Friday, 29 April 2011

Topless Leslie, Glued To A Horse: Community, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock reviews


Even with Archer's second season ending last week, I can't think of any other time when so many great comedies have been crammed into a single night. American television is really soaring at the moment, more than compensating for the deficit of inspiration plaguing Hollywood. Community, Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock are not just among the top comedies on television right now, but growing into all-time greats. 30 Rock, after an inconsistent previous season, has found its footing again and settled into a nice groove where it knows its characters and how to get the best out of them (perhaps apart from Kenneth, though even he has had his moments), while Community and Parks & Recreation are constantly experimenting and evolving, resulting in some pretty astonishing half-hours - 'Critical Film Studies' for Community, 'April & Andy's Fancy Party' for Parks

Though it's very near the end of both of their seasons, I'm planning on covering them anyway because these are programmes where each individual episode can contain as many talking points as an entire season of a lesser show. (By that same measure, I'm waiting to see if South Park seems any less tired in its new season before deciding whether to pick it up). I'll also be covering Doctor Who, starting with a review of the new season's opening two-parter over the weekend.

But for now, follow the jump for reviews of the latest entries in Thursday night's stellar comedy set.

COMMUNITY: 'Applied Anthropology & Culinary Arts'

Even though I've just been extolling its greatness, I've felt that the last few episodes of Community have suffered a dip from the rest of the season in terms of laughs. 'Critical Film Studies' was a mindblowing and moving episode, despite not being very funny. 'Competitive Wine Tasting' was amusing, but felt a bit flat and threw in some character notes (Troy's crush on Britta) that hit a rare false note. 'Paradigms of Human Memory' was a great idea with plenty of good moments, but like all clip shows (even parodies) it felt choppy and never found a good rhythm.

Fortunately, it was back on form this week. The whole episode was set in a single room, meaning there was a lot of interaction between the characters, a formula which never fails to produce results - see also 'Cooperative Calligraphy'. Better still was that this was a strong Shirley episode, a character who has gone largely underserved this year despite Yvette Nicole Brown's underappreciated comic skills. She made the most of her opportunity, even though she spent most of the episode lying down. She sold Shirley's worry at her impending birth and finally discovering the identity of the father, along with an unexpected appreciation of Chang finally stepping up to the plate, while delivering a handful of killer lines with her trademark bittersweet charm ("An epidermal is a proper Christian woman's only chance to get wrecked!").

As usual, Gillian Jacobs was rocking it as Britta suffered yet another identity crisis. It's rare to see a female character in a comedy who is genuinely ridiculous and conflicted about something other than dating, and Jacobs makes her character's transitions between righteous tool and self-reflection seem effortless. The nature of the character almost inevitably leads to her bagging many of the best lines ("First of all, together my cats can do anything"; "No probl-o, Rob Lowe") and Jacobs also delivers some terrific visual comedy, such the under-the-skirt shot when she has to check how Shirley's pregnancy is going. Britta for the win, indeed.

The subplot about Abed and Troy selling out to Pierce was flimsy in the extreme, though at least gave Donald Glover the chance to be horrified, then start crying. It's not a new schtick for him, but never fails to be hysterical. The callback to Abed assisting a birth earlier in the season was an epic payoff, especially in pitching it from Abed's point of view that the rest of the episode was happening in his background, rather than vice-versa (it's those inspired reversals which, for me, elevate Community so far above the competition in wit and intelligence). It's still difficult to know how to take Pierce though: his terrible behaviour earlier in the season was never properly redeemed, and he's not acting a lot better now. Fingers crossed this gets sorted out, because though Chevy Chase plays every scene with predatory gusto, the character is caught in an uncomfortable middle ground. Jeff and Annie were out of the spotlight this week, with Jeff acting as the propagator for Britta's conflict with few gags of his own, while Annie only got a few scenes, but Alison Brie panicking is always adorable. 'Applied Anthropology' wasn't the best episode of the series, but it was, appropriately enough, something of a rebirth for the series' ability to be as funny as it is clever.

Best line: "We came so close to having one class that wasn't all about them."

