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Shows I Would Watch If They Only Had Female Characters

1 Jun

PeggyJoan

We’re two weeks into the post-Mad Men era, and though it’s constitutionally forbidden to say anything bad about it, I have a confession to make: I liked Mad Men very much, but during the later seasons, there were times where I thought, “I wish this show were about the women.”

I get it. Mad Men is the story of Don Draper and his slow spiral into misery and drunkenness and death as the fifties become the seventies. That’s the show, and it was a great show. But you know who’s really interesting? Peggy Olsen, who started out as the secretary and is just about to rule the world. Joan Holloway-Harris, who was the mistress of one world and is maybe still adjusting to another, is interesting. Sally Draper, who didn’t even have any lines for four seasons because she was a child, and who will spend all of the seventies in therapy because of the events of the sixties? Sally Draper is interesting. Give me a show about those ladies—I guess the men can make occasional cameos, and by “the men” I mean “70s Stan and his beard of majesty”—and I’d watch.

For a period of time, The Good Wife approached this benchmark; things came gloriously close to becoming The Alicia, Diane, and Kalinda Show (With Cameos by Nancy Crozier and Elsbeth Tascioni), which I like to think was foiled only by mysterious production-side issues. To be clear: I don’t mind the men of The Good Wife. I hope Matthew Goode comes back next season! I love Eli Gould! Peter Florrick is the character who kind of makes me get the appeal of Chris Noth! I think Louis Canning is a terrific, complex role for Michael J. Fox! But come on: I don’t need them. Not the way I need The Alicia, Diane, and Kalinda Show.

And then there are shows I don’t already watch, but might if they suddenly turned into shows about women doing interesting things. Take Elementary: It’s convenient that the creators of Elementary already went to the trouble of taking Sherlock Holmes’s name out of the title of their show, so when it’s just Joan Watson hanging around a big house in amazing outfits, being a professional sober companion or maybe solving crimes (slowly and with old-fashioned police work, due to lack of a prodigy partner), they won’t even have to change anything. Since they’ve already begun, I would also accept a full genderswap, where Jonny Lee Miller morphs into Sherlockia Holmes (Tilda Swinton), a lady genius/addict who solves crimes under the reluctant but respectful eye of Captain Thomasina Gregson (Edie Falco). They can keep the turtle, Clytemnestra.

I’d say the same about Game of Thrones, but it poses a few more problems. On one hand, Game of Thrones appears to be full of flawed, three-dimensional female characters with interesting storylines, making it ripe for the Misandrist Plague. Let’s watch a well-funded, well-written, well-produced show about ladies and dragons! On the other hand, I get the feeling that this show is very pointed about women and power—that any woman experiencing any kind of success is some kind of thrilling exception, and any woman who isn’t a thrilling exception is definitely not experiencing any kind of success. So what happens to a casually feminist Game of Thrones, where the women are just characters and not unicorns? Maybe the backstabbings (literal and figurative) continue; I’d be into that. Maybe they don’t, and they talk everything out and decide it doesn’t matter who gets to sit in the sword chair, and form a commune ruled by a High Governess who rotates every year. I’m sure there’s conflict there, too! Either way, I wasn’t kidding about that ladies-and-dragons show, and I’m far more likely to watch either of these options than I am the actual Game of Thrones.

I’m not saying I don’t watch and enjoy TV about men. As I said, I thought Mad Men was terrific as it was, and I tune in weekly, with great affection, to the men of The Good Wife. I like Jonny Lee Miller, and I hear good things about his performance on Elementary. (Game of Thrones is probably not going to happen for me, but everybody else seems excited about it, so we’ll go with that.) But sometimes it feels like people think shows won’t float if they don’t have a man front and center; I’d like to argue otherwise. I like watching shows about women—female humans with thoughts and feelings!—making their way in extraordinary circumstances. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.

So. While we’re at it, where did we land on Tilda Swinton and Edie Falco?

