Friday, September 18, 2009

NBC Thursday Night Comedy

Although television falls mostly outside the focus of this blog I couldn't help jotting down some thoughts on NBC's new Thursday night comedy line up and its relation to its audience, especially younger viewers. Reaching a younger audience, and by younger I mean college aged, especially one whose humors lie in the network of dark, satirical, and ever changing arenas has always been difficult. The major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and here I'm also including Fox) have never been big risk takers. Where a network can renew a gruesome drama like CSI year after year, the shelf life of a comedy tends to be much shorter. That's because the formula to make the viewer laugh is constantly changing based mostly on what jokes have already been made. Dramas can be formulaic. See: House. See: Law and Order. Throw in a twist every few weeks, a cast change every few years and a drama can become almost infinitely sustainable no matter how trite and banal it actually gets. Comedies lose their edge when they cease to make people laugh, and we can only laugh at the same joke so many times. That's a major reason why comedies tend to expand their territory after their second or third successful season, branching out with new characters and new environments. This can be very laborious for the viewer who contradictorily wants to be constantly entertained but does not in fact want to deal with lots of details. Hence comedy's generic reputation as being dumber than drama. Here I'd like to show comedy's self-defeating tendencies but also high-light one network's universal approach toward getting people, both young and old, to appreciate and watch comedy.

Like it or not NBC just might be the best network on cable, mostly by default. ABC is the quintessential middle of the road network. Its been running Scrubs for years and it hasn't been funny since you were in middle school, and each season adds a new show that is destined to fail. Likely the only thing keeping people watching the network is the myth-making Lost and off-kilter, strangely upsetting Ugly Betty. Fox is the most infuriating network with its blase "talent shows", aging animated comedies, spin-off animated comedies that are some how worse than their originators, and House. As of right now the funniest show on Fox is COPS. CBS is without a doubt the most sensationalist network with a myriad of cop dramas as well as Big Brother. CBS also continues to renew Two and a Half Men. Yuck. The only thing holding CBS up in the 18-24 category is the Emmy nominated How I Met Your Mother, which is not as bad as it sounds but also not as good as an Emmy.

All things considered the mere fact that NBC has a late night show with Conan O'Brien sets the network up to funnier than any other. NBC still has it's flaws: America's Got Talent, Carson Daily, Jimmy Fallon, Merlin, etc. but statistically speaking its doing much better than its competition. On the drama side the network has the Law and Order series. Law and Order was once one of my favorite shows. It was one of those shows you could watch in marathon format for hours on end. But let's be fair: Jeff Goldblum replaced Vincent D'Onofrio on Criminal Intent though continues to play the same character which is awkward and unambitious. More importantly: SVU, what happened? SVU used to be the edgiest, most exciting iteration of L&O and now it is just absurd. Its not even relatively believable anymore. Every other episode is just internal Eliot psycho-drama. Snore. So, after several years of Criminal Intent and SVU casting a shadow, we may all realize now that the original Law and Order is the most consistent and watchable version on TV right now.

Returning now to comedy. NBC debuted its Fall comedy line-up last night. I don't know if you've been paying attention by NBC has been hyping the shit out of this line-up, as well as a couple of new, non-Thursday dramas (Mercy and Trauma). Below is the schedule and some insights:

Saturday Night Live:
So SNL is in prime time. Holy shit. With a half an hour slot time I was curious as to what they would actually do. Now, I'm not sure if this will be the formula for every episode but if it is let me first say I'm pretty OK with it: the show starts with the standard SNL opening skit and then segues into 15+ minutes of Weekend Update with Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler. Pretty great. Falling somewhere between The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the segment is literally just an elongated version of the regular Weekend Update sketch with more space for featured impersonations, which were pretty great. Also added to the program is a segment called "Really!?!" where Seth and Amy, this week, took on Kanye West's "performance" at the MTV Music Awards. It was as good as it sounds.

Parks and Recreation:
Before last night I had watched a few episodes of Parks and Recreation, dubbed it an Office-type spinoff and quickly lost interest. However, when I began to see the spots for the new season I realized that I ought to give the show another chance as many comedies begin to gain definition during their second season. Parks and Rec is more involved, thus far, than The Office, but is setting itself up for a very similar dramatic arc with a cross-over character. Rashida Jones, who plays Jim's girlfriend during the third season of The Office, is involved in a developing love-triangle. As of yet there isn't anything to spoil, but the show proved to be a little funnier than the prior season. Individually the characters are evolving on their own but what's even more exciting is the way they are interacting, less like characters and more like really awkward people. Despite the drawback of being seen as an Office spin-off, Parks and Recreation still has a chance to define itself as a unique comedy.

