It’s time for the latest Sitcom Power Rankings, according to my arbitrary whims! This week we’ve got SIX shows on the docket, leading off with Enlisted’s new high-water mark.
1. ENLISTED: “Vets”
They’ll call me Pepe! I’ll be the best barber ever, trading haircuts for secrets!
I’m not a veteran, but I’d give this episode the slow-mo salute. Since the pilot, Enlisted has made its case as a series willing and able to juggle wild tonal shifts — wacky comedy hijinks and genuine soldier’s pathos — but where many series struggle with one or the other, Enlisted consistently nails both. There’s an incredible amount of heart put into this show, originating with creator Kevin Biegel (read his marvelous essay at THR about his own past, and the subject of “Vets”), and the way it’s managed to be funny AND thoughtful AND recognizable AND respectful is worthy of all the acclaim it has been generating.
First, the funny: it’s Soldier Appreciation Day, which means that while the rest of the company gets a fun day at the beach, putting sausages in their mouths (“I’m America’s favorite wiener boy!” cries an oblivious JaMort), the Hill boys get assigned to hospitality detail for a trio of Korea vets, in town for the funeral of one of their fellow soldiers. It’s the first time the show has really dialed in its focus to just Derrick, Pete, and Randy, and it’s that intentionality that really makes the episode soar. At first, the vets are just crotchety old men — save Russell, the one in the hat (Barry Bostwick) who is strangely fascinated by a stack of tires — needling the Hills, and not without cause: “Mine’s a little prickly, but if I’m honest with myself his criticisms are fair,” Randy says of the sardonic Dan (Dean Stockwell). But when they manage to steal a Humvee for reasons unknown, Major Cody breaks his fake foot off on the brothers’ hind parts and sends them after the vets. (Keith David is a national treasure: “So how about that game? Moving on from small talk…”)
It’s at the Army bar that a series of truths come to light: first, a digression as Derrick continues to hit it off with Erin, the bartender that he learns this week has a son. (Here the show gets dinged for airing so many episodes out of order, as we know from last month’s “Homecoming” that they get serious, but we should be done with all the continuity hopping now.) Next, we learn what mission the vets are on: as Patrick (Stacy Keach) explains, the soldier who passed once had his unit coin stolen from this bar and “defiled” by a jealous Marine (“He put it between his butt cheeks.” Randy: “Did they not have pockets back then?”), before it was taken to the Marine dive down the way. But before long, a different, stranger observation is made, as the Hills suddenly see themselves in the older vets. It’s a “future mirror,” as Randy calls it.
A quick bit of hilarious musical chairs later, and the men — with the Hill brothers fully committed to the cause, a welcome turn — are paired up for the ride to get Sully’s coin back: Derrick with the sarcastic Dan, who tells him to forget about Erin, and not get himself tied down; Randy with Russell, who quickly bond over sharks, song, and a generally sunny worldview; and Patrick and Pete, which is where the biggest emotional punch comes from. Patrick isn’t planning to attend Sully’s service, because he can’t bear to have all the memories from his time in Korea dredged up again. According to Patrick, there’s some stuff you just have to live with, and the less time you spend with it, the better. For Pete, who has already been encouraged by Cody to attend a support group for soldiers with PTSD, this isn’t what he needs to hear.
But once they reach the Marine bar, it’s a newly-energized Derrick (having rejected Dan’s bleak perspective) that takes charge, offering himself up as bait for the jarheads because this is “worth getting his ass kicked.” And because fighting alongside these wily vets gives them a surprising advantage — “these old man hands are all bone!” — they successfully make off with the coin without too much damage. But the three brothers, having seen one possible version of their future, are impacted in different ways by the encounter: Derrick introduces himself to Erin’s son, Randy decides to try becoming a “hat guy” (and settles on one that he really does look great in), and Pete, courageously, attends that support group for the first time. “Hi, I’m Pete…and I have some stuff that I don’t just want to live with.”
