NBC's Thursday Night: Chicken Fingers and Self-Loathing

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I'm trying something different this week, thanks to a suggestion from my editor, who noticed that each successive episode of The Office was pushing me into a darker corner of the world inhabited only by hateful characters with no hope in sight. Rather than just blog about that show, I'm taking a look at NBC's entire Thursday comedy block. Hopefully, it should help me get a better feel for the flow of the two-hour set of programs and understand what's working and what isn't, but it's also bound to be more interesting than just watching Dunder Mifflin employees slog through another day. Let's do this.

Leave it to NBC to mess with their schedule after weeks of repeats. Last night's comedy block had no Parks and Recreation but made up for it with a double-shot of 30 Rock, with Community and The Office still holding their respective 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. CT slots. I've missed not being able to see these shows the past few weeks, and I wasn't disappointed with their return. (Well, mostly.)

The Office revolved around Secretary's Day and Andy's attempts to give Erin the best day ever, which backfired when Michael revealed to her that Andy had been engaged to Angela not long ago. Erin was pissed and upset the whole episode, and things ended with her telling Andy she needed to take a break for a while. And in case that's too happy for you, the B plot dealt with Oscar making a mash-up video of Kevin's voice over footage of the Cookie Monster, which led to everyone openly mocking Kevin in his presence for half an hour until he retaliated with a weak video of his own that only Michael thought was funny. The series is still staffed with gifted writers and skilled comic actors -- John Krasinski will probably never find a better way to use his wry asides or deadpan delivery -- but the problem is that the show's whole m.o. of self-loathing is starting to feel worn out.

That's what made Community and 30 Rock work so well. Both eps of 30 Rock were wonderfully written and packed with a verve and speed that's been missing from a lot of the season, and they did a nice job balancing the inherent insanity of the characters (like Tracy's attempt to bring his wife a sandwich that wound up taking him to a strip club, sandwich still in hand) with a genuine moral probing. Jack was caught for a while between two women, Avery (Elizabeth Banks) and Nancy (Julianne Moore), but the comedic aspect of the juggling never turned him callow, and indeed the whole story became about his inability to choose. This also led to a brilliant if somewhat unfortunately dated riff on the recent late-night wars, as Jack put his romantic life on hold to solve a dispute between two janitors -- one named "Khonani" -- who wanted to work the late shift at 11:30. It's nice to see that 30 Rock is still determined to chew on the hand that feeds them, and they didn't waste a single bullet taking aim at NBC's inept handling of the situation. The only misfire was when Khonani lost the late shift but told Jack he had a job at Foxwoods Casino, which came out just as "Fox" due to a coughing fit, a nod to Conan's once likely flight to Fox. If only they'd been able to come up with a suitable drop-in for TBS.

Community, though, was once again at the head of the pack, with a fun episode about the gang's extortion racket of cafeteria chicken fingers as a way to create an homage to Goodfellas, The Godfather, and more. It's tempting to label Community a post-postmodern comedy, but it's easier to think of it on a sliding scale between the extremes of earnestness and irony. It's a little closer toward the former than the latter, especially compared with shows like The Office, and it's because all the rapid-fire jokes and meta-references don't eliminate the characters' legitimate depth, reality, and heart. It's a show made for people who know they're watching a show that tells you you're watching a show, but that doesn't mean it has to make you feel bad about it. Abed's gangster-flick fantasy life was a fun and funny way to honor the classics but also to deal with his weirdness and loneliness, and to bring him closer to Jeff at the end with a Sixteen Candles moment that was just perfect.

Best Moment of the Night: "The fake ad in 30 Rock for the NBC TV-movie Bitch Hunter, starring a pissed-off Will Ferrell on a misogynistic shooting rampage. Insane and genius. "Happy birthday, bitches!"

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