19 October 2011

Parks and Recreation S04E04, "Pawnee Rangers": Jerry Disappoints (But What Did You Expect)

Even more so than the introduction that unseen Eagleton is an over-the-top ritzville, or that all along Leslie Knope has been in a women's group or writing a history of Pawnee, or that Ron's first ex-wife is an IRS agent and his former schoolteacher, I just could not suspend my disbelief at the central conceit of this episode: that Ron Swanson would willingly lead a boy scout troop.

Sure, of course Leslie would form her own girls' troop after a young lady was rejected from the boys-only Pawnee Rangers. It's frustrating that this is retconned in as having been going on for several years (instead of this episode chronicling the Pawnee Goddesses' founding), that their meetings questionably occur at the Parks Department, and that April has somehow been roped in as being a chaperone, but I'll buy it. Ron, though? Ron Swanson is a staunch libertarian, and the Scouts are an organization famously accused of espousing communism. It's believable that as in "Road Trip," if forced into a situation with a youth, Ron would embrace it to share some of his anti-government values. But voluntarily take some kids camping? And then be sad when they leave him alone? Not Ron f***ing Swanson.

This essential issue with the A-plot is only exacerbated by how the storyline plays out: with one of the worst stock sitcom plots, "girls vs boys." Leslie decides that this weekend (even though the Pawnee Rangers and Goddesses have ostensibly been around for years now) is a great time for the rival troops to have at it, and decide once and for all, which one is simply "better." Every trite storyline has the potential to be freshened or twisted into something exciting again (think Community), but even with a Leslie Knope spin, the A-line cannot surpass its cliched origins. This rather goofy, unbelievable plot attempts to provide itself with some emotional resonance with a (what is becoming increasingly-requisite) "Ron and Leslie touching moment," replete with a little Ron smile. But this storyline has not earned that little Ron grin, and the connection between the characters feel as in-genuine and contrived as the idea that Ron would lead a boy scout troop.

This episode could be saved by plentiful jokes or adequate ancillary stories, but sadly no in both cases. As Andy, April, and Ann are relegated to background players in the Leslie vs Ron showdown - though I did enjoy Ann's constant rebuffs by the Goddesses - the other plots are left with secondary-characters, and put into uncomfortable pairings: Donna, Tom, and Ben, and Jerry and Chris.

Jerry has not had very many of his own plots, and justifiably: he almost always brings laughs, but he's a one-joke character. That being that he is everyone else's scapegoat for apparently no reason. But if we get to know Jerry more, he could give us some explanation for that unwarranted hatred, and the joke would stop being so funny. No fear, this story did not ruin the punchline by providing Jerry with characterization, but it also wasn't very humorous - just a lot of awkward facial expressions and "umms," as Jerry Jerries it up with no one to make it funny by calling him out, and Rob Lowe cartooning up the place with his increasingly-caricatured Chris. And the reveal that Jerry's daughter is gorgeous and normal - this does not add to his character, but just takes away some of that ambiguity of Jerry's home life, which is a large component of his character's joke (this story inevitably disappoints much like introducing Ron's mom in "Ron and Tammys"; an unseen/imagined off-screen presence will often be much funnier than the eventual reveal of that character can ever be).

The Donna/Tom plot does not waste any big reveals, nor is it complicit in any especially malignant retconning (the "Treat Yo'self" was harmless), but it was just sort of irritating, with Tom spouting off more of his recent ridiculous idioms (has he become Jean-Ralphio?) and containing another of the worst stock scenarios: a montage of people trying on crrrrrazy outfits, culminating in Ben and a batman suit. Sure, he's dealing with his Leslie breakup, but though authentic to his relationship struggles, I couldn't help but thinking this entire mall situation was built around the punchline of Adam Scott in cosplay, not his character's current emotional conflicts. And yeah, that image is highly comic, but it's immediately spoiled by Tom's corny, predictable repetition of The Dark Knight's catchphrase.

Parks and Recreation has some of the most original characters on television right now, and with some of the most consistent characterization, but an effect of that freshness is a severe discordance and incompatibility with cliche. Every good show has some bad episodes, but it's especially disappointing when it's a series as generally exceptional as Parks and Rec.