It’s a hairpin turn of the highest difficulty, but Enlisted (with this week’s script credited to Kate Purdy) just sticks it, and an equal share of the credit goes to the show’s core cast, who continue to reveal depth and layers beyond the archetypical images they project (watch how much Geoff Stults does with just his eyes in his final scene with Keach.) It’s a joy to watch, and if Fox doesn’t renew the show for a second season, I don’t really know what I’ll do. If I had a fake foot, I’d beat someone with it.
2. COMMUNITY: “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing”
And I do NOT like that side of VCR technology. I’m glad it’s a dead medium.
First, dear God, let’s start with that cold open (embedded above, if NBC’s monkeys haven’t gotten to it). The comic highlight of the episode was easily the Dean’s Payday-inspired rap, and the way it built in intensity (and insanity) as Jim Rash became completely possessed by the thug spirit while still bouncing around dressed as a giant candy bar, was topped only by his sheer terror when it was over. “I don’t know what that was, I don’t — I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT WAS.” Even weirder was the episode’s tag, in which a hilariously uncomfortable Vince Gilligan gets strongly encouraged by his wife to take the “Pile of Bullets” gig. Who needs a job at a place called “Apple?” VHS games are the future. And now with cameos from Gilligan and Arrested Development genius Mitchell Hurwitz (as last week’s party professor “Koogler”), who’s next? Is Damon Lindelof busy?
If last week’s episode was a big high-concept swing that fell just short of the mark, this one reintroduced some much-needed emotional stakes. Less so with the A Simple Plan homage that the bulk of the cast was involved with, but Abed and Annie’s ill-fated dinner party was the show’s first attempt to confront Troy’s absence head-on. Community has used the episodes since Donald Glover’s exit to show that it could function without him, and it’s done that pretty well — so it was time to look at one glaring, practical problem that needs to be solved: Abed and Annie need a roommate, as they’re currently too poor to even fix the door to their fridge. They each have their own ideas: Abed’s now official girlfriend, Rachel the Coat Check Girl (currently the brightest residual element of the “gas leak year”), has been with him for a month, but he claims they’ve packed as much into that month as a typical couple does in a year; Annie hopes her enormous, handy, monosyllabic brother Anthony will fit the bill. But that leaves Abed and Annie at an impasse — a conflict that can only be resolved through a rousing game of “Pile of Bullets,” an awful, archaic VHS-based card and dice game.
Whoever wins gets to choose the new roomie — if it’s Annie, Abed gets to count down the days until Anthony eats him — but Rachel and Anthony aren’t told what the stakes are, so they become increasingly bored and disturbed as Abed and Annie’s hyper-competitiveness (along with the inscrutable, blindingly fast game play as prompted by on-screen Cowboy/Host/Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan) take over. Rachel: “Are we sure this is a game, or an art film?” Because it doesn’t occur to Abed or Annie that their prospective new roommates would want to know that they’re being considered, or even asked if they want to move in, it inevitably leads to hurt feelings, and Rachel’s declaration that she doesn’t care for this side of Abed at all. We’ve seen Abed mature and socially improve by leaps and bounds over five years, so while this burst of self-centeredness is a big regression for him, it at least comes from an honest place, unlike two weeks ago when he cared more about seeing a movie than having destroyed Hickey’s cartoons. But he figures there’s only one way to fix his mistake with Rachel, which is a dramatic, fake rain-filled “third act apology.” But she accepts, and it’s cute, because Brie Larson is awesome, and maybe if her movie career doesn’t take off too quickly she can stick around a while.
Meanwhile, while cleaning out a storage room on the Greendale campus, Jeff, Shirley and Hickey come across the motherlode of mint condition chemistry textbooks. It turns into a classic plot of aspiring criminals biting off more than they can chew, as their plan to sell the books off at “street” value adds more parties to the equation: a wisecracking Britta (the second cast member this season to scream out a Gary Oldman-esque “EVERRRYONNNE!”), who can identify the books’ quality by their scent, and Chang, who accidentally stumbles in and gets (literally) roped into playing the fall guy. With Jonathan Banks in the room and Vince Gilligan already guest-starring in the plot next door, it’s probably the closest the show will come to a Breaking Bad episode, and with the story’s focus on Shirley as the saint-turned-hardened gang leader (a concept we’ve seen a few times, including just last week), it becomes more about her ongoing struggles in keeping buried the darkness that lives just underneath the surface. The others are along just for a quick score, but Shirley is the only one rattled by what transpires, and when her fence (played by Paul “The Rainbow Connection” Williams, no less) tells her that the books are actually misprints — and therefore worthless — she has no choice but to go back to the room, untie everyone, and hope no one speaks of it again. It’s a fun digression, but doesn’t really tell us anything new.
