“Dave of the Dead”
Three words: nineties bat mitzvah.
Happy Endings is about a group of friends who hang out and talk to each other, their conversations occasionally peppered with cultural references. In other words, it is hardly any different than a great number of other sitcoms, but its cultural references are tangier than those of most sitcoms. Despite this, there is no great overarching idea behind all the mentions of early nineties nostalgia and Chicago trivia. This changed, at least for an episode, when Penny started dating a hipster, someone who actually does have a purpose behind any and all cultural references. This difference in purpose or lack thereof came to a head when the gang was invited to a hipster party with “nineties bat mitzvah” as the theme. The hipsters played cheesy mid-nineties dance-pop like “I’m Too Sexy” while doing their best impressions of bored upper-middle-class Jewish teenagers. Hipster humor is generally hilarious, but it is often indulgent, so it was healthy that the disaffected hipster elements were tempered by the overeager Penny.
“Caught in the Act”
What works best for Modern Family and just about any show with large main casts and multiple storylines in one episode is when everyone crashes into each other. That did not quite happen in “Caught in the Act” (Cam and Mitchell’s storyline remained separate), but it was close enough. Phil and Claire already had enough going on without Jay and Gloria showing up at their door. So of course it would all end up becoming a comedy of errors with misunderstandings galore, and of course Phil’s crush on Gloria would come into play, so much so that he nearly passed out. The other highlight of this episode was Claire and Phil’s handling of their kids walking in on them. In a meta moment, the Dunphy kids were right on in predicting the sort of family meeting their parents would have to explain what happened. And their explanation was actually quite reasonable and sweet, in its own potentially uncomfortable way.
Next (and last) up: Happy Endings
The most entertaining character in Glee is, of course, Sue Sylvester, but her presence was inexplicably tamped down a bit for Season 2. Thus, while my pick for last season’s best episode depended on Jane Lynch’s most memorable moment (the rant against Spanish as a “dead language”), this season’s pick was determined more by the music. The Fleetwood Mac-centric “Rumours” was the best themed episode so far, in that the theme did not feel so very forced. The internal strife affecting New Directions was, in fact, not unlike the strife that Fleetwood Mac endured before and during the recording of Rumours. A triumph of editing was at play as well, as the right songs came at just the right moment, particularly when a confrontation between Finn and Quinn that was reaching a fever pitch led right into a duet by those two of “I Don’t Want to Know.” There was an appropriate song for every moment, as this was just about the best album choice for Glee to build a themed episode around, with nine of the eleven tracks from Rumours still receiving significant classic radio rock airplay today.
Next up: Modern Family
“Brian Writes a Bestseller”
The most essential aspect of the success of “Brian Writes a Bestseller” was not the cynicism that fueled Brian’s writing of Wish It, Want It, Do It. While many self-help books certainly deserve the treatment that Family Guy gave them, this was an easy target and one that has come under fire before. What really made this episode work – and what makes most great Family Guy episodes work – was the way in which the satire was melded into the framework of the show’s own particulars. The foundation of Family Guy is its vast reservoir of cultural references, but there has to be something going on with the Griffin clan as well, or else those references are meaningless and often grating. As Stewie becomes Brian’s publicist, “Brian Writes a Bestseller” ends up being a Stewie/Brian buddy episode, and the nonsense of an infant working as a dog’s publicist is completely ignored. It is sensible, though, that that nonsense is ignored, as Family Guy has developed a shorthand for all of its ridiculous elements. But most viewers must surely have a moment at which they stop and realize the ridiculousness, and that is a moment of laughter when everything in the episode comes together.
Next up: Glee
The setup for Bob’s Burgers does not seem too different from any other family sitcom: a dad whose wife is just too good to him and who is overwhelmed by his wacky kids. But these are not your standard wacky sitcom kids. The kids of Bob’s Burgers are more akin to Statler and Waldorf of the Muppets than they are to any other wacky sitcom kids, in that their dialogue tends to act as a running commentary on the plot action, as opposed to normal conversation. They are, though, still in fact ensconced in the world in which they inhabit, but they bring their own wacky perspective to their family’s situation such that the only way to make sense of them is to think of them as inhabiting their own weird worlds through which they observe everyone else. When a documentary filmmaker pulls the stunt of leaving a cow out in front of Bob’s restaurant, his children react in ways that could in no way be considered supportive. Louise lambasts him with cries of “Murderer!” and then encourages his disturbing crush on “Moolissa,” Tina believes that Moolissa is sending her messages through her (actually his – Moolissa turns out to be a bull) feces, and I don’t remember exactly what Gene’s reaction was, but I’m sure it was strange and unhelpful. The children of the Belcher clan are ultimately so lovable because they are so confident about themselves, despite inhabiting their own strange little worlds.
