Sunday, February 04, 2007

"Co-ed naked strippers. In this office. For realsies.": My Name Is Earl, The Office and 30 Rock

Sorry about the delay in posting on these. I'm getting ready for a vacation, and that's taking up my time.

That said, all four NBC comedies were pretty funny Thursday night. Between these four and ABC's solid lineup, Thursdays are a tough time to be a discriminating television fan, and sweeps aren't making it any easier.

Earl is pretty typically the least of these four shows, even though it and The Office trade off which show is the most popular from week to week. But the show's been riding a pretty solid wave of good episodes in the second half of season two (the journey to Mexico seemed to kick it off), and the writing staff seems to have figured out a way to make the show about Earl's list without actually making it about his list.

One of the things Earl has always had going for it is its unique setting. You could probably write a whole post on the importance of a specific setting in a good sitcom (whereas a drama can often be set at "any old" hospital or "any old" police station). Sure there are exceptions (Scrubs takes pains to be as non-specific in its setting as possible), but the more devoted a sitcom is to its setting, often, the better it will be. Think of how Seinfeld took place in a very specific New York City or how The Office is both specifically about Scranton, Penn., and more generically about small town America.

To that end, Earl has always had Camden County going for it. The setting is kind of a combination of much of the Coen Bros. ouevre, but it's also come into its own as very specifically the place that Earl and friends live. A lot of the best jokes are often centered in just how weird this little county is, and this episode (contrasting Camden with the generic France the French guy came from) was no exception.

But there was a lot of good stuff in this one. The French guy and Earl's quest to cross him off the list was a good story, but having it be the B story made it even better, as the show could branch off into Randy's attempts to consummate his marriage to Catalina. Joy's advice to Catalina was very funny (I know that Jamie Pressly's pregnancy is keeping her in limited screentime, but that helps, as small doses of the character are sometimes more potent), and the end reveal with Catalina finally falling for Randy just as he loses interest in her was well-done, even if I generally abhor these kinds of plot shenanigans.

The Office has made Phyllis' wedding the centerpiece of its February sweeps (which is hilarious to me -- this may be the only show where the wedding of a character this minor would be treated with appropriate pomp), and Thursday's episode focused on her bachelorette party and her fiance Bob's bachelor party. To some degree, the whole premise that these parties would be held at the workplace was sort of flawed (and it's odd how every episode of this show seems to revolve around a party happening at the office), just because I couldn't buy that anyone would think this was a great idea, but the execution of the idea was spot-on, even giving a line to Meredith, who's been sort of ignored this season (and, honestly, was there a bigger laugh than "Shut up, Angela!").

The main conceit of the episode (that Jim hired a Ben Franklin impersonator for the girls while Dwight hired an actual stripper for the guys) was handled well, especially the Ben Franklin, who turned out to be more of a danger to morality than the stripper. It helped that the situation threw a lot of characters into situations together, particularly Karen and Pam. I know that Ed Helms has become a series regular while Rashida Jones has not, but I wish the show would figure out a way to keep Karen around when the inevitable Jim breakup happens (it would be great if she and Pam became best friends and Jim had to negotiate those treacherous waters). The episode also saw the return of Todd Packer, an annoying character who is used specifically to be annoying. David Koechner is a fun actor, and I'm glad he hasn't been abused yet, when it must be a sore temptation to do so.

For all of that fun, though, 30 Rock was the funniest show of the night. The show hasn't had a perfect episode yet, and that keeps it from being a truly great sitcom, but the sheer number of jokes it crams into 22 minutes of screentime is on a par with Arrested Development. The willingness to veer off into crazy, farcical territory is another strength the show shares with Arrested.

I was sad to see that Paul Reubens' Prince Gearhart Hapsburg had died by episode's end, just because his performance was so funny and the conception of the character so amusing that I had hoped he might return. His random yelling may have been the funniest thing this show has done (a close second might have been the revelation that he was only 25). Reubens brings an odd energy that meshes well with the rest of the cast, and he made the most of his appearance. So did Isabella Rosselini who has a knack for wacky comedy, surprisingly. Her jealousy when she believed that Liz and Jack had gotten engaged was both believable and funny.

The Pete subplot didn't work quite as well as the other storylines. A lot of critics don't think the show has quite figured out what to do with Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan. I actually like a lot of what the character does, but this episode wasn't his finest hour. I know the show is mocking the trappings of hip hop fame and culture, but this episode veered a little too far over the stereotype line to work completely. Still, seeing him pop out of an air vent as the devil was perfect (as was his admission that he was just looking for the lobby).

30 Rock has grown confidence so quickly that I can't help but think by the end of the season it will be one of the best shows on TV. Here's hoping I'm proved right.

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