The National Catholic Review
Jake Martin
Truly must see TV
Image

Television has become a wasteland of crime labs, police stations and court rooms. Every title is an acronym, usually with a colon and a major U.S. city name following it, this seemingly being the only way to discern which particular crime scene series you are watching. From “CSI” to “NCIS,” each blends into the next one until they all become one hour long blur of DNA samples and police interrogations. But this too shall pass.

Once upon a time the sitcom was the genre of choice for network programmers and the airwaves were flooded with one hilarious family after another, each with a living room and kitchen as their primary settings, each one more interchangeable than the next, always with the sofa facing the camera and a child under 10 cracking wise. Laugh tracks were to television circa 1987 what forensic labs are to television today. 

Like the western before it, the sitcom eventually fell out of favor with the TV powers-that-be and though the form is still relatively well represented today, it is not what it once was. As a result a Darwinian component has come into play. While there are exceptions, a higher level of quality is required for the sitcom to survive than was needed back in the day when the networks were handing out deals to any stand-up in a goofy sweater. 

Three shows in particular have set the gold standard for comedy as well as offering a welcome respite from television’s incessant barrage of microscopic evidence and quirky yet passionate detectives. These are shows that are good for you and good for television. These are shows you need to be watching.

Though its seams are a bit stretched these days, in this its fifth season, 30 Rock (NBC) is still easily the funniest, smartest show on television. Doing the seemingly impossible task of marrying sophisticated writing, high quality performance and a heart as soft as a plush toy, the show owes its success to its mastermind, star and creative force: Tina Fey. 

Where the show struggles is in its inability to implement new characters that are as hilariously robust as its already established troupe of comedic virtuosos. The show has not benefited from recent cast additions, particular the usually likable Elizabeth Banks as network bigwig Jack Donaghy’s (Alec Baldwin) love interest. Still, this is nitpicking and the show can more than rely on Fey’s Liz Lemon, one the most likable and easy to identify with protagonists in the annals of television. Fey is amply supported by an ensemble that most notably includes Baldwin (in the role of his career), Jane Krakowski, Tracy Morgan and the underrated Jack McBrayer as the lovably earnest page Kenneth.

While “30 Rock” is firmly entrenched within the cozy realm of immunity begotten to those shows whose critical acclaim are deemed prestigious enough to free it from the threat of cancellation regardless of mediocre ratings, “Rock’s” sister show Parks and Recreation could be in real danger of not seeing the light of the next season. Already given the dubious task of being a mid-season replacement (its third season premieres on January 20th), “Parks” will be fighting for its life over the course of the next few months and hoping that the addition of Rob Lowe will be the shot in the arm needed to improve the show’s less than stellar ratings. 

Though not of the same quality as “30 Rock,” “Parks”— which follows the ins and outs of small town bureaucracy in nowhere Indiana—is still one of the best shows on television, thanks to the performance of its star Amy Poehler. Television has provided us with many memorable high status buffoons, but none have been created with as much nuance and depth as Poehler’s Leslie Knope. 

It is an easy trap for the comedic actor to patronize their role, to step outside of the part and paint with broad strokes such that there is little doubt as to the contempt the actor feels for the part she is playing, as if to say, “This is not me.” Poehler rises above such condescension and uses her considerable acting ability (an area where she is noticeably superior to her “Saturday Night Live” cohort and chum Fey) to put forth a consistently vulnerable, yet hilarious performance of one of the most intriguing characters on television.

Not dissimilar to many show’s entering their third season, “Parks” can be patchy at times. Indeed, Poehler’s supporting cast is a bit uneven and some characters are just downright unlikable, most notably Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who seems to hit all the wrong notes as Leslie’s poker faced superior. The writing can also be rather hit or miss and can slide from comedy feast to famine in the blink of an eye. Still, Poehler’s performance makes the show worth the watch and one can only hope that NBC allows the show the opportunity to find its footing.

The Big Bang Theory on CBS has never needed to find its footing. It has been secure in its trajectory since it first aired in 2007 and seems to be hitting its peak as it moves toward the midway point of its fourth season. The show revolves around the lives of two genius misfits (Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons), their beautiful blonde waitress neighbor (Kaley Cuoco), and their equally socially incompetent colleagues (Simon Helburg and Kunnal Nayyar).

“Bang” is unique in that it puts the lives of social misfits’ front and center, and while it uses their idiosyncrasies for comic effect at times, it never stoops to mean-spiritedness or cliché. The show’s appeal lies in each of the character’s brokenness: Helburg in particular, takes what could otherwise be a one-note role as the mama’s boy and self-perceived Casanova and devises a hilarious and loving portrait of uncertainty and repression. 

“Bang” leaves the structural innovation and technical dexterity to other shows and focuses solely on the laughs. This is meat-and-potato comedy, very much in the vein of “Friends.” Indeed the show seems to be a direct descendant of the NBC classic in both style and temperament. “Bang” is a kind show, with little time for the slick irreverent tone most sitcoms take in the desperate attempt to acquire the much desired 18-24 age demographic coveted by networks and advertisers alike.

The landscape of television these days is a grim one, with little to appeal to a thoughtful, reflective audience. Even cable networks, which usually can be counted on to produce at least one or two offerings of particular relevance, seemed to have hit a dry spot both creatively and intellectually. Mercifully there are at least three shows that can be counted on to offer a much-needed oasis in a desert of crime.

Jake Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit scholastic teaching theology and theater at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois.

Comments

Sharon Bradley | 1/28/2011 - 1:54pm

I always sleep better after watching "30 Rock" or "Community."  The occasional crime drama (e.g. "Bones") is intersting because of its unique focus on both solving crime and using the skills of forensic anthropologist, nicknamed "Bones" and the frequently funny cast.  I watched "Parks and Recreation" for the first time this week, and agree that Poehler is teriffic.  "Rubicon," a new 2010 show, cancelled already, was intellectually engaging and fascinating.  However, it dealt with the usual heavy subject matter, all of which needs balancing (at least by me) with some comic relief.

Edward Visel | 1/23/2011 - 6:57pm

30 Rock and Parks and Rec as the best shows on television? I would think that would be reserved for a Lost or Mad Men, or maybe an outlier like Rubicon. It's not that there's not good TV, both network and cable, but this isn't it. Comedy, if that's what you're looking for, can be better, too—take a look at Community or Chuck. No laugh tracks or SNL snark that makes fun of caricatured characters. Stunt casting that actually integrated into the plot, rather than playing a random add-on, usually in the same role, over and over. (John Hamm, Matt Damon, Elizabeth Banks....) TV can be better than this, better than How I Met Your Mother (really more properly a sitcom than the NBC comedies, but presumably excluded for moral character).

To find out what I mean, look to Lost, Rubicon, Mad Men, or even Doctor Who under Steven Moffatt—the recent Christmas special was fantastic. Good television is alive and well, if you're willing to look.
ANN CLEM | 1/23/2011 - 5:59pm

Why are you so concerned about which one is the most Catholic?  

JOHN KEHOE | 1/21/2011 - 1:32pm

My wife and I have tried to watch 30 Rock on several occasions and each time have turned it off because we can't seem to past their rather blatant sexual language and comments. We enjoyed the movie Date Night and consider ourselves open to such things when the context calls for it, but when it is purely for laughs it is a turn off to us.

Vince Killoran | 1/14/2011 - 10:40am

I love these shows as well and would throw in MODERN FAMILY-but which one is the most Catholic?

Recently in Television