In which I rank sitcoms based on my arbitrary whims. This week, Community has one of its strongest episodes in years, Ben Wyatt gets pranked, my thoughts on the Enlisted pilot, and more.
1. COMMUNITY: “Cooperative Polygraphy”
You exploited me…and made me believe in a slightly more magical world!
That was outstanding. As both a sibling to season 2’s “Cooperative Calligraphy,” and a fitting closure for the story of Pierce Hawthorne (and the tumultuous departure of Chevy Chase), this episode fired on all cylinders. In order to receive whatever Pierce has “bequeathed” them, the group submits to polygraph tests and a series of invasive questions — administered by a beautifully deadpan Walton Goggins (Justified) — an elaborate ruse from beyond the grave, to get them to turn on each other one more time. And boy, do the secrets fly. From Abed’s trackers, to Jeff’s “trophies,” to Annie’s dosing of the study group, to Troy’s damaging reveal that he found his “secret best friend handshake” on YouTube, the group spirals downward into finger-pointing and ritual shaming. Like that other “bottle episode,” the group is almost torn apart, until Jeff convinces them that laying everything on the table is the only way they’re going to heal. (I also couldn’t help but be reminded of last year’s “puppet episode,” as if Dan Harmon was determined to one-up its big moment of catharsis.)
It’s brilliant, and hilarious, and heartbreaking all at the same time. The pace never flags for a second, as the camera spins around the table with each new reveal. The moment after a particularly dizzying round of accusations when Goggins calmly retorts that “Mr. Hawthorne hasn’t spoken in some time” — the group is doing this entirely to themselves — is chilling. But Pierce has one final surprise. At the end of the testing, with everyone sitting broken around the table, Goggins hands out their rewards. Aside from everyone getting a cryogenic tube of his sperm (an announcement that gets funnier each time), Pierce has a few words to say to each member of the group, and it’s a credit to Harmon that he lets the final thoughts of the character be sincere, and even moving. Pierce was never the group’s moral compass — by any stretch — but he was the one with the most life experience, and only wanted to keep the others from falling into his mistakes. He tells Annie she was his favorite, he credits Britta’s passion, but he saves the best for Troy, who can receive millions of dollars in stock options if he sails Pierce’s dad’s boat around the world (a trip Pierce himself never completed.) Troy, spurred on by his desire to finally be his own man, takes the offer, and it’s a rare serious moment for the show — but it’s completely earned. If this is how Donald Glover is going to leave the series (next week’s episode will be his last), I expect it’s going to be quite an emotional goodbye.
2. PARKS AND RECREATION, “New Beginnings”
Elk hair, it’s the most effective hair for binder security. You know that, Ron!
It’s another transitional episode for Parks, and another where Leslie returns to her steamroller ways until the final act. Back in the department for the first time since her unceremonious bouncing from the city council, she is determined to wrest control back from the people she’s spent so much of the last few years mentoring. Tom (as the new “Business Liason”) has a major presentation coming up, and Leslie is unable to trust him, because she hasn’t been around to see how much he’s grown. He won’t even use her patented 80-step binder of project preparedness! And what’s with April and Donna finding everyone’s “spirit dogs?” Why do they get to choose? Why not “spirit kangaroos?” Once again, Ron has to talk sense into her, and she finally gives Tom permission to — in Tom’s words — “rip it.” It’s going to be a bumpy time for Leslie, but Ron knows that this is just a way station for her. She just needs to figure out her next move.
Meanwhile, Ben is the new City Manager, and the rest of the staff aren’t taking so kindly to his new system of rules. (No Facebook during work hours? Come on!) So April, Donna and Andy pull off a heart attack of a prank, getting Ben hauled down to the police station for importing his “illegal cheese” from his Paris trip (panicked Ben is the best Ben.) But as much as Ben desires order and structure, he also desperately wants to be liked, so he attempts to mount a prank of his own, but backs out at the last moment. (It involved a kidnapping, car crash, and divers. Yikes.) Ultimately, it all turns out in typical warm, Parks fashion, but it’s a rare Ben plot that felt unfocused and half-hearted. And for the third episode running, Chris and Ann are left off in their own subplot, this time waffling over proposing: first done in the courtyard (while Jerry chokes on crackers in the background), then again in a jewelry store in front of the increasingly annoyed salesman as the couple can’t settle on a ring — or if they even want to get married. There’s only two episodes left for them, so I hope they get brought back into the fold very soon. A just-okay episode of Parks is finally redeemed by the final, brilliant gag, as Ron receives a government award and sets out to destroy it and all evidence of it. It’s a hysterical, wordless sequence, from the wood shop, to the fire, to the burial site across state lines. Oh, Ron. Never change.
3. NEW GIRL: “Basketsball”
I got some real hot pics in here. There’s one of me as a sexy mayor, lookin’ out the window, deciding the future of my city…
Jess, who wants to be known to Coach as an actual human being and not just “Nick’s girlfriend,” sets in motion a not-totally-foolproof plan to get him to like her by faking an interest in basketball. And specifically, Coach’s beloved Detroit Pistons. Zooey Deschanel plays Jess’s sudden enthusiasm for the sport (and her totally ignorance about the rules, terminology, or which team she should be cheering for) with hilarious childlike abandon, while tensions with Nick grow to a boil. As a diehard Chicago Bulls fan, he refuses to share his bed with anyone in a Pistons shirt, whether they came by it honestly or not. So the two proceed to taunt each other, both announcing that they’ll withhold sex until the other caves. Meanwhile, Coach feels betrayed when Jess reveals the truth, and balks when she tries to get to know him simply through conversation, but Nick smooths things over when he shares with Coach that bonding with a girl — even one as weird as Jess — as a friend isn’t nearly as complicated as he thinks it is. But the strength of the episode is, as always, in Deschanel and Jake Johnson’s chemistry, and the building gags as they try to make the other crack and switch teams (Nick falls first, showing up at the bar in an Isaiah Thomas jersey) are a comic delight.
