[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]
Since my last column covered the fantastic "30 Rock" and hideous "Kath & Kim," I thought it would be a good idea to tackle the other two NBC Thursday night sitcoms, "My Name Is Earl" (8 p.m. Eastern) and "The Office" (9 p.m. Eastern). As the veterans of the evening ("Earl" is in its fourth season, while "The Office" is a year older), and as shows that adopted nontraditional, even innovative, styles that define them ("Earl" is shot like a film and is built around the main character's list of things he has done wrong in his life, "The Office" is a mockumentary), it seems like a good time to check in on how they are handling the demands of sustaining their high quality over time.
"Earl" is the more outwardly commercial of the two sitcoms. As creative as executive Greg Garcia is with his premise, the show's humor is pretty straight-forward. Small-time-crook-turned-do-gooder Earl (Jason Lee) is surrounded by a group of loony (and funny) characters in his small town of Camden, including his dim-bulb brother Randy (Ethan Suplee), his bitch-on-wheels ex-wife Joy (Jamie Pressley), Joy's witness-protection-program-resident husband Darnell (Eddie Steeples), and Earl and Randy's friend, the hotel maid and exotic dancer Catalina (Nadine Velazquez).
For the first two seasons, each episode centered on Earl trying to atone for one of the sins on his list, with essentially the same structure each time (Earl and Randy find the person, Earl thinks he's fixed the problem, everything goes horribly wrong, and Earl ends up saving the day for the person, allowing him/her to move on happily in life). The setup allowed for the inclusion of the town's recurring cast of small-town goofballs (like a "daytime prostitute," a one-legged ex-girlfriend, a one-eyed mailman, a formerly in-the-closet nebbish, and Earl's beaten-up-by-life parents, played by Beau Bridges and Nancy Lenehan, just to name a few). It also opened the way for the savvy use of guest stars, including Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Rappaport, David Arquette, Jason Priestly, Burt Reynolds and Norm McDonald (who played Reynolds's character's son, which was very funny, since McDonald essentially reprised his killer Reynolds impersonation from his "Saturday Night Live" days).
Last year, Garcia took a risk and threw Earl into jail, where much of the strike-shortened season played out. This season finds Earl back on the outside and back solving items from his list, but with a more liberated approach to structure. Last night's episode, for example, took place mostly eight years earlier, when Earl and Joy were still married, Darnell had yet to meet Joy, and Catalina was new to the country.
I give Garcia credit for not playing it safe. He is clearly actively trying to make sure that "Earl" (as well as Earl) remains vital and fresh. And while some of the charm of the uniqueness of the characters has worn off a bit (Joy's selfish, child-neglecting and morals-free pronouncements don't shock like they did four years ago), "Earl" still delivers a steady diet of laughs. The program works, even when things go a bit over the top, as they did in this season's premiere, in which Earl atones for stealing the wish of a one-time Make-a-Wish kid (Seth Green) by helping him make his epic superhero movie. Like "Earl," the episode was silly, strained plausibility, and leaned on the quirks of its characters (even Green played the same obnoxious-but-wounded guy he has perfected), but also funny and even a bit ambitious. I liked how Randy fell so easily into acting (his simple-minded explanation of the job was surprisingly accurate), and how Joy, who is an attention hog in life, was so completely stiff on camera.
I have also enjoyed episodes this year that put Joy in "Bubble Boy"-like quarantine (thanks to Earl giving her a used hot tub that had been a shelter for a homeless guy) and challenged Earl to help Sweet Johnny, who, thanks to a hit on the head, suffered from "Groundhog Day"-style amnesia, waking up each morning not remembering anything that happened the day before (which was helpful, since Earl's crime was sleeping with Sweet Johnny's girlfriend).
"Earl" has always set out to be a better-than-average, but still mainstream, comedy, and, more often than not, it has hit the mark. Think of it as the poor man's "Arrested Development" or the smart man's "Rules of Engagement." "Earl" adroitly splits the difference and manages to be an entertaining half hour. And thanks to Garcia's toying with the premise to keep things fresh, it is holding up fine in its fourth season.
