A review of The Michael J. Fox Show pilot, Pawnee goes to London, and more in a new weekly feature where I rank sitcom episodes based on my arbitrary whims.
1. PARKS AND RECREATION: “London”
Hogwarts is fictional. Do you know that? It’s important to me that you know that.
No series in its sixth season can be expected to be this good. Parks and Recreation is a warm hug, a series full of characters that I’d follow to the ends of the earth because they’re just fun to hang out with, and it could easily just coast by on its effortless charm in what is likely to be its final season. Another concern is how the show will feel with showrunner Mike Schur splitting his time between this and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. However, judging by this near-perfect one-hour premiere, any fears can be laid to rest.
Parks has always been a show unafraid to have its characters make game-changing decisions, and we get another one in the cold open with the immediate marriage proposal (“I wanted to do it in a canoe, in fact I had built a canoe for that purpose”) and even more immediate wedding of Ron and Diane. We haven’t spent a ton of time with Diane, but we know that these two are a perfect match, and has brought out shades of The Swanson that are wonderful to behold. Leslie gets swept up in the joy of the (abbreviated) occasion, as do we.
And that’s just the first ten minutes. If that was the highlight of the episode, that would be enough — but there’s fifty more minutes of life-affirming brilliance to come. April nominates Leslie for an international “women in government” award, and she wins. The gang goes to London for her to accept it, but Leslie is worried the whole time about how her beloved Pawnee is itching to ride her out on a rail, despite everything she does for them, and her off-the-cuff speech where she calls them “a bunch of pee-pee heads” goes viral and lands her in further hot water. She takes Ron’s advice to stop looking for affirmation in her thankless job, and the plot is set in motion for the season to come as she fights against the recall election.
But wait–there’s more! The show finds a rationale for leaving Andy in London (where Chris Pratt is shooting Guardians of the Galaxy), as he’ll be helping essentially the rich, British version of himself run a non-profit. Tom identifies the mysterious businessman trying to run Rent-a-Swag out of business — it’s Jean-Ralphio’s dad (Henry Winkler), who pledges anew to destroy Tom even when the lies of his terrible children are exposed. In the lightest subplot, Chris and Ann — who will be leaving the series this year — are having a baby, and they fish for excited reactions but only need Leslie’s. Even the tag, as Leslie sends the European-hating Ron on a journey to an unknown location that turns out to be his favorite distillery, sums up everything I love about this show: it’s profoundly decent. How refreshing, in this age of brooding anti-heroes and crass humor, to have characters that simply like each other and do nice things? And why the heck isn’t this more popular?
2. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: “The Tagger”
Here are two pictures. One is your locker, the other is a garbage dump in the Philippines. Can you tell which is which?
Like I wrote last week, the pilot was a necessary exposition dump, and as a consequence not consistently funny. This week, I laughed out loud all the way through. I am all in on these characters, this bizarre (but strangely grounded world), and Mike Schur & Dan Goor’s vision for this show. I have my feet firmly planted on the ground floor of this thing, ready to raise my flag in triumph when critics in a year or two begin to point to it as one of the best shows on television — we’re two episodes in, and this might be the most self-assured debut, the best 1-2 punch for a new series, since Arrested Development.
I’ll even come out and say this: historically, I’ve never really found Andy Samberg that funny. I laughed at a few SNL digital shorts like everyone else, but I’ve hated all his movies and have just found him grating. Not in this. Jake Peralta is the perfect vehicle for his brand of goofy charm, and Andre Braugher is the perfect foil for him. This week, Holt takes a special interest in Jake because of his sloppy nature and tactics, and “babysits” him as Jake attempts to bring in whoever has been lewdly spray-painting on police cars. That that turns out to be the son of the deputy commissioner kills two birds with one stone: we see Jack wrestle with and ultimately make the right decision regardless of what could happen to him, and the series sets up its first antagonist in the deputy. Like The Wire (a show Schur is a raving fan of), Brooklyn wants to show that the worst enemies sometimes aren’t the criminals on the street, but the bureaucrats within the system. Hey, any series that can get favorably compared to The Wire has to be worth watching.
Not everything about this episode worked — I’m not sold on the need for flashbacks (something 30 Rock has basically trademarked, despite not having invented them), the scenes with the psychic felt too broad and shtick-y, and the supporting cast still needs to find their feet a bit. The only other character who’s really popped so far is Chelsea Perreti’s civilian liason, who’s running ramshod over everyone she shares the screen with. But it’s plenty funny, and I expect it to settle down and iron out its issues soon.
And if I’m wrong? We’ll never speak of this again.
3. NEW GIRL: “Nerd”
I wouldn’t even begin to know how to steal a swag.
