The NBC Identity Crisis

Alan Sepinwall’s interview with Parks and Recreation co-creator Mike Schur is something that can tide us over while we’re waiting for Outsourced to be canceled and P&R to be brought back. I’m concerned, based on the interview and the last couple of episodes of the season, that the show may be moving too heavily toward relationship arcs — the weakest part — instead of concentrating on the Newhart-style small-town comedy it does so well. But I’ve got to remember that this is only an interview, and no Greg Daniels show has ever let me down in its third season.

Schur also talks at length about how much he loves Cheers, which reminds me of something I’ve wanted to mention but isn’t worth a post (unless I’ve already posted about it and forgot): NBC’s Thursday night comedies are obsessed — to a sometimes unhealthy degree — with the show’s big hit comedies of the past. Leslie Knope is constantly talking about Friends. On Community, the Friends and Cheers references are frequent. And then there’s 30 Rock, where even the NBC setting doesn’t fully explain how often the ’80s and ’90s hits are invoked.

I guess it’s just an expression of love for the shows of the past; it’s also, though, an expression of nostalgia for an era when being a comedy on NBC meant being a huge, massive hit rather than a struggling niche show. Sometimes the references — especially on Community and 30 Rock; on P&R it’s more an expression of character — come off as a slightly strident attempt to make us see these shows as part of the long line of NBC hit comedies. When Abed compares his show to Friends and Cheers, he’s telling us that these characters are in the same tradition and if we give them a chance we’ll love them as much. It’s not true, but it’s a sign of NBC’s confusion at the moment: they gave up trying to clone Friends, but now they’re busy trying to convince us that their current shows could be the next Friends if we’d only watch more often.

It’s also a sign of the weird approach of both 30 Rock and Community: shows that are extremely sitcommy and broad in tone and their choice of stories (which tend to be very old sitcom-staple stories), yet constantly aware that their old-fashioned choices are at odds with their new-fashioned look. I’d almost prefer it if they’d approach it like Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show that can also be very sitcommy but doesn’t suffer from an identity crisis; it sort of takes its own edginess and modernity for granted.

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