-"Did they cancel Game of Thrones?"

08 October 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Catching Up

Up All Night S01E03 ("Working Late and Working It") - okay

I have ad-block on... which means instead of car commercials, I get two minutes of hulu telling me to turn it off.

This episode unfortunately focused on the two UAN aspects I am so far liking least: saccharine scenes about how relationships change once a baby pops in, and Ava. The former is requisite for this show's premise, so I can take the sappiness (and maybe even be touched by it) as long as there are enough jokes. There were a sufficient number, as Will Arnett attempted to sex it up, though Applegate got a bit too goofy with the "fanciness," and Arnett's scenes with Will Forte felt a little awkward -- as the first episode demonstrated, Will Arnett is a charismatic enough actor that hearing just one side of a conversation with an online friend he met on Wow is really enough, and Forte just felt a little unnecessary. Ava, too, is a superfluous character, promoted to lead after Rudolph's success with Bridesmaids. The show has gotten a lot of flack for this: is it a family comedy or a work comedy? I wouldn't mind UAN having these two incongruous aspects if only the Ava plotlines were a little funnier. Of course Jorma Taccone (who was also a second-unit director on this episode) as a 90s b-boy brings laughs, but the Ava story ended with a lesson about friendship and love, which with Arnett's little concluding speech, was just way too much sentiment for a half hour comedy.
-"I was on Gwyneth Paltrow's website, and she kind of walked me through it."

Community S03E02 ("Geography of Global Conflict") - good!

Community really wants you to watch Party Down.

When not drenched in pastiche or parody, the best Community is that that embraces full-on goofiness, while keeping its characters consistent within their broadly-sketched caricatures. I don't watch Community to "feel something" -- I watch it to laugh, and this episode delivered. The plots: the two Annies battling it out to be the best at Model U.N. (Election-esque stylistically, and MARTIN STARR!!), and Britta and Chang twisting the cop/criminal love story to a Greendale setting (accompanied, of course, by Lionel Richie). There was also a little Annie/Jeff dealing with the creepiness of the relationship. And everybody else mostly just got to make fart jokes. Breezy pacing, a lot of laughs, some audacious cinematographic choices, and a welcome lack of moralizing by Jeff. Yay, Community!
-"If embarrassment were bountiful zinc deposits, I'd be Zambia."

Community S03E03 ("Competitive Ecology") - okay

Chang's sort-of noir parody and the use of voice-over has been done better on other episodes of Community (though I did love the Conversation, Lars and the Real Girl, and Veronica Mars references), as has a mostly-bottle episode consisting of many group arguments about nothing, though David Neher really delivered as outsider-looking-in Todd. Nothing really new or exciting about this episode, but at least it has jokes.
-"And who the hell are you always texting? Everyone you know is here."

How I Met Your Mother S07E03 ("The Stinson Missile Crisis") - alright

The show's been missing something for a while now. Maybe it was cumin.

When was the last time we got a Robin-centric episode? Better yet, when have we ever had a Robin-narrated one? Using Robin telling her court-mandated therapist, instead of Future Ted talking to his future kids, made fresh HIMYM's characteristic storytelling structure. Even the A-plot's twist -- that Robin assaulted a crazed Barney bimbo, and not Norah -- was pleasantly surprising. Having Robin tell it somehow made another Marshall/Lily baby story not unbearable (perhaps because Dr. Kal Penn, Professional Therapist kept interrupting), and Ted actually made some jokes! That were funny! Though I'm still unsure as to where exactly this Robin-arc is going (she marries Barney, right? or do they stop being friends? does she get back with Don?), or whether it will end up working, this episode did.
-so the instructor had no qualms about a male couple attending her lamaze class?

07 October 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Alright, But No Parks and Rec

The Office S08E02 ("The Incentive") – painless

Fun fact: Jon Hamm taught Ellie Kemper drama in high school.

Unlike the past few seasons, which begot some horrendously unwatchable television, The Office's eighth year has so far been harmless enough. Like last week, this episode was the most basic, classic Office sort of plot, just with Andy in place of Michael: Dunder Mifflin-Sabre needs to double their sales, and Andy accidentally promises them he'll get an ass tattoo if they succeed.

