The beginning of 2012 ushers in a new lineup on Thursday nights on NBC. With Community and Whitney replaced by 30 Rock and Up All Night, we have a comedy block in which three out of the four series are headlined by women, which is pretty awesome. So how did the brand-new TNL lineup fare? We kick off this week's recap with the return of 30 Rock.
"My name is Liz, I'm 39 for the third time, and my favorite move is sunset arms."
Liz Lemon is happy. And it's freaking everyone out, because the Liz we've known for the past few seasons is a neurotic workaholic catering to the demands of her show and the needs of its stars. As a viewer, it's nice to see Liz be so relaxed that even Kenneth's hand farts make her explode in laughter.
Besides Liz's shiny, happy demeanor, the 30 Rock premiere quickly established another major change to the show's universe: American Kidz Got Singing is NBC's new hit series, and Jenna has become famous but unpopular as the Simon Cowell-esque judge of the show. The success of the hit series coupled with Liz's inexplicable good mood directly impacts Jack, whom the episode is really about.
Jenna's ridiculous jabs at Liddy, the kiddie contestant who shares the same name as his daughter, affect Jack so much that he almost tanks his network's most profitable hit. After his adorable conversation with Liddy in which he convinces himself that his little girl approves of keeping the show on the air ("mommy" sounds almost like "money" right?), Jack feels at peace again. With Tracy's help, he even deduces the source of Liz's happiness: joining a WNBA dance team. So the final moments of the episode, when Jack is shocked to see that Liz has a boyfriend that he didn't know about, carry some dramatic weight.
Jack and Liz's relationship is the bedrock of the series, and Jack takes comfort in how well he knows Liz, and how predictable her life has always been. In fact, with all the shakeups he has endured the past few years, from the death of his mentor and the Kabletown merger to his wife Avery's kidnapping, Liz is the only stable element in his life. So to see her happy in a relationship he knew nothing about explodes his world the same way he realized that parenthood is going to feel like wearing his heart outside his body. So, yay for Liz! But poor Jack.
- Like the show it replaced, the jokes come so fast and furious in 30 Rock they're nearly impossible to catalog. But American Kidz Got Singing is a great parody of all the singing competitions, from Jenna's big hair (based on Jennifer Lopez's Idol style) to the earnest, dramatic rendition of "Camptown Ladies" that played over the final scenes of the show.
- Kenneth's belief in the Rapture seemed a little dated (guess that happens when your show is produced months before it premieres) but the plotline produced some fun jokes, like his list of dream chores, his versions of the different kinds of hells ("black hell has a jukebox") and that after he dies he would be given 72 virgin...margaritas.
- With the recent death of North Korea leader King Jong-Il, it will be interesting to see how the show's writers incorporate his passing into the Avery storyline. Hopefully it will mean that she will eventually be released, because it was pretty poignant when Liddy called out for her mommy. So far though, it seems they're content subbing in Kim Jong-un and not zooming in too closely on the photos
- As I said earlier, it was a lot of fun to see Liz in such a great mood, and that even Tracy's hijinks couldn't faze her. Hopefully this can be sustained for longer than a few episodes, because its time for her to evolve past the cheese-eating, Snuggie-wearing sad sack we've known (and loved) since season one to a woman who embraces her quirks and no longer needs to apologize for them, especially to Jack. We'll definitely be keeping close tabs on The New And Improved Liz Lemon as the season goes on.
PARKS AND RECREATION
"This team has a lot of heart and zero know-how. Please be my campaign manager."
As Gloria Estefan's "Get On Your Feet" played in fits and starts, Leslie Knope and her campaign team inched haphazardly across an ice rink to a tiny, ramshackle campaign podium with a banner of half of Leslie's face hanging behind it. This moment was so endearing and hilarious it made up for the rest of the episode, which had some laughs but mostly felt perfunctory and ho-hum.
If the previous episode demonstrated how dedicated Leslie's staff is to her, this one was about the reality of running a campaign with them. Because of course what makes Ron, April, Andy, and Tom hilarious as characters makes them disastrous as members of Leslie's team. Seeing Leslie come to that realization took up much of the episode, as Team Knope got pulled over by the police for multiple infractions that highlighted why each of them is an equally weak link. Luckily, she's dating a former teen mayor who favors Letters to Cleo T- shirts when making claymation cartoons and lo-cal calzones.
Yes, this episode was mostly a way to maneuver Ben into the campaign manager slot, which makes the most sense for his character since he is out of work. And after witnessing the collective ineptness of Leslie's staff, Ben is less likely to be "poison" than her well-meaning friends. Now that her team is finally in place, let's hope that Leslie gets to project some of her trademark smarts and confidence on the campaign trail.
- Knowing April and Andy, Ben's question about whether their new three-legged dog Champion had four legs before they brought him home wasn't entirely unreasonable.
- Ben's claymation short (like really short) "Requiem For A Tuesday" was pretty hilarious. Chris' peppiness was put to great use here, as perhaps the only person who could diagnose and help cure Ben of his depression in the span of one day.
