Archive | March, 2014

Does Not Live by Jokes Alone: Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the Warm Sitcom

28 Mar

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine creator Mike Schur isn’t the only one doing the warm sitcom—Modern Family does it; New Girl occasionally does it; I hear The Middle does it—but he might be the best and most consistent. He comes from The Office and he created Parks and Recreation, both of which have decidedly uplifting tendencies and had flaily first seasons before gaining traction later on. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he’s gotten it right out of the gate, and then gone further: from jokes to characters to compelling relationships in one season flat.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was that rare TV unicorn, a sitcom that people liked right away, and rightly so: it was funny and self-assured from the start. It got good reviews and reasonable ratings, and it won two Golden Globes (Best Television – Comedy or Musical and a Best Actor – Television Comedy or Musical nod for Andy Samberg) before it had aired a full season—which everybody thought was a little dumb, but may have given the show a little extra time and confidence.

The task of any freshman sitcom is to hang on long enough to let its characters find their voices, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has done that, largely by being funny enough and well-liked enough at an early enough date to sidestep worries about cancellation. (The writers also had the brains to develop the entire ensemble and avoid becoming The Andy Samberg Show—a smart move, since a lot of people find Full Samberg off-putting. Here, he’s allowed to play to his obvious strengths and show off a few less obvious ones.) That said, the growth spurt took awhile. As late as Thanksgiving, it was hard to remember exactly who was who (now which brunette was the kiss-up, and which one was that girl from Twitter?) and why we cared, exactly, aside from all the jokes. But it did eventually come: with time and careful writing, the archetypes of the Nine-Nine have become fictional people, identifiable and with full-sized personalities. Most importantly—and this is maybe Schur’s greatest gift as a showrunner—every single character on this show has an identifiable heart. From the deadpan Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) down the line to his weirdo assistant Gina (Chelsea Peretti) to the show’s protagonist, professional goofball/detective Jake Peralta (Samberg), everybody wants things, and fears things, and tries to keep secrets—and when those things collide, as they always do on a sitcom, we get unexpected moments of grace. It’s very, very funny, but it’s generous funny, and it’s those vulnerable spots that make us care.

Early on, a lot of people pointed out that the characters on Brooklyn Nine-Nine bear certain resemblances to the characters on Parks and Rec: intense goody-goodies Amy Santiago and Leslie Knope; ultra-stoics Ron Swanson and Captain Holt; golden-hearted angry ladies Rosa Diaz and April Ludgate; perpetual bumblers Gary/Jerry/Larry and Hitchcock & Scully. And it’s true that Schur has his types, and the two series have similar rhythms—but it isn’t a problem. Amy and Leslie may be different sides of the same coin, but they express themselves differently. Rosa isn’t April. And we all know Gary/Jerry/Larry would just think Hitchcock & Scully are the coolest guys ever. And when it comes down to it, is a family resemblance to Parks and Rec really the worst thing?

So, all this character-building is great—but for what Schur is doing with the warm sitcom, it isn’t enough. Lots of shows have good characterization; not as many play good characterization into nuanced interactions that stand the test of many seasons. Around the beginning of the year, carefully established relationships began to emerge across the character matrix, from the big names all the way down to recurring small-dose characters like  Hitchcock and Scully (see: Gina and the secret bathroom). The expected combinations are there, for sure: loose cannon Peralta and ultra-stoic Captain Holt, Peralta and teacher’s pet Santiago (Melissa Fumero, who’s great on this show), and the like. But a lot of the interesting stuff lies, as it so often does, on the periphery. The series started off with a potentially tough-to-pull-off unrequited-love story between the awkward foodie Boyle (Joe Lo Truglia) and the generally terrifying Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz). Would they overcome their complete incompatibility and fall in love? Mercifully, no. But Schur and Co. worked with the concept and came up with something compelling but not insane: they would overcome a little of their incompatibility and become friends. In his hour of being dumped by his fiancee, it was Rosa who talks him through with sincerity and grace—and because of the slow creep of their relationship over the course of the season, it didn’t feel strange. This is the kind of groundwork that allows for long story arcs and keeps viewers coming back week after week.

