It has been 245 days — eight months, to the day — since this show last aired a new episode. In that time, there have been 15 new episodes of “Two and a Half Men,” 10 episodes of “Outsourced,” 14 episodes of “Mike and Molly” and an ungodly dozen episodes of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
My point is, it’s been a bleak time for comedy, and whether you’re looking at the sitcoms or the unintentional humor airing while “Parks and Rec” sat on a dusty shelf, the discerning comedy fan can’t help but feel like something was missing.
The background: “Parks and Recreation” comes from Michael Schur, Greg Daniels and some of the other folks behind the Americanized “Office.” It stars Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari and a lot of people you would recognize but can’t immediately name. The show premiered in the spring of 2009 with a pretty bad six-pack of episodes; lameness emerged from the show’s blatant desire to be “The Office, But With A Girl” and the lackluster structure.
In the fall of 2009, it reemerges. It’s a different show. It’s been fine-tuned, worked on. They disassembled the engine, reassembled it and rotated the tires for good measure. While other qualitative sitcoms (“30 Rock,” “The Office”) decline, it soars. The ensemble is pitch-perfect, the jokes just quick enough to make you pay attention but not so fast as to obscure the punchlines; the characters richer, deeper, interesting and relatable; Poehler’s character finds a middleground between Michael Scott-style buffoonery and first-season cartoonishness. Episodes tackled gay marriage, political sex scandals, financial problems faced by local governments and the scourge of public libraries. Guest stars included Louis C.K., Will Arnett (Mr. Amy Poehler), Justin Theroux, Andy Samberg and Megan Mullally, who in real life is married to the show’s MVP, Nick Offerman.
The fact that Offerman stands out so much among a show that also contains Poehler, Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and Chris Pratt should tell you something. (Rashida Jones is also involved, but albeit often serving as the straight man to the antics of Poehler or Pratt. She’s still plenty good.) If it does, please enjoy this GIF. If it doesn’t, please enjoy this GIF.
The show, as presented during the 2009-2010 season, was an entirely different animal than the first season incarnation. It also stood out in many ways from its peers. It’s worth noting that it was, of course, very funny. The actors found their groove and each stood out in their own way, getting chances to shine but also serving the ensemble whenever needed. The humor and vibe on the show was affectionate in many ways that “The Office” was not (save the Jim-Pam stuff and other occasional interactions); the characters were funny, relatable and real in ways “30 Rock,” as a live-action cartoon, was not interested in exploring; the meta-jokes were often subtle and woven into the fabric of the show; the warmth and positivity was infused in seemingly every episode, and required no ending monologue to remind us of that fact. It was smart, it was funny and it seemed to click on every level.
The show suffered missteps. Guest appearances by Fred Armisen and John Laroquette marked weaker-than-usual episodes. On some shows, this would be the sign of a rut, of an inability to deal with the ebb and flow of the television season and fitting other pieces into the puzzle. Instead, the show bounced back. The season ended with appearances from Adam Scott (“Party Down”) and Rob Lowe (every girl’s fantasy circa 1983-1986, every liberal man or woman’s fantasy from 1999-2003, and every middle-aged-woman who didn’t feel like changing the channel after “Desperate Housewives”‘s fantasy from 2006-2010). They have since been added to the ensemble for the third season.
By the end of the 2009-2010 season, there was no debate about what was the best comedy on television. I mean, sure, you could have such a debate, if you were so inclined, but I know people who watch “Two and a Half Men” and would swear by that; I know people who would deny that “30 Rock” took any such dip; I know people who don’t own televisions and would find the entire argument bourgeois. The point is, people feel what they feel and they say what they say. I consider myself a fairly objective arbiter of televised comedy, as well as a well-informed member of the subset of people who read a lot about entertainment and arts and culture, to say nothing of the fact that I can tell when something is funny and when it isn’t and I can most certainly tell you that “Two and a Half Men” is conclusively, objectively, not funny, not if you are willing to think about it, not if you are paying attention and not if you are conscious while the thing is airing. But “30 Rock” and “The Office” both had their wobbliest seasons; “How I Met Your Mother,” known as CBS’s attempt at not being CBS, was also shaky; NBC’s “Community” was good, if scattershot for the first half of the season; ABC’s “Modern Family” was enjoyable more than it was great, and “Cougar Town” blossomed in the second half of the season, but half of a pretty good season does not beat the whole of a great season.
