Thursday Comedy Roundup: 30 Rock 7.04, Parks & Rec 5.05

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30 Rock, Season 7, Episode 4, “Unwindulax”
Written by Matt Hubbard
Directed by James E. Sheridan
Airs Thursdays at 8pm ET on NBC

It’s as if having a finite end-date has imbued Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and by extension 30 Rock, with a new sense of vitality. In an unprecedented turn, 30 Rock finds itself the best comedy on NBC. With a svelte 13 episodes at hand, there is a surprising focus on seriality and the show is only stronger for it. “Unwindulax” returns to both Jenna’s music career and the 2012 election, both introduced in the season’s second episode, but much like last week, it’s the sharp writing that makes the episode work.

Jenna has moved on from “Balls” to the Jimmy Buffet-inspired “Catching Crabs in Paradise,” which is only a marginal improvement. However, it does inspire swaths of faux-parrotheads to gather on the sidewalks surrounding 30 Rock; more about them later. Meanwhile, in an amusing touch, Liz’s tolerance for Jack’s right-wing cronies lasts exactly as long as it takes her to consume all the shrimp at the fundraiser they attend together. The ensuing rant she goes on establishes the Democrats as the party of ideas and the Republicans as the party of money, echoing Liz’s place as an artist and Jack’s as a businessman.

They inevitably find that one doesn’t get you terribly far without the other, hilariously expressed in scenes that involve teenagers screaming so loudly with delight at Kellen Lutz’s presence that they can’t hear anything he’s saying and Jack berating Garrett Romney for denying money’s power to change the world “in the presence of the stack”. Tracy and Jack break down the electoral college in a way that is eerily reminiscent of recent editions of the nightly news, concluding that the election will come down to a few counties in northern Florida whose citizenry of unpredictable beach bums is coincidentally in the thrall of Jenna Maroney.

There is an argument that shorter seasons make for stronger seasons. It has become the standard for dramas on cable and seems to be becoming the standard for network dramas as well. The consistency of shows like Louie, Archer, Girls, and Veep raises the question of whether this wouldn’t be a preferable model for comedy as well. Is it coincidence that Parks and Recreation’s shortened third season was also its strongest? Season seven of 30 Rock would seem to support this argument, as the episodes are more concentrated with successful jokes than at any time since the show’s first season. Yet what really sets season seven apart is the unity of purpose that ties the subplots within the episodes, and the episodes themselves, together.

 

Parks and Recreation, Season 5, Episode 5, “Halloween Surprise”
Written by Michael Schur
Directed by Dean Holland
Airs Thursdays at 9:30pm ET on NBC

Unity of purpose is something that definitely isn’t present in this episode of Parks and Rec. It’s a grab bag of various story ideas ranging from moderately successful to dismal to forced. Let’s begin with the moderately successful: Ron’s relationship with Diane. The fact that she has children presents an obstacle for Ron, but it also leaves room for both character growth and trademark Swanson humor. The pairing of sentiment and humor is something Parks continually returns to and handles with aplomb, so this bears a lot of potential. Not to mention Lucy Lawless, who has been fantastic as Diane.

Unfortunately, this is the sole bright spot in the midst of a wealth of mediocrity. The show continues pushing the unsupported idea that Ann Perkins adapts the personalities of her significant others, the amusing in theory Death Canoe 4 is never explored as anything more than a way to make tired jokes about Donna’s tweets, but the absolute bottom is Jerry’s “fart attack.” The humor is so juvenile that it wouldn’t seem out of place on a show by Chuck Lorre or Seth MacFarlane. It’s difficult to fathom what led the writers so deep into the fart joke well; certainly there were better ideas?

But what everyone will be discussing this week is the fact that Ben and Leslie are engaged. It’s such a huge plot point that it’s undoubtedly why the episode bears Michael Schur’s name, and as a scene, credit where credit’s due, it’s fantastically written. Leslie’s attempts to make sure she remembers every detail paired with Ben’s repeating the proposal after she interrupts it is just fantastic pacing: tension broken by sentimentality and punctuated by humor. It is difficult to keep a dry eye; at the same time, it feels a bit forced and tacked on to an episode with other concerns at its heart. Looming above everything is the number of shows that have bungled marriage plotlines in the past. Leslie obsessing over wedding planning would seem to suggest the kind of generic sitcom hijinks the show has generally avoided, but perhaps Jerry’s fart attack is heralding in a new future for the show. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.

Justin Wier

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