One note of potential awkwardness: toward the end of the season, Peralta began nursing a crush on Santiago. This is pleasant: Samberg sells it, and Fumero has a great semi-awareness that she somehow gets across, and the whole thing allows for a certain number of goofy and touching romantic hijinks. It also makes a sort of strategic sense; people love having a couple to root for, and that extra emotional hook might ensure that they don’t forget to tune in come September. It’s enjoyable—but it feels like it was introduced too late and moved forward too early. This is the kind of storyline that does especially well when it’s introduced immediately (a la Jim and Pam on The Office) or worked in slowly during a longer run (Leslie and Ben on Parks and Rec, indicating that Schur knows exactly how to do this), but something about bringing it up a month or six weeks before the season finale feels just a hair forced. In the finale, just before breaking contact and going undercover long-term, Peralta confessed that he’d like something to happen between them. It was a nice scene, but it didn’t need to happen yet. Endless delayed gratification in TV love can make things awkward and ridiculous, but making a move too soon cuts out the thrill of waiting awhile—and we’re still well within the bounds of a little healthy pining. The show wasn’t in danger of cancellation (I’m looking at you, The Mindy Project). It could have waited.

Anyway. As the first season ends, we’re left with a fun concept for next year: Peralta goes undercover to root out the mafia. It’s unclear how that will work logistically, assuming he’ll have to cut off all contact with the rest of the Nine-Nine, but that’s a concern for another day—and I think we can assume it’ll be good. They’ve got their act together.

This is the second of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Hop on over to New Girl here; stay tuned for The Mindy Project!

 

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What Happened to New Girl?

10 Mar

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There was a time when Tuesday night was New Girl night. After the ramping-up period, back when The Mindy Project was an infant and Brooklyn Nine-Nine was just someone’s pitch for Andre Braugher holding puppies, New Girl got good. It grew nuance and originality along with silliness, and cultivated a gift for amazing throwaway lines. It developed characters so weird that you had to love them. It had something going. And now, in its third season, it’s lost its way.

The last season of New Girl was incredibly exciting. Among other plot points, the writers leaned hard on the developing romantic relationship between Jess and her roommate Nick, with thrilling results. The story was exciting; Zooey Deschanel and Jake Johnson’s crackly, grown-up chemistry was exciting; and the writing was really exciting. The writers approached Nick and Jess’s story with the kind of abandon—one might say recklessness—not often seen on network sitcoms. Instead of drawing out the will-they-won’t-they, they went for it, all at once, and it was a glorious thing to watch.

In comparison, this season is dead in the water. Nearly everybody’s flailing, looking for an arc and not finding anything of substance. Schmidt moved out, and then back in again, for reasons I don’t really remember. Winston, never a character of great purpose in the first place, continues to have harebrained schemes that never go anywhere (though I hope he becomes a cop, and stays one; there’s lots of material there). And Coach, the roommate who was replaced by Winston after the pilot, has resurfaced for reasons nobody seems to get, other than the cancellation of Happy Endings and the availability of Damon Wayans, Jr. Cece is working at the bar with Nick—potentially a fun move—and fostering a mostly platonic soft spot for Schmidt, but she isn’t going anywhere. None of them are.

The thing is, though, that there are two characters who aren’t really flailing, and they are Nick and Jess. They’ve lost the urgency of last season, but their relationship remains the best part of the show—they’re funny, they’re sexy (except when they’re deliberately not, a la Nick’s nightgown), and their storylines stem primarily from the drama and humor inherent in two weird humans trying to establish a life together. This is huge: by far, the biggest killer of television couples (and, sometimes, television shows) is the temptation to manufacture drama externally, as if human relationships were somehow not interesting enough. It’s this impulse that brought us Luke’s long-lost daughter April, Luke’s inexplicable desire to keep her a secret, and a totally unnecessary breakup on Gilmore Girls; it’s this impulse that replaced Lois Lane with a frog-eating clone a million years ago on Lois and Clark; it’s this impulse that made a serial killer force Booth to refuse to marry Brennan, and not tell her why, on Bones. It’s an infuriating instinct—and on New Girl, the writers have mostly avoided it, apparently getting that these two characters have enough neuroses and conflicting pressure points to keep an enterprising sitcom writer busy until the next winter Olympics, at least. It’s a slowed-down version of what they started last year, and that’s understandable; what they were doing last year wasn’t sustainable. I suspect not everybody is enjoying the monogamous setting-up stage of Nick and Jess’s relationship—but it’s keeping them focused, and in motion, which is more than anybody else on the show can say.

