Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Lot to Be Grateful For: TV Viewers Get an Early Thanksgiving

The cast of Cougar Town

Last week’s episode of ABC’s Cougar Town opened with a scene with Jules (Courtney Cox), Laurie (Busy Philips) and Ellie (Christa Miller) suddenly wondering aloud why they didn’t get to celebrate Thanksgiving together this year. In fact, Cougar Town had an extended hiatus this year, after being bumped first from a September launch and pushed back even further in November in order to make room for some ABC’s new comedies. In the end, Cougar Town’s third season only premiered in mid-February – making a Thanksgiving or Christmas episode effectively impossible this year. Jules however offered a solution: they would celebrate Thanksgiving in May. The episode (titled “It’ll All Work Out") was one of the season's best, playing off the always surprisingly deep relationships that have developed among this handful of goofy characters, and highlighting everything that makes the show such a pleasure to watch. But more than that, it hit home for me.

May is traditionally the month when the networks firm up their schedules for the coming television season and the fates of the current shows are finally confirmed. Last year at this time, I was mourning NBC’s decision to cancel Outsourced, one of my favourite new comedies of the year. The year before, we lost Victor Fresca’s delightfully original Better Off Ted and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. And in May 2009, NBC announced it would not be renewing Life. For an avid TV fan, in short, May is rarely a good month. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling something I don’t normally feel in the month of May: grateful. And so when Jules and the rest of the Cul-de-Sac Crew sat around the table last week and reflected on how much they have to be thankful for, it was hard for me not to join in.

While the month has brought some disappointing news – most notably NBC’s decision to cancel Awake after only producing 13 episodes – two of the strongest new shows of the season, NBC’s supernatural procedural Grimm and New Girl, Fox’s comedy starring Zooey Deschanel, will be back in the fall. Grimm has easily charmed its way into becoming my favourite new hour-long show of the season, mainly by doing the genre thing well, and knowing when to break format. And New Girl, after some initial growing pains, has grown into a strong ensemble comedy, with Max Greenfield’s portrayal of Schmidt easily one of the stand out new characters on television.

Zooey Deschanel and Max Greenfield on New Girl
But more significantly, this May has been a month of surprising renewals for some of my favourite, but somehow always struggling, shows: first among them, Cougar Town itself. After a shaky few episodes early in its first season, the sitcom has matured into one of the most consistently warm and funny comedies currently on the air. But ABC’s confidence in the series has demonstrably waned since its premiere in 2009, and in light of the show's delayed season this year, few of its fans believed it would renewed by the network. But last week, just as ABC made its expected announcement that it would not be bringing the show back in the fall, the cable network TBS confirmed that it would be picking up Cougar Town for a 15-episode fourth season to be aired in January. The long-term future of the sitcom still remains up in the air, especially with the recently announced departure of the show’s creator and showrunner Bill Lawrence (Scrubs), but life is life, as they say. And one more season of a beloved show is often more than a TV fan can hope for!

In fact, it has been a month for ‘miracle seasons’. Last week, I wrote about Fringe which, despite the science fiction series’ historically weak ratings and largely cult following, was gifted a fifth and final season by the Fox network. This most recent season of Fringe often feels like well-funded fan fiction  (a realization which didn’t quite hit me until the middle of the finale episode last week), and I’m thrilled that the series will get the chance to finish up its story properly. It is gratifying (and not a little bit astonishing) to see a network demonstrate commitment to a series which so often pushes against the narrative norms of broadcast television.

But perhaps the most ‘miraculous’ save of the year is also the most surprising: after its infamous shelving of the show back in November, NBC has given Community a 13-episode order for next year. The comedy, unceremoniously taken off the air in December, returned to Thursday nights in March to air this season’s remaining 12 episodes. Ratings for the new episodes have slipped since it returned, and have actually levelled off at a lower level than the fall, but the NBC seems to have heard the voices of Community’s very vocal fans, and rewarded them with at least one more season. (Few but the show’s most diehard supporters can believe the show will get more than those 13 episodes, but considering where we were just a few months ago, I don’t expect to hear anyone complaining.) Lower ratings notwithstanding, the second half of the season gave us some of the show best episodes yet: its spot-on Law & Order parody/homage, with its hilarious guest turn for The Wire’s Michael K. Williams; more ambitious multi-episode arcs, involving a recurring role of John Goodman as the head of Greendale's secretive Air Conditioning Repair School; and a darkly self-conscious foray into product placement. This last story (“Digital Exploration of Interior Design,” March 29) showcases everything that makes the series such a unique comedic voice: with a deftness rivalled only by that master of meta-product placement Stephen Colbert, of the “Hail to the Cheese Stephen Colbert's Nacho Cheese Doritos 2008 Presidential Campaign Coverage”, the episode succeeded in somehow both endorsing and demonizing Subway restaurants, with a fable of star-crossed love and corporate depersonalization. Based on the direction of the second half of Community’s current season, I don’t expect Dan Harmon – the show’s creator and showrunner – to pull any punches next year. Considering what the series already looks like, it is difficult to imagine what Community might become when it has nothing to lose!

Adam Scott, Amy Poehler, and Rashida Jones
And to cap off the “what I am grateful for” list: last week, NBC announced that Parks and Recreation would be returning with a full 22-episode fifth season. After last year’s stellar third season – which had introduced Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as series regulars – Parks and Rec pulled out all stops for this current season. The series, struggling for ratings along with the rest of NBC’s Thursday night comedy block (which this season included the veteran 30 Rock and Community), spent the season taking the show’s characters out of their comfort zones after Leslie (Amy Poehler) deciding to run for her first elected office. The on-going story of Leslie’s struggling campaign for Pawnee city council more than played to the show’s greatest strengths: its unique capacity to be simultaneously disarmingly sweet and bitingly funny.

With so many comedies – perfectly entertaining and often very smart shows – about good-hearted people getting eaten alive by a world that plays by different rules, it is easy to grow used to the idea that optimism and enthusiasm are only ever introduced in order to be slowly stripped away. And in fact, in those few stumbling first episodes of the show before the series firmly distinguished itself from The Office model, Parks and Rec threatened to go that route. But once it found the strength and everyday heroism of these characters (especially Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope – who may well be one of the most admirable comic characters, female or male, on TV right now), it hasn’t looked back. Leslie truly believes in local government, truly believes that government can be a force for good – and just as often I walk away believing it too. The season closed (spoiler alert!) with Leslie going off-script on an acceptance speech that would make a Tea Partier tear up. It is a credit to the show that even after more than three years, Leslie’s fundamental lack of cynicism never makes her the butt of a joke, but always draws up those around her, and the viewers too.

So this May, I am having my own Thanksgiving: for the wonderful shows that we will continue to enjoy for another year, for the characters that have made this a delightful season of television. And perhaps I will even include the network executives who seem to all of a sudden be making some genuinely right-headed choices in my thanks.

The seasons of Fringe, New Girl, and Parks and Recreation have already ended. NBC will be airing a three-episode block of Community tonight to finish off this season’s run. The final episode of Grimm’s first season will air tomorrow night on NBC and CTV. Cougar Town's season finale airs on May 29th.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article -- I particularly liked the comments about Parks and Rec, and TVs persistently pessimistic worldview. I will now have to go and catch up on Parks & Rec!