heartbreaking or inane reasons. There are so many comedic possibilities that could come from their current arrangement, and they can always get back together after the election (at least in secret). I'm less worried about the state of their relationship than the fact that Andy is going to be Leslie's new assistant.
- Love the casting of ex-wife Tammy 1. Patricia Clarkson more than justified why Ron Swanson has an "in case of ex-wife" knapsack hidden in the office vents.
- Ron Swanson is a man of many talents, including amazingly fast-growing facial hair.
- Pop Pedestal's Donna was hilarious in the Entertainment 720 bikini top. Hope to see even more of her this season.
"Robert California, let's have a conversation."
Of all the episodes in Thursday's comedy block, I was most pleasantly surprised by The Office. I wasn't a fan of last season at all save for all the episodes featuring Holly, and I'm honestly so tired of the show I can't even bear to watch it in syndication.
But the season premiere was truly like watching a new show, except that you were already familiar with the characters. And as much as I like Steve Carell, I was really happy to watch an episode without him or the shadow of his departure, and see how the remaining characters can function as an ensemble when they don't have to cater to Michael Scott's idiosyncrasies.
Instead, they have to react to a new boss—Robert California, new CEO of Dunder Mifflin—to dredge up their insecurities about their roles at the office. James Spader is just so wonderfully weird, and brings a potent energy to the show. Since no one knows what to make of him, no one knows how to react to him. The brilliant way Erin psyched herself up for small talk with California (see quote above) was indicative of their confusion and terror.
(There was a time in the '70s and '80s when Ted McGinley was the go-to guy to replace departing cast members on long-running shows like Happy Days and Married with Children. I think James Spader should be used the same way. His presence could invigorate even the dullest, past-their-prime shows.)
California's list of winners and losers, and his straightforward explanation of how he split the employees in this way, was such a nice contrast to Michael Scott's desperation to be liked. Now that they all know what their CEO thinks of them, every character is given a pretty great arc to play out over the course of the season: "If you're a winner, prove me right. If you're a loser, prove me wrong."
- Andy Bernard is the new manager. Okay then, glad we finally know. I'm not sure he'll make it the entire season as boss.
- Notice that Robert California never did a talking head? Would you prefer he did, or would you rather he retain some mystery?
- Even Jim didn't seem to believe his explanation of how Robert California took over as CEO of Dunder Mifflin. Like he knew it was contrived, but wanted us all to go along with it anyway.
"I'm not Daniel Day Lewis, I just want to get laid."
Whitney is one of the most maligned new shows of the fall season, and the network has not helped it by dumping the show at the tail end of a block of single-camera comedies. The dissonance of The Office’s mockumentary format, followed by Whitney and her boyfriend bantering in front of a live studio audience, is incredibly jarring. The contrast is so great that it’s hard to stay focused or even care what the show is about.
If the pilot had exuded a lot of potential, I would sympathize. But the show isn't about that much at all, beyond the fact that Whitney is acerbic and has a laid-back boyfriend, yawn-worthy friends, and commitment issues. This was barely a show—it was more like a stand-up act transcribed by a sitcom writer. When the main character goes to a sex shop and wears a sexy nurse's costume, you can just hear the writers shouting, "Aren't we so edgy? Don't we remind of you of Bridesmaids?"
I do credit the writers for giving the Whitney a boyfriend from the outset, so we don't see Whitney do the sad-sack single girl search for love. But at the same time, where do things go from here? Her friends are incredibly grating every moment they are on screen. Whitney’s boyfriend Alex, played by Chris D’Elia, is the only bright spot of the show, and he and Whitney have a decent chemistry. But nothing about their relationship is very amusing or interesting.
A pilot is supposed to lay out the premise, reveal what's at stake, and give you a reason to come back and see what happens next week. There is absolutely no reason to tune in again right now. For all the criticism and derision the show has received, that is Whitney's biggest problem of all.
- Executive producer Betsy Thomas gave an interview lamenting that Whitney was scheduled with NBC’s “snobby” comedies. From her point of view, the show is being maligned solely because it’s a multi-camera show. I’m not sure Betsy realizes that just because her show has a studio audience, it doesn’t automatically make it funny. But it’s a really interesting read, and I highly recommend checking it out.
- Earlier this week, Bitch reviewed Whitney Cummings’ other new show, CBS’ 2 Broke Girls. It doesn’t seem that show is any better than the one that bears her name.
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