Friday, September 22, 2006

Hey, crab man: Thursday gleanings

The TiVos are finally beginning to feel the relief of being cleaned out, as the first official week of the fall season winds to a close. There is much rejoicing in this house.

I do things in reverse on Thursdays, starting with The Office, then going into My Name Is Earl. Suffice it to say that while I occasionally have issues with Earl, tonight's bloc of comedy was really strong, solidifying the 8 p.m. hour on Thursdays on NBC's claim to be the best hour of comedy on television (though, really, what else is there?).

I haven't laughed as much at an episode of a TV show as I did at tonight's premiere of The Office since. . .the penultimate episode of last season of The Office (the glorious one with the complaint box that took me from being occasionally skeptical about the show to a full-blown evangelist for its charms). There isn't really another series on American television that can really make a claim to being as consistently funny as The Office with as well-drawn of characters (admittedly, the pool is pretty shallow, limited to My Name Is Earl, Everybody Hates Chris, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother -- though a few new shows will join those ranks). When The Office is firing on all cylinders, it's one of the best sitcoms of the young decade. Even when it's not firing on all cylinders, it's entertaining and full of great jokes.

After a long summer that made it look like the show would turn into Friends Redux, with the Jim and Pam relationship becoming the next Ross and Rachel, the show dispatched with that element quickly, revealing that the two weren't together, but Pam wasn't with her fiancee anymore either. Jim, however, had moved on, to another branch of Dunder-Mifflin that was both better-run than the Scranton branch and more on edge. The main thrust of the episode dealt with Michael discovering Oscar was gay and being intermittently appalled and fascinated by the knowledge, finally outing Oscar to the whole office.

I usually don't think of the American Office in terms of the British one that spawned it, but one of the best things Greg Daniels and his writers and actors have done has been to really delve into the passive-aggressive relationships Americans have with their jobs. Most Americans would really rather be doing something other than what they are actually doing (even Dwight, who seems happiest at Dunder-Mifflin, would rather be beet farming or hunting, you sense). The British version of the show accepted that work was something to dislike much more readily than the American one does -- Jim hates his job, but he'll gladly take a promotion and pretend it's a good thing; Michael has been a businessman since high school; Ryan takes mock pride in going from temp to junior sales associate. In the British version, characters actually toyed with leaving their jobs to pursue their dreams. In the American version, we hear so little about those other dreams that it might as well not even be an option because when you quit your job to chase silly fantasies in the U.S., you're putting your life in danger, what with our oft-inadequate social safety net.

The story of Oscar's outing nicely illuminated this idea, going from a mere social blunder to an outright cataclysm. Oscar finally exploded, telling Michael exactly what everyone in the office thinks of him, then relented a few moments later, hugging Michael and saying he didn't mean it. Honesty only comes until you need to keep the job you hate. How American.

(David, who lives in the UK, will probably beg to differ with all of this, but he's wrong.)

And, of course, the whole thing was shot through with fantastic jokes, from Kevin's inability to stop giggling to Dwight's faux crying to Creed's admissions of sexual debauchery in the '60s (Creed may be the funniest single character on any show on television -- largely because the producers only give him one or two lines per episode). The only one I found a bit over-the-top (the biggest complaint to be leveled against the show is that it ruins its verite jones by doing stuff you might expect in a more typical sitcom) was when Meredith ate some of Angela's hand lotion. Otherwise, very well done.

I really liked My Name Is Earl too, though, as always, I had some minor irritations with it. It felt like a good segue to a season when Earl's list won't be the matter of primary concern, and any situation that lets Jamie Pressley mug for the camera is a winner in my book, but I'm still troubled by -- well, Alan Sepinwall puts it better -- how UN-ruffian-like Earl seems much of the time. The show never makes you buy wholly into the notion that Earl was a bad person -- he never struggles with doing the right thing, in other words -- so you never quite get the right sense of internal conflict that would drive the show forward.

Fortunately, the supporting players around Earl are more than enough to keep me coming back. Pressley is perfect, and Ethan Suplee is one of the best overgrown man-children in a genre overgrown with them. Eddie Steeples is also a fun presence, always bringing a laid-back groove to his scenes. And Nadine Velazquez's increasingly dire childhood in Mexico is a reliable source of laughs as well. The scripts and direction tend to be sharp as well, and the Coen Brothers-influenced settings are just the right shade of quirky without being overbearingly so. There's more right than wrong with Earl, and it's a great companion for The Office.

Finally, I caught up with Prison Break (Grey's Anatomy, CSI and the Thursday pilots will have to wait). While it took the show 13 episodes to reach the wheel-spinning stage last year, it seems like it's spinning its wheels already this year. Theoretically, having lots of stories to cut between should be interesting, but it's increasingly too much of a chore for the writers to incorporate everyone, and you can feel it. I'm not sure how long I'll hang on for this ride, especially with the full-blown assault of the fall season upon us. Still, it's a passable diversion.

So what did you think?

Soon: Libby on Next Top Model and Grey's.

Tomorrow: Other stuff, catching up and the start of a new feature.


David Sims said...


Actually, no. You made a lot of good points, and it was a great episode. I was very pleased with the Jim & Pam continuation, and I liked that they allowed Roy to be a little sympathetic. But I do think that Tim (the UK version's Jim) was in as much denial about his job as Jim is. Remember the first season finale, when he convinced himself his promotion was a good thing? Anyway, I'm growing wary of comparing the two shows considering how compact the UK version is. The US version has already run like, twice as long, so comparing the storylines is starting to get silly considering the different scopes of the two shows.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I agree that comparing the two shows seems almost ridiculous now. Did anyone do this with All in the Family and its British ancestor, Til Death Us Do Part (what's with the weird phrasing, David?), or Sanford and Son and Steptoe and Son?

My guess is no, but, then, the UK Office was relatively popular here, so that surely has something to do with that.

Anyway, I get what you're saying about Tim feeling ambiguous about his promotion, but what I'M saying is that that ambiguity is more fleeting in Jim's character. He sort of deludes himself into being a company man, something Tim never was. Jim's conflicts are more interpersonal, while Tim's are with both the people he works with and the system as a whole.

David Sims said...

Til Death Us Do Part is how the British wedding ceremony goes, mate. And they say "I will" instead of "I do"!

BTW, Til Death Us Do Part is awesome. But yeah, good points. What's this new feature you're promising?

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I'm glad I'm not British then!

It is a feature you have to write. About ER.

No. I'm going to do an item on existing properties that should be television-ized.

Jon said...

Nice to see I'm not the only one that considers Creed the funniest character on TV, mostly because we know so little about him. He COMPLETELY stole the season finale for me. (Until, well, Pam and Jim. . .)

And like you two, I've stopped comparing the US and UK versions.