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History is going to look back kindly on Arrested Development not only for its incessant quality and its creation of comedic stars, but also for its influence over the rest of television comedy, a genre that had seemed to become stale and formulaic until its debut in 2003. But it’s not just the winking, complex, meta-joke style that AD ushered in which has become so prevalent in a plethora of shows that have come out in its wake (and has now become de rigeur shorthand for “quality comedy”); it’s also in the need that viewers have felt to fill the void of AD‘s absence. Because the show was so mistreated and unwatched, we as an audience now feel the need to overstate our allegiances to these great but ratings-challenged shows in order to keep them both relevant and on air.

The immediate beneficiary of this was The Office, which is now a bonafide hit after limping through a critically and commercially unsuccessful first season. When its charms and quality wore off (in a disturbingly quick manner), we moved on to 30 Rock, whose cultural capital is approaching a stranglehold. To its detriment, I find; this third season has been wildly uneven and even stilted, and though the last few episodes have been a return to form, they are still sometimes filled with easy jokes so desperate to become internet memes that the jokes can seem more quotation-mark “clever” than actually funny. A similar problem seemed to handcuff AD in the middle of season two–the confidence that they could do no wrong–though 30 Rock has received far less criticism than AD ever did for its flaws, possibly because its audience doesn’t want a repeat of fate, and possibly because it doesn’t want to realize that the emperor is sometimes only half-dressed.

Two new comedies that seem to be jockeying for the mantle of Next Best Comedy have much in common with some, if not all, of the three aforementioned shows, and like them deserve our attention as promising but ratings-challenged freshman comedies. Better Off Ted has AD‘s winking style down pat, though all too often in the first few episodes it dangerously approached cutesy Scrubs territory, while also indulging in the workplace zaniness that 30 Rock has basically honed to an artform. The cast is uniformly terrific; Jay Harrington is possibly the most problematic in that he has to do the long-suffering straight-man center thing that Jason Bateman did so well in AD (and to a lesser extent, John Krasinski in The Office), and often seems stuck in the same interest-vacuum that Jon Hamm finds himself so often in Mad Men, though because this is a comedy Harrington is at least allowed to have some fun and express joy at the more pleasurable characters that surround him. This discussion begins with Portia de Rossi, who is so much better here than she was in AD, if only because she’s given a substantive role and some actual lines (Lindsay Funke was always the least-realized character on AD). Andrea Anders has quickly graduated from put-upon beta female to neurotic, hapless mess (in some ways not unlike Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon). But the two real stars of the show are Malcolm Bennett and Jonathan Slavin as the dumbest brilliant scientists ever created; their rapport is so well-timed it seems  flawlessly second-nature, like Tracy and Hepburn or Nichols and May. It was this show’s fourth episode, centering on racist technology, that really elevated it into a comedy worth watching, and much of that had to do with Bennett and Slavin playing off each other’s harried incomprehension until it reached sublimity. This has only continued in the two episodes following that, with one of their better moments occuring in the most recent episode when they are represented by salt and pepper shakers (don’t ask). “Which one am I?” asks Bennett. “Oh pepper, because I’m spicy.” If this were AD or 3o Rock, this joke would seem laden with smarm, as both shows always had an edge of meanness in (and towards) its characters. But here it is instead played for dumb, sweet naivete (which more than anything portrays the show’s exceptional big-heartedness), and to compound an already hilarious delivery, Slavin responds, “I’m like a pirate, I’m salty.”


The pilot for Parks & Recreation was roundly panned for its similarity in tone to The Office, unsurprising considering they share producers. Not only does the style seem played-out (the episodes of The Office that have actually worked in the past few season have been stellar, but are far more the exception than the rule), but too often it seemed that Amy Poehler was doing a variation of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. The difference being that Carell has always been the best aspect of The Office, which has not been the case with P&R. Poehler is too gifted a comedian to not correct this, and as the show has shown increasing potential in its two past episodes, so has Poehler, showing a depth and inherent goodness in her character’s Michael Scott-esque bumbling lack of awareness. Much like in Better Off Ted, though, the lead is less a source of laughs than the supporting characters. Aziz Ansari has already gotten a lot of mileage out of his characterization of Tom Haverford, full of douche hubris, which seems a natural extension for someone so ensconced in the world of New York alternative comedy (which so often, when done wrong–and it generally is–seems more “alternative to comedy,” lolzamirite?!). As Poehler’s superior, Nick Offerman has shined as a right-wing anti-government blowhard, and Aubrey Plaza has showcased the right amount of youthful apathy befitting an intern. While Rashida Jones has seemed less a source of laughs than a catalyst for them (much like de Rossi in AD), the two biggest surprises have come in the form of two actors not previously known for their comedic chops. Roger Federer lookalike Paul Schneider, previously only known to me as the lovesick protagonist of All The Real Girls, displays immense charm in what appears to the role of romantic foil to Poehler. But the biggest and best surprise has been Chris Pratt, as playing Jones’ injured boyfriend. Pratt’s ludicrously chiseled all-American good looks were incomprehensibly irritating in Everwood, so I’m glad he’s put on a few pounds and grown a beard. And his character, in the very few scenes he’s been alloted, has already seem to come out fully-formed with some well-delivered lines that perfectly capture this kind of hipster douche lunkhead manboy, further reasserting that The Hipster has now become just a different shade of Frat Boy. I mean, how many dudes do you know who are exactly like this? I know TOO MANY, and for some puppyish reason I love them.

Both shows have had some early stumbling blocks; Better Off Ted with its terrible name and its somewhat mannered storytelling, and Parks & Recreation with its too-obvious tonal debt to The Office. But both shows have shown remarkable promise–Better Off Ted is just about on the cusp of becoming something wonderful, and Parks & Recreation is building towards the point where Better Off Ted started as–that I hope they get the same kind of attention that has been lavished on 30 Rock and The Office. Because remember, neither of those two shows started off too hot in the beginning either. I suppose this is one thing that any prospective Next Best Comedy could stand to learn from Arrested Development: how to get out of the gates fully formed, leaving the rest of the competition far behind.


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