This year, NBC featured four strong comedies -- Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock -- each with its own distinct style and point of view, not a Single Guy among them.
Last Thursday night saw the end of an historic season for the institution formerly known as NBC Must-See TV: from last fall until this spring, NBC ran four strong comedies in a row: Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock, each with its own distinct style and point of view, not a Single Guy among them.
At the same time, a ratings free-fall -- for major networks in general and NBC in particular -- led to a side benefit: marginally rated shows that please a dedicated niche can survive for more than a few episodes, sometimes more than a few seasons. Depressed ratings allow the network to program shows that complement each other, rather than increasing pressure to capitalize on a big hit to launch more hits. In its heyday, Must-See TV attracted over 20 million viewers, which meant that the post-Seinfeld and post-Friends timeslots were given over to whatever high-concept drivel the execs were high on, creating a majestic trash heap of failed NBC '90s sitcoms, including Madman of the People, Veronica's Closet, Suddenly Susan, Inside Schwartz, and Coupling.
The current line-up, though not labeled "must-see," contains no such filler. Community kicked off the night on 20 May with its final freshman episode, "Pascal's Triangle Revisited." While calling back some bit players, it also revisited the relationship between charming cad Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) and fellow study-group member Britta (Gillian Jacobs). In doing so, it stumbled across many of its own flaws, as well as its considerable strengths.
At its worst, the show oscillates between two uncomfortable extremes. On one end, it loves meta jokes, usually spouted by pop-culture savant Abed (Danny Pudi), often about sitcom conventions, designed to flatter both the show's writers (for winking) and the audience (for understanding how winking works). Yet it also indulges a sappy streak, requiring that at least 60% of episodes feature one or more characters acting selfishly before choosing the bonds of this makeshift study-group family. These dual instincts can be read as a kind of self-loathing, wanting to employ both snark and sentiment, convinced that the two will balance each other out. This was perfectly encapsulated in "Pascal's Triangle Revisited" when Abed practiced touching goodbye lines while shutting off the lights to the study room, trying to "give things a finale vibe," he explained, in a tiresome reiteration that this sitcom character has watched lots of other sitcoms.
In its better episodes, Community tells its story through endearing and wonderfully played characters, not references or lessons. This emerged when Jeff found himself torn between his will-they-or-won't-they relationship Britta and his ex-girlfriend Slater (Lauren Stamile), only to wind up kissing Annie (Alison Brie) in the final moments, a turn subtly built up throughout the season, and enhanced by the performances of McHale, Brie, and Jacobs.
In fact, three-quarters of NBC's Thursday sitcoms dealt with some combination of a love triangle or a will-they-or-won't-they relationship. In doing so, the lineup reflected how much has changed on the TV comedy landscape: the model is no longer the drawn-out, on-and-off courtship of Ross and Rachel from Friends (name-checked, of course, on several past Community episodes), but rather the less soapy evolution of Jim and Pam from The Office, a show that rebuilt the idea of ongoing romantic tension, and then dared to let its couple live happily ever after as the show continued.
Parks and Recreation is the most direct stylistic descendent of The Office, coming from the same core creative team and employing the same faux-documentary style. In its second season, it blossomed from an amusing offshoot to the funniest, most humane half-hour on television. It also found an unexpected love triangle between intern-turned-assistant April (Aubrey Plaza), boy-man screw-up Andy (Chris Pratt), and Andy's ex-girlfriend Ann (Rashida Jones). Their tensions came to a head with "Freddy Spaghetti," but in the background, as Pawnee, Indiana suffered a budget crisis that shut down the local government, much to the frustration of go-getter Leslie (Amy Poehler) and the delight of her anti-government boss Ron (Nick Offerman). With this cliffhanger, Parks has solidified Pawnee as the most vivid and hilarious fictional town since The Simpsons' Springfield.
The episode even had the confidence to echo the show's maligned first season, closing with a sweet moment between Leslie and departing Mark (Paul Schneider) on the vacant lot where Leslie hopes to build a park someday (the pit from Season One). Parks doesn't sweat for (or about) its warmth like Community; like Leslie, it manages to highlight both the decency and folly of trying to make the world a slightly better place.
That cracked hopefulness offers an alternative to the drudgery of The Office, where the characters, by design, mostly do jobs they care very little about. Yet for "Whistleblower," The Office kept its focus on the workplace; the Jim and Pam marriage has remained stable, and while romantic entanglements still drive some of the characters, the show has wisely backed away from trying to recreate Jim and Pam.
As Jim and Pam necessarily recede from the spotlight and the show gets on in years, other characters are becoming broader, with cartoonier gestures. As such, a newer recurring character like new Dunder-Mifflin owner Jo (Kathy Bates) is more outsized than the working stiffs we've come to know, with her private jet and her Marmaduke-sized dogs. Her mission to ferret out a whistleblower with help from Michael (Steve Carell) felt a little rambling and anticlimactic; the show got bigger, yet more grounded laughs out of the disgruntled IT guy who's been lingering on the margins this season.
With the corporate-intrigue plot wrapped up neatly, "Whistleblower" was the first Office finale in a few years to end without a major step forward in master plot, apart from the hint that Michael's beloved Holly (Amy Ryan) may eventually return, possibly paving the way for Carell's exit at the end of next season. The Office's refusal to indulge in full-blooded romantic tension for the sake of crowd-pleasing is admirable, but results in the show's age peeking through.
30 Rock, meanwhile, finished an uneven but mostly rewarding fourth season by throwing itself wholeheartedly into romantic dilemmas. For much of the season, Liz (Tina Fey) wrestled with the idea of finding the right man or maybe just settling, while Jack (Alec Baldwin) was torn between his high school sweetheart Nancy (Julianne Moore) and high-powered CNBC host Avery (Elizabeth Banks), both nice stories stretched a bit too thin to work as the season-long arcs they became.
Still, the season's last episodes added resonance for characters that often seem to be running in place as a side effect of 30 Rock's fast-paced, gag-heavy style (the show is just as referential to old sitcom tropes as Community, without the explicit smugness). Liz was back to 30 Rock business as usual, meeting another possible dream date in the form of a dorky pilot (Matt Damon) who happens to worship her NBC comedy series. But Jack made an actual decision to commit to Nancy -- followed by fate choosing Avery, as she is pregnant with his child. As on Community, the writers acknowledged that someone could be attracted to two different people without stacking the deck, romantic comedy style, for a clear favorite. Or, as Jack put it: "Haven't you ever read Archie comics?"
If the newer shows keep following the Office model while remaining true to their own idiosyncratic styles, the confident but realistic hope of season champ Parks and Recreation could be realized for a few more years. A bigger question may be whether NBC will continue to offer such high-quality comedy in a world that has turned away from Must-See Thursday and embraced the CBS Laff-Track Monday (with lonely How I Met Your Mother representing for strong writing). Already NBC has announced plans to bench Parks (the lowest-rated of the bunch) until midseason, subbing in the new comedy Outsourced. It may well turn out to be a strong addition to the network's high-quality comedy roster, but early clips make it look suspiciously like the single-camera version of those '90s failures: a network exec's focus-grouped, shopworn idea of how to make a hip new comedy. Must-See TV could still wind up as a flat joke unto itself.