Arts & Culture

Jews Watching TV: Back On The Air And Staying Put

After a two week break, NBC Thursday night is back, and all the shows have shiny new contracts. Read More

By / March 18, 2011

First things first: As predicted, The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Community all got picked up for another season this week! (30 Rock was picked up a few months back, don’t worry.) Kudos to Comcast for sticking with quality programming, despite the shows not garnering the best ratings. Also as predicted, things are not looking great for Outsourced and Perfect Couples, as NBC has ordered a ton of sitcom pilots and neither has gotten picked up yet. Back to the matter at hand: An explanation of why last night’s shows (well, at least the ones that will likely be around next fall) deserved to be renewed.

Last week, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a piece for Salon called “Will future generations understand ‘The Simpsons’?” in which he questioned if the current crop of “footnote shows” are ultimately doomed to be dated for future generations. His point is that reference heavy shows like Community and 30 Rock won’t be funny in twenty years when these references are no longer current. His point, though it is well-argued and he does admit to being a fan of these shows, seems to fall short in that it undervalues how important these references, when defined broadly, are in making many of the day’s best sitcoms transcendent. Shows like Parks & Rec, Community, and 30 Rock strive to be more than 30 minutes of laughs, like more time-neutral sitcoms, instead offering a perspective on the current world in which we live.

Zoller Seitz references Parks & Recreation both negatively and positively, as it is less pop culture reliant than the other shows. Instead of just references to movies and television (though it did have an entire episode revolve around Twilight), Parks & Recreation aspires to offer a commentary on the modern political landscape, especially in small-town America. Take the first episode of season two in which Leslie accidentally gay-marries two penguins, effectively leading to townwide uproar. In twenty years, when (hopefully) gay marriage is rightfully legal, that episode won’t hit as hard. Still, that episode was powerful because it was inherently current and it was willing to face the issue directly. Moreover, the show’s portrayal of the budget crisis, which has defined the series since the end of last season, is the most realistic account on fictional television of how the recession has hit small towns.

In that vane, last night was a classic “Pawnee is full of crazy people” episode of Parks & Rec. Like the Daily Show, it seems to focus most of its satire towards how politics is covered and last night was no exception. As they’re wont to do, the local media lead by Joan Callamezzo (played by Mo Collins in possibly the funniest thing a former cast member of Mad TV has ever done), went into uproar over a Matchbox 20 concert Native American curse. The incredible absurdity that followed worked so well because it hit so close to home. Maybe the perils of a politically reactionary public won’t make sense in a utopian future, but, currently, it is Parks & Recreation’s ability to expose the flaws in it that make the show one of the most intelligent sitcoms ever. And is a future that doesn’t find the episode’s cold open featuring a Notre Dame-alumnus mini horse tearing-up hilarious a future really worth living in?

Comparatively, Zoller Seitz really takes Community to task. He defends the Christmas episode; however, he also throws around the words “shallow” and “forgettable” when referring to the quite exceptional KFC/Apollo 13 episode. His point boils down to the fact that references create a distance from the audience who is not in the know, which the future audience would almost definitely be. This is probably true; however, for the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, it’s more about how references bring those in the know closer to the show. Harmon has said that people in the real world talk about TV and movies all the time, so to completely avoid it would leave the show feeling false. People respond to specificity, as it provides more touchstones to which to relate, and Community features the most precisely drawn-up lead characters on comedic television today. Take Chang asking Andre last night, “why do I have to put the VCR on three if Bones is on five?,” or the comedic genius that was Britta’s Britney Spears impression, both were incredibly telling jokes that were perfectly attuned to his character, which is why they resulted in two of the night’s biggest laughs. Both will undoubtedly go over the heads of our future children, but that is the sacrifice we make when a show aspires to be definitively of-the-moment instead of being painted so broadly as to never be particularly relevant or irrelevant.

Taken further, Community has without a doubt revolutionized what can be done on a sitcom like any truly great show does. It is likely that, in the future, its use of high-concept episodes and extreme self-awareness will become more commonplace and Community will seem so 10’s, as Seinfeld unavoidable feels 90’s.

Arguably its influence has already started to spread, especially if you consider last night’s 30 Rock. It has always been a show that seemed to ferociously court its in-the-know fan base, but never did it ever go so balls-to-wall towards a concept as last night’s episode of Queen of Jordan. To shoot the entire episode as a Bravo-esque reality show was truly brilliant; the fact that it has an inherent shelf life seems trivial. Whether it was inspired by its line-up mate is hard to say, but like Community, the episode chose to avoid easy jokes like a second-hand spoof in favor of a fully realized send-up. It worked completely within the vocabulary of the format and simply pushed it to its most absurd. Even Jack’s arc that, though being quite broad, was still very much rooted in his character’s history of on-camera awkwardness. For a show in its fifth season to so successfully and completely change formats for one episode proves how seriously it takes its role as a critic of today’s culture. As it did with “TGS Hates Women,” 30 Rock shows that great television takes a stance on the society in which it operates.

Without this explicit intention to be contemporary, a sitcom is likely going to feel dated even if it is a new episode. At their worst, this is the biggest problem with Outsourced and Perfect Couples: the episodes feel like they could exist at any time. Take Outsourced, when TVSquad sent the pilot to their co-workers in India, the Indians’ one biggest complaint wasn’t that it was racist or too low-brow, but that it was dated. Though a show about jobs outsourced to India would seem relevant today, they argued that the show portrayed the call-centers of many years ago. Likewise, though Perfect Couples does spice up its dialogue with some nice pop culture riffs – they nailed the interrupting of The Wire bits – most of the show resides in rehashing relationship clichés. You can’t put lipstick on a pig and say it’s not Mad About You.

It is this same anachronism that allows the most generic comedies to flourish in the ratings. Shows like Mad Love and Mike & Molly are easy to watch because they are continuations of jokes made in other generic comedies for years. All you have to do is trade out the names of the overweight male protagonist and his smart-talking wife, sit back, and relax. The fact is, a lot more people want to turn off their brains when they watch comedies than want to think about the influence of Community’s post-modernism or about Parks & Recreation’s case for the shortcomings of modern political discourse.

At the end, Zoller Seitz claims that it is the lack of references in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, and I Love Lucy that prevent them from seeming dated (though, Ricky Ricardo had the very 1950’s profession of bandleader), but maybe it’s that all of these shows still seemed unconventional and thus relevant until shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld came along. Now, as media saturation moves faster, the current crop of ambitious sitcoms need to fight each episode to prove their relevance. The “lack of durability” that Zoller Seitz claims as a negative can instead be viewed as these shows’ dedication to being true to themselves as artists by making the jokes they want to make on the show they want to make. It is this level of effort and focus of vision that will make Community, Parks & Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock relevant for decades to come. They’re all pioneers of their genre just like I Love Lucy, but just with fewer bandleaders.

So, let’s say 30 Rock won last night because of its sheer ambition and the fact that that episode will seem dated the fastest. Here’s a clip: