Saturday, April 7, 2012

NBC Thursday Night Recap: or, Conceptual, Tired and Sweet

Clockwise from top left: Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski in "Nothing Left to Lose"; Maya Rudolph and Megan
Mullaly in "Hey Jealousy"; Krakowski; Donald Glover and Danny Pudi in "Pillows and Blankets"; Chevy
Chase as the Pillow Man in "Pillows and Blankets."

This recap is meant to be read in the reassuring but powerful voice of a documentary narrator. Morgan Freeman, maybe. Or that guy from The Cape. He seems like he's pretty good at this type of thing.

It is a Thursday night on NBC. The network is desperate for higher ratings, as it is consistently beaten by the Spanish-language network Univision. It responds by airing a high-concept episode based on PBS documentaries; a comedy that no one thought would last more than one season that has hung on for six; and a series starring an actor best known for a critically acclaimed, prematurely cancelled sitcom. What could go wrong?

8:00 p.m., ET.

Community airs an episode about the dissolution of the show's most innocent, joyous friendship, structured as a Ken Burns documentary about a campus-wide pillow fight. The episode brilliantly captures the sadness of a friendship that will never be the same again, while also capturing the foibles of the Greendale study group with amusing efficiency.
Narrator: Troy would later say of the war, "It was awesome. But, it wasn't?"
Narrator: Unfortunately for Britta, and millions of photographers like her, just because something is in black and white doesn't mean it's good. 
Jeff: Guys, I wasn't going to show this to anyone, but it's pretty profound, I kind of nailed it.
"Pillows and Blankets," however, is not content with merely exploring, with great precision, the subtleties of friendship and the idiosyncrasies of its characters. It also gives the viewer a chilling glimpse of a future in which our exploits are not documented by beautifully written prose and the detailed descriptions of historians, but by text messages and Facebook status updates.
Annie: Jeff, you're disgusting. Troy and Abed's friendship is at stake! You can buy special icons in packages at the app store. Piece of sushi, birthday cake, stop sign, snowman, umbrella. 
Abed: The war won't stop with First Blood, Part II. It will escalate to Rambo III, which should really be called Rambo II: First Blood, Part III. But the Rambo titles never made sense. Just like war. Abed Nadir, Facebook status update. 
Leonard: Leonard likes this!
The episode, although somewhat polarizing, is a rousing creative success. The humor is sharp, the emotion is touching, and the viewer gets to learn more about the confounding jumble of Greendale's campus.
Narrator: The North Cafeteria, named after Admiral William North, is located in the western portion of East Hall, gateway to the western half of North Hall, which is named, not after William North, but for its position above the South Wall. It is the most contested and confusing battlefield on Greendale's campus next to the English Memorial Spanish center, named after English Memorial, a portuguese sailor who discovered Greendale while looking for a fountain that cures syphilis.
8:30 p.m., ET.

30 Rock is certainly the show that cleared the way for Community, and tonight it is given the unenviable task of following a highly conceptual, yet still accessible, half-hour of the newer show at the top of its game. It does this by recycling a plot from The Simpsons, attempting to explain the self-centered behavior of a cartoonish star, and making its one normal character a pathetic shadow of himself. "Nothing Left to Lose" succeeds in two of these endeavors, but fails at the third.

Although Tracy and Liz's storyline is close to a carbon copy of The Simpsons' "HOMR," right down to Tracy deciding to get his ring re-inserted in his nose so that he can stay with his family, the plot is nice. Liz and Tracy stories are usually just about Liz's frustrations with the crazy star of her show, and it's lovely to see them interacting nicely with one another (or as nicely as they can when Liz is using the similarity between the way Tracy's father smelled and her hair pomade to manipulate him into behaving.)  There are also some quick-witted lines along the way.
Tracy: I just wanna make you proud of me, LL-Dad-Liz-Dad. 
Liz: Why are you so heavy?
Tracy: Cause so much of me has died. 
Tracy: You're still here! You didn't go to the store for milk and heroin and then never come back.
Jenna's story is also nothing new, and it works in spite of itself. The self-absorbed starlet who is secretly insecure is something that everyone has seen a million times before. Somehow, however, it works here, and seeing Jenna sobbing and confessing to her own worthlessness is an unusually touching display of self awareness for the character.