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Half-Hour TV for the End of the World (Or Not)

12 Mar

lastmankimmy

Apparently, March is a good month for TV about people who believe themselves to be the last humans alive after the apocalypse—only to discover they’re incorrect. The Last Man on Earth premiered last Sunday with back-to-back episodes on Fox; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dropped a complete thirteen-episode season on Netflix four days later. Is this some kind of cultural neurosis we’ve just now uncovered? We’re, what, somehow worried that the Doomsday Preppers bunker we’re building in the backyard might just be a distraction from reality? Or that we (and only we, as individuals) are going to survive the apocalypse we suddenly seem pretty interested in? It feels like a weird coincidence, is all I’m saying.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is terrific. It immediately feels like a classic, the kind of thing that’s going to fold itself seamlessly and completely into the cultural landscape—but then, it’s possible that anything that sounds like Tina Fey automatically sounds like a classic to us now. (Though Kimmy is a thousand times more sure-footed than 30 Rock was in the beginning, or—and I say this with deep affection—possibly ever.) It’s sharp and agile and, at the same time, incredibly solid: dense with spot-on characterization, dense with good jokes, dense with the confidence of knowing exactly what it’s doing.

Kimmy was originally developed for NBC, but ended up on Netflix, which pretty much everybody agrees was the best-case scenario all around. Kimmy is not a network show: it’s very weird and very dark in places, in a way that might not exactly set off the network censors’ sirens, but also might make them feel a bit queasy. It’s also not the kind of thing that might do well on cable: ironically, it’s maybe too sunny, too pro-social, not cynical enough (Kimmy Schmidt is, after all, unbreakable—which is so not what cable is doing these days). But Netflix, which is building a reputation on shows like Orange is the New Black? That’s a good match. And with the freedom from the network system, Kimmy feels like mature work from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock: there’s no ramping-up period, no hunt for what the show is and what it wants to say. It’s immediately funny and immediately clear, and it’s fully formed in a way that week-to-week shows sometimes struggle with.

The Last Man on Earth is also good, and part of its appeal is that it exists at all. The fact that something so strange and abstract could get made, and convince Fox to advertise it, and actually get some ratings, feels improbable and amazing in a world where this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Actress is also—as CBS constantly and gleefully reminds us—the star of the new CSI: Cyber. In that kind of landscape, who wants to go in and pitch a silly, yet expensively shot and production-intensive, sitcom about solitude and the human condition?

Amazingly, Last Man pulls it off, so far. Tonally, it’s like Kimmy Schmidt‘s stoner pal: Kimmy is bright and quick and features Ellie Kemper ruling New York City in light-up hi-tops; Last Man is vast and full of the silence and the color palette of post-apocalyptic Tucson, and some of its jokes a) take awhile and b) involve pick-up trucks full of bowling balls. (A surprising number of the jokes on Last Man revolve around balls of the sports-playing variety, actually. You’ll see.)

What both shows have in common is that they require, and deliver, exceptional performances: Kimmy Schmidt because Kimmy could so easily turn grating; Last Man because, well, there’s nobody else. This is career-making stuff from Ellie Kemper, who commits to Kimmy’s cheerfulness (I never realized before how big her mouth is) but also to a certain steeliness and to the shadow of an incredibly sad past. We’ve seen wide-eyed wonder from her before (Bridesmaids), but this is better: a character rather than a stereotype, and therefore a real opportunity for her as an actor. She’s a tremendously physical performer, and makes it look like she’s not even trying. Forte is in a slightly different position; nobody doubts his talent, but nobody’s had a TV project that grooved with his goofy, slightly poignant sensibility, either—which is, I think we can presume, why he wrote and produced Last Man. It was a good call: capturing the humor of being the last man on Earth, and the total and utter tragedy of the exact same thing, is just the kind of thing a weird, kind of sad guy can pull off. A show that just followed Phil Miller around, Wall-E-style, wouldn’t be the worst thing.

