Thursday Night TV Round Up: The Office pre-mortem edition

Tony

Hello Thursday night TV-ers, it’s been a while. I took a few weeks off because of midterms and spring break, and I’m excited to be back with you all for the remainder of the season. And look at all that’s happened since we last spoke! Jim Rash (Community’s Dean) won an Oscar for his work on The Descendants, Community returned with strong ratings, 30 Rock announced another live episode, and just yesterday more news broke that could spell the end of that old war horse The Office.

This time the death omens came in the form of Paul Lieberstein stepping down as a showrunner, Ed Helms (and Bill Hader!) joining Mindy Kailng’s pilot for Fox, and “stalled” contract renewal talks with virtually all of the lead cast members. So if the Office returns for season nine, it might just feature Kevin and Meredith reading jokes written the night before by NBC executives. Time will tell.

The Office and Parks & Recreation were both absent last night, so with Community and a double 30 Rock dominating the proceedings, the whole night was something of a meta-textual hall of mirrors. Let’s take a look.

Tonight’s Community was all about friends trying to save each other from themselves, and the results were mixed. Jeff has a new psychiatrist and new anti-anxiety meds, but Britta is worried they’ll let his ego get out of control. Meanwhile, Abed has incurred a huge amount of debt by hiring celebrity impersonators to help him recreate movie scenes. The impersonator service’s manager (a former French Stewart lookalike played by French Stewart) makes the gang work as doppelgangers at a Bar Mitzvah. Also Chang had a C-story but it was pretty lame so let’s not talk about it (though his scene with the Dean was good) (Here’s a sidenote: did you guys know that Ken Jeong was a physician before he got into comedy? I like Chang but every time he has a dud storyline I always think about all the lives Jeong could be saving instead).

There were some great gags for sure, but the whole thing was a little too cartoonish for me. Chang’s animated thought bubbles and Jeff’s hulking out near the episode’s end were the most obvious misfires. However, any issues I had with the episode were more than made up for by the last scene, which found Troy confronting Abed about his erratic behavior, and Abed snubbing his friend to play in the Dreamatorium alone. Upon retreating even further into his imagination, Abed meets Evil Abed, a holdover from the all-time great episode “Remedial Chaos Theory.”

“This is insane. And Inaccessible. And maybe too dark,” Abed says. That might be true, but I can’t wait to see where it goes.

I’ve said before that 30 Rock often stumbles when it has more room to breathe. We saw the earlier this season with the lame Valentine’s outing, but tonight’s episodes were very successful because they were broken up, with well-defined storylines in each that served a larger plot arc across them both.

The first episode found Jack planning another desperate attempt to rescue Avery from North Korea by making a Lifetime movie about their story. He tasks Liz with writing the script while Jenna angles for the lead role and the newly-minted executive Kenneth butts heads with Hazel, the new page tasked with Tracy’s care.

Kristen Schall’s Hazel came on too strong during the Valentine’s episode, but I think the writers are figuring her character out. I was also tickled to see the return of Michael Torpy as Standards head Gaylord Feltcher, a classic 30 Rock name I still can’t believe they got away with using. This episode also featured some great digs at the Today Show (“How to plan a staycation with you cyberbully!”) and meta gags (I’m surprised this is the first time they’ve had Tracy yell “This is a show within a show! My real name is Tracy Morgan!”)

But 30 Rock was only just getting started with the guest stars and self-reflexivity. The night’s second episode featured "Weird Al" Yankovic (trying to be out-parodied by Jenna) and Billy Baldwin as the actor portraying Jack in “Kidnapped By Danger”, now in production. The younger Baldwin did a great job aping Alec’s performance (though he couldn’t match his handsomeness because come on), and the whole thing culminated in a farcical rooftop battle, as all Lifetime movies do. Korean Freeze Ray!

All in all, the first episode was a little better, but both episodes were strong. The TV movie concept is a great way for 30 Rock to take advantage of its long history (and dedicated audience) instead of simply spinning its wheels. I’m also interested in Kenneth’s storyline. The writers seem intent on keeping him out of the page game for now, and I like the cracks we’re starting to see in his sunny façade.

I’ve felt like 30 Rock has spent most of this season trying to convince me that it deserves to stick around a little longer. With all of the razor-sharp dialogue (““I’m glad you see the endgame of feminism is dressing like Dennis the Menace at work”) and solid performances on display last night, I’m finally inclined to believe them.

Not to be outdone in the guest star game, Up All Night brought in Sharon Osborne and a pony-tailed Henry Winkler as Ava’s nemesis  and father, respectively. Those of you who think I take it too easy on Up All Night will be pleased to hear that I was pretty disappointed with this week’s episode (with that said, I adored some of the episodes over the break, like “First Birthday”).

I love me some Winkler, and while I did like the ongoing gag that he was a middle-aged Jewish man who wrote stories from the point of view African-American children, that storyline never quite took off.  The A-story, which found Chris filling in as a guest on Ava’s show, fared better, mostly because Will Arnett is great at playing vain characters and his initial train wreck of a guest spot was hilarious. We’re on the home stretch for this season with just two episodes left, so here’s hoping Up All Night is able to bring it back around for a big finish.

All the other Thursday night shows have a bit further to go in their seasons than Up All Night, but these next few weeks’ ratings will be crucial in shaping what the landscape of NBC’s Thursday night will look like next year. What’s your predicted line-up? Let me know in the comments.