Next week, however, is the return of Dungeons and Dragons. The first is in my top 3 all-time episodes of Community, so there’s an awful lot to live up to.
3. PARKS AND RECREATION: “New Slogan”
I hate paperwork! I hardly ever do it on my bed on a Saturday while listening to old Spice Girls CDs.
Like Community, this week Parks bounces back from a middling effort, and sheds some light on the show’s current big mystery: why can’t Leslie quit Pawnee? A town that, aside from her close circle of friends, has been nothing but combative and willfully ignorant, ultimately recalling her from the city council for extraordinarily petty reasons? So when she’s offered a job heading a branch of the National Park Service — she would have to be clinically insane to turn it down. Fortunately she hasn’t done done that yet…though she’s actually considering it, and is certainly delaying the process with binders full of questions (and follow-up questions). But why? First, she has made a show of having “unfinished business” in Pawnee, primarily in smoothing out the bumpy Pawnee-Eagleton merger. There’s an unacknowledged undercurrent surrounding the Unity Concert that it could be Leslie Knope’s last ride. Second, she has to feel 100% sure that the town will be left in capable hands, and she makes some real strides in that area when Ben encourages her to let Larry run the open forum at the end of the episode. But the truth is, surprisingly, that she’s just scared she’ll screw up the new job — which Ben says is “the dumbest thing [she’s] ever said.” Leslie? Scared she might fail? Inconceivable, yet here we are. The cracks are finally showing in her armor of pure sunlight and positivity, but if she’s not careful, her big mistake will be failing to grab that opportunity.
(As an aside, is it weird to anyone else that this was the first time we’ve seen Leslie and Ben talk about her job offer? Last week she spoke to Ron, but not her husband. At least, that we saw. Maybe there’s a deleted scene.)
Because, again, Pawnee will be fine. Not even shock jocks Ira and The Douche (and their new, expressionless sound effects kid Jewish Greg) could successfully undermine Leslie’s bid for a new motto for the new city, which finally landed on
“When your here, than your home” “When you’re here, then you’re home” — after various iterations of “Home of the stick up Leslie Knope’s Butt” — even if the sign is facing the wrong direction. It wasn’t Leslie “bro-ing out” on the radio show and engaging in a little casual misogyny that turned the tide; it was Leslie, for once, letting go and delegating, which solves two problems at once. And as long as Larry doesn’t have to get up from his chair, impossibly looping his belt through it, he can keep running those meetings, too. Has Leslie really pulled her last bloated raccoon carcass from a public fountain? Probably. But whatever is in store for her, she’ll throw herself into it 100% until she loves that, too.
The B- and C- plots weren’t quite as focused, though they both provided great individual moments: on Tom’s hunt for a venue for his new bistro, the return to Jurassic Fork (and the existence of its sibling restaurant, Schindler’s Lunch); April and Donna’s mutual realization that they’ve been leading him on a wild goose chase because neither actually want him to leave; Tom’s continued maturation, sort of (“Things used to make me happy. Now I just want one big thing.”) I admit, I’m struggling with this arc a bit, because Rent-a-Swag was such a perfect distillation of a genius idea AND Tom’s entire personality — but anyone could own a restaurant. There’s not enough here yet to get me jazzed about it.
Speaking of jazz, Duke Silver wants to fill up a warm bathtub full of his, and it’s Andy’s dumbfounded reactions that make the most of this story thread. Turns out April kept that pretty major secret quite well. But it also ends inconclusively — is Ron, having changed his mind about retiring his alter ego (“May you rest in jazz”), actually now contemplating playing at the Unity Concert? Was Andy’s heartfelt apology and spewing of his own secrets (including: not knowing who Al Gore is, forgetting where he parked his car and just saying it was stolen, and wondering what’s in the other 98% of milk) just the button on lightweight plot, or will we revisit it at the season’s climax? As a viewer, I desperately hope it’s the latter. Who cares if the office would be awash in women’s underwear — Leslie’s face would be totally worth it, and the show certainly knows that.
