Welcome to May sweeps (albeit still in April) and, more important, the countdown to the end of the official broadcast season on May 23. Meaning an end, for now, to those pesky repeats and the start-and-stop scheduling of favorite shows. Reason enough to celebrate? Wait until you see what NBC has in store for you tonight (or at least for those choosy few who gravitate toward the network's better Thursday night comedies).
First up: the ever-adventurous Community (8/7c), which many weeks feels like auditing a hilarious crash course in "Deconstructing Popular Culture With Satirical Intent and Heart." This is a lot more fun than it may sound. And even if attendance isn't what it should be this season, they've really been nailing the curriculum.
Earlier this month, an epic campus pillow fight got the full Ken Burns The Civil War treatment in a brilliantly sustained homage, complete with an analysis of text messages "that give us a glimpse beneath the cushions of war to the lost pennies and grody Q-tips of war's emotional toll." Last week, a trippy episode largely set in Abed and Troy's Dreamatorium owed a huge debt to Doctor Who as Annie and Abed learned a valuable life lesson in learning how to wing it — with empathy.
And how familiar does this week's opening sound? "Greendale Community College is represented by two separate yet equally important types of people: the goofballs that run around stirring up trouble, and the eggheads that make a big deal out of it. These are their stories." Even without the tell-tale "chung-chung" that follows, you know you're deep in Law & Order territory, with an inspired episode-long parody that gets all the details right, from the stylized opening credits to the inside-baseball casting of Leslie Hendrix (the original series' medical examiner) as a hardboiled botanist. She performs an autopsy on this week's "victim," a ruined yam, the study group's final science project. "For a raw yam to get it this bad, you need more than gravity. You need a boot," she declares.
Community loves pop culture, but it adores its characters even more: mock detectives Troy and Abed arguing over who gets to deliver the "zinger" at the crime scene; Shirley (in Lt. Van Buren mode) revising a Miranda warning for a suspect: "You have the right to do whatever you want;" and instant litigator Annie presiding over a classroom-turned-courtroom where one witness rightly objects, "This whole school is ludicrous!" Wouldn't have it any other way. A's all around for this class act.
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Later in the evening, Parks and Recreation (9:30/8:30c) hits a home run while Amy Poehler scores a writer-director-star hat trick with one of its best-ever episodes, built around the long-awaited "Race to City Council" debate between Leslie Knope (Poehler) and the dim-bulb rich-kid Sweetums heir Bobby Newport (a fabulously clueless Paul Rudd). There are other candidates, including Friday Night Lights' Brad Leland (aka Buddy Garrity) as an avid firearms enthusiast, among other surprises, but this is ultimately a loaded-for-laughter showdown between the earnest and idealistic bureaucrat who has spent her life trying to earn the trust and love of Pawnee and the benign spoiled brat who figures he can just buy it.
There's plenty going on behind the scenes as well: spin doctors Chris and Tom trying to win over Ann, while Ron Swanson hosts a debate viewing party with Andy, where things go knee-slappingly awry. Watching Chris Pratt (Andy) work the crowd is almost as much fun as watching Leslie try to figure out how to get the best of Bobby without coming off like an unlikable bully. You'll be rooting for her, while also kind of hoping nothing breaks up that old gang of hers.
If that weren't enough, there's also a bona fide sweeps stunt: a live episode of 30 Rock (8:30/7:30c), the show's second, this time with a pretty nifty meta concept. Kabletown has decreed that TGS (the show-within-the-show that we're thankfully spared from seeing most weeks) no longer be live, a cost-cutting measure that Liz and Jack are actually OK with — until Kenneth gets his dander up to preach the gospel of live TV, taking us on a memory tour of Studio 6H's grand history of live programming. Expect surprises. And given how deadly most of this season has been, even feeling alive will be a nice change of pace.
But what will be the night's highest-rated comedy, you ask? It won't be on NBC, but on CBS, where the mega-hit The Big Bang Theory (8/7c) presents Howard's bachelor-party bash, with Sheldon's nemesis Wil Wheaton as a party guest.
THE GUIDE: So what else is on? As always on Thursdays, plenty. There's yet another social event in Mystic Falls on the CW's The Vampire Diaries (8/7c), as a 1920s Decade Dance turns (what else) deadly. ... It's time for oral boards (an exam; get your minds out of the gutter) on ABC's Grey's Anatomy (9/8c), as the residents head to San Francisco. I'm curious who'll pass or fail, but honestly, I've been so distracted by the dire tidings of our finale scoop I don't know what to think. ... On CBS' Person of Interest (9/8c), Reese flashes back to his CIA days as he goes undercover with an armored truck crew. ... The Shield's Catherine Dent (who has recurred on The Mentalist this season) guests on Fox's Touch (9/8c) as Martin's sister-in-law, who he suspects wants to meddle in his relationship with weird little Jake. ... Speaking of The Mentalist (10/9c, CBS), this week's investigation is literally a drag, as the victim du jour is found outside a drag-queen cabaret. ... Will there be fallout from the president's intern declaring she's pregnant? Why do you think they call it Scandal (10:01/9:01c, ABC)? This guilty-pleasure melodrama finally kicks into high gear as the White House declares war on Olivia's team, with chief of staff Cyrus (Jeff Perry) leading the charge — and whatever you think you knew about him and the administration, you might want to think again.