Except. Phil Miller may be the last man on Earth, but it turns out he isn’t the last human on Earth. The last moments of the pilot introduced Kristen Schaal as another survivor; episode three introduced yet another, played by January Jones. I’m just going to say it: this is a LOT of Kristen Schaal. I tend to think she’s funny, but she’s an acquired taste for a lot of people—and as her first live-action leading role, I think this show is going to require more from her than we’ve seen before. I hope she’s able to shed some of the ironic distance she’s built a career on, and invest in the connection that Carol is going to need to be funny and pathetic rather than just plain irritating. That said, the third episode was very good and planted the seeds for some fun sitcom drama in the weeks to come. It’s early yet, but I think greatness—or at least high-quality originality—is at least a possibility there.

The Parks and Rec Hall of Fame

26 Feb

As anybody with a two eyes and a heart knows, Parks and Recreation came to an end last week after seven seasons. I am both okay and not okay with this. I get it: seven years is a long time to tell a story; better to go out more or less ahead than fade into infinite joyless seasons; nearly everybody involved with this show is massively more famous than they were seven years ago, and probably wants to do other things; the entire series exists for my re-watching pleasure on Netflix. On the other hand, what other fictional people will assure us that goodness, loyalty, and beneficent enthusiasm exist in the world?

Truthfully, the Parks and Rec finale was not my favorite—hour-long sitcom episodes almost never are, especially when they have to Get Things Done—but it was very them: a series of reassuring flash-forwards, showing us the appropriate and fulfilling futures of the former employees of the Pawnee Parks Department. A lot of people loved it, and I’m sincerely glad they did.

But there were a lot of things I did love about Parks and Rec, and so here we are: The P.S. BTW Parks and Recreation Hall of Fame, a collection of favorite episodes, scenes, moments, and characters from seven years of greatness:

1. “Practice Date”

Season two was so long ago, and yet so much happens in this episode! Among other things: the introduction of Duke Silver, Louis CK in his recurring role as Leslie’s awkward cop boyfriend, the revelation of Tom’s green-card marriage, and a spectacular embodiment of dating angst in the person of Leslie Knope. This is also one of Ann’s finer moments of best-friend-hood/Leslie-wrangling. And hey, remember Mark Brendana-quits? That guy’s here, too. It’s a really good episode.

2. Ann + Leslie + April + Donna

Here’s a wish for the world: that every woman would have friends like the women of the Pawnee Parks Department. This is a show that created a fictional holiday to celebrate women’s friendships; even better, Ann and Leslie and April* and Donna act like real friends pretty much all the time, in ways that are disappointingly rare on TV. That includes showing up for one another, encouraging each other, telling each other painful truths, and refraining from backstabbing, in addition to the standard duties of brunch, relationship counseling, and the previously mentioned Leslie-wrangling.

(*April, of course, prefers not to act like real friends with anybody, but we all know her secret.)

3. “Andy and April’s Fancy Party” (aka April and Andy get married and I cryyyy)

I’m sorry, The Mindy Project, but “April Come She Will” has now been retired for sitcom purposes, and I feel like you should know that already.

4. “End of the World” (aka April and Andy go to the Grand Canyon and I cryyyy)

“End of the World” is a strange, sad, and wonderful episode for lots of reasons, but April and Andy’s spontaneous road trip is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful moments of the series. There’s that Gabe Dixon Band song, and the Grand Canyon at golden hour, and a flash of unbridled earnestness…and then that perfect Chris Pratt line delivery at the end. It’s perfection.

5. Treat Yo Self

treat yo self

Truly, probably Parks and Rec’s greatest contribution to society at large. “Fine. Leather. Goods.”

6. Garry-Jerry-Larry-Terry Gergich

I once read an interview where the creators of Parks talked about the writers’ vision for Jerry, which I found really reassuring: the joke of Jerry, and the writers’ justification for him, is that Jerry is the office scapegoat who quietly lives the life every other character ultimately wants—and because of that, he doesn’t really need their validation. (Which: it’s a good thing.) Jerry lives in a beautiful home with his adoring wife, played by Christie Brinkley; he has four devoted daughters, cherishes every moment of work at the Parks Department, and spends his free time making beautiful paintings. Everybody is terrible to him—but he just might be the happiest and most well-adjusted person in Pawnee.