Next up: Family Guy
“MoneyBART” represents a foreign element in a new environment two times over: Lisa Simpson in the world of baseball and the language of sabermetrics in America’s pastime. Just as baseball “purists” cried foul when Bill James, Paul DePodesta, and Billy Beane ushered in the era of moneyball, Bart bemoans what happens to his Little League team when Lisa becomes the manager, even though the Isotots move up to the top of the standings. Lisa knows nothing about baseball until she becomes enamored with sabermetrics. “It’s a triumph of number crunching over the human spirit!” Bart wonders what happened to the game he grew up with, and as with real-life baseball traditionalists, it is not clear that he really knows what makes baseball great, bemoaning as he does the “misty ballparks” of corporate-owned Enron Field and “Pac-Bell, then SBC, now AT&T Park.” There is a good deal of yin and yang to baseball, and the ability of the writers of The Simpsons to recognize all of its diverse elements make “MoneyBART” one of the most joyful episodes in a while. The Simpsons-specific gags weaved into the baseball moments were on target as well (Milhouse reveals that his parents are brother and sister, he thinks; Nelson reminds Bart that they are no longer cellar dwellers – “well, at least the team isn’t”; and this gem from the baseball announcer – “speaking of Homer, Bart’s father’s name is, you guessed it, not on my fact sheet”).
Next up: Bob’s Burgers
“A Piñata Named Desire”
The great thing about bad acting is when it is presented as such. It takes talent to be a bad actor on purpose, and when that talent is present, hilarity ensues. As this is a plain truth, it is fun when it is presented in an unusual way, as was the case in the best episode of this season of American Dad! Stan is a bad actor, and this has made him a liability when he is undercover for the CIA. This bad acting manifests itself in – of all things – the way in which he carries a glass of water. Thus, bad acting is presented in an unusual context and rendered absurd. As the story develops with Roger helping Stan with his acting, American Dad! becomes further and further involved in its strange little self, which is what the best episodes of this strange little show tend to do. It is ridiculous that Stan and Roger are playing parts in “Piñata Man” that really do not fit them, let alone the persistently ridiculously fact that Roger is an alien who looks clearly different than the humans he is surrounded by, and the ridiculousness is amped up by Stan and Roger’s one-upmanship game of sexual acts, but that is the world of American Dad! for you.
Next up: The Simpsons
“696 – Miley Cyrus/The Strokes”
The guest host may be the face of any given SNL episode, and he or she may make a big difference in terms of how successful the episode is, but ultimately it is up to the cast and the writers to determine if any particular episode is going to be a classic or not. Hosts on the level of Jon Hamm and Zach Galifianakis can wring a few laughs out of mediocre premises, but it helps if the material is good in the first place. Miley Cyrus was not among the very best hosts of the season, but she was perhaps the luckiest, arriving as she did on a week in which the cast and writers were clearly invigorated. There were essentially no duds in the sketch lineup, and several strong performances were delivered from across the cast: Kenan as apl.de.ap and Raven Symoné, Andy as Taboo, Fred as Richie Inez, Jr., Bobby as Anthony Crispino, Bill as Charlie Sheen, Vanessa as Miley Cyrus, and Taran as Francois.
Next up: American Dad!
“The Junior Affair”
The most maddening aspect of the one-season run of Running Wilde was the fact that every episode consisted of a misunderstanding between Steve and Emmy that arose because they would pathologically hide their true motivations. That their relationship was always in this state was a little hard to accept, either because of its lack of believability or its lack of sense. But thanks to the talents of Will Arnett and Keri Russell, this was also paradoxically the most consistently funny aspect of the show. “The Junior Affair” stood out as the best of the series, because it dropped that maddening aspect by making it so that Steve and Emmy’s misunderstandings were not with each other, but with people who did not have confused motivations. In attempting to help Puddle with a rich classmate who she has a crush on, Steve and Emmy both practice inadvertent seduction, a clueless Steve towards the father of the boy (as played by the always welcome Andy Richter) and an overeager Emmy towards the boy himself. Ultimately, it turns out that Puddle has been getting in on the motivation-hiding that Steve and Emmy practice so diligently, as it is revealed that she had actually been giving them the runaround to prevent them from getting involved in her love life in the first place, and Running Wilde presented itself as the ultimate metaphor on television for a dog chasing its own tail.
Next up: Saturday Night Live
We love relationships on TV when they are in the pre-consummation stage because of the romantic tension inherent in that stage. Tension makes for great entertainment. By the time of “Road Trip,” Leslie and Ben both knew their feelings for each other, but a relationship had not yet begun due to a strongly enforced guideline against interoffice romance. Thus, the tension became even more frustrated. And when there is a problem, you can count on Leslie Knope to make a spectacle out of dealing with that problem, as she did so marvelously with her anti-romantic mix CD for her road trip with Ben. Meanwhile, the subplot of Tom testing out his Newlywed Game ripoff, “Know Ya Boo,” provided perhaps the steadiest stream of laughs of the entire season, particularly Tom’s rundown of esoteric cable channels (Boom, Zip, Wow, Slurp, Slurp Latin, Slurp HD). Donna and Jerry’s success as a couple on “Know Ya Boo” was an old, but often hilarious, sitcom staple: characters who have previously had little interaction together displaying a freakily uncanny knowledge of each other.
Next up: Running Wilde