More Thoughts From The Week That Was
4. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: “Fancy Brudgom”
Now living squarely in its sweet spot (especially after last week’s exemplary “Tactical Village”), B99 is coasting to the end of its first season having achieved an uncanny, reliable mix of strong character work, heart, and jokes that play right into the actors’ strengths. Andy Samberg’s Jake has grown up, diving into the responsibilities of being Boyle’s best man with both feet (despite all the weirdness Boyle and Vivian have planned), even taking the fall for Boyle’s lack of resistance to a proposed move to Canada. But this is still a rare workplace comedy where everyone seems to genuinely like each other, even the resident weirdos (Scully: “Actually I was in a coma, but when I woke up I had so much mail!”) This week’s MVP continues to be Melissa Fumero and her faces, which are a consistently hilarious counterpoint to any subplot she gets tossed into. (“I hope you drown in a tub! I hope you have aneurysm after aneurysm after aneurysm!”) I can count on one hand the recent series that figured themselves out to this degree in just their first season, and showrunners Mike Schur and Dan Goor are determined to earn that controversial Golden Globe win. And hey, we even got the best fart gag since that famous episode of Parks. The next big question: can they pull off a sustained, cast-wide arc like the “Harvest Festival” or The Office‘s merger, once Boyle’s surely doomed wedding is over?
5. MODERN FAMILY: “Other People’s Children”
A cursory mention in this column, but this week’s episode was terrific compared to MF’s recent run of mediocrity. So it’s no surprise that it was penned by former Community scribe Megan Ganz, doing exactly what I hoped she would do when she joined the staff. And it wasn’t just Ty Burrell by himself (though the extended green screen/Gravity gag with Adam Devine was great): nearly everyone in the cast got a moment to shine, old-school-style, from Haley’s sudden smittenness with Andy, to Claire running around in a wedding dress, to — in my biggest laugh of the night — Luke singing “Table Vice” to the tune of Rodgers & Hammerstein (Jay: “I already went through this with Mitchell.”) But it was the inspired grouping of Alex, Manny, Mitch, and Cam that paid huge dividends thoughout the episode, as a visit to an art museum became a struggle for the “cultured ones” of the family to keep up appearances in front of each other. Of course, none of them can hold a candle to Alex, but I’m left wondering why it took five seasons to explore this particular combination of the cast. Everyone on the show is inherently likeable and funny (though I’ve been cooling on Gloria for a year or two) — it’s just the plotting that grates and lets them down. So this week wasn’t quite a sign of hope for the future, but a needed reminder of how good the show used to be.
6. NEW GIRL: “Fired Up”
On the other side of the three-episode “Sister” saga, which was a fantastic idea (especially casting Linda Cardellini) but weakly executed, we still find all of our characters in stages of transition. Schmidt’s moving back into the loft. Nick’s digging out the old law degree. Cece is still a bad bartender. Jess is angling for a Vice Principal job. Coach (who at this point is indistinguishable from Damon Wayans’s character on Happy Endings) just started at Jess’s school. And Winston…well, poor Winston exists to do and say whatever assorted weirdness the writers think of that doesn’t fit anywhere else. Is the show still funny? Absolutely — again, Lamorne “Courtroom Brown” Morris is killing everything he’s asked to do, and you can bet I’ll be there with bells on for next week’s “True American” redux — but there’s no driving narrative here, and they seem to keep changing their minds about which direction to go. Nick and Jess together are never going to be as interesting as Nick and Jess flirting, which means that the hook has to go somewhere else. And to be honest, I couldn’t tell you what any of the loftmates want right now. A typical sitcom plot takes the characters on a journey but brings them back to the same place they started, hopefully changed — New Girl is on a merry-go-round, and no one’s getting off. With only a few episodes to go, they’re going to need a big move or risk squandering all the critical goodwill it’s earned in the past year.