7. “Ben & Leslie” (aka Ben and Leslie get married and I cryyyy)

The fifth-season episode “Ben and Leslie” is like the series in miniature: A harebrained idea of Leslie’s causes the Parks Department crew to band together and make beautiful things happen, against all odds. Love triumphs. Ron says practically nothing, and saves the day. Leslie looks amazing in a dress made of newspaper. You know, the usual.

8. “5,000 Candles in the Wind,” A pop song about a Li’l Sebastian, a deceased miniature horse

FYI, you can get tabs and chords for this online.

9. Ben Wyatt & The Cones of Dunshire

Ben Wyatt is a passionate guy: passionate about Leslie, obviously, but also passionate about Batman, about Game of Thrones, about Letters to Cleo, about claymation (“Requiem for a Tuesday”), and about “the ninth highest-selling multi-player figurine-based strategy fantasy sequel game in history.” Adam Scott’s performance is always terrific, but these occasional geek-out monologues may be his best work.

10. Andy Dwyer on Rollerblades/Andy Dwyer jumping over things

Or jumping over things ON Rollerblades. “…Nailed it.”

This isn’t even a remotely comprehensive menu of everything that’s wonderful about this show; that would be a very, very long list. But it highlights a few of the qualities, people, and moments that have made Parks and Rec such a joy. Thanks, Pawnee.

Into the Woods: Big Screen, Small Screen

5 Jan

INTO THE WOODS

I recently went to see the film adaptation of Into the Woods.

As a child of the late eighties and early nineties, I was raised on Into the Woods. The stage production premiered on Broadway in 1987; in 1991, most of the original Broadway cast reunited for a filmed performance that aired on PBS and, if my own experience is any indication, found its way into the hands of public school teachers everywhere. I first saw it in Mr. Johnson’s fifth-grade music class: after another inexplicable acting-out of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War,” that hot new musical went straight into the VCR. By the end of middle school, I’d seen it at least three or four more times and internalized it as That Musical I Like.

This is how you get kids into musical theater: put it in front of their eyeballs. I loved Into the Woods, particularly Danielle Ferland’s performance as Little Red Riding Hood—incidentally, a sassy adolescent girl at a time when I was interested in how being a sassy adolescent girl might work. I didn’t really get the second act, but it didn’t matter; I was hooked enough to grow into it later. I’ve wondered many times why more popular musicals don’t end up on public television—because there’s almost no other way to get them.

Tickets to professional musical theater are incredibly expensive from a per-hour perspective, assuming people have geographical access to them at all. From the perspective of ticket sellers, maybe that’s the point. Releasing Broadway productions on television upsets the supply-and-demand equation in the short term. But hey, that’s the short term. In the long term, public access to good theater only spawns more theater fans. For me, the line from the 1991 PBS version of Into the Woods and the Disney adaptation is simple and direct: love it as a kid in 1991, attend numerous stage productions in the intervening years, buy a ticket to the movie at my local theater in 2015. In terms of sales, that free viewing turned me into the gift that keeps on giving.

This is why the Tony Awards telecast is so important, and why it’s exciting that it’s been so great in recent years. Once a year, Broadway arrives in American living rooms, for free, and shows people what it’s got—whether or not the viewers are able to make it to New York. (The Tony people are notoriously self-aware about this: in recent years, both the hosts and a number of award winners have reminisced about watching the show as kids and called out the telecast as an inspiration to future generations of Tony winners.) Of all the major arts award shows, the Tonys are the most joyful and the most immediate, because they’re packed with great live performances: the talent and hard work and magic that’s up for celebration are right there. For many, many people, that annual show-off is, realistically, the entire theater year. It’s great for New York ticket sales, but it isn’t only great for ticket sales: it’s great for the future of theater.

Incidentally, the televised-musical hole in the market may actually be filling in a bit, essentially due to a harebrained ratings grab from a struggling TV network: the recent NBC productions of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan feel like the Into the Woods TV production for the twenty-first century. They’re more like TV specials than actual live theater—but if the ratings are any indication, a generation of kids is growing up with them and getting to know classic musicals because of them. (Next up, NBC: pick something less awkward and racist than Peter Pan?) Neither seems to be available for streaming on major platforms (the true metric for having made it), but for now, maybe this is the beginning of something: a portal to musical theater for people without access to musical theater. Maybe one day, they’ll even do Into the Woods. When they do, I’ll be watching.

