NBC Smartcoms in Review, Pt. 2

Check out last week’s post for the explanation and Nos. 4 and 5.

3. Up All Night

This was a new show, so no transition.

What worked: Christina Applegate and Will Arnett have excellent, easygoing chemistry as the new parents of “Up All Night,” a show ostensibly about the two raising a baby as Applegate’s Reagan goes back to work and Arnett’s Chris stays home as Mr. Mom (the baby, however, often goes missing if the show wants to do something else). Both stars, along with fellow headliner Maya Rudolph (playing an Oprah-esque talk show host and Applegate’s best friend/boss) and the lesser-known Jennifer Hall, can be very, very funny, and all of the actors are so likable that even the typical baby plotlines are worth watching just to see the characters’ takes on the situations.

What didn’t work: A summer rewrite to emphasize Rudolph after the success of “Bridesmaids” showed some rough edges in the early going, and the introduction of a hard-nosed ex-military man in the show’s second half didn’t really improve the proceedings. However, the show’s biggest problem is that while it was rarely less than pleasantly humorous, it sometimes found it hard to rise above that standard, either. I mean, Arrested Development alum Arnett alone is capable of gut-busting hysterics (as well as some actual acting range, as this show has proven), to say nothing for comedy vet Applegate and former SNL player Rudolph.

What about next season? Up All Night was on the cancellation bubble, but I’m glad to see it stick around for another year. When it launched last fall, it was thought by some that NBC hoped to position it as its next flagship after The Office ends. While it remains to be seen if the show can draw that kind of audience, its deft hand for character interaction could be leveraged into something really good if the writers can inject a few more laughs.

Best Episode: “Cool Neighbors” – Applegate and Arnett are seldom better on the show than when they’re deluding themselves into thinking that they’ve held onto some of the fleeting coolness of their youth

Runner Up: “Couple Friends” – The coolness factor is back along with some believable yet humorous defensiveness over parenting style

Worst Episode: “Mr. Bob’s Toddler Kaleidoscope” – The parenting technique material here, however, is a lot more cliché in a mostly forgettable outing

Season Grade: B

2. Parks and Recreation

Transitional goal: It took a long time for anyone to recognize Parks and Rec as a legitimately good sitcom. The mockumentary’s six-episode first season left many feeling like the show was The Office-lite, causing many viewers to leave before they could realize that the Amy Poehler vehicle about the local government of strange little town in Indiana had turned into something really good. NBC reduced the show’s Season 3 episode order, and the show responded by putting together one of the best seasons of TV in recent history and receiving heaps of accolades. Could the full-length Season 4 be a repeat performance?

What worked: With the possible exception of Arrested Development, Parks has perhaps the best defined main characters in modern TV comedy (sorry Community fans, your show is still great and hilarious). Though the show populates its world with weird circumstances and quirky side characters, most of the comedy comes from mining the personalities of the core cast of 10 and playing them off of each other.

Season 4 used those dynamics very well, finding new ways to team up various characters and generating different comedic sparks each time. It also took its first shot at true long-form storytelling this season, with a game-changing season finale that boldly opens up new territory for next year.

What didn’t work: Though the move toward long-form storytelling was admirable, the story of Poehler’s Leslie Knope running for city council got a bit samey by the end, as if the show was running out of obstacles for her to face. The show’s relentless optimism, usually an asset, also hampered some of the election-centric episodes, as Leslie is continually set up with a seemingly insurmountable problem only to knock it over with grace.

There were also a few other episodes that were just OK, but that’s hard to complain about. It may be impossible to successfully duplicate something as transcendently good as Parks Season 3.

What about next season? With The Office waning and 30 Rock likely on its last legs, Parks and Rec may soon be the network’s veteran comedy (provided that the show doesn’t cancel everything next spring and start over). Season 5 will move into new territory for the show (SPOILER ALERT) as Leslie takes office and deals with the city council while also working her parks department job. Given the show’s writers’ penchant for creating enduring characters and finding laughs in every situation, the broadening sandbox is cause for excitement.

Best Episode: “Born and Raised” – What starts out as a “ripped from the headlines” spoof of the Birther controversy becomes much, much funnier as the joke is subverted in the third act

Runner Up: “Dave Returns” – Not everyone was a fan of Louis CK’s return to Parks as Leslie’s old flame, Officer Dave Sanderson, but I thought it was a wonderful juxtaposition of two different kinds of awkwardness, along with some of Adam Scott’s funniest work yet as current beau Ben

Worst Episode: “The Treaty” – While some elements of the gang’s outing to a Model UN event sound sincere, Poehler’s character in particular is far too shrill, and Leslie and Ben are normally far too nice to ruin a bunch the day of a bunch of schoolchildren

Season Grade: B+ – A- for the first half, B for the second half

1. Community

Transitional goal: After an absolutely stellar second season, Community was facing a problem: the ongoing battle of accessibility. Though the show has been weird almost from the get-go, it transitioned late in its first season from an off-kilter show about a group of community college friends to an esoteric blank slate of sorts where creator Dan Harmon could throw his characters into strange, wonderful and wildly off-putting situations and tableaus, from genre parodies to an all-claymation episode to that one time where a backwards white supremacist created a mystical religion about a popular children’s recreational object. It was all pretty hilarious, if you got it, but most people didn’t, and the show entered Season 3 promising to spend less time on theme episodes and more time making the characters and plots relatable.

What worked: Well, they didn’t do as many theme episodes. They also didn’t really succeed in making the show any more accessible or less weird, but I don’t care. The show was at its level best in Season 2, pushing sitcom creative boundaries to the breaking point, and Season 3 provided more of the same. Community is not my favorite NBC smartcom overall (that title is handed back and forth between 30 Rock and Parks), but it’s the weirdest, and that’s good, too.

What didn’t work: I really enjoyed Season 2’s theme episodes, and they became all the more precious in their absence from Season 3. Community is so weird that it’s nice to have a format through which to process that weirdness. Every show can go over the top, and Community occasionally did so this year.

The show’s biggest problem, however, was an attempt at an emotional core that bordered on maudlin. I’m not saying a sitcom can’t believably keep coming back to an affirmation of friendship after characters do terrible things to each other (Community has long been doing this), but I am saying it’s not believable if the reconciliation hinges on an after-school special speech, a group hug and exploitatively emotional music every single week.

What about next year? Unfortunately, show owner Sony essentially fired Harmon at season’s end, so we’ll likely see an amended Community next season (possibly its last, as it’s only been renewed for 13 episodes). Hopefully, the show can remain tonally consistent, but Harmon’s creative imprint seems so unique that it’s uncertain any newcomer, no matter how well meaning, could do his job in a satisfying way.

Best Episode: “Remedial Chaos Theory” – Probably the show’s best overall, the episode explores the cast’s dynamics through a clever alternate reality structure.

Runner Up: “Digital Estate Planning” – A hilarious, spot-on spoof of a very specific era of videogames that also manages to work in almost every staple of a typical Community episode.

Worst Episode: “Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts” – Wedding episodes are rarely my favorite, but the real stinker of the episode was a Jeff/Britta subplot that brought Jeff’s daddy issues back to light in the least subtle way possible (arguably the point, but I don’t care).

Season Grade: B+

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