Season finales always have the potential for surprise. I was struck by how low-key, for example, Justified chose to close out a superbly acted season; I was a little disappointed that it withheld the pleasure of a good old Western shoot-out that would have forced Raylan Givens to give in to his held-in-check violent side and dispatch one or two of the season’s memorable antagonists. Similarly, last night’s 30 Rock surprised me for the almost bleak finale it presented, which found Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy miserable for most of the half-hour, with a cheerful smile-face pasted on at the end so that the sitcom didn’t make a full transition into the drama of despair.
Poor Liz, having spent all season working so hard on her lonely single life and the frantic work of trying to coax Tracy back to TGS, was denied the pleasure of a summer vacation in the Hamptons, doing some gardening, “wearing shapeless clothes,” and listening to educational tapes of “Spanish for Older Women.” And Jack, his wife still being held prisoner by Kim Jong-il, was reduced to a creepy-woeful fantasy life of imagining Kenneth as his absent Avery.
I’m not saying this 30 Rock wasn’t funny — it was, frequently, with all the little touches that make the show satisfying, such as Jack’s casual mention of his “morning shower Scotch,” the courtroom headed up by “Judge Dredd,” and the always welcome return of Chris Parnell as the gleefully corrupt Dr. Spaceman. What I’m drawing here is a distinction: 30 Rock increasingly reflects a pessimistic view of the world, in which the laughs arise from people who are constantly thwarted.
Meanwhile, look at this week’s Parks and Recreation — not, I am pleased to emphasize, in its season finale. (Believe me, I have seen the upcoming episodes and they are great.) This half-hour continued Parks and Rec‘s trend to being the sunniest, funniest sitcom to promote the idea that people ought to treat each other with respect and, if possible, love. Radical!
The main plot involved Leslie Knope’s rivalry with Parker Posey’s Lindsay Carlisle Shay, her opposite number in the neighboring town of Eagleton. The source of the bad blood was that, five years ago, Leslie turned down a job offer at the more posh Eagleton that her then-Pawnee-BFF Lindsay later took, betraying an agreement they’d made.
P&R got a lot of humor out of the contrast between these two women and the two towns. Like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler makes the most of tiny moments. There was, for instance, the priceless look on Leslie’s face when she attended a Eagleton public forum and is shocked that the demure citizens applaud each other when they get up to speak. By contrast, of course, Pawnee residents are irritated fruitcakes who snipe and whine.
(Quick aside: Did anyone catch the canny cameo by Simpsons writer-producer Mike Scully as one of the speakers at the Pawnee public forum?)
The real heart of this episode, however, was the celebration of Ron Swanson’s birthday. Having dreaded anything the perky Leslie might plan for him, Ron was shocked and pleased to see that Leslie had taken the time to think about what would most please him. Not the wild wingding she’d thrown for her pal Ann, but rather a quiet night alone, with a big steak, a big tumbler of Scotch, and videos of such manly fare as The Bridge Over the River Kwai.
The contrasting worldviews presented by 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation — one arch and essentially cynical, the other earnest and essentially optimistic — are each valid, time-honored approaches to comedy. (Compare Arrested Development to The Andy Griffith Show: both classics; both polar philosophical opposites.) Right now, however, I’d have to say I’m leaning more toward admiring the way Parks and Recreation is cutting through a medium overrun by cynicism to present a view of the world as it ought to be, a decent place. With lotsa slapstick and laughs.