Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Tina Fey in "30 Rock" and Amy Poehler in "Parks and Recreation."
If, as a wise man once suggested, there's such a fine line between stupid and clever, then the line gets even finer between clever and genuinely funny. Humor is such a delicate thing that it may not take much for a mediocre comedy to suddenly become a very good one, as NBC's "Parks and Recreation" has, or for a great comedy to produce some sub-par episodes, as "30 Rock" has at the start of its fourth season.
Neither development is all that surprising. Comedies can take a while to find themselves, as "Parks and Recreation" has, and "30 Rock" sets such a high degree of difficulty for itself that some episodes will inevitably fail to stick the landing.
But even though Tina Fey is the Emmy-approved darling of the TV business, at the moment it's her old "SNL" pal Amy Poehler whose show is the best piece of NBC's Thursday sitcom bloc.
Though "Parks and Recreation" wasn't "The Office" spin-off NBC had been hoping for, the episodes produced last season were uncomfortably close to what was going on at Dunder-Mifflin Scranton. Poehler's Leslie Knope, a mid-level bureaucrat in the Pawnee, Ind., parks department, was as cheerfully clueless as Michael Scott. In particular, she resembled the Michael of the early episodes, before "Office" writers like Greg Daniels and Michael Schur (the "P&R" creators) figured out how to soften him enough that you could understand how the man kept a job.
It wasn't until the last of those six spring episodes that Leslie developed some self-awareness and the show became much funnier for that. That trend has continued this season. Leslie still has an inflated sense of her job's importance and she still gets too enthusiastic at times, but she's not always dialed up to 11, and it makes sense why more laid-back supporting characters like city planner Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider) or nurse Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) would want to be her friend.
"I think what the writers intended as 'takes her job too seriously' read to some people as 'oblivious,' " Schur acknowledged in an interview earlier last month. "So we corrected a little for that this year in the scripts."
And by reining in Leslie just a little, Daniels, Schur and company have allowed the other characters to shine more. As Leslie's disinterested but fearsome boss, Ron Swanson, Nick Offerman is delivering a master class in comic minimalism; the less effort he seems to expend in a scene, the more hilarious Ron becomes. (An inspired subplot a few weeks ago put Offerman together with the equally deadpan Aubrey Plaza, as the department's bored teenage intern April; it was like the two were competing to see who could go smaller, and the viewer was the winner.)
As Leslie's obnoxious officemate Tom Haverford, Aziz Ansari isn't doing anything differently from last year, but because Leslie isn't the twit she used to be, it seems a fairer fight when he tries to make fun of her. And though Schneider and Jones are primarily there as the straight man and woman, they're extremely likable and they can deliver when called upon to drive the comedy in a scene. (Jones had a fine time last week role-playing as Leslie's nightmare first date.) And stand-up comic Louis CK has been a wonderful addition as a plain-spoken cop who's sweet on Leslie, but uncomfortable expressing his feelings. ("I was attracted to her in a sexual manner . . . that was appropriate," he tells the "Office"-style documentary crew that follows the characters around.)
Tonight's show is another strong one, with Poehler's former "SNL" co-star Fred Armisen playing Leslie's counterpart from Pawnee's Venezuelan sister city. Where Leslie (who's not as geo-politically savvy as she thinks she is) expects poor and humble people, Armisen is an arrogant, insulting boor who likes to brag about his palatial villa with its four satellite dishes.
"I already know who wins 'Project Runway,' " he tells Leslie.
Placed in another potentially humiliating situation, Leslie puts on a happy face, not because she doesn't know any better (which is how she came across last year), but because she believes that's what her role models would do.
As she explains, "That's why people respect Hilary Clinton so much: nobody takes a punch like her. She's the strongest, smartest, punching bag in the world."