Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Tim Watches a Lot of Television - Part Two: Returning Comedy

It feels like something of a transitional year for comedy. It feels like there's a lot of new shows starting, and some old stalwarts have disappeared. Parks and Recreation is returning in January for a final half season (in what will probably be a fantastic and well-timed exit) and How I Met Your Mother didn't so much as bow out at the end of last season as slip, fall of the stage and impale itself on an oboe in the orchestra pit. Community took a step out of the revolving door of cancellation and renewal to finally end, then was sucked back in for an online season on Yahoo that will materialise at some point in the future.

In many ways, it's a carry-over from last year, when NBC waved goodbye to 30 Rock and The Office, and promising shows like Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B- In Apartment 23 were cruelly cut short. It means that the returning shows are, in sitcom terms, all still quite young (Modern Family, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory are the biggest exceptions to this rule, but I'm talking about, you know, good shows that I like) and still feeling their way.

New Girl is into season four, an age when most sitcoms have safely found their rhythm, but last year was something of a fumble for the show. The romance between Jess and Nick didn't light up the screen in the same way that their electric flirtation did (anyone who wasn't floored by the kiss in season two's "Cooler" is a damn liar), and Schmidt seemed to be headed into a dark, dark direction for most of the season, and was isolated from the rest of the cast.

The re-introduction of Coach was another wobble in the top that had spun so smoothly for the first two seasons, but actually helped the show find its equilibrium again towards the close of the year. About the only positive was Winston finally finding a place in the group's dynamic, even if that place was "deeply odd obsessive with two speeds: stop and run".

All of these hiccups didn't stop the show from being funny, but it never hit the heights of the first two seasons. That's what made the return this season such a breath of fresh air. It served as something of a soft reset for the show. Everyone is single and under one roof. Coach is now firmly part of the group. Nick and Jess still have chemistry, but are clearly comfortable with each other as friends. In a lot of ways, it's a return to the status of season one, but with a cast and crew who are much more comfortable and established in their rhythms.

But how much space does that reset buy the show? A return to the breezy storytelling of season one is fine for the opening few episodes, but have these characters not developed or grown over the intervening period? New Girl has never been a rapid-fire joke machine in the way of 30 Rock or Happy Endings, but it also hasn't had the fantastic natural character arcs of Parks & Recreation. While it's great at mid-term plotting, it hasn't followed through on either of the two big romances it's spun out, and the characters' day jobs and ambitions largely serve as ways to place them into sitcom scenarios, rather than genuine passions that the show seems to care about.

If the show is to move forward, it needs more than the appearance of motion, it needs actual momentum. Coach has been well integrated into the show's dynamic, but he's had precious little to actually do, as has poor, underserved Cece. I'd love to see the show take on more episodes like Nick dealing with his dad dying, or even Schmidt's short arc with Elizabeth (before it became a love triangle) - slightly deeper stories that still have plenty of opportunities for hilarity.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is only in just starting its second season, so doesn't face a lot of the problems that New Girl does. However, after such a stellar first season, it has to be careful to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. When it first premiered last year, people were quick to note how smoothly the cast gelled together, their easy chemistry and established relationships feeling like they'd been ported over from a much longer-running show. This translated into two Golden Globe wins for the show, including Best Comedy, a rare occurrence for a new show on network TV. However, where does that put the show as it starts up again after the summer hiatus?

Looking at Brooklyn Nine-Nine's first season, and the first few episodes of its second, it's no surprise this show walked away with the award. It's a remarkably self-assured show with a great understanding of its own strengths, and an incredibly deep bench of comedy talent on board. It also showed a great skill in terms of course correcting away from potentially worrisome areas in its first year.

Boyle's romantic obsession with Diaz played with familiar tropes that, looked at with 21st century gender politics-vision, can veer into the problematic, but the show steered away from those choppy waters, putting Boyle into another romantic relationship and (and I cannot state how revolutionary this is for a show to do) apologising to Diaz for pursuing her so relentlessly after she made her feelings clear.

In fact, romance feels like the only area where Brooklyn Nine-Nine is struggling to find its footing. Jake and Amy's relationship hasn't had any major slip-ups so far, and in fact the new season seems to be going out of its way to have Jake deal with his feelings in a mature sort of fashion (which, frankly, is a little out of character, but we so rarely see emotionally mature men on television that I'm willing to let it slide) but I'm there's a sort of narrative inevitability to the two of them getting together, and the show hasn't done much to convince me of the romance it has seemingly preordained.

The most recent episode of season two supposedly had Jake flirting with Amy despite his attempts to get over her, but I only recognised it as flirting because the show had Diaz outright label it as that. Through another lens, it was simply the characters engaged in light-hearted banter - the kind you might get between, you know, two work colleagues who have become friends.

Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero do have some chemistry, but it's a very comfortable energy that doesn't exactly point towards torrid romance. In fact, by the show insisting on driving a romantic angle on the relationship, it's robbing itself of another storytelling opportunity that positions Peralta and Santiago as good-natured rivals, which frankly would be a lot more interesting for the show to explore.

Still, it's a minor quibble about a plot point that might not even play out this way. Overall, the show is going from strength to strength, showcasing the formidable comedy chops of actors like Terry Crews, Chelsea Peretti, Joe Lo Truglio and Andre Braugher, and using guest stars like Kyra Sedgwick to terrific effect. For a show still so young, it's truly thrilling to see what it's going to build into over the course of its second season.

Next Time on Tim Watches a Lot of Television 2014 - I ask how The Flash can get everything so right and how Gotham can fall so completely on its face, as I tackle 2014's new dramas

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