Parks and Rec and the American Way of Cancellation

14 May

knope2

NBC announced over the weekend that my favorite show, Parks and Recreation, will have one final thirteen-episode season, and then go to the big public forum in the sky. Done! Gone! Cancelled! But I have to tell you: I think this is okay news.

Parks and Rec has lived a good life. It’s had a surprising number of seasons for a show that spent its entire run on the brink of cancellation (just today, a 2012 episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour referred to the then-imminent fifth season as “almost certainly its last”). It’s still pretty strong creatively—the season finale was a wonderful, tears-inducing hug of an episode—but it’s getting short on runway, a fact that was addressed in the final moments of that finale by a three-year fast-forward. Best of all, the decision to end the show appears (according to creator Mike Schur, on Twitter) to have been a mutual decision between the show’s producers and NBC. They’ll have plenty of time to wrap things up in style, and everybody involved can move on to new adventures with a fully formed series behind them. In the TV business, this is about as good as it gets.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll spend a few disappointed Thursday nights without new Parks and Rec to show me the good in the world. I still look forward to new episodes, and I still tune in as soon as the DVR has enough of a lead to skip the commercials. But unlike other shows that are more about plot and less about beloved characters in a well-rounded universe, more episodes are just icing on the cake of six whole seasons of delight. As long as I have the show we’ve already loved, I think we’re good.

Cancellation is a weird thing: it sounds like tragedy, and it can be. Nobody likes seeing a good show, or a promising show that’s still finding its voice, cut down for commercial reasons. And our natural human response is, if three seasons is good, six or eight or (heaven help us) twelve must be better! But let me tell you, there’s a whole lot of long-running television out there, from Grey’s Anatomy to the extreme case of The Simpsons, contradicting that impulse. Even for good shows, cancellation can be a blessed relief: I’ve been watching Mad Men for nearly a decade, and I’m watching Don’s spiral into the 70s with as much interest as anybody, but that doesn’t mean I’m not counting down to the final half-season, which won’t air until 2015. Even the cancellation of Community, a show equally beloved to Parks and Rec but far more hotly contested due to production-side drama, doesn’t bother me. Community‘s fun and interesting and innovative, and I’m so pleased that we got to have it in the world, but I think maybe it’s said what it had to say. It makes NBC like seventy-five dollars a year, because only nine people—nine very vocal people—watch it. Five seasons may not be #sixseasonsandamovie, but it’s still a long time. I see why the network might want to give that space to something else, and I don’t think that, after giving it five seasons, it’s an unfair decision. 

Parks and Rec isn’t the only show to get a season’s notice, but I think it embodies the recent trend of  cancelling shows well, giving producers and audiences time to prepare. I also think it embodies a show that’s ready to go: it could keep going, but it doesn’t have to; its cast is almost uniformly on the brink of bigger things; its producers have been doing this for seven years. (I, personally, have never had the same job for seven years.) I think it’s a show that’s prepared to let go, and I’m prepared to let it go.

 

TV Judo: The Shifting Physics of The Mindy Project

3 Apr

mindydanny

Good TV can be tough to quantify. It can be serious or funny, glossy or gritty, HBO or Sesame Street, the product of collaboration or a single voice wearing every hat. It’s entertainment for millions of people that we let into our private homes, and our lives, sometimes for years at a time. Sometimes TV is good, but it doesn’t stick in our hearts; sometimes we know it’s shoddy, and we love it anyway. Which brings us to the question that comes up every Tuesday night on Fox: Is The Mindy Project good TV?

In a lot of ways, it isn’t. It’s messy and inconsistent and nonsensical. It has a promising romantic-comedy concept, but haphazard execution. We’re supposed to root for Mindy to find love, but she’s often a terrible person. In a little over a season, four supporting characters have been written out and seven have been written in; the ensemble isn’t really supporting anybody. All told, if thoughtful storylines and polished comedy are your thing, go watch reruns of Modern Family.