At some point, “Parks and Recreation” ascended from the debate about the Best Comedy in Television and entered into the discussion for the Best Show on (Network or Otherwise) Television.
The ratings weren’t great, which is a nice way of saying they were bad (yes, even for NBC). The network had given it an early pickup, which was nice, and due to Poehler’s pregnancy the show actually moved directly from the second season into producing the third, skipping the summer hiatus most shows get so that the third season could air, uninterrupted, in the fall of 2010. So, predictably, NBC benched the show, essentially in favor of “Outsourced,” a show that is at best a little bit racist but harmless, and at worst an abominable, weekly 30-minute attempt to CBS-ize NBC’s comedy lineup. (I would insert some line here about NBC’s problems, but let’s be honest, if you are reading this you likely already know about the nightmarish hellscape that is NBC’s current place in the pantheon of television networks.)
And so, we waited. We waited through four months of “Outsourced,” at least appreciating NBC’s decision to air the show at 9:30 p.m. (so true and wise and learned comedy fans could watch the first 90 minutes uninterrupted before turning off the TV at 9:30 each Thursday), if not grumbling that they gave the network’s sole (sole) decent timeslot to arguably the network’s worst show (I say arguably, because: “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno”). We patiently waited as tidbits about the show leaked out, as some advance word crept out here or there that Rob Lowe and Adam Scott were so funny and fit so well, and the episodes they had produced were so great, and man that Aziz Ansari really has scorching buzz right now, it’d be great if NBC had a comedy program featuring his talents that they could advertise and point to, as if to say, hey, if you like this guy, maybe give our 19th-place-network a shot?
Now, finally, finally, it’s over. “Parks and Recreation” returns tonight, landing in the plummest of plum NBC timeslots (9:30 p.m., after “The Office”). Recognizing that they had more comedies than timeslots, and keenly aware that they couldn’t spread them out on other nights because people sure as hell weren’t going to watch more than one night of NBC a week (except for football), they decided to jam them all onto Thursday nights. Instead of the traditional approach that had worked for nearly three decades on NBC (four comedies from 8-10 p.m., followed by a signature drama, which they had done almost continuously since 1984, save intrusions by Donald Trump and Jay Leno), they decided to air six sitcoms from 8 to 11 p.m.
“Community” leads off the night at 8 p.m., followed at 8:30 p.m. by the newbie “Perfect Couples,” followed in turn by “The Office” and, as we have noted, “Parks and Rec,” which is in turn followed at 10 p.m. by “30 Rock,” which is itself followed at 10:30 p.m. by the blissful silence that comes from turning off your television after watching two and a half hours of television and briefly pondering going to the gym or reading a book before maybe passing out on the floor with a half-eaten cupcake in your hands. (Or, if you are unable to switch the channel because you are trapped under something heavy, “Outsourced” will be on at 10:30 p.m.)
So, hopefully you’ll watch. Hopefully these shows will work and it’ll succeed, or else we’ll wind up with some Frankenstein of a schedule next year where it’s “30 Rock,” followed by a 90 minute “Law & Order: Vancouver,” followed by whatever “The Office” turns into without Steve Carell, followed by, of course, “Outsourced.” Hopefully you’ll watch. Hopefully these smart, truly good shows (and the others airing around them, depending on what “Perfect Couples” turns into) can actually find an audience and enough success to warrant their continued production (I speak mostly for “Community” and “Parks and Rec,” which need the ratings, as opposed to “30 Rock” and “The Office,” which are safely ensconced for now).
Tonight. “Parks and Recreation.” 9:30 p.m. Be there.