In which I arbitrarily rank the latest episodes of sitcoms. This week: Tatiana “Clone Club” Maslany comes to Pawnee, and a couple other shows flounder a bit.
1. PARKS AND RECREATION: “Gin It Up!”
Councilman Jamm will issue a statement on the scandal we’re calling “Twitter Watergate,” until we come up with a snappier title.
After a couple of episodes where Leslie exhibits her worst steamrolling qualities as a means of processing her impending recall election, it was great to see the show back on surer footing this week. In the main plot, Donna (Year of Donna!) accidentally posts a salacious personal tweet from the Parks account, and Leslie gets called on the carpet in front of a council and electorate all too eager to dump her. It’s about time we see Leslie confront these bozos head-on (Jamm: “How dare you demean the value of the political points I’m scoring!”) instead of dancing around the recall and taking her stress out on her friends, and while Leslie isn’t able to do total damage control here — even taking further hits when more of Donna’s tweets are read, some quite harsh on Leslie — she leaves the chambers with her relationships intact. And we had an Ethel Beavers sighting!
All three story threads were more isolated than usual; the second was the latest installment of “Ron now has to think about the needs of his new family,” this week visiting Trevor the lawyer to draw up his first real will (no, “Give all my possessions to the man who kills me” doesn’t count). Fortunately, Ron’s motivations aren’t selfish — he has apparently an ungodly amount of money buried in the ground, but doesn’t want his kids to become spoiled and have an easy life without working for it. It’s admirable, and makes perfect sense for the character. It’s writing decisions like these that separate Parks from the rest of the pack. That, and knowing the right moment to deploy Ron’s first-ever joke, though he doesn’t care for the practice.
In the C plot, TATIANA MASLANY!!!! The erstwhile Orphan Black star begins her abbreviated guest run, as a visitor from Doctors Without Borders so far out of Tom’s league he briefly dons a terrible British accent as a panic move (before throwing all the bureaucracy he can at her to keep her around, including introducing her to DJ Roomba). It’s unusual to see the incredibly gifted Maslany play the “normal” woman, but she brings a delightfully strong energy to her scenes with Tom and April (who for once isn’t being deliberately antagonistic), and I look forward to seeing this play out. With the recall looming along with Chris and Ann’s exits, there’s a lot of uncertainty across the board, which is absolutely daring and great. This may not turn out to be Parks’s finest season, but I’d much rather have it take risks than safely spin its wheels (see the bottom)…
2. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: “The Vulture”
Yes Boyle, I put that together myself. From context.
For the “possibly concerning” file: we’re five episodes into Brooklyn’s run, and every episode has Jake “learning a lesson” from Captain Holt. We’ve well-established by this point both Jake’s talent and immaturity, as well as his relationship with this C.O., and I’m ready to see him start to succeed on his own terms. This week we have the beginnings of that turn, as Jake (who has a murder case 99% solved) refuses to roll over and let Pembroke from Major Crimes (Dean Winters, who can play the arrogant jerk in his sleep) “Vulture” it away. Liquored up, he eventually decides to forgo personal glory and work with the rest of the team to solve it first, climaxing with a hilarious sequence where Diaz, Santiago, Boyle (as the door) and the rest role-play the case in order to crack it. But not only do the detectives work together well as characters, you can see the ensemble starting to gel.
Meanwhile, Holt lures Terry out to a shooting range, hoping to relax him enough to get re-certified and back on the streets (the flashback showing Terry’s quick trigger, bringing down first a mannequin then a pinata in a hail of bullets, is extremely funny). Gina is along for the ride as a witness, and the three have an easy chemistry in their improvised banter and their body language. Throughout both the A and B plots, the dialogue comes fast (“Do you carry a hair dryer in your purse?” “Sure, I’m not an animal,”) but manages to avoid the feeling of parody; this is a legitimately witty workplace/procedural, not a spoof or fantasy. We get a few of the recurring beats established in the pilot (hey there, guest star Andy Richter), but that’s to be expected and even encouraged as long as the writers find a way to differently subvert those tropes every time — and the Vulture is a terrific tertiary character to bring back again. Overall, it’s another distinctive and successful episode.
3. NEW GIRL: “The Box”
We wanna be playing a saxophone in an alley and have you walk by in a miniskirt with a purse with gems! But you girls don’t listen!
There’s something very off about this season in these early episodes. Let’s stop for a minute and ask ourselves: is the Jess/Nick relationship working? Despite how much of a boon their haphazard courtship was for the show last year, it’s obvious that these two are actually terrible for each other — but the conventions of television demand they get together, at least for a little while. What is refreshing is that the two are trying to become better people because they want to, not because their partner demands it. This week, Nick comes into a mysterious inheritance from his father, that Jess secretly uses to pay off Nick’s many mounting bills (lifeguard license? A car that doesn’t actually exist?) — which Nick feels is a violation of his privacy, because if a piece of paper goes into “the box,” he doesn’t have to think about it. Occasionally the characters of New Girl come across as painfully naive, but this was an unusually immature hill for even Nick to die on (it’s one thing for Ron Swanson to want to go “off the grid,” but he comes by that honestly, not just out of ignorance.)
After a scene of back-and-forth shouting, Jess continues to accept Nick for who he is, and Nick takes the unprecedented step of actually opening a bank account. It’s a weird evolution over the past two seasons where the formerly “adorkable” Jess is now the most grounded and mature loftmate, but that’s what happens when your other characters start to move backwards. Schmidt has a weird subplot where he turns back to his Jewish heritage in an effort to prove he’s a good person, and while Max Greenfield’s pronunciations will never not be funny, we’re still stalled with him as a character. The show couldn’t commit to him being evil last week, but it’s too soon for the group to forgive him for his misdeeds. And Winston…I love Winston, but I don’t even know what he’s still doing here. He’s just wallpaper now. RIP Winston.
4. MODERN FAMILY: “The Late Show”
The salesman said it was the style and he looked like a Mumford and Son so I think he would know.
Some of the best Modern Family episodes play with structure, either by presenting events non-linearly or by cleverly having plotlines dovetail into each other. “The Late Show” at first glance appears to be one of the latter, as we follow the three adult couples in parallel as they attempt to make it to a dinner reservation, but are held up for different petty reasons. The reason this is not one of the show’s best episodes is because, as they’ve done too often lately, the characters just don’t seem to like each other very much. Phil and Claire? Bickering over her not trusting Luke to take care of himself. Jay and Gloria? Bickering over how women take too long to get ready (am I right? High five!) Mitchell and Cam? STILL bickering over the details of their wedding, which Mitchell doesn’t feel like he has any control over. It’s exhausting, and almost insulting to the audience to keep rehashing these similar beats over and over again.
There are several gags that work — Gloria’s repeated “re-entrance” at the restaurant, anything with the kids (seriously, Haley’s a lot more fun now that she’s just observing the story instead of driving it), Phil’s tight suit though of course Ty Burrell can sell anything — but overall, it feels like not only is the show moving backwards, it’s happy to do it. It’s still as well-crafted and performed as ever, but it needs some major creative rejuvenation. Maybe recent hires to the writers’ room, Megan Ganz (Community) and Emily Spivey (Saturday Night Live) can make that happen, but the show needs to be unafraid to take its characters in a bold — and permanent — direction. Obviously the majority of viewers disagree, but there’s a reason why I don’t like to watch shows that just return to first position at the end of every episode. It gets boring. Charmingly boring, like Manny.