Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Lily, control your woman.": The comedy roundup

Let's see how many days in a row I can make posts, huh?

Now that most of your favorite comedies are back, let's see how they fared in their most recent episodes. Check out thoughts on My Name Is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office, Scrubs, The Simpsons, Aliens in America and How I Met Your Mother below.

Dude, when did My Name Is Earl turn into something completely boring that just lies on the floor and kicks until you notice it's there and nod your approval while backing away slowly? I mean, the show's never been the greatest comedy on TV, but it's always been better than THIS. In the hour-and-a-half of comedy since the show's been back, I've laughed once (at Darnell's joke about how often people spontaneously combust), and I frequently leave the show on my DVR, watching just about anything else in favor of it.

One of these days, single-camera comedy producers are going to realize that ironically making fun of the lameness of multi-camera sitcoms never works? Scrubs tried this in its fourth season, and that episode was a rare misfire for the show in those days (when it was one of the few reliable comedies on TV), an episode that got too lost in the idea of making bad jokes that we were supposed to treat as good jokes because we were IN on the joke. Meta almost never works unless you're Charlie Kaufman and using all of those layers to probe something deeper than just "Sitcoms are nothing like real life, man!" which is something that's been old since it was first attempted on TV shows in the '80s. I'll admit that the idea of Earl's Limbo being a sitcom is an intriguing one, but it's too easily given in to just being exactly what it's purportedly trying to mock. It's even a waste of Alyssa Milano, who was the most appealing she's been in years in Earl's NON-coma life and now is stuck as a weird amalgam of Donna Reed and June Cleaver.

Meanwhile, 30 Rock was the show I was most looking forward to returning, and while I laughed a lot at its return episode, it felt a bit too perfunctory (though I'm hopeful for this week's episode, which stars Tim Conway as someone named Bucky Bright). There was plenty of good stuff in it, and I kind of liked the conceit of structuring the episode like a reality show (I know some are claiming Liz wouldn't be that self-centered, but I think she very well might be and she kind of had to be to accurately satirize the genre). The reality show parody was pretty apt (the worst examples of the genre do sink this low), but the attempts to force it outward to the rest of the show just felt strained, particularly when you got to the writers room (though I loved Tracy's gag with Cathy ripping off Liz). The Pete-gets-his-hand-stuck plotline felt left over from Family Matters, and I kept expecting them to point that out, and they just never did. A disappointing return for my favorite comedy.

Meanwhile, The Office, if this script, which was completed before the strike, was any indication, has finally found its footing again after a hit-and-miss patch there late in season three and early in season four. Maybe the show will get shaky again with scripts that were written after the strike, but this one was terrific (and I know I'm in the minority in thinking that). I can see the argument that things were pushed too far (especially in regards to Jan, who used to be such a realistically drawn character, even in her attraction to Michael), but I thought the satire here -- of things like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- was much more sharply drawn than on 30 Rock. It helped, of course, that all of this fit quite well with the characters as established (just so long as you pushed them ever-so-slightly to the point where suspension of disbelief breaks down), and the episode was full of so many hilarious moments (provided you enjoy cringe humor) that any tone missteps were neatly avoided. I don't like leaving the office every week, but field trips like this one are highly appreciated.

I don't want to say too much about Scrubs, which is Joseph's beat, but the show's relentless march toward a J.D. and Elliott pairing is starting to leave a bad taste in even MY mouth, and I liked those two as a goofy couple. I think it's interesting to have a couple on a show that's clearly NOT meant to be together, and while I would have liked to have seen the two fall into lust a few more times over the show's run, now that I'm seeing them start to make inroads toward being together, I'm surprised by how little I want it.

Here's something interesting: The Simpsons has been revisiting a lot of its greatest hits in these last two seasons, and it's almost a better show for that, even if it's coasting just as much as it was three or four seasons ago. I obviously have a ridiculous amount of goodwill for the show, but revisiting characters like Lurleen Lumpkin makes me happy in a strange way that allows me to overlook a lot of things like how the song was basically just a revisiting of that one from the Apu episode (I did really love "Here's grandpa with an otter" followed by his reveal that he had taken three buses). I think what I like best about these episodes is how they remind me of when the show was more about its characters than its jokes, and that buys a lot of goodwill.

Strangely, I'm going to miss Aliens in America quite a bit. I thought that the episode where Raja tried to leave the Tolchuks was going to end up being the ad hoc series finale, but I see that there are going to be some other new episodes. This is a really terrific little show, and it's dying with almost no one even noticing.

Finally (and I really should get to bed), I quite liked this week's How I Met Your Mother as an example of how well the show just does little, inconsequential filler episodes. I don't like it as well as some, but the culmination of Marshall's misery in his job (when he finally bursts at his boss and shouts, it feels strangely cathartic) was a story we'd been building to for a while. I hope this doesn't put a sitcomm-y resolution on such a hard-edged story, but it was nice to see Jason Segel, perhaps the show's most underrated cast member (well, actually, that's Cobie Smulders) get a great showcase for his talents.

And, speaking of comedy, anyone watch that debate? *drum riff*

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