NBC Smartcoms in Review, Pt. 1

I watch a fair amount of TV, but there is no current TV that I have greater affinity for than NBC’s shifting block of so-called “smartcoms.” Though the network has struggled to find consistent ratings winners since Will and Grace and Friends went off the air in the mid-2000s (along with Seinfeld and Frasier before them), its slide with Nielsen coincided with the network’s slow rise to prominence as the place to catch clever, groundbreaking network television comedy on Thursday nights. From successfully adapting the mockumentary format for American audiences to taking the mantle from Fox’s by-then cancelled Arrested Development as the master of fast-paced single camera work, NBC began airing shows that were really, really smart and really, really good.

Unfortunately, its ratings also went into the toilet around the same time. The hyper-smart stylings of shows like 30 Rock became niche offerings, keeping dedicated fans on the edge of their seats year after year, afraid that their personal favorites would be cancelled.

With its 2012-2013 pilot pickups, it looks like NBC may be slowing transitioning from “critically acclaimed but barely watched” into attempt at something broader and more palatable. However, its most recent batch of smartcoms has managed to hang on for (at least part of) another season, so now seems like as good a time of any to look back on the last season and see how the shows – perhaps the last of an era on NBC – fared. I’ll be looking at the five well received (at one time, anyway) single-cam style shows the network ran on Thursdays this year: 30 Rock, Community, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Up All Night (new this year). The less said about Whitney the better.

In 2010-2011, 30 Rock was trying to re-impress critics after an unfairly maligned fourth season, Community pushed the boundaries of the sitcom format (particularly compared to its funny, but comparatively conventional first season), The Office tried its darndest to show that creative juices were still flowing for Steve Carell’s departure, and Parks and Rec attempted to make studio execs regret the decision to shove the show to midseason. For the four returning shows this year, 2011-2012 was a year of transition after a year of something to prove. How each show did was drastically different.

5. The Office

Transitional goal: After annoying boss and show centerpiece Michael Scott left for Colorado in Season 7’s fourth-to-last episode, many viewers and critics thought the show should call it quits. However, since the show is the closest thing NBC has to a scripted hit, the show was renewed for an eighth go-round, with the writers attempting to turn the show from an ensemble comedy playing off a truly gifted lead actor to an ensemble comedy, period.

What worked: While Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was by far the best, funniest, and most central element of The Office, the show also employs a number of other fine actors, most of whom tried their darndest with the material. Aside from that, the only other thing I can really say is that the writers still for the most part understand the Jim/Dwight dynamic, and the show’s cold opens were often surprisingly good (don’t believe me? Check this out http://www.hulu.com/watch/349873/the-office-stache-or-no-stache#s-p4-sr-i1)

What didn’t work: The writing staff did manage to make one really good Office episode post-Carell. Unfortunately, it was “Search Committee,” Season 7’s finale. Season 8 could never muster anything more than relatively decent, and usually not even that good.

For a once-hilarious show, The Office has been on the decline almost since it began. It’s never been better than its second season (the first full season order), and its history is littered with easily identifiable points where the show got worse: showrunner Greg Daniels leaving after Season 3, the second reinvention of Ryan at the end of Season 5, and Pam and Jim getting married in Season 6 among them. However, it’s looking like Carell’s departure was the true creative death knell for the series. Characterization has floundered, plots are stale, jokes fall flat, and the two new recurring players (James Spader and Catherine Tate) have been inconsistent messes.

What about next season? Though Tate will unfortunately be sticking around, the show hit the reset button pretty hard in its season finale, ushering out Spader and returning the titular office to a more independent paper seller rather than as a corporate cog in a printer company (and, mystifyingly this season, a mediocre Apple rip-off).  With even some involved in the show’s production acknowledging a rough outing this year, expect a return to a more old-school style with a pared-down cast, as some of the show’s principals are abandoning ship for other projects. Just don’t expect the charm to come back.

Best episode: “After Hours” – It nails the Jim/Dwight dynamic with a slightly different spin

Runner Up: “Mrs. California” – Some nice physical comedy from John Krasinski and Craig Robinson

Worst Episode: “Fundraiser” – The last in a seemingly endless number of out-of-office episodes, particularly little happened in this one

Season Grade: D-

4. 30 Rock

Transitional goal: Somewhere along the line, 30 Rock stopped being the bitingly funny, too-clever-by-half underdog on NBC and became something of a weird, low-rated institution, skewering its network and all manner of TV tropes as it quick cut between A, B, and C stories of its cast’s wacky escapades. Though Season 5 showed a decline in the show’s usually right-on comedic instinct, its renewal meant that Tina Fey and company were now considered venerable statesmen at the Peacock. Could the show keep manufacturing laughs as it entered its twilight years?

What worked: Season 6 is a marginal improvement over Season 5, with a fresh injection of wacky and a heaping helping of pop culture parodies (even for this show, where pop culture parodies are king). Perhaps even more importantly, the show restarted its plot after the fifth season’s string of mostly one-and-done episodes.

Though the show is primarily a laugh factory, hapless TV writer and protagonist Liz Lemon used to have her share of character development, primarily involving her desire to have a typical family life while rising through NBC’s creative ranks and living out a Mary Tyler Moore-esque feminist dream. That was put on hold for almost two seasons as she stayed stuck in a series of questionable boyfriends and bad decisions and the plot stayed focused on Alec Baldwin’s TV exec Jack Donaghy.

Perhaps sensing that the show is nearing its end (Season 7 is expected to be its last), the writing staff picked up a story thread this year not seen since Season 3: Liz’s desire to have a baby. Complementing her renewed interest in motherhood is her oddly healthy relationship with Criss (James Marsden), a very earnest, semi-intelligent, semi-motivated hot dog salesman who somehow gels with Liz perfectly.

What didn’t work: Inconsistency. While the show’s practice of throwing out jokes fast and furious to see what sticks typically prevents any truly bad episodes, the percentage of what stuck seemed a little less than in the show’s golden years – a problem accentuated by the show’s seeming willingness to repeat some of its old themes and plots (pointed out in the show’s own “The Shower Principle”).

The front half of the season also portrayed Liz as notably more shrewish and unlikeable than in the past, and the divorce of two prominent characters was a major bummer in the season finale.

What about next season? With next year likely being the show’s swan song, Fey will likely pull out the stops to make the short order of 13 episodes memorable (and hopefully a bit more consistently funny). In addition to the humor, expect the wrapping up of Liz’s baby story, Kenneth’s place in the NBC power structure, and Jack’s quest for dominance at Kabletown.

Best Episode: “Leap Day” – A throwback to the show’s early season “zaniness with a heart” days, with a wickedly satirical take on a hypothetical Jim Carrey movie thrown in for good measure

Runner Up: “Kidnapped By Danger” – A good example of 30 Rock’s joke-a-minute format with fun guest turns by William Baldwin and Weird Al

Worst Episode: “St. Patrick’s Day” – A mostly lifeless return of Liz’s funniest boyfriend, Dennis Duffy, the holiday episode format had become tired by this, the third such episode in six weeks.

Season grade: B-

Check back next Thursday for more.

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One thought on “NBC Smartcoms in Review, Pt. 1

  1. Pingback: NBC Smartcoms in Review, Pt. 2 « Matinee Culture

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