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NBC Sitcoms Watch: Animated Comedy

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I don’t usually do group reviews of the Thursday comedies,* but today there’s a point to it. There’s been a lot of discussion this week on this blog and elsewhere about what the broadcast networks can and can’t do that cable can. But while most of what’s interesting in drama is getting done on cable, comedy is a different story. And NBC’s Thursday night is proof that—within limitations—broadcast networks can make adventurous comedies that take risks, give audiences credit for intelligence and do real character exploration.

Oh, and also, Outsourced. But I’ll get to Outsourced in a minute.

“Does this campus get more like a cartoon every week?” Jeff Winger asked on Community. It was a valid (and typically self-referential) point for the show. Community operates on a different plane of reality from a mockumentary sitcom like The Office, but it’s not a two-dimensional cartoon. Nor is it exactly like 30 Rock, which is paced and written (and this is not meant as an insult) more like an animated sitcom than most live-action ones.

Rather, Community is sort of like Abed’s cartoon tunnel: it plays out on a whimsical, fantastical setting, but in any given episode a particular character can step forward into 3-D perspective. (OK, now I’m making it sound like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but I hope you get the point.) In “Accounting for Lawyers” that character was Jeff Winger, who was thrown into relief by immersion into his old law-firm world. In the process, we saw how Jeff has grown over the past year, to the point where he needs and knows his Greendale friends well enough that he can call them back when they lose their bearings. (Like his lecture to Shirley: “Shirley, don’t sue a stripper. … She’s a stripper. Life sued her, and she lost.”)

But the collection of cartoonier moments helped make the episode as well. The big weird hole in Drew Carey’s hand was a bizarre, surreal gag, but it was also a kind of grotesque magic-realist metaphor for Jeff’s old life: there is literally something missing in these people. And the hilarious caper-chloroform sequence showed how each Community character has been established to the point that each has a signature look: Abed’s tilted head, Annie’s silent-movie-queen shock and Troy’s stubborn fixed gaze at the janitor as he silently searched his brain for an alibi that clearly wasn’t coming. A cartoon? Well-drawn, indeed.

30 Rock, meanwhile, has owned its cartoonishness (again, in a good way) and settled on a philosophy of keeping the jokes coming rapid-fire. But in its best episodes, its zaniness and fast pace work in tandem with things going on in the characters’ lives—and last night was a very good episode.

On one hand, Jack’s storyline was the simplest recipe for comedy: just turn on a camera and let Alec Baldwin be hilarious. But it came within the story of his accepting having a son, oops, daughter, assessing his mortality, and trying to distill what matters in his life. Liz’s plot involved one of the best guest roles in a sometimes too guest-heavy role—Paul Giamatti really disappeared in that role and that Islanders jersey, and his scripted “breakup” with Liz had me gasping—but it came in the context of Liz becoming more confident in her life and her relationship with Carol. And Tracy—OK, the Cash Cab sequence was just Tracy using his hilariously warped worldview to his advantage, but it did a fine job of that.

Even as it sometimes to have passed its sell-by date, meanwhile, The Office shows what it still can do with the characters it has finely detailed over the seasons. While “Counseling” was not the best of episodes, it was intriguing to see Michael’s antipathy toward Toby dealt with more at length, in an episode where we saw sad-sack Toby actually prove good at his job, to Michael’s consternation. (Though the sad sack was still there, as Toby described the walk from the yogurt shop to his car after dropping his daughter off at the end of the weekend as the happiest day of his week.) And the Pretty Woman revenge plot, while underwhelming in its payoff (you had to know there was more to the story than Dwight let on), was a good example of the understanding these characters have of each other, as the office banded together to help Dwight get vengeance—he may be a jerk, but he’s their jerk. In a way, actually, though it was the slightest of the plots, Pam’s was my favorite, dealing with her ongoing discomfort in sales, but having her triumph, not by finally outwitting Gabe, but simply, aggressively, outbluffing him.

And Outsourced: I will say this, last night’s episode was an improvement, if only from awfulness to mediocrity. While the pilot focused heavily on the show’s culture-clash themes, but in the most broad, dumbed-down way, the second episode showed it to be, at heart, a pre-Office workplace comedy that could take place pretty much anywhere, playing out a familiar story with familiar types.

We can argue about whether Outsourced is racist, or xenophobic, or simply does dumb things that happen to involve another country, but at this point I have a simpler concern about it. While it’s early in the show’s run, I just don’t have any confidence that the supporting cast is going to develop at all beyong the thumbnail description of each character. It doesn’t seem, for instance, that the writers have thought out Asha’s personality beyond “pretty,” and the attempt to give Manmeet some depth last night—a lonely guy reaching out—seemed pat and shallow. I’ll grant the episode had moments, like Todd’s blithe explanation to Rajiv (potentially the most interesting of the ensemble) of “how karma works.” But for now its main culture clash is with the quality of the rest of NBC’s Thursday block.

*Quick programming note, by the way: I’ve gone back and forth between doing individual Thursday comedy reviews, photo galleries, etc. I’ve finally decided that, excepting this week, I’m not going to feel obligated to review Community, 30 Rock and The Office every week unless I have something noteworthy to say about a particular episode. Particularly with Community and 30 Rock, there’s often not a lot to say about individual episodes beyond “This thing was funny! And this line!” or “That episode? Not so funny!” And I don’t want to do it just for the sake of it. So in coming Fridays, I’m going to try for quality over quantity and maybe single out one show to review, if there’s enough to say about it.

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