- Ann as Leslie's campaign manager was interesting in that it highlighted the power imbalance in their friendship. As addressed in an episode earlier this season, Leslie has a tendency to steamroll people to get what she wants, especially her best friend. When Leslie volunteers Ann for a date with Pistol Pete as a gesture of gratitude for his endorsement, I found it a little unnerving. As one of the best friendships depicted on television, it would be nice if Leslie wouldn't be so game for using Ann (and her looks) to her own advantage.
"We need an A team, a backup team, and a just have fun team."
When Andy said the above line, he evoked what is one of the show's chief pleasures: How well we know these characters, and how well they know themselves. Since The Office has been on for so long, we knew pretty much how the co-workers would split up, and indeed, Kelly and Meredith made a beeline for the fun team while Phyllis and Stanley knew they were backups.
Everything that took place at trivia night was a lot of fun, even if it was predictable that the Einsteins would confound expectations and end up winning based on their pop culture viewing habits (Khloe and Lamar and the French movie that Marion Cotillard appears in unclothed). The machinations that got the office to invade Oscar's trivia night were symptomatic of what is wrong with the show this season, namely that Andy is so incompetent at his job that he needs to win a trivia night to double Dunder Mifflin's flagging sales. But a trivia night is definitely a realistic event for co-workers to attend together (compared to that strange outing to Gettysburg a few episodes ago), and it was an effective way to give a lot of individual characters a chance to shine. (Still need more Creed though.)
- In the B-plot, Dwight pulled a Michael Scott and flew to Sabre's Florida headquarters for a surprise visit with the CEO. I'm not sure why Robert California couldn't tell Dwight that he wasn't right for a management job in Florida when he first saw him, rather than run away and have Gabe deal with the fallout. If anything, I admire Dwight's unflagging ambitions, and hope they get rewarded at some point in the series.
- I'm uncomfortable with how Oscar's character has devolved this season. There was a time when Oscar was a caring and well-rounded person, but the writers have now made his sexuality his defining characteristic. The season 5 episode "Business Trip" had a wonderful storyline in which Oscar helped Andy deal with his breakup with Angela. Now he's just a smug guy who talks about the hot dudes at his gym and high-fives people with his fingertip. The character, and the show, is better than this.
- If she had gone to trivia night, I have a feeling Pam would have placed herself on the A team—she's always been more ambitious than Jim (remember her long ago art-school aspirations). It was sad to see that A team was made up all of men, even if Meredith, Kelly and Erin were all equally responsible for their team's victory.
- Favorite team names from trivia night: Joey Triviani and Two Broke Dorks.
- I enjoyed Kevin's dismay upon learning that the California Raisins did not write The Grapes of Wrath. Good guess, Kev.
UP ALL NIGHT
"If you get this wrong I'm going to kill you."
I've seen Up All Night a few times before this week's episode, and have often found that it's like two different shows fighting for air time. Chris and Reagan at home is a smart romantic comedy, while Reagan and Ava at the office is wacky workplace farce. Each of them is fine in their own way, but together it's a bit of a mess.
So this episode, taking place almost entirely at Chris and Reagan's home at New Year's Eve, was a nice change of pace. Reagan has been defined at the outset as a competitive character, and so of course she would dominate game night and drive Chris nuts. But it was a genius idea to have the couple's argument about each other's faults turn into making a list of "things that we are going to stop doing that embarrass the crap out each other in 2012." I wish that they hadn't erased most of the items on the list, but at least the show's writers took a predictable plot and did something interesting with it that was true to both characters. (But I do have problems with Reagan being a competitive person, which I will address later.)
Maya Rudolph's Ava tends to be problematic whenever she comes into the Brinkley home, because Rudolph plays her like she's doing one of her SNL characters for thirty minutes at a stretch. This episode, however, she was much more low-key that usual, probably because she revealed a more vulnerable side when dealing with her boyfriend's insecurities about her fame. Up All Night would be a more cohesive show if Ava wasn't a cartoon character most of the time, and so I hope she becomes more dimensional as the series progresses.
Perhaps because the show is preceded by three comedies with large ensembles, Up All Night's world feels pretty small. I can't imagine that the only people Reagan could invite to her low-key couples' party were her two co-workers. But despite that, Up All Night fit very nicely into the Thursday lineup, and I look forward to seeing this show in weeks to come.
- Watching Reagan threaten her husband's life during Trivial Pursuit reminded me too much of Monica Gellar. Why is it that when TV writers want to demonstrate how smart and competent a female character is, they make her super competitive? (See also Cristina Yang, and even Leslie Knope.) At this point, it just feels overdone and a little tired.
- The story with Missy and her "lame" boyfriend Issac was unnecessary, and I'm starting to think so is Missy. She doesn't add anything to the show beyond being an insecure foil to confident Ava and Reagan. Either the show should deepen her character, or jettison it altogether.
- I enjoyed Chris and Reagan's discussion of having a Goodfellas-style dinner in apartment jail. That scene in the movie always fascinated me too.