As earthquakes and tsunamis and nuclear disaster and global financial crises and the breakdown of civil order pressed in upon us, Optimal Husband and I curled up on the couch and watched American sitcoms. What are you going to do? We started with Party Down, from much of the same team as my late lamented Veronica Mars whose melancholy and class-obsessed first season was a thing of beauty. Party Down was, I think, the first occasion on which I convinced Jeremy I actually do suffer from face-blindness and not merely lack of character, because even though we had just been talking about Veronica Mars and even though I knew I ought to recognize his face, I couldn’t place Enrico Colantoni until Jeremy said his name. And I *love* Enrico Colantoni.
Party Down is a sitcom to have a recession by; it follows out-of-work actors in a catering business. It’s very apparent that the cast was close-knit and had an insane, perhaps illegal amount of fun, and the terrible irony of the show is that it ended when its stars Jane Lynch and Adam Scott found work on other (more successful, maybe less funny?) shows. Jane Lynch became Sue Sylvester on Glee (which J tired of after the pilot, and I jettisoned in anger at the end of the first season.) Adam Scott went to Parks and Recreation, so we watched that next. The great Sady nailed what makes Parks and Rec so good: it is Leslie Knope, Sincere Person And Government Bureaucrat. Leslie is love. Leslie and her Ann narrowly beat out Nurse Jackie and O’Hara for my coveted All Time Best Women’s Friendships Ever Portrayed On Television Trophy. I kept having to call Salome to remind her that I love her.
After the Bechdel-busting Parks and Rec, it was difficult to get stuck into Community. The pilot does the show no favours, seeming to set it up as the story of a privileged white man with a very large forehead and his entourage of wacky secondary characters. I can’t even begin to tell you how brilliantly the subsequent episodes undermine that premise, or how dense the comedy is, or what a kind show it can be, at heart. It’s not perfect by any means – it deals poorly with its gay characters, and showrunner Dan Harmon himself admits that he can’t get inside the head of Shirley, the black Christian woman. But the long interview I’ve linked to there also reveals that the character he most identifies is not, as you’d expect, Mister Forehead: it’s Britta, the neurotic blonde woman. That’s as endearing to me as Kanye’s avatar in his Runaway video: a corps of ballerinas in black tutus. (I’m indebted to this very good Armond White piece for the insightful take on Kanye.) I am a sucker for androgynous self-images, having one myself.
The long interview is also one of the best things I’ve read all year on the creative process. Some of the episodes that Harmon is least satisfied with are episodes that made the Optimal Husband and I belly-laugh most; and belly-laugh in the aftermath of Jen’s death, and then Richard’s. No small feat. Authorial intention is for shit, is what I’m saying. The work is the work.
Community is linked back to Party Down by being at war with Glee. Spoiler: Community wins. The trouble with Glee-the-show is that you’re supposed to take its version of the Mister Forehead character without any grains of salt, when in fact he is a terrible teacher and an awful person. Community embraces the awfulness of the Forehead, which is hilarious. But the Yatima Organization prefers not to indulge in negative reviews when there’s so much good stuff around to talk about instead.
Such as for example! The delectable abovementioned Adam Scott, who was Henry in Party Down, is Ben in Parks and Rec (leading me to call him Benry), and he is a love interest for Leslie, but not until after Leslie has a brief but pleasant relationship with a sweet police officer played by Louis CK. Which led us to his new show, which is (as fab fan Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out) pretty much the scary-awesomest thing out there right now. The parts about Louis’s kids are so funny they hurt. After we’d wrestled our own ungrateful screamers into bed last night, we watched the show and laughed ourselves sick at his whining kid.
“WHY ARE WE EVEN WATCHING THIS!”
“THIS IS JUST OUR LIFE!”
So much for escapism. And in fact none of these shows is escapist in that way. Party Down requires you to take your own creative work seriously, even when you know it’s absurd. Parks and Rec and Community both require you to acknowledge the importance of public space and human connection. Louis requires radical honesty. They’re not just fucking funny. (Although they are that.)