Community, Season 4, Episode 12: “Heroic Origins”
Written by Steve Basilone & Annie Mebane & Maggie Bandur
Directed by Victor Nelli, Jr.
Airs Thursdays at 8pm ET on NBC
Let’s tell the origin story of this Community review. In the cold open, when Britta compared their interlocking origins to “the classic French film trilogy Bleu, Blanc, Rouge,” and Abed responds with “No. Like something more accessible, like Unbreakable,” I wrote it down in my notes. This would be the key to this week’s review, and a perfect metaphor for the season. A show that once aspired for meaning through art reduced to something that is fun but ultimately facile. Then I woke up this morning and realized Todd VanDerWerff, using the “movies” vs. “cinema” dichotomy established in Steven Soderbergh’s “State of the Cinema” address as a framework, beat me to the punch.
He ties it to a trend he’s observed in sitcoms where they transition from pushing the envelope to “managing the brand.” We saw it with Archer this season, we saw it on the back nine of Parks & Rec this year (more on that later), and it’s certainly occurring with Community. Coincidentally, this is the point at which sitcoms become significantly more difficult to write about, especially on an episode-by-episode basis. They reach a point where rather than digging deeper, they begin to reaffirm what we already know (and, by extension, what has already been written about).
That’s what irks me about season four of Community, it’s comfort food. There has been a lot of discussion this season about the effect Dan Harmon’s departure has had on the show, but it’s kind of beside the point. It’s possible that if he had stuck around the show still would’ve drifted off into complacency, but the fact is, for three seasons the show was more concerned with confronting its audience than comforting it. It’s what made the show so interesting. It’s what kept me coming back even when it failed spectacularly. By comfort food standards, tonight’s episode is really good, but it still leaves you feeling like you ate frozen yogurt when you were craving Ben & Jerry’s.
Parks & Recreation, Season 5, Episode 22: “Are You Better Off?”
Written by Michael Schur
Directed by Dean Holland
Airs Thursdays at 8:30pm ET on NBC
In that vein, it’s possible I’ve been a bit too hard on Parks and Recreation this season. Sure, it’s reached a point where it’s “managing the brand,” but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still the best sitcom on network television. This is mostly due to the richness of the world Michael Schur has crafted over the past five years, a world in which a Founders’ Week celebration featuring the crowning of a Nipple King feels entirely appropriate. It’s a world populated by an ever-expanding cast of eccentric characters, characters we get to know, provoking exclamations like “Hey, it’s the creepy guy with the mustache who likes porn!”
Within this world perhaps consistently churning out B+ episodes (rather than the A-plusses that came with frightening regularity circa season three) is enough. The show still has surprises up its sleeve, April is going to veterinary school and Ron is going to become a father, and it is as good as it gets at generating laughs. There were some A level episodes this season, many of them referenced tonight, “Soda Tax,” “Sex Education,” “Two Parties,” “Women in Garbage,” “Bailout,” “Article Two,” “Jerry’s Retirement,” not to mention “Leslie and Ben.” The cast is in rare form from top (look at Amy Poehler’s deft delivery as she rattles off dance movie titles during her press conference) to bottom (Jim O’Heir’s aw shucks demeanor as Jerry says “I missed you guys.”)
Like the later seasons of Cheers, Parks has gotten to a place where its own consistency is in some ways its biggest Achilles’ heel. It has made it too easy to take its excellence for granted. Part of it is, yeah, the show is no longer trailblazing and is comfortably “managing the brand,” but the writers are still finding new ways to approach things. It’s not hard to imagine Parks, like Cheers, running for 11 seasons. With Schur deep into development on a Fox sitcom, it’s hard not to wonder whether this was his last episode as showrunner. While his playfully human worldview would be missed, the foundation he’s laid down is strong enough to be built upon for years to come.