By JIM SABATASO | STAFF
Since its inception, the sitcom formula has varied little. Take a group of people — family, friends, coworkers — set up a problem, and give them 22 minutes to solve it. Add snark, schmaltz, absurdity to taste. Repeat for as many seasons as possible.
That’s not meant to be a knock against the genre. Just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again. The Dick van Dyke Show, The Larry Sanders Show and 30 Rock are all basically the same show. They also happen to be three of the best sitcoms ever made.
The challenge for writers, then, is to create original characters that bring new life to these well-worn tropes. The above shows may be similar, but Rob Petrie, Larry Sanders and Liz Lemmon couldn’t be more different.
But the sitcom remains a static form. In a given episode, characters may undergo a change or series of changes, but by the end, they will almost always return to the status quo, ready for next week’s adventure.
That weekly reset is important. It allows casual viewers to drop in and out without being lost. There is comfort in such consistency and familiarity; the characters won’t change and they won’t ask too much of you week-to-week; just tune in and be entertained.
While that formula may please networks and audiences, it’s not always creatively satisfying for the people actually working on the show. That’s why shows, especially older ones, will occasionally shake things up. “Laverne and Shirley” moved to California. The Conners win the lottery on Rosanne. Monica and Chandler hook up on Friends. But with stunts like these, there’s a risk of jumping the shark. Indeed, all three of these narrative decisions are prime examples.
But those shakeups are still pretty rare. Most shows find a comfort zone and ride it out for as long as possible. It’s somewhat remarkable, then, that two of TV’s most popular sitcoms — Parks and Recreation and Archer — both decided to blow up their status quos recently.
(Spoilers to follow.)
NBC’s Parks and Recreation, just wrapped a somewhat uneven sixth season that put its protagonist, the persistently chipper civil servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), through the ringer via a series of professional setbacks. By midseason, Leslie has lost her city council seat in a recall election, and faces public humiliation as the city merger she helped orchestrate begins to implode.
Watching this season of Parks was often frustrating. The writers’ endgame was unclear. Leslie was back at the parks department and flailing. We’ve seen Leslie grow too much to watch her revert back to some of her more unlikable tendencies from the show’s early seasons. If this was how the series was going to conclude, we were in trouble.
But as we entered the homestretch, things began to lock into place. Leslie acknowledges she’s outgrown the parks department, and maybe even Pawnee. It was a satisfying realization that felt true to the more confident and capable person she has become over the course of the show’s run.
A dream job with the National Parks Service offers her an escape, as well as the dilemma of leaving her home and friends behind. But Leslie being Leslie, she finds a solution to have it all.
The real shakeup, however, happens in the final moments of an all-around excellent finale, when the episode jumps ahead three years to 2017. The scene offers a brief yet tantalizing glimpse at what’s in store next season.
It’s a bold move, but a badly needed one. Parks was starting to show its age. The time jump will hopefully offer a jolt of creative energy to the show.
That next season will likely be its final one, also helps. Whereas some shows might use a time jump as a gimmick to wring out several more seasons, Parks co-creator Michael Schur sees it as a fun way to end the series by telling one more good, original story.
Here’s hoping. Parks has shown that it can be both riotously funny and surprisingly sweet. Its standout episodes are not always the ones packed with jokes, but the ones with heart. “Harvest Festival,” “The Debate,” “Leslie and Ben,” are all highlights of the series and examples of how well developed these characters are, and how much we root for them. As the show enters its final season, Schur and company should have no trouble sticking the landing.
A more familiar TV cliché was recently deployed in season five of FX’s animated spy comedy Archer, as creator Adam Reed essentially rebooted the series by removing the entire cast from its familiar spy agency surroundings and dropping them into the world of drug kingpins and arms dealers. Archer has never relied as heavily on story arcs, but Reed struck has gold here.
As members of ISIS, a for-hire spy outfit with fuzzy government ties and a willingness to do anything if the price is right, the show’s characters have always walked a fine line between the good guys and bad guys. This season, however threw them headlong into bed with the latter. Figuratively. (And literally.)
After starting a drug cartel to unload a large quantity of cocaine — because how hard can it be? — the gang bungles its way from one botched deal to the next ending up on the wrong side of, the CIA, the Yakuza, biker gangs and crooked cops to name a few. By the end of the season, they even manage to accidentally instigate a coup d’etat in Central America.
It’s an enjoyable ride. But despite all the globetrotting and hilarious action, some of the best episodes were the ones that just let the characters sit around and hangout for the entire 22 minutes. Archer has a deep bench of voice talent, and Reed has a knack for writing great dialogue. Any opportunity to have these characters talking (and drinking) together is welcome even if this season doesn’t quite reach the comedic heights of seasons two and three.
Like Parks, Archer — for all its sex with robots and Kenny Loggins references — is a show with a surprising amount of heart. The Sterling/Lana relationship was always fun and sweet, but it takes on a new poignancy this season as Sterling becomes invested in Lana’s pregnancy. Jon Benjamin and Aisha Tyler have a great chemistry that makes these characters pop.
Secondary characters like Pam (Amber Nash) and are also given time to shine. Over the season, Pam’s growing cocaine addiction is played for laughs as she enjoys its benefits: weight loss, fun. While it occasionally felt over the top, putting Pam in the center of the action was a good choice. She’s come along way from the insecure HR director of season 1 to be a vital part of the team.
As always, the animation is top-notch. Action sequences are crisp, well designed and suspenseful. The detail given to the characters’ facial expressions provide some of the show’s biggest laughs. (Can any other animated show can pull off an eye roll or scowl as good as this one?)
Heading into season six, it appears Archer is going to hit the reset button and return the series its spy agency status quo. That’s probably for the best. This season was a fun diversion, but not ultimately unsustainable in terms of plot and plausibility. Reed has proven he’s not afraid to take a risk and stretch this show to its limits. With at least two more seasons ahead, it will be exciting to see what else is in store.
BONUS: “The Best of Archer”