The Best of Television, 2012: Part 3 - When Shows Make The Leap

I always say (to whomever is listening, whether they care or not) that when new comedies premiere, you don’t start watching for what the show is, you start watching for what the show will become. Most comedies need a full season to get their sea legs, as writers learn to write for their actors’ strengths, and the actors learn how to wring jokes out of their characters' quirks. Shows like “Parks and Recreation,” “Community,” even “Girls”*… they aren’t nearly the same shows they were when they premiered, and that’s usually a good thing.

*All three of these are separate cases. "Parks and Rec" started out as an "Office" spin-off, but it wasn't working and no one on the show was likable, particularly Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope as the oblivious Michael Scotty-type lead. The showrunners adjusted, changed Leslie Knope into a likable overachiever, and suddenly the show was about a bunch of nice people who had this easy workplace chemistry. It's unrecognizable as the show it was when it premiered.

"Community" seemed to start out as just another bland single-cam sitcom with a good cast, but developed into something referential and insane and occasionally brilliant and deeply uncommercial. In Season Three, it retreated a little too far into its own headspace, and creator Dan Harmon was fired as showrunner. Since showrunners are fired all the time, I was hoping that the effects of Harmon's firing would be overblown, and that the cast remaining would be enough to keep the lights on.

But, judging by the first results of Season Four, it seems that everything that made the show stand out has disappeared abruptly. It's a shame. That used to be my favorite show, and now it's a chore to watch it, especially since I know how much potential the show actually has.

As for "Girls," it seems we're still learning exactly what the show is as it goes, but it's deepened itself nicely as it hass expanded. Even on pay-cable, it's surprising to see a sitcom that makes character choices this subtle.

When a new comedy premieres, I’ll check out the pilot and an episode or two afterwards, to see what the potential of the show is. Sometimes I’ll enjoy the show enough to say “I’ll stick with this to see where it ends up.” Sometimes I’ll get a sense of the cast’s chemistry, feel it has promise but isn’t worth watching yet, and decide to check back in later.* And sometimes I’ll take one look and say “Nope. Never again.”

*This year, I thought both “Ben + Kate” and “The Mindy Project” were worth looking at again at the end of the year to see how they were coming along. I checked back at Christmas, but wasn’t much impressed with the change – both shows seem to be wasting a lot of actors I enjoy, like Chris Messina and Dakota Johnson. Though now that "Ben + Kate" is officially cancelled, I guess those guys are free to do other things.

With “The League,” it was the latter. But I received so many recommendations to pick the show back up that I found I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  And when I finally watched another episode, I found a loose, bawdy, improvisational show completely different show from the one I’d left. The show had made the leap.

It’s this leap forward I’m referring to whenever I start getting animated about why people should watch “New Girl.” Whenever people ask me what I’m watching, that’s the first show I talk about, because it’s a show that's made the leap and hardly anyone noticed. Everyone sees the show’s original conceit (awkward hot girl moves in and baffles the three normal guys living in her apartment) and its star (professional awkward hot girl Zooey Deschanel) and assumes it’s going to be girly, faux-hipster unfunniness.

But instead, sometime last spring (specifically, the two-parter "Fancyman," if you're looking to check this out), it made the leap, and this was already a pretty good show to start with. If you haven't been following TV much lately, this will sound crazy but: it’s the best sitcom on TV.

Don't believe me? I’m not the only one who thinks so.