In the B-story, Winston (looking for a new purpose in life) follows Schmidt around at his marketing job, where he immediately witnesses Schmidt getting played by an old bear (guest star Bob Gunton) who steals Schmidt’s ideas for “micro-marketing” and attempts to pass them off as his own. Schmidt gets the last laugh, but we ultimately learn much more about Winston, whose ability to read people (he picks up on Ed’s true motives long before Schmidt does) and thirst for justice might lend itself to another calling. There’s a “Denzel Washington in Training Day” impression that’s been waiting to burst out of Lamore Morris for a long time, and he — thanks to Cece, who’s quickly become extremely comfortable behind the bar — might now have a chance to put it to use.
4. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: “The Bet”
You look stoic today… like a wise old oak.
Fresh off its improbable duel Golden Globes victories (for Best Comedy Series, and for Best Andy Samberg), B99 must now set about earning those accolades. The HFPA loves to be the first to award the Shiny New Thing, and this year Brooklyn caught their gaze, despite only being halfway through its first season. So if anyone watched this show for the first time out of curiosity, you found a pretty solid episode built on the strength of the ensemble, which returned this week to close the loop on a plot thread first opened in the pilot: Jake and Amy competing for the most felony arrests. Jake wins the bet, which means that he gets to take Santiago on the “worst date of all time,” which will involve a ridiculous dress, a live tiger cub, and another $1400 dollars of absurd extravagance. Holt, wary of the damage that such an evening will do to squad morale, quickly assigns them to a stakeout, but it’s Boyle — high on pain meds that make him an involuntary truth-teller — who sees to the heart of the problem: Jake might actually like Amy. Samberg and Melissa Fumero do have a great chemistry, but the show doesn’t force the issue; it just gives them a series of fun scenes where (after Andy secretly tells Holt to call off their replacements) they work together to pull off the sting, and have a nice evening together after all. Nothing’s going to come from their shifting relationship right away, and to my mind that’s a good thing. Trying to make that work right now would be an unnecessary distraction for a show still finding its feet.
Another romance the show is playing with is the ever one-sided Boyle/Diaz affair, which achieves a real moment of clarity this week when Boyle (again, incapable of sharing anything but his true feelings) tells Diaz that despite her concerns, he didn’t dive in front of that bullet just for her. He did it simply because it was right. “And when you finally go out with me, and you will, it’ll be because of things only Charles Boyle would do.” It’s awkward and sweet, but funny, and true to the characters. Holt gets into some hot water of his own when he reveals to Terry’s wife (Merrin Dungey, Alias!) that Terry is back out in the field, and proceeds to dig himself deeper and deeper with each scene. It’s fun to see Holt flustered (finally!), and the entire episode managed to juggle all of its disparate storylines much better than it has in the past. You can see Parks producer Mike Schur’s guiding hand, not least with the involvement of yet another equine hero that sends the characters into a tizzy, a la Lil’ Sebastian: Sergeant Peanut Butter, who receives the same medal as Boyle, at the same ceremony as Boyle, and then poops on the stage. Poor Boyle.
5. ENLISTED: “Pilot”
I’m gonna go watch The Hurt Locker to cheer myself up.
Creator Kevin Biegel, who worked on Scrubs and Cougar Town, has pulled off a really neat trick: a military comedy that is legitimately funny, meaningful, apolitical, and entirely respectful of those uniform. Pitched somewhat as “Stripes: The Series,” Enlisted centers on three brothers assigned to Rear Detachment (or “Rear D,”) or what is basically the butt end of the stick. They deliver mail, wash tanks, and do whatever is needed on the homefront. What this means is that Rear D is filled with the types of people who essentially have no business on a battlefield; it’s a motley crew of quirky personalities, the chronically un-fit, and people sent stateside as punishment. One of these latter types is Pete Hill (Geoff Stults), the oldest of the three brothers, a macho man’s man who punched out a superior officer and found himself shipped over from Afghanistan to command this backwater platoon. His brothers, Derrick (Chris Lowell, the sarcastic one) and Randy (Parker Young, the emotionally stunted one) are only here because they’re following their father’s footsteps; they have no intention to fight overseas, nor are they really cut out for it. So when Pete comes to join them at Camp McGee in Florida, there’s at first a lot of resentment, because the others felt abandoned. Enlisted isn’t afraid to tackle those tough subjects, and the pilot goes to some unexpectedly emotional places that never feel cloying or sentimental. It’s a great picture of brotherhood, both in the familial sense and in the Army sense.
It actually has a lot in common with that short-lived NBC show Go On — the one where Matthew Perry, after the death of his wife, joins a support group full of weirdos. This pilot culminated in a paintball match between the Hills’ squad and a visiting group of musky Italians, and though it’s a typical “outcasts persevere” type of plot (which I’ll forgive because a pilot like this has a LOT of work to do in a very short time), it’s aided by a crackling rapport between the three brothers. Everyone gets off multiple funny lines, and Randy is positioned to be one of the breakout characters of the TV season. And, as always, it’s great to see Keith David (as the camp’s commanding officer, armed with one prosthetic foot) in anything. So, especially in a military town like SA where this strain of humor has a lot of play, it’s absolutely worth checking out. Now if only FOX could get the show out of its Friday night death slot…