In which I rank sitcoms based on my arbitrary whims. This week, Parks celebrates its 100th episode, the Greendale gang gets sucked into a David Fincher film, and much more.
1. PARKS AND RECREATION: “Second Chunce”
I would wish you luck, but I believe luck is a construct invented by the weak to explain their failures.
Who’da thought that this show would last 100 episodes? NBC has been trying to kill it off for years, but because every new show they’ve premiered since trying to go “broad” has failed, Parks is now inexplicably the network’s highest-rated comedy. (The second? That other little show that could, Community.) But whatever the reason, the 100th episode of Parks is cause for celebration. And it’s typical of this understated series that it doesn’t do anything flashy or gimmicky within it — save perhaps the episode’s tag, with Leslie and Ben in Paris: a sequence shot in secret during the crew’s London jag.
Leslie is at a crossroads; it’s her last day as a member of City Council, and she spends the first part of the episode collecting her things and introducing Ingrid (formerly of Eagleton) to her chair. Ingrid knows hardship — she once had to sell her yacht to Karl Lagerfeld — but no operatic harmony on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” makes the departure any easier for Leslie. But Leslie will cling to any rope dangled in front of her, even if the dangling is being done by admitted sexter Councilman Dexhart. She gets the bright idea to run for his seat in the fall, believing that this latest scandal will surely be the last straw for Pawneeans, but the rest of the Parks department aren’t so enthused by the idea (except Jerry, naturally, and April, who wants Leslie to turn into the Joker). Leslie has lost sight of her once-loftier ambitions — what’s a council seat in a small town to a woman who wanted to be the first female president? So Ben spends $1200 on one hour of Jen Barkley’s time, who gives her the real talk: Leslie has a thousand options, and should aim much, much higher. “And you know you can trust me…because I don’t care enough to lie.”
Leslie’s future plans — beyond a trip to J.J.’s Diner followed by couch makeout time with her husband — remain a secret for now, but so ends the Pawnee City Council chapter of Parks. Another character who needs to find a new direction is Tom: having just sold Rent-a-Swag to Dr. Saperstein, he casts about for a new business venture and even holds a Shark Tank-esque pitch competition, but comes up empty (though the Talking Tissue box had promise!) Ultimately, he invents a new position for himself, that of “Pawnee Business Liaison” (Ron: “I don’t like French words, but I like the word ‘business,’ so you may continue.”), and may finally be on the road to long-term success instead of coming up with his own ideas like a poor person. Meanwhile, Ann and Chris (once again off on an island, plot-wise) find out their child is a boy, and the slow countdown to their exit continues. So not much happened in this episode, but the characterizations are as strong as ever (jet-lagged Andy!) so I didn’t mind one bit.
2. COMMUNITY: “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics”
I checked out Mrs. Plimpton. Airtight alibi. She’s dead.
So if you were wondering how many episodes it would take Dan Harmon to get back into high-concept mode, the answer is “three.” A loving homage to David Fincher films like Zodiac and Se7en, right down to the low dolly shots and bleak color palette, “Intergluteal Numismatics” finds Greendale plagued by the reappearance of it’s most notorious criminal: “The Ass-crack Bandit,” who drops quarters down the pants of unsuspecting students when they least expect it. It’s an appropriately silly construct — as Hickey remarks, the victims actually gain 25 cents as a result — and oh so Greendale, which makes this episode a marked return to the kinds of highwire, fully-committed comedy Community is best known for. After Troy becomes the latest victim (and is immediately comforted by Abed with a blanket and hot chocolate, just like in the movies) Annie is on the case, and ropes Jeff into helping her catch the Bandit. But the Dean wants to act like everything is fine, and blocks their investigation at every turn, especially when Annie becomes convinced that their suspect is a teacher.
The Bandit has taken to leaving inscrutable notes for the investigators to find, but it’s only when Jeff realizes that they’re actually lyrics to Dave Matthews songs (“True fans call him Dave”) that they get their first real break. Jeff and Annie are also besieged throughout the episode with remarks about them again working together with ulterior motives, a direct confrontation of one of the many issues of the Harmon-less Season 4. Unfortunately, their “will they/won’t they” just no longer carries any dramatic weight, and if Community wants to fire that subplot up again, I’m not really going to be on board with it. But for now, it’s still percolating in the background.
I was tremendously excited to see my favorite musician, Ben Folds, cameo as a Botany professor and possible suspect, but that dead-ends so abruptly it just left me wondering what the point was. The school does end up capturing a “suspect”: it’s Star Burns, still alive(!), and living in the stables building a “cat car,” but he only admitted to the crimes so the Dean would let his meth-making slide. The real “ACB” is still out there. Is it Folds? Is it a lunch lady? Is it Britta? It’s not Professor Duncan (John Oliver, making a LONG-overdue return), who, despite his affinity for Dave Matthews, becomes a victim himself during a ridiculously foggy cafeteria dance party. It would be fun to see the show revisit this later in the season in a different way, considering that they’ve already done a brilliant Law & Order-themed episode, and now this. But the group gets a splash of reality right at the very end of the episode: Pierce Hawthorne is dead. How the show deals with that, we’ll see next week. I’ve heard a lot of great things.
