Saturday, May 08, 2010

Another update on TV Shows

Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation's six-episode first season was intermittently funny but too closely modeled on the American edition of The Office (from which it was an ostensible spin-off, though aside from having Rashida Jones in the cast the two are completely unrelated). Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope was manic and insecure in ways that recalled Steve Carell's Michael Scott; except that she's the deputy director of the parks department of a fictional Indiana town, there wasn't much that distinguished the two. Moreover, she pined for a city planner (played by Paul Schneider) she'd once slept with and this was a discouraging hint that they show might might follow her efforts to win him back. Maybe, maybe not. The last episode of that season turned the show away from being a workplace comedy into something much funnier and even more visionary.

In its second season the setting is the same, but Leslie is a vastly different character. No longer a delusional striver (though she still dreams of being the first female president or, failing that, Pawnee's first female parks department director) Leslie is an eager public servant whose enthusiasm for her job stems from a belief that government should do things for people. She's countered by her boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), current parks department director and avowed libertarian. Ron thinks the best possible government is one that does as little as possible, though he aspires to keep moving up in it. The two have a friendship and mutual respect that seems quaint in both a television comedy (in other hands this relationship might be more antagonistic, or one of the characters more buffoonish) and in contemporary political discourse.

Parks and Recreation is hardly a two person show, though. The regular cast is rounded out by Schneider, Jones, as well as Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari and Aubrey Plaza. Beyond the names in the opening credits, the show has a solid supporting cast that only gets a couple jokes each episode but generally nail them, anyway. Outside of the parks department office, the show has built up an impressive bench of recurring bit characters and local mythology, it's almost like they're working on a live-action version of Springfield.* In another season or two, they might be able to pull off a 22 Short Films About Pawnee episode.

The show also has the catchiest opening theme on television.

*Anyone who noticed that this phrase also appeared in Alan Sepinwall's review of the most recent episode might understandably suspect that I'd stolen the observation or wording. I promise, though, that I have a date-and-time stamped email proving that I came up with it independently.

Good Christ, I can't believe I used to defend this show. For its first 4 seasons, 24 was wildly inconsistent but capable of using its real time conceit to create genuine suspense and spikes of adrenaline (not to mention some heartbreaking sadness). It also managed a neat trick of simultaneously telling a story that, with each season taking place over a single day and with several years passing between seasons, used a here-and-now urgency to illustrate a longer-form character piece. The problem, though, is that this longer arc had a nice, perfectly appropriate conclusion at the close of the fourth season. By the time this eighth, final, season ends, the series will have gone on 100% too long.

24 has periodically showed signs of life since then, but those were fleeting and situational. None of it was as visceral, troubling and cathartic as the show's strongest moments in the early seasons. (My collected posts discussing 24 can be found here, and include what is in retrospect a surprisingly optimistic take on the early episodes of season 6, which would go on to be, by far, the series' nadir.)

The show came to life again for just a few minutes this season. At the end of episode 18, after years of being dry and mercilessly direct as Jack's unflagging ally, Chloe is elevated to the show's Counter Terrorism Unit director. For context, Chloe was introduced in the third season, back when the show still portrayed government counter-terrorism agents as bad-ass professionals with attendant emotional quirks rather than as emotional basket cases who somehow got a job protecting the homeland.

Anyway, As Chloe is taking charge of CTU, Jack is in custody but scheming to hijack a government helicopter and go on a revenge rampage (long story, not worth it). One of the nice touches here, is that Chloe does exactly what we expect not only that character to do, but what we'd expect a CTU director to do: she moves quickly and decisively to stop Jack. The closing moments of that episode, where Chloe's cold, matter-of-fact decisiveness goes up against Jack's angry impulsiveness, were not only the first time in years anyone from CTU actually takes him on but they were reminiscent of of 24's early glory in ridiculous, stark conflict.

I saw an early episode of this show, set in a community college, and was not impressed. But I have gone back to it and though it seems likely that I would have found it funnier if I were familiar with the cast and show, it was still extremely likable. I was won over by the episode two weeks ago that concerned a campus-wide paintball contest that fondly spoofed a number of action films, but most frequently Die Hard (they even worked in a music cue). The next episode, a more conventional one, had a nice joke about The Wire. I am going to try this show over from the beginning.

There's a longer post about Treme coming.

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