The funniest show of last year, the new season of New Girl begins in an uncertain place. Nick and Jess had been circling each other all throughout the back half of Season 2, leading to an unfathomable run of quality (basically everything from “Pepperwood” on), and finally decided to give a real relationship a go. In last week’s premiere, that led to immediate panic and flight to Mexico, in an episode that didn’t totally hang together for me. This week they come back to the real world, with Nick helping Jess get in with the “cool teachers” at her new school. It’s a fun if abbreviated caper, and it’s always great to see guest stars Angela Kinsey (The Office) and Dreama Walker (the unfairly cancelled Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23), but after a streak of game-changing moves, the series has yet to find that magic rhythm.
Schmidt is trapped in a plotline so stale, even last year’s maligned season of Community made fun of it: the “simultaneous dates” gambit. Merritt Wever is wonderful, but that’s not enough reason to keep her character around when all it’s doing is cause the show to tread water here. I loved the “2/3-scale replica of Don Draper’s office” gag, but it symbolizes what Schmidt (and really, all of the characters) is doing: trying on a persona that doesn’t fit. Winston, similarly, has no defining characteristics anymore other than “crazy person,” and while Lamorne Morris is hysterical in the role (last week’s “every day I’m puzzlin’, puzzlin'”), he needs to be more than the straight man (Season 1) or rough concoction of quirks that resembles a person (Season 2). Fortunately, the writers know this, and I’m ready for the “Year of Winston” to take flight. It just needs to be more meaningful than this week’s snap decision to murder his cheating girlfriend’s cat.
4. MODERN FAMILY: “Suddenly, Last Summer/First Days”
He was up at 5 in the morning ironing, but he also does that when he’s depressed so I don’t know.
I’ll be up front: I don’t intend to cover this show because I feel pretty neutral towards it, but I’ll do my due diligence for its premiere. It’s sporadically funny, well-crafted, and has enough reliable actors (love ya, Ty Burrell) to make it worth the watch, but I don’t really know what to say about it going forward. Now beginning its fifth season, you know what you’re going to get with every single episode: a comic misunderstanding, childish antics, Gloria screeching, a couple Phil Dunphy puns, and a closing voiceover tying all of the plot threads up with a heartwarming bow. Between its adherence to formula, its very tired, inconsistent “mockumentary” format, and somehow managing to win the top prize at the Emmys every year of its existence, you can understand how it’s feeling pretty stale at this point.
Now, that makes it sound like I hate it. I don’t. It’s a perfectly fine, workmanlike show. It does its job: show up, tell a few jokes, and go home without making any waves. Even the central idea of the first half-hour this week, with Cam and Mitchell planning separate proposals after the Supreme Court decision this past summer, is underplayed because ABC would really rather not lose the flyover states that make it its highest-rated sitcom. There are some funny ideas in the second episode (I enjoyed Cam’s coaching the football team while in his George Washington costume), but for every gag that really works there’s another that just rehashes the same beats we’ve seen for about 100 episodes now. The best shows — again, Parks and Rec comes to mind — work extra hard to fight off that feeling of stasis, and aren’t afraid to completely rebuild the world if necessary. Instead Modern Family, like most hyper-successful series on an “if it ain’t broke…” network, embraces that feeling. I’ll write about it when it does something really distinct.
5. THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW: “Pilot/Neighbor”
Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving.
Whatever issues these first two episodes have, they certainly can’t be laid at the feet of the star. Michael J. Fox throws himself headlong into all of the meta gags and self-deprecation, and proves to still be his amiable, impish self, despite not having anchored a television series since Spin City. The pilot episode wasn’t that funny, but set the plot engine — man with Parkinson’s returns to television, the most meta joke of them all — in motion effectively, while introducing Betsy Brandt and Wendell Pierce (two beloved supporting actors, in one place!) in their respective roles of wife and boss. The rest of the family isn’t that fleshed out. I enjoy Conor Romero as the swaggering wannabe Zuckerberg, and Katie Finneran’s Aunt Leigh is barely a character at all, but this is a pilot — so we’re grading on potential here. Based on the first 30 minutes, it’s evident there’s enough talent in front of and behind the camera to eventually be successful…
…Which is why it was so disappointing when the second episode, which aired immediately after, fell so quickly into genre conventions. A “hot upstairs neighbor?” A new friend for Fox’s daughter that she mistakenly thinks is a lesbian? The youngest son gets hyped on sugar? Apparently we’re assuming Fox has to just pick up where he left off in 1998. Worst of all, it IMMEDIATELY abandons what was I thought was to be the primary show environment — in no scene does Fox do anything resembling anchoring the news. I don’t know about you, but I was hoping this was going to be more of a workplace comedy. “Neighbor” was the kind of episode that typically lands around number 18, when the show has to spin its wheels a bit before building to its finale…not already. Maybe it was just a programming mistake on NBC’s part; we’ll have a better sense next week what this show is really about.
GRADE: 3 out of 5