3. NEW GIRL: “Clavado En Un Bar”
This moment is so chill and absent of drama, I want to name it Tim Duncan.
When is a bottle episode not a bottle episode? Sure, the sole thread of this week’s story has all six friends at Nick’s bar, counting down the minutes in real time to when Jess will get a phone call and have to make a hard decision. But “Clavado,” the first New Girl of the new year, has more on its mind: through a series of increasingly touching flashbacks, these wacky characters — who have more or less lost their way in this third season — become grounded once more. Things have gotten so bad at the school that Jess is teaching multiple subjects simultaneously (hey, Brian Posehn is here!), and a tempting job offer from a museum has her ready to abandon being a teacher altogether. But the guys set out to advise her on the right path using stories from their own lives, with questionable results — and in a few cases, leading them to evaluate the paths they’re on.
It wasn’t an incredibly funny half-hour, but it’s already one of my favorites from this season. We learned a great deal: Winston didn’t quit basketball in Latvia, he got injured and wasn’t all that great to begin with (though he was sporting an insane Rodman hairdo); Schmidt finally realizes that he has to stop chasing money, and returns to the Christmas tree lot he worked at when he was Fat Schmidt (and quite strong, apparently). We even learn Coach’s real first name! (It’s Ernie. Go figure.) But it’s Nick, who so often has only been barely functioning as a human being, who drops the biggest bombshell. He once passed the California bar, but gave up on being a lawyer for another kind of bar. Ultimately, Jess decides to remain a teacher, after some final 11th-hour inspiration from Ceecee (and some SUPER eerie flashback casting). It’s a solid, direction-setting episode, and for the first time all of New Girl’s characters have a clearly stated goal. It’s striking that needed balance between head, heart, and groin.
4. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: “Pontiac Bandit”
Gina live-tweets everything. She ruined Downton Abbey for me.
Once again, Jake’s overconfidence gets him into trouble. Tired of seeing different variations on that theme? Maybe the writers are too, because this time Jake just straight-up blows the case. No last-minute reprieve; Diaz doesn’t save the day. The “Pontiac Bandit” (and second Bandit of the week), who Jake has been chasing for months, gets away. In a funny guest turn from Craig Robinson (The Office), the Bandit poses as a regular criminal with info about the P.B., and orchestrates an elaborate scheme (involving dressing Jake like he’s on the cover of a “Boyz II Men Easter album”) to set Jake up for a heaping dose of humble pie. But the cast continues to exhibit an easy chemistry, with the writers trying them out in different combinations — this week, Diaz joins Jake on the sting, and awkwardly has to pose as the perp’s girlfriend. (“I love meeting new people. It’s my jam.”) Once again, the situations and the dialogue are much more memorable than the actual plot.
That extends to the B-story, which has the rest of the 9-9 at the station, dealing with Boyle and his giant butt cast (and also, the second butt-themed plot of the week). When they get tired of reaching down his back for things he dropped, holding him up at the urinal (as Terry has to do, in the funniest sight gag of the night), and eating the intestine-destroying food he orders for lunch, Gina sets up a “Boyle-free Zone” in the evidence room. Meanwhile, Holt is carrying around a couple of adorable puppies all day, looking to find them a home (as only he can do, in Braugher’s impeccable deadpan), and it’s only a matter of time before they end up with a lonely Boyle. One of Brooklyn‘s strongest aspects comes straight from Parks, and it’s simply its likability and warmth. There’s no souped-up drama here, just competent people trying to do their jobs and honestly trying to get along. The humor feels organic, not manufactured. It’s cool that the Golden Globes recognized that, even though the show’s still quite young. It still has some growing up to do.
5. MODERN FAMILY: “And One to Grow On”
Okay, I give up. I said weeks ago that I’d only talk about this series when I had something new to say, and while I’m definitely still watching it and laughing 2-3 times an episode (clinging to Ty Burrell like a life raft), the other night I was finally able to put my finger on what’s been bothering me. It’s not just the rehashed plots and turning once-beloved characters into caricatures — there’s another kind of element this season emerging out of the background. Quite simply, it’s the affluence. Obviously, as California families with pretty nice-looking houses, they’re all rich and successful, and that’s fine (even if I had no idea walk-in closets were so lucrative) — but they’ve started using their money to solve the week-to-week conflicts, and it’s killing their relatability.
Not only do we have to deal with all the usual sitcom shenanigans while planning Mitchell & Cam’s wedding, the sheer extravagance on display is more than a little off-putting. This week, Phil was arrested for Haley’s 18 (18!!!) traffic tickets, and he offered to write the officer a check for them then and there. And don’t get me started on the Pritchetts’ new nanny (or “manny,” as he keeps referring to himself.) It’s a problem that plagued NBC’s Up All Night throughout its aborted run, and is now undercutting the comedy at every turn. And don’t think that I’m just some kind of classist 99%-er. Modern Family’s themes and plot engines used to be universal, and universally funny. Now I’m just rolling my eyes.