“Community” Returns, Makes NBC Thursdays Super Again, With or Without Ratings

Joel McHale, Yvette Nicole Brown, Community, NBC

Warning: those uncharacteristically dopey smiles are a LIE.

Before the autumn start of the 2012-2013 season, Thursdays had been my densest, most entertaining network-TV viewing night of the week. No single network is capable of capturing my attention for two straight hours in a single night anymore, but for two years NBC assembled a potent lineup that successfully reserved ninety minutes out of several of my Thursday evenings. Last fall they tampered with the formula and diminished my enjoyment. Their grave aesthetic error freed up a little more time for me to spend on other activities, but a tiny part of me regretted the price that was paid for it.

As of tonight, NBC is back in the business of catering specifically to me once again. For the next few months, my Thursdays have returned to form with all the right series back in the correct batting order as follows:

* Community: For dedicated fans like myself and my son, October 19th arrived at long last tonight with its fourth-season premiere, a full 111 days after NBC first promised it would be. The four-month drought was dispiriting, filled as it was with very little meta-humor, a complete lack of Troy and Abed in the Morning, and a heartbreaking parade of lost souls who keep telling me how much they prefer The Big Bang Theory, just to make me cry in my sleep.

Under the new showrunners who aren’t creator Dan Harmon yet, tonight’s premiere was a little shaky, but not traumatically so. With Greendale Community College a wreck as usual because of severe overbooking of “History of Ice Cream”, Dean Pelton forces students to compete for a class seat through a series of physical challenges not unlike American Gladiators. It’s meant to be more of a Hunger Games send-up a year after the fact; other than the Dean’s outlandish wardrobe and a banner with a familiar font, nothing about those scenes proved that anyone on staff knows much about the real thing. Considering how esoteric their parodies used to be, the lack of specificity was kind of a letdown. More scenes of the developing Troy/Britta thing (Tritta?) felt like network-mandated emotion, but we’ll see where that goes.

Of far greater interest: Abed’s agreement to hold counseling sessions with Britta results in him creating a “happy place” in his head that he just so happens to imagine as the kind of banal, standard-issue sitcom that fans dreaded the show might become without Harmon around (complete with fake laugh track, and dream-Pierce inexplicably played by professional special-guest-star Fred Willard). The parody is spot-on and in a few places managed to be funnier than a few real sitcoms I know and avoid. (I laughed myself silly at the fake crawler ads for American Sword Cooks and Blind/Blonde.) When we go yet another level into Abed’s head…well. Sheer delight is ours once again.

For a comeback episode that was filmed months ago, it’s pointed in the right direction. Hopefully the other episodes won’t have the same issues with timeliness, corner-cutting on references, or the blandness of Tritta.

Rounding out my rejuvenated Thursday nights:

* Parks & Recreation: I originally avoided the show because I thought it was mocking us Hoosiers in our entirety. Eventually I was dissuaded otherwise and have been following along with the characters’ growth ever since. I’m enamored of Andy’s slow intellectual and vocational progress; April’s attempts to outgrow misanthropy by viewing Leslie through a skewed lens as her role model; a once-devastated Chris Traeger finding his way back to being literally the healthiest optimist in the history of history; Tom avoiding the mistakes of Entertainment 720 with the opening of his much smaller business, Rent-a-Swag; and then there’s, uh, y’know, Jerry.

Also, Leslie and Ben are the cutest TV couple since the Halperts. Ben in particular is a fascinating example of a guy who’s an adult professional first and a hardcore geek second. That balance is handled with an appealing deftness that might inspire an essay from me at some point.

* The Office: Much as my wife and I are the only people I know still following The Simpsons, our entire household stuck through the dark age of Season 8 after all our friends abandoned it. We hardy folk are prepared to see this ride through to the end. With the much-appreciated return of original show developer Greg Daniels for Season 9, along with the wise decision to film several consecutive episodes without Andy (who’s been inconsistent and floundering as a character ever since the inherited the manager position pretty much by default), the core cast now seem less smug and more energized this season. With Kelly and Ryan no longer around to irritate me, the fresh faces of their substitutes Pete and Clark have opened opportunities for some different dynamics, especially in regard to Erin and the state of limbo to which Andy consigned her. (Tonight finally addressed that situation in a satisfying way, though we had to wait till the very last seconds of the end credits for it.)

I wasn’t too excited to see Jim and Pam’s relationship tested, but the unusual source of conflict was a radical departure for the show, as we’ve learned that the ever-invisible documentary crew’s boom operator, Brian, has become a sort of family friend over the years — perhaps a bit too friendly, as we saw when the strains of Jim’s new job with Athlead led to Pam breaking down on camera, with no one around to comfort her except trusty ol’ Brian. When he lost his boom-op job the following week after saving Pam from a would-be assailant, I fidgeted in my seat and wasn’t too crazy about where that was going. Thankfully, tonight accelerated that particular subplot far more quickly than I expected, and in a fairly subtle, mature manner (by this married man’s reckoning).

* The other one: No matter what half-hour show NBC fits into the last remaining time slot, no one in this household is ever enthusiastic about it. We were only intermittently amused by 30 Rock‘s conclave of identically shallow Hollywood caricatures; we had no use for Whitney‘s sex chatter that may or may not have contained jokes; Up All Night likewise felt flat; and I forget what other temps we refused to endure in previous seasons. As for the current placeholder, 1600 Penn, we leave it on for two minutes every time and wait for the laughs to begin. And then we turn off the TV for the night and devote our twenty-eight free minutes to other, worthier pursuits.

Thank you, NBC, for attempting to fix what you broke for a while. Even if the ratings remain as depressing as they were last year, everything ends up canceled, and you decide to repave the entire night with some third-rate shows I’ll loathe, I plan to enjoy this season for all it’s worth, if you’ll let me.


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