This isn't bad TV, but it isn't good: it's comedy at its blandest; characters that once became caricatures and have come out the other side as washed-out versions of their former selves. It's innoxious, but it also isn't very funny.

-the opening Kevin tag was an interesting meta-reflection on this (and lets us know they're well aware how terrible the show has been)
-Dwight became such a supervillain in the past few years that I'm not even sure how I feel about his decision to completely reinvent himself around the office, but he was actually pretty funny, if saying things entirely un-Dwightish: "Your friend Neil Patrick Harris really made me laugh the other night." (And his response as everyone else guffawed: "Laughter.")

New Girl S01E02 ("Kryptonite") – alright

Every fiber of my being doesn't want to recommend this but... here you go.

Against my better judgment, I actually found myself enjoying this episode. They nixed the cutaways and instead put all their jokes into dialogue, and you know what, it was actually funny. I still find Zooey Deschanel grating and twee, but I also have no bad associations with the the other cast members -- I actually really like Jake M. Johnson and Max Greenfield, and they and the rest of the cast have good chemistry.

This episode was pretty spare plot-wise: Jess breaks the TV and being broke, is coerced by the guys into getting her flatscreen, fixie bike, and other stuff back from her ex's. Simple, but at least not stupid, and it's dealing with issues set up in the pilot (and Damon Wayans Jr.'s departure), which bodes well for the show's ability to grow.

I wish I hadn't, but I kind of liked it.

-seriously: why are there lockers in their apartment??
-who knew Max Greenfield was so good at playing a borderline-douche: "Rosh Hashanah '06... nothing orthodox about what we did that night."; "It's so nectar." ("It's a volleyball term.")
-I did like the casting of a non, um... Gosling-type to play Jess' ex; "Jess, take your shoes off, we keep an Asian household!"
-true fans own Curly Sue on VHS

How I Met Your Mother S07E03 ("The Ducky Tie") – alright

Ads in old eps of HIMYM that I do not remember!

Good HIMYM-style pacing with interweaving Ted's story in with the goofy Barney/Marshall bet -- which as an A-plot would have been as insufferable as last season's "The Incredible Meatball Sub" -- this kept the episode light and breezy, even with Ted's requisite prolix talks about fate.

After Robin, Victoria is the least-irritating of Ted's exes, and if this whole "you're not over Robin" thing pans out, then using her will seem justified beyond "here's someone who's not Zooey" (which, well, is actually a fairly reasonable excuse). But Robin still pining for Barney, and now Ted mixed up in this relationship-nostalgia seems to only be the opposite of a forward direction for this show -- like Victoria, if it doesn't end up having a larger consequence, it's like HIMYM just wants to remind us of times when it was better, instead of actually being good again. Though at least there was no Zooey.

Parks and Recreation S04E03, "Born and Raised": YES!

This episode had me from second one. I was already cracking up just from the opening background music parodying that of public radio, as Leslie makes a guest appearance on "Thoughts for Your Thoughts" to promote her new book, Pawnee: the Greatest Town in America. This book A-plot was pretty much just non-stop hilarity: the radio spot; the few pages shown*; the appearance on Pawnee Today and the ensuing scandal. Definitely the funniest episode this season.

However, even though the A-plot was hilarious enough to carry the episode, the other stories suffered what seem to be becoming recurring problems. The Ben/Tom pairing, repeated from last week, resulted in some humorous "nerd" conversation, but never seemed to go anywhere (it ended up Leslie didn't need them to "seduce" Joan after all... like poor Jerry and his errand), and had such a strange, awkward, rushed climax. ("Where the hell am I?") The Ann plotline, too, was uncomfortably lacking in purpose. As April and Andy have married, and the UST between him and Ann has been Rd, the character Ann has become more and more obsolete in any context other than her friendship with Leslie. Even with her formal promotion to civil servant, she feels out of place and extraneous to the Parks Department. It was even more awkward that this story involved her trying to engage in conversation with Ron and April... just: why? Ann explains in a talking head that she's know these people for three years now and they've barely exchanged hellos, but that's hardly motivation enough. April/Ron vs Ann is a pairing comedy gold is mined for, but there's no character-consistent reason to justify this happening. April hates Ann and Ron hates everyone -- unless Ann is a masochist or is "doing it for Lesie," why would she bother? Like the Chris PSA story last week, I just couldn't buy it, and this sort of spoiled the ensuing Jenny/Lester/Steve goof. I do deeply love Ron and April together, though. Oh, his little smile when she made him proud.