But in so many other ways, like joy, delight, hilarity, random hip-hop dancing, and attractive goofballs falling in love, it’s gotten so, so great—from Mindy Kaling loyalty viewing to appointment TV, really, in about six episodes flat. The weird thing is, the bones of the show haven’t changed; a lot of its flaws are written into the premise of the show. But there’s some kind of TV judo going on here, in that the physics have changed. It’s the same show, but in learning to play to its own silly strengths, it feels about a thousand times more magnetic.

For one thing, they’ve stopped the boyfriend carousel and given us something to pay attention to, for now. One difficulty of the romantic-comedy series is the endless stream of love interests, none of whom feel important—especially when there’s an obvious soulmate waiting in the wings. One way to solve this and gain a little momentum is to write in a few significant significant others along the way—your Aidans and your Treys, in Sex and the City parlance, to bring up a show that dealt with this issue pretty well. (Mindy gave this a shot, bringing in Anders Holm as Mindy’s cute minister/missionary fiance, Casey; still, even he never quite stuck.) Another is to cut out the middlemen and just go for it with the obvious soulmate. New Girl dove into this type of storyline last year with Jess and Nick, to excellent results at the time, but it’s turned into a cautionary tale: this post-Nick/Jess season has so little momentum, it’s practically moving backwards.

Regardless, that’s where Mindy seems to be headed: in the last moments before the winter hiatus, Mindy made out with handsome curmudgeon/soulmate Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), rather satisfyingly, in the back of an airplane. This week’s returning episodes ended with them snuggled up together, reading Bridget Jones’s Diary aloud—obvious boyfriend behavior. Whether it’s a good move long-term or not, it’s been a jolt of energy for the show; after the fact, everyone was talking about that airplane kiss. It also, incidentally, condenses all the best parts of the show into one storyline. Mindy and Danny are the most interesting characters in the Mindy universe, and Messina and Kaling are spot-on together, and this just gives them more time to put their flawless comic and romantic chemistry to work, and for Messina to do silly/sexy dances to 90s hip-hop songs. A victory, obviously.

They’ve also stopped the supporting-cast revolving door, which is one of those production-side things that ends up impacting the creative side. Mindy has struggled with its ensemble from the start: who should be in it, how much attention to give them, and who among them is actually funny. (With regards to Ike Barinholtz as Morgan, two words: SMALL DOSES.) But things are getting better! The final casting change took place earlier this season, when Adam Pally, freed up after the cancellation of Happy Endings, joined up as bro-y OB/GYN Peter Prentice—and immediately became the glue of the supporting cast. This character could so easily have been a) an unlovable disaster or b) maybe worse, another supporting doctor who doesn’t quiiiiite have enough to do (sorry Ed Weeks you’re so handsome), but Pally has turned out to be a much-needed source of grounding and focus for the non-Mindy/Danny portion of the cast. Maybe the writing staff just knows what to do with him; maybe Pally himself is just the right amount of cute/skeevy; maybe he plays extra well with his costars; whatever it is, it feels like he’s singlehandedly rescuing the supporting cast.

And, really, they’ve gone for it, and I think that’s the key. Even more than other sitcom casts, this crew is game for goofy, undignified physical comedy. Almost by definition, it doesn’t always work—there was this one time, with a disapproving Mindy and a frat-house stripper pole? But sometimes the payoff is big: Mindy and Danny’s horrifying attempt at airplane-bathroom sex, Danny’s terrible Bridget Jones accent, basically Morgan’s entire existence. Danny’s Aaliyah dance—and I’m sorry to have to say this; I love it, too—makes no sense and isn’t something Danny Castellano would really do, but it’s a tiny, .gif-able moment of joy, and that’s its entire purpose. In a way, it’s the emblematic scene from this season of the show: funny because it’s funny, sweet because it’s sweet, and not totally concerned with making sense. And that’s what makes it great. (That, and Messina’s shoulder-brush. Because, come on.)

This is the last of a three-post series on the Fox Tuesday-night comedy lineup. Hop on over to New Girl here and Brooklyn Nine-Nine here!

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

28 Mar

b99

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!