Greg Daniels and his crew at "The Office" have a far tougher job. But then again, from the beginning, the task facing this show has been monumental. When you hear "American remake of a hit British sitcom," thoughts of "Coupling" spring to mind. And the Ricky Gervais version of "The Office" was groundbreaking and beloved by its rabid fans. That was the buzz saw that awaited the American adaptation, and after a couple of episodes essentially re-shooting scripts from the English series, the American model found its footing. Before long, the U.S. "Office" had garnered critical and fan approval as a buzz-worthy show of its own.
Having dodged the adaptation bullet, the American "Office" now had an even bigger challenge, which was to sustain its off-center, unique and fresh approach to comedy. The subtle glances to the camera by underachiever Jim (John Krasinski) quickly went from simple pleasure to pop culture icon. The eventual consummation of the Jim-Pam (Jenna Fischer) flirtation ran the risk of a "Cheers" or "Moonlighting" fate of ruining the dramatic tension (something from which "Moonlighting" never recovered). And the politically incorrect, obtuse, but harmless observations of self-deluded boss Michael (Steve Carell), and the nut-job, paranoid career-angling of assistant to the general manager (as opposed to assistant general manager) Dwight (Rainn Wilson), after five years, are no longer surprising to the audience.
Throw in that the fate of NBC's once-vaunted Must See TV Thursday night lineup was now depending on the strong demographic ratings of "The Office" (Thursday is the most important ratings day, and "The Office," while low-rated in overall audience share, does very well in the demographic targeted by advertisers) and that the show was asked to produce more material than most other sitcoms (including extended and extra episodes), and I think it would be hard to rebut an argument that few sitcoms have ever faced the challenge of remaining successful that "The Office" has.
And now, in it's fifth season, is it standing up to the test of time? I would have to say yes, but with an asterisk.
"The Office" is still one of the smartest and funniest shows on television. This season has brought us such outrageously entertaining concepts as the company's weight-loss contest, an ethics seminar (at Dunder-Mifflin, go figure), Michael throwing a shower for Jan's baby (only to find out that she gave birth without telling him), Jim and Pam's micro-Bluetooth earpieces (hands-down my favorite bit of the season), Kelly (Mindy Kaling) sabotaging the customer reviews of Jim and Dwight (for blowing off her party), and Michael's touching and awkwardly funny end-of-episode balling out of his boss last night. We've also been treated to Ryan (B.J. Novack) falling back to earth and taking a receptionist position at the Scranton office, where he had to watch his ex, Kelly, enjoy a new relationship with warehouse manager Darryl (Craig Robinson). When Ryan finally won Kelly back last night (using, of all things, push-ups to impress her), his idea to break up with Darryl by text message (and his response) was very funny. As was the final tag, when the reality of being back with Kelly hits Ryan square between the eyes.
So what is the asterisk? Well, "The Office," while still funny, has lost its status as an "event" show. While I used to go into each episode wondering, "What will they do next?", the show is now an institution, a known quantity that you can count on to entertain you. Put another way, it's closer to "Earl" than it used to be.
But it's not anyone's fault. With all the mountains "The Office" has climbed, the one thing it could not overcome was familiarity. I'm not sure there is any way to make a program in its fifth year feel ground-breaking. (It's not a coincidence that Gervais ended his "Office" after only 14 episodes, and his very funny "Extras" after only 13.) Individual episodes can become buzz-worthy, but not the series as a whole. And it's not like there hasn't been an effort. This season, Pam was sent to New York to study graphic design, thus separating the most talked about pair of characters on the show (Jim and Pam). While the idea spawned some memorable gags (like the mini Bluetooths), over all, I think we, as an audience, miss seeing Jim and Pam together. I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that Pam's return to Scranton at the end of last night's episode was for good.
And I loved Amy Ryan's Holly providing a love interest for Michael. Holly was the first woman who actually made sense as Michael's girlfriend (Melora Hardin's Jan was funny precisely because she and Michael were completely illogical together), and her loopy, off-center energy was great for the program. I was almost as sad as Michael was to see her shipped off to the Nashua office last week.
But even if "The Office" no longer feels as exciting and fresh as it did in its first season, it is every bit as funny. The sitcom has successfully answered so many challenges over the last four-and-a-half seasons, and the fact that it still generates so many smart laughs is really all that one can reasonably expect.
All in all, "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" are doing their jobs anchoring NBC's Thursday night lineup, and "30 Rock," newer and buzzier, is a nice fit, too. Now all the network has to do is find a replacement for "Kath & Kim" and it will be all set.