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Thursday Night Preference Rankings for 3/24/11

March 30, 2011

(First, a brief preamble – this post sat in various stages of completion in my drafts folder for nearly a week. Each time I came back, I kept adding on.)

I don’t watch a lot of “appointment” TV. I’ll usually put the TV on when I can’t sleep, while I’m cooking, or when I want to avoid work. There’s about half a dozen shows that I watch regularly and will seek out in reruns or on Hulu if I miss, and a high concentration of them are on NBC Thursday nights (South Park and Bob’s Burgers are the two others, and I generally end up watching Saturday Night Live only if I’m staying in on a Saturday). It’s the perfect storm of TV comedy – the big block of shows that I watch regularly all air on Thursday night when I’m generally ready for a couple hours on the couch.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that when these shows are new, I’m generally more active on Twitter either repeating favorite lines, reacting to scenes, or discussing with my Twitter friends who are watching. A few times, I posted an informal gut ranking at the end of the night (although many weeks, like this one, it’s difficult to rank the shows I watch) and others would chime in with my disagreement. It was pretty fun to hear what other people think and, even when frustrating, fun to try to put some of my ideas down.

So that’s what this is – on the weeks it’s possible, I’m going to post what I’m dubbing my “Preference Rankings” (because I’m not pretentious enough to call them “Power Rankings”) for the previous night’s shows along with some of my thoughts and rationale. It’s not a “recap” and not straight-up criticism, but rather one fan’s running thought process throughout the season (and, for what it’s worth, will generally lean on personal preference and gut instinct in tie-breaking situations) . I’d love to hear your thoughts too!

So here’s the first edition, with some slightly longer thoughts to help frame my general take on the current seasons.

(Also – spoilers. Lots of them. Stop here and go to Hulu/your DVR and come back later. Double-also – if anyone could point me toward places that screencap these episodes, I’d appreciate it)

1. The Office – “Garage Sale” (Last week: repeat)

It’s been a few years since I’ve watched any of the original (UK) episodes of The Office, but one of the fundamental differences between my reactions for the shows was that I generally pitied David Brent and rooted for Michael Scott.  This isn’t to say that Michael Scott is entirely sympathetic – he isn’t, and for long stretches of the show he’s grating and borderline infuriating. However, there are numerous small moments that somewhat redeem his flaws – finding out that he’s a natural salesman, or watching him return from his Michael Scott Paper Company exile triumphantly. I’m glossing over the series at this point, but with a few exceptions, it’s been easy to root for Michael Scott to do well.

This made the narrative around Holly’s return, shedding of her boyfriends, and reunion with Michael so wonderful. At various points this season (as recently as last week on Twitter, even), I’ve been ready to kick Michael out the door. Instead, this episode reminded me why I stuck with him (and the show) for so long. We saw his zany, sweet, and misguided side when he almost burns down the building and brainstorms numerous other awful proposal ideas. More importantly, the entire proposal – the history walk through the building, the corridor of coworkers (more on this in a minute), and the Yoda-voiced, sprinkler drenched proposal – felt perfect. (Edit: Holly’s first episode reran on TBS last night, and one of the first “bonding” moments between Michael and Holly alone came when they each did their Yoda impressions while on the floor rebuilding Holly’s desk chair. Symmetry!)

The last moment that was this overtly-emotional (and perfectly executed) was the montage in Jim and Pam’s wedding, where the coworkers “surprise” reenactment of that wedding meme alternated with Jim and Pam’s “true” and private wedding moment on Niagra Falls. I wasn’t really big on the original viral video (so take that into account), and even though the scene was so well done (and appropriate in this universe), it never sat well with me that the coworkers would hijack the ceremony. Still, it made sense, as Michael always pushed the “work life is your family” thing. Michael’s proposal, where Holly had to turn down the “proposals” from members of the staff felt right.  Maybe the difference was that Michael was already in the spotlight (where in Jim and Pam’s wedding, he needed to seize it), but it felt right (and the right note for him to leave, which a lot of the audience already knew but the players didn’t).