Maybe The Nick and Jess Show in its barn-burning heyday sucked all the energy from everybody else’s storylines, and we were all so busy watching them that nobody noticed. Now, when everything has normalized, we notice, and adjustments need to be made. At its best, this show invests in all four roommates, and regardless of what Fox tries to tell us, Jess can’t carry the show alone. This week may have been a step in the right direction, with Schmidt moving back into the apartment, forcing Nick and Jess to continue sharing a room despite realizing they’d rather not. This reshuffling is a chance to refocus the action in new ways and go back to some established routines, and maybe find new arcs with new setups and new payoffs. Let’s hope a little proximity and a little reset button can breathe some life back into apartment 4D.

This is the first of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Coming soon, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project

You Can’t Take It Back; Ron’s Already Out There!

2 Mar

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

Awhile back, JK Rowling made some comments to the effect that Hermione should have ended up with Harry instead of Ron. This was nearly a month ago, back when I thought I was the kind of person who didn’t really have thoughts about this particular subject. For the record, my inner monologue in recent idle moments has since set me straight.

So she wishes she’d written it differently. Fine. But she didn’t write it differently. Setting aside the argument that perhaps not all of these characters should marry the person they’re dating at seventeen, she didn’t spend ten years and thousands of pages carefully setting up a romance between Hermione and Harry. She invested in Hermione and Ron, and in the ways their very different personalities complemented each other. She gave Harry other loves. She created a canon, and she can add to that canon at any time—but she can’t change it. Not unless she wants to write the alternate history of the wizarding world (in which case, may I request further exploration of Neville Longbottom as the possible alternate Boy Who Lived?). Until then, we’re living by the When Harry Met Sally philosophy of fictional canon: You can’t take it back; it’s already out there!

(There’s also the issue of how to deal with other pronouncements that appear outside the books, but don’t contradict them. To bring up another Harry Potter example, are we obligated to officially consider Dumbledore’s sexual orientation if it’s never referenced in the series? I personally consider these kinds of things non-canon, but not a cause for philosophical rage. We’ll call them apocryphal.)

But let’s get specific. Say it’s all different: Harry and Hermione pine pine pine, battle battle battle, kill Voldemort, and ultimately fall in love. What’s the benefit, aside from to the wizarding gene pool? Does it make things more interesting or illuminate the situation in any way? As a reader, I assume that a Harry/Hermione relationship would come with a completely different set of problems and character issues than Ron/Hermione, and maybe that would have been fascinating. It’s also the wizarding equivalent of the captain of the football team and the most popular girl in school, and anyway, Ron and Hermione are pretty damn interesting as it is: the unglamorous but loyal best friend falls for the smartest, bravest girl in school; she knows every way he falls short, and loves him anyway. Rowling said in the interview (with Emma Watson, incidentally, who agreed) that she didn’t believe Ron is the type of man who could make Hermione happy long-term. I think that’s realistic—but I also think that, in a sense, that’s the point! Not that Hermione should settle, but that she finds and cultivates love with somebody who isn’t her perfect match, in the way that grown-up humans do. After all the wizard-fighting is over, that’s an interesting story.

Also, if Ron doesn’t get Hermione’s love, what does he get? He’s the third-in-command best friend who isn’t a genius, isn’t going to be an Auror, and doesn’t have any money. (This is, again, setting aside the idea that Ron goes off to a wizarding state university on scholarship, plays backup Keeper but ultimately kind of warms the bench, and settles down to a job at the Ministry and a nice non-Hogwarts girl who likes hand-knitted sweaters at Christmas.) I think this kind of statement underestimates how much we’re all rooting for Ron. After all, he’s so often our stand-in: how many of us are the hero, and then how many of us are the occasionally courageous screw-up best friend? Ron spends seven years chasing acceptance; his gaining the love of the girl of his dreams is the end of an arc that’s nearly as important to many Potter fan as who takes the Battle of Hogwarts.

A week after Rowling’s comments set certain quadrants of the Internet on fire, she recanted—sort of—saying that Ron and Hermione would be “all right with a bit of counseling” (which, please tell me there’s a magical MFT program somewhere, and that it has a funny animal-acronym name), which makes me think she was just speaking off the cuff. Again, fine. It’s a free world, and she can say what she wants. But unless she writes it down, binds it up, and sends it out to bookstores everywhere, I don’t have to like it.