The Office:
Believe it or not we are only entering into the sixth season of The Office. It feels like much longer than that, doesn't it? That's likely because the narrative arc of The Office really feels like it moves in real time. In the initial seasons there was no great push to develop exterior plots and many episodes were dedicated simply to the every day madness of the office. With the third and fourth seasons The Office increased its emotional budget, bringing in more dramatic elements than ever. Still, it was these same dramatic elements that caused viewers to watch week after week to see if the writer's would indulge them with any small, romantic developments. The Office also shattered expectations by bringing on new characters, after two complete seasons, that proved to be as funny or funnier than the original cast. I'm speaking mostly of Andy Bernard who continues to be one of my favorite characters (remember the "dance off" in season five?) But we are no longer in the elementary stages of The Office and as far as I can tell the writers are slowly running out of places to take the show. Pam and Jim are having a baby. After seasons worth of Pam-Jim drama there is little left to work with. The jokes are still pretty funny but the one dimensional archetypes are becoming woefully predictable. In short its becoming hard to sustain any interest in the show. My prediction is that this will be either the last season of The Office (pulling a Seinfeld and choosing nobly to call it quits) or its second to last season (embarrassingly not renewed due to lack of interest).

Community was the most hyped show on the new Thursday lineup, and with good reason: it is the only really new show on the lineup. Jay Leno is a staple of NBC so although he has a "new" show (we'll get to that soon) nothing there is actually new. At all. Community, despite the hype, was a mixed bag. With Chevy Chase in a supporting role I kind of figured the show would rely on his comedic presence. It did not. Instead the focus was almost entirely on Joel McHale, whose character Jeff, once a lawyer now a community college student, is a morally corrupted former lawyer looking for success and action. The main characters, introduced (presumably) in its entirety during the first episode are quirky enough. Excluding Chase and Alison Brie who played a sidebar character in AMC's Mad Men, the cast is almost completely unknown, another reason NBC probably pushed the show so hard. The jokes are sub-standard with the previews giving away some of the better one's (which still weren't that great), although the dialog is witty and well timed. The show seems like its got a good sense of what it is but thus far doesn't seem terribly sustainable. Maybe good for one season? We'll see.

The Jay Leno Show:
So Jay Leno ceded his late night spot to Conan (good) but refused to go away (bad). The Jay Leno Show is a carbon copy of his late night program. Jay comes out, makes topical jokes (more like screams them) for far too long, interviews a couple of guests, makes a few more jokes and then thankfully goes away. The show is unfortunately totally renewable as for some reason Leno appeals to people. Who these people are, I'm not sure. Leno's comedy is based on things that you and your friends might discover on the internet and have a good chuckle about but which are totally unworthy of television. All of his opening topical bits are like Onion cover stories only told by Jay Leno so they aren't funny at all. With people like Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon hosting shows it begs the question: what does it take, if anything, to host a talk show? My guess is that Leno's new program will run out of steam shortly after he runs out of relevant A-list celebrity guests and returns to interviewing soon-forgotten stars of even sooner-forgotten Hollywood blockbusters.

Overall Thursdays on NBC are still the best night of television. They are honest, intelligent comedy as opposed to the trashy accidental comedy of the CW (Gossip Girl, The Beautiful Life, America's Next Top Model, etc.). The biggest disappointment of the night: where the fuck is 30 Rock?! Far and away NBC's best comedy, the network has been promising "The return of 30 Rock" for weeks only to acknowledge in the middle of Community that the premier of its fourth season won't occur until October 15th. By that point Parks and Rec., Community and the new season of The Office will have a chance to prove their worth before (I predict) 30 Rock flattens them completely. There are many reasons why this will happen. 30 Rock, after three seasons, is still fresh and unpredictable. Its cast, one of the best I've seen, is self-sufficient but also gloriously interactive. Each character can sustain him or herself but is ultimately funnier in combination: they greater than the sum of their parts, which is still pretty great. The show is topical, yes, but also self referential, weaving an elaborate pattern of inside jokes. The writing is sharp, raunchy, relatively romantic, obscure, and absurd all at once. The best part about 30 Rock is that it is young enough to attract the 18-24 demographic but not so young as to alienate older viewers. Not to mention the fact that it has the best taste in guests of any show on television. It has an undeniable claim to that age-old adage "there's something for everyone!"

NBC, unlike the other networks mentioned here is a network that is constantly growing and shifting, rather than just covering up its same old blunders with new shapes and colors in order to distract its audience away from its own laziness and bad, boring taste. This is what a young audience is looking for. Their is an internal restlessness that is built into the comedic audience, and especially into the college age viewer who is being exposed to so many things in such a brief period of time that they are instinctively conditioned to move on quickly. A good comedy does not just develop unseen and inexplicably between seasons, but also during the season, sometimes within the framework of a single episode. At NBC the focus is on movement and growth. Even if a show fails it is a risk worth taking to provide something fresh. Other networks will renew a show because its successful and there's nothing wrong with this. Shows like Two and a Half Men and House are renewed because people watch them. NBC is answering the call of viewers who are bored with network comedy that does nothing and doesn't go anywhere. In a time when the boundaries of television are being dramatically expanded, it is important that the established networks participate in the trends that may one day define a new era of television.

ps: Stay tuned for my review of District 9 and a possible belated and unnecessary review of Amelie.

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