In the first act of this week’s This American Life, the worthy-of-infatuation Ira Glass examines a rift that has emerged among the writing staff of The Onion. He goes on to suggest that the conflict stems from, “a problem that comes up in any creative project that lasts even a few years; you don’t want to become a parody of yourself, you don’t want to keep repeating the same things over and over. Yet, there are some things you do a lot of that are just built into the DNA of what you make.” For comedic entities, like The Onion or powerhouse sitcoms, being on the wrong side of self-parody results in hard to watch staleness. When someone proposes that The Office or 30 Rock is not as good as it used to be, this is often what they are really suggesting. Though both of these shows are definitely guilty of being too much like themselves*, last night’s episodes suggest that all hope is not lost.
30 Rock has not necessarily been bad it just has been missing its usual spark. The jokes hit with less frequency and when they do they are not nearly as sharp. There are few things as water spittingly hilarious as a classic Jack and Liz rat-at-tat cold open yet after almost 100 of them, it is hard for them not to appear repetitive. Somehow though, last night was different and maybe it was because the episode slyly shifted the stakes.
We have a feeling that Jack having a baby (though Avery would prefer 100% of the credit) might be the best possible thing for the show moving forward. Sometimes characters, like real life people, have to grow up; think seasons 7-10 of Friends compared to the early years. Jack now has a Canadian-American daughter that he vows to treat like a human baby and an EGOTed Tracy appears to making steps to becoming a more socially-responsible crazy person, so maybe the show too will find a way to be more mature. Ok, so a drastic move to become more grown up is likely not on the horizon, at least not until Alec Baldwin departs, and that is a great thing because that is not its DNA. Still, it is these little adjustments that are completely essential for the 30 Rock’s longevity.
On the other hand, The Office’s devastatingly good showing last night and generally great season as a whole, exemplifies how beneficial increased stakes can be on a show operating on autopilot. Michael Scott has acted like an idiot in about 140 of the show’s 142 episodes but rarely as enjoyably as last night’s fool in love. The writer’s brilliantly used his powers of cringe induction for good opposed to evil. The scene in which each grossed-out staff member tempers their complaint about Hol-chael’s PDA by noting how happy they are for them was flawless. This story line also succeeded in helping to bring Michael and Holly closer together in a way that avoided feeling predictable regardless of a certain looming cast departure.
This is reminiscent of the one thing The Office probably did better than any sitcom in the last 20 years, executed a will-they-won’t-they arc that was fresh and surprising despite its inevitability. A night focused on each show’s romantic proclivities furthered The Office’s case. Parks & Recreation and Community might be the two new comedic standard bearers but neither has successfully executed a fulfilling romantic arc, instead both tend to focus on the relationship of the group.
With Steve Carell leaving it appears that the writers have been conscious to tell the story through the eyes of the rest of the group as well as its protagonist, giving the ensemble a chance get the big laughs. This reveals another benefit of The Office shake-up, the show is beginning to shift towards the less worn out characters. There is no better example than last night’s subversive cold open that showcased Craig Robinson finely-tuned deadpan and ability to shed a single tear (seriously, if there is not a “Daryl For New Boss” Facebook group already, god help me).
Carell is undeniably a transcendent talent but this season thus far has proved an Office with out him might be a great thing. The show seems capable of maintaining what stylistically makes The Office The Office while also exploring new and different types of stories and characters. Hell, regardless of the public radio reported conflict, The Onion is more popular than ever, operating in its 23rd year. Maybe 20+ seasons of The Office is a bit much but with this new sense of purpose we are committed to at least seven more.
So as the night’s winner, here is a clip from last nights The Office.