One final note, as I’ve already gone on too long: the episode’s B stories (or B and C stories) combined both a classic thread – the Jim-Dwight pranking – and a recent favorite – the Darryl-Andy-X pairing, with Kevin filling out the triangle. The Office often succeeds because of the supporting cast, and after Steve Carell (who it’s worth noting directed this episode near flawlessly) leaves, it will truly become the ensemble’s ship to sail or sink.

2. Community – “Critical Film Studies” (Last Week: #2)

As good as The Office was as an episode this week, it largely won because of the closing act. This week’s Community, falsely hyped as a Pulp Fiction parody (although those costumes were pretty amazing, and it nailed some of the smaller details), was the most daring of all four shows. Like the audience expecting a Pulp Fiction homage, Jeff’s plans for Abed’s birthday are hijacked (as we later find out, for an homage to My Dinner with Andre, which I imagine shipped a lot on Netflix this week) and scrambled. I imagine that it didn’t sit well with a lot of people, but the episode worked for me for two main reasons.

First, much like the “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” episode (neck and neck with last week’s Parks & Recreation for my single favorite episode of the entire season), this episode relied on conversation to tell the story. However, unlike that episode’s in-game interactions, Abed and Jeff traded soul-barring monologues with each other. Whether it was the framing in these scenes, the acting (which doesn’t really get discussed on this show a whole lot, unfortunately), or investment in these characters, but I was transfixed for the entirety of these scenes (even when I didn’t know where Abed was going with the whole Cougar Town thing).

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for the show going forward, this episode continued to give Jeff Winger a more troubled backstory. If Season 1 found Jeff coming to terms with his circumstances and accepting his role in the study group, Season 2 sheds light on an increasingly tangled past, specifically his childhood.  First there were the dad issues Pierce manipulated while in the hospital, and now Jeff shares a traumatic experience from his childhood. It’s making him a more complex (and perhaps sympathetic?) character. It’s also a sign that the writers are moving in the right direction – toward telling these characters’ stories and watching them interact with each other and not just mimicking movies.

Overall, the risks putting so much of the burden on the dinner conversations (and really exceptional performances from Joel McHale, who I’ve really warmed up to, and Danny Pudi) paid off. At least it did for me.

3. 30 Rock – “Plan B” (Last week: #3)

Maybe it’s an example of me seeing what I want to see (and I’m sure there’s a more specific type of term, like “inquisitive fallacy”), but I often see patterns between these shows in a given night. This week, there was a “return to form” element in a lot of the shows. Maybe it was just the byproduct of following last week’s pitch perfect reality spoof (which was so on-point that it was kind of infuriating at times), but this felt like a “classic” 30 Rock episode. That said, Will Arnett’s return and Aaron Sorkin’s self-mocking cameo (complete with walk & talk) put this episode above Parks and Recreation this week. I’ll be interested to see how this whole “TGS may get cancelled” trend will resolve (which, according to Wikipedia, looks like it comes to a point with an hour long episode in a couple weeks).

4. Parks and Recreation – “Camping” (Last week: #1)

First, a couple of caveats. If I could, I’d let this episode tie with 30 Rock. Also, being fourth this week is not a knock on the show bur rather a statement about the quality of all of the shows this week (as this one was really funny). After last week’s “Harvest Festival” (which had a near perfect first act and the emotional punch of giving Leslie Knope a major professional success), a bit of a letdown was natural (and the plot seemed to follow that logic, as it centered around a retreat to brainstorm the Parks Department’s follow up to the festival). My notes: it was nice to see that the show found a reasonable (and funny) way to bring Rob Lowe back into Pawnee, even if it leads to more torture for Ann Perkins (who is on a red-highlighted unlucky streak). Also, April and Andy’s relationship is a joy to watch unfold, as April’s cynicism slowly melts with Andy’s goofiness (she also gets the best line of the episode: “why won’t this brook stop babbling?”). It was a good episode of a show that is firing on all cylinders – it just happened to coincide with a couple shows having signature moments.

All four shows are on repeats until April 14th (which I found out after writing all of this, but oh well), so maybe in the meantime I’ll try to write about some of the related thoughts I tried to keep out of this post (Leslie Knope as my spirit animal, etc.). Also, next time around this will be both timelier and shorter!

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