Many laughs were had this episode, but Parks and Rec definitely still has some character-kinks to work out.

*I have some screencaps for those of you who didn't have a chance to pause on the pages, but HOLY KNOPE IT ACTUALLY EXISTS!!!!!! I already placed a hold at my local library... where it is suspiciously/hilariously titled Pawnee : the greatest town in American [sic] / written, compiled, researched, typed, collated, proof-read, and run through spell-check by Leslie Knope. Super excited.

-"A non-profit group that puts umbrella hats on homeless people when it rains."
-"But they are lesbians."
-"Usually I only read nautical novels and my own personal manifestos."
-"Mine just says 'Get well soon.'" "Aren't you sick?"
-"You might as well be from China!"
-I noticed early on that Joan seemed to be wearing more makeup than usual... and with the divorce reveal, was shown to be a conscious character choice and not just another example of the media's exploitation of females. Yay, Parks and Rec!
-"Is she gonna powder her vagina?"
-"Nerd culture is mainstream now, so when you use the word 'nerd' derogatorily, it means you're the one out of the zeitgeist."
-"Well, let's just say the message boards are going nuts."

05 October 2011

What Did I Watch Today: Too Many Tammys

Now that the academic quarter has started, I'm a little behind on my television watching.

Parks and Recreation S04E02 ("Ron & Tammys") - meh

Don't let me down next week please!

Two cliffhangers from the end of the third season came to fruition in this episode -- Tammy I's return and Entertainment 7Twenty's inevitable bankruptcy -- but these plot continuations/conclusions felt ill-conceived and frankly, a let-down. Patricia Clarkson as Tammy I out-intensified everyone in the cast, which really made me unable to buy anyone's reactions to her. The characters seemed just very goofy, and acting like the writers thought "oh this would be funny" rather than scripting what felt genuine to the situation (like Ron's rapid regression to an obedient schoolboy, or that scene with Leslie drunk - the latter likely inspired by the positive response to the intoxicated scenes in "The Fight"). But though there were lines I laughed at (I'll list below), this episode largely wasn't funny - just trying too hard, and I was very disappointed that this is all we got after a summer of Tammy-anticipations. The Tammys are funny characters, but they need to be written actual material -- just the fact that there is a Megan Mullally cameo is not sufficient, and it was comedy-overhaul to include Tammy I, Tammy II, and Ron's mom all in one ep.

The Ben/Tom plot was innocuous enough, but felt like filler -- it didn't build anywhere except to reveal the company crisis we've been aware of since last season, and there were no new or surprising jokes (Detlef Schrempf's cameo this time couldn't be considered unexpected), just reiterations on "Jean-Ralphio and Tom pay a lot of money for useless stuff!!" (Also, when did Jean-Ralphio become such a silly klutz?) The Ann/Chris plot was equally purposeless: Ann forgets and then remembers why she likes Chris, and to reach this epiphany, the viewer has to be subjected to Rob Lowe literally acting like a obsessive-compulsive tweeker -- "STOP POOPING" was funny, but Chris has passed the limits of mental stability on his path to eccentricity. Ann told much of this to the camera, and there were copious other redundant explanations of what was happening in a scene (Ben summarizing his and Tom's friendship; a Leslie cutting head telling us about the Ron situation), with little actually happening outside the narration. I do like the idea of these plotlines (especially meeting Ron's mom), but there were too many, and they were all too clumsily done.

-"In terms of shirts, I can wear white..."
-"We don't have any pens because we're afraid it's gonna leak on our shirts."
-Nick Offerman looks kinda like Jon Daly without his moustache
-Who was that John the delivery guy??
-"Could we take a peek at it?"