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Parks & Rec / Office / 30 Rock Watch: Let's Get Physical

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Spoilers for Parks and Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock coming up after the jump:

None of NBC’s comedies had its best night last night (well, none of the ones that I follow—maybe Earl knocked it out of the park), but I notice looking back that each one was distinguished by a moment of physical comedy. 

Parks and Recreation opened with a pre-credits sequence of Leslie Knope coming across a group of teenagers having a dog-doo fight using discarded poop-bags in a town park. It seemed like a weak setup—a cheap way to put Leslie through another humiliating situation as she ineffectually confronted the kids. But the scene turned around and surprised me, when she picked up a garbage can shield and went all warrior princes, finding that she could hold her own—and tht the poop fight was actually fun.

It’s a pretty good metaphor, actually, for what the show needs to do with Leslie if it gets a second season (which I hope it does). Her job and role in the community necessarily involves getting involved in a lot of poop fights. If she is merely a bumbling, nervous idiot who gets crap flung on her, she’ll get boring fast; the show works when we also see that she’s capable of throwing crap back, and even enjoying it. (The lesson, actually, of the A plot, where she learns that screwing up and getting a letter in her file is precisely the ticket to getting in “the boys’ club.”)

I also hope the show will expand its peripheral characters and flesh out the ones it has, and last night made some good steps toward that. Tom is still the least interesting character, even if he’s the ha-ha funniest: his mock interrogation of Leslie was deftly handled. But the episode managed to put some flesh on what had started out as two fairly unsympathetic characters. First, Ron turns out to be a not-entirely-horrible boss, defending Leslie in her disciplinary review (even if he did it because he hated being in the meeting, his body language suggested it wasn’t just that). Andy, meanwhile, was surprisingly sweet in his fumbling efforts to clean house: he’s a leech who seems self-aware enough to know he’s a leech and to make some efforts against it, even if he’s always going to be that guy who throws his garbage in the pit. Also: he got a naked crutch chase. 

Any episode of The Office coming off the Michael Scott Paper Company arc, meanwhile, was bound to be a comedown, even if I still enjoyed last night. (I was especially gratified that Michael gave Pam the sales job—not just because Pam deserved it, but because it showed Michael growing; the old Michael could never have overcome his man-crush on Ryan to recognize that Pam was the more valuable worker.)

So let’s just focus on Kevin’s pre-credits chili spill, which was an absolute thing of beauty. The slapstick scene itself would have been funny enough, as Kevin slid around in the tomatoey mess and tried in a panic to shovel it off the carpet into the pot. But what had me gasping for air was the brilliant decision to play his confident, bragging description of his chili recipe over the scene: it was Kevin’s image of himself as an adult, and his outward presentation as an overgrown six-year-old all laid out at once. 

As for 30 Rock, I was a little bit surprised it didn’t do more with the premise of Liz and Tracy’s competition. One thing that has always distinguished this show was the sophisticated way that it treats race and gender issues, as well as (usually through Tracy and Jenna) race versus gender issues. But “The Natural Order” seemed way to on the nose in how it addressed the undergirding question of whether it’s ever OK to treat people in different groups differently. And the whole who-can-handle-equality-best contest was a sitcom chestnut straight out of an old boys-vs.-girls Brady Bunch. (The climactic scene between Jack and his mother, on the other hand, was very touching and a rare instance where a 30 Rock episode peaked on an almost straight-dramatic moment. I wouldn’t have minded a little more Jack-and-mom and a little less Liz-and-Tracy.)  

All that said—I could watch Tina Fey try and fail to wrestle a giant water jug into a water cooler until the end of time.