But the relative success of Tracy, Jenna and Liz's stories cannot sustain the C-plot, in which Jack tries to make Pete into a stronger man and ends up making him even more pathetic. Pete is one of 30 Rock's most grounded characters, which is what makes his outbursts of unhappiness funny. When that groundedness is taken away, there is nothing left but the pathetic.

The Pete plot does provide at least one good Jack Donaghy zinger. Thank God for that.
Jack: Your life is tied to the fate of the ring. It must be destroyed.
Pete: Are you quoting The Lord of the Rings?
Jack: No, I'm quoting myself talking to Bruce Willis.
9:30 p.m., ET.

After a rerun of The Office, new series Up All Night is left to close out the evening. The show is not as conceptually daring as Community or as fast-paced as 30 Rock, but it has the sweet sincerity that the former achieves at the best of times, and its funniest moments are as hilarious as anything that the latter has provided.

The viewer is given two simple plots to follow. Ava has vowed to run a 10K to promote literacy, and has gotten herself in over her head.
Ava: To be honest, when I first agreed to sponsor and run in this event, I was not super aware of what a K was.
Reagan: I know.
Her situation gets worse when she is told that her former protege and arch-rival, Shayna, has joined the race and offered up a challenge. Her solution is a Hollywood personal trainer, played to stereotypical perfection by Fred Armisen.
Ava: Gideon works miracles. Over the years he's helped Oprah lose a total of 16,000 pounds.
The two women try to sabotage one another using their greatest weaknesses; food and alcohol.
Shayna: I have been on an 800-calorie-a-day diet of sea grains for six months.
Ava: I have been sober for eighty hours.
Hungover and stuffed to the gills, they stumble through the race by supporting one another. When they finally make it to the finish line they are too disheveled for the cameras, and Shayna offers the solution of an exhausted woman.
Shayna: Let's go in the woods and cover ourselves up with leaves.
They are saved from this camouflage plan by super-producer Reagan, who has come prepared with a hair and makeup station.

But Reagan has also been dealing with her own issues. Chris is jealous of her friendship with work associate Luke, who started out as a bad guy but who has become a buddy and possibly a confidant. When Luke appears over Reagan's shoulder during a Skype session, Will Arnett gets to do what he does best; spout incoherent gibberish in an attempt to rectify the situation.
Chris (reconstructed to the best of your historian's ability): Do that! Bye, rock on, classy girl Lukey! (hangs up.) What is that?
His worst fears are exacerbated when he finds out that his friend Reed - still sporting his red leather motorcycle jacket - has been cheated on by his wife, in a scene that is rendered both poignant and hilarious by Reed's reliance on antidepressants to deal with the situation.
Reed: It is great. I did fail to be explicit that she not have intercourse with him, and that's on me.

Reed: If I wasn't chemically lobotomized right now, I'd really feel for you.
Luke does turn out to have a crush on Reagan, another moment that manages to be somewhat sad and very funny at the same time. But before his non-confession can be staged, the viewer is treated to the episode's single best scene, where a competitive Chris brags about the size of his nipples to a very confused Luke.
Chris: They're like silver dollar pancakes, bro. They're like manhole covers. Sometimes with a deep summer V, you can catch a little outer nip.

Luke: Well that's good, that's because that's... what?!
No wars, no pranks, no smell-induced emotionality to be found here; just a man dealing with an impossible crush and another overreacting, and a sabotage attempt that turns into a moment of connection. And Will Arnett babbling about nipples. The ratings was may have been lost, but the comedy war has been won.

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