PARKS & RECREATION: 'Jerry's Painting'

If this week's Community marked an upturn from a short blip, Parks has been going from strength to strength as the season has progressed. 'April & Andy's Fancy Party' was about as perfect an episode of comedy as you could ever ask for and while 'Jerry's Painting' was more of a silly throwaway, barely a minute went by without an enormous laugh coming out of left-field. I'm almost inclined to just list the multitude of brilliant lines, but every one was improved tenfold by an ensemble that can bring new layers of brilliance to each.

Case in point: The Great Ron Swanson only got one significant scene this episode, but it was a monologue which Nick Offerman elevated (somewhat ironically) to an art form and one of the peaks of a very strong episode, weaving more than a hint of disdain into Swanson's determination to do his duty and deliver the opening remarks to the art gallery, even though he wasn't in the mood, ever. If only more speeches started with "Okay everyone, shut up! And look at me!" Though Rashida Jones' Ann continues to go underused (her scenes on the dating night in 'Fancy Party' proved how hilarious Jones can be), her teasing Tom, upon them realising his was the face of the painting's fat baby cherub, was charming.

The main plot concerned Leslie discovering that Jerry had unintentionally used her as inspiration for his painting of a topless centaur on a hunt, but rather than being distraught actually found the attention empowering. Poehler's new proud posture and self-confidence were fantastically exaggerated, before being burst by her appearance on a TV debate with a porn star who distorted Leslie's argument to save the painting from being destroyed into a pro-pornography cause. Poehler's facial expressions as she tried to register what was happening, all while realising her mission to save the painting wasn't going to go as smoothly as expected, showed the comedienne at her best, overplaying the shock to pay off her earlier hyper-confidence.

Ben moving in with April and Andy also yielded massive dividends, particularly in offering a window into exactly how a marriage between two such childish characters could work. Although Ben came across as more of a killjoy than usual in his determination to teach his new housemates a sense of responsibility, Adam Scott is such a perfect straight man that it was worth it to bring out the best in April and Andy in their exchanges (doing the laundry: "Okay, you always separate your whites from your darks." That's racist."). The plot reached a beautifully judged climax, with April expressing her worry that becoming more adult would dull the mad, rebellious streak she values so much between them, and Andy's reassurance that the fact they own cutlery doesn't mean they can't still have fun with marshmallow guns. As their final scene with Ben proved. It was a perfect example of characters growing, but remaining true to the essence of what makes them special.

Best line: "Brandi, you've starred in over two hundred pornographic films, some of which are verrrry good."

30 ROCK: 'Everything Sunny All The Time Always'

This wasn't one of 30 Rock's strongest episodes and suffered for my watching it after Community and Parks, especially since Liz's new belief that she had control over her own destiny echoed Leslie Knope's burst of newfound confidence, but to less inspired results. That's not to say it didn't have its share of laughs, not least Margaret Cho as Kim Jong-Il (surely the most hilarious of living dictators) and Avery's broadcasts for North Korean television, especially her segment on 'food news'. The Condoleeza Rice cameo - and though I forgot to check the credits, if it wasn't the real Condo then they found a damn good imitator - gave Alec Baldwin some comic business to play in an episode where he was mostly reacting.

Now that I think about it, though there were some decent individual laughs, none of this episode's three plots offered very much. Tracy's annoyance at Kenneth, Grizz and Dotcom having their own in-jokes in his absence was a wash-out, making ridiculous demands to fuel his narcissism while usually at his best when his delusions operate on a more human level. He's always over-the-top, but having his entourage recreate the precise circumstances (including weather and hair lengths) of the day of a missed joke was neither believable, nor had much of a pay off.

Liz's battles with a plastic bag outside her flat window (a seemingly immovable reminder that while she can renovate her kitchen and be fit to wear one of Jack's neckties, there are some things she just can't control) produced the episode's best results, not least an encounter with a taser-happy cop, but still felt stuck in second gear. It never felt like her experiences would have any lasting effects and while 30 Rock has never put much stock in character growth, it's important to believe that when a character's outlook is given a make-over, there's a small chance it could endure in some capacity. Though it was left up in the air whether Avery would be returning - a shame if not, as Elizabeth Banks certainly has a talent for delivering mad lines with a straight face ("Nobody here's ever seen an iPhone. I told them it's my razor. I have to shave my legs with it, but they have an app for that.") - this was an episode which never felt like much more than late-season schedule filler.

Best line: "I've got a new life philosophy that I call Lizbianism."


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