Over the last decade, virtually every television workplace comedy has been touched in some way by the success of the American Office and Parks and Recreation. However, now that both series have finished – and finished with quite underwhelming final seasons – there seems to be a bit of uncertainty about the next generation. While Parks may have succeeded The Office in a fairly emphatic way – for a couple of great years, they were both on the air – no single series has emerged to continue their legacy. Certainly, contenders have abounded, from Outsourced to Workaholics to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but none of them have quite managed to nail the combination of sentimentality and edginess that made The Office and Parks so memorable. Nor does it seem as if any series will manage to do so – or that many more series will aspire to do so – since it has started to feel as if we’re in a transitional period for workplace comedies that’s as indebted to the rise of Netflix and webseries as the Office was indebted to the rise of lo-fi, handheld television a decade ago. With High Maintenance set to transition from online to television this year, and Chelsea Handler previewing the first scheduled Netflix series with one of the most variable-length Netflix series to date, it feels as if the stage is set for a new era of workplace comedy that is peculiarly attuned to the increasingly flexible ways in which the workplace has itself been mediated through new entertainment technologies over the last five years.
On the face of it, Steve and Nancy Carell’s new series, Angie Tribeca, might seem like an effort to forestall this transition with one last attempt to continue the legacy of the Office. While Office fans will always associate Steve with Michael Scott, Nancy also played a memorable role in the series’ second season as one of Michael’s most endearing love interests, and one of his nearest misses. At the same time, Angie Tribeca stars Rashida Jones in its leading role, the only actress to crossover from the Office to Parks, as well as an actress who arguably came of age on the Office From a distance, then, Angie Tribeca might almost look like the third and final part in a trilogy, especially since it has also been heavily promoted as a workplace comedy, set in the LAPD. In many ways, that sense of continuity and development has been enhanced by various indications that Angie Tribeca isn’t straightforwardly nostalgic for the Office or Parks either, as evinced in its unusual and original screening schedule, a compromise between traditional televisual and more contemporary streaming models in which all ten episodes were broadcast for a limited time in a “marathon” format over the course of a single weekend. Arriving just before the Netflix era, both the Office and Parks were inextricable from DVD binging – and the last days of DVD rental – and there is something quite canny about the way in which Angie Tribeca remediates and restores that experience by inviting us to binge it first and foremost in this marathon format.
I was quite surprised, then, to find that this is emphatically not a revival or continuation of the spirit of the Office and Parks. For one thing, very little of the series takes place in and around the actual workplace – there is no effort to sketch out this police precinct in the same way that the Office and Parks so lovingly sketch out Scranton and Pawnee. Nor is there much of an interest in the thickly textured ensemble ambiences of those two shows, with the series focusing more or less on two main characters: Angie Tribeca (Rashida Jones), a feisty, fiery policewoman, and Jay Geils (Hays MacArthur), her new partner, a fairly dopey, daggy foil who invariably depends on Angie to get him out of trouble. In their incongruity, they harken back to the police buddy films and television series of the 1970s and 1980s, but the focus is not exactly on the kinds of banter that drove those series either, nor the high-speed chases and spectacles that helped flesh out the police buddy rapport, something that becomes clear when you set it alongside a reboot like The Other Guys. Instead, this is police parody so broad and physical that it feels like a continuation of the early Zucker comedies, and especially the Police Squad series and subsequent Naked Gun films. Indeed, the idiosyncratic marathon model – in which you can effectively watch the series as a sequence of episodes or as a three hour film made up of skits – reminded me of the way in which the Naked Gun films have a tendency to feel like several Police Squad episodes lined up back to back, with only the most perfunctory of narrative arcs to unify them as a “cinematic” experience.
As with the Naked Gun films, Angie Tribeca proceeds by breaking down any real distinction between physical and dialogue-driven comedy, largely by turning language into a physical pratfall that becomes more cumbersome and slapstick at every turn. The basic joke is that every statement is taken literally, which often requires the screenwriters to devolve into some extended surreal aside or elaborate physical scenario, creating a comic-psychotic universe in which metaphor, simile and figurative language simply doesn’t exist. As both the Naked Gun and Airplane films recognised, that kind of comedy works best in high-stake environments driven by authoritative pronouncements, and that combination works well here too, with the most bizarrely literalist moments reserved for the most urgent police directives. Whereas the Office and Parks subsisted upon the little flashes of charisma captured by the handheld format – the sense of unmediated charisma – here the Carells retreat to a much more stylised and artificial style of comedy, in which every quirk is literalised, plasticised and overexposed. On the one hand, that feels like Steve Carell definitively detaching himself from Michael Scott, relegating Dunder Mifflin to the same remote – if venerable – comic past as the Zucker comedies. At the same time, there is something about the series that recalls the more “lowbrow,” less sentimental aspects of Carell’s earlier career as well. After all, Brick – his character on Anchorman and his first big on-screen role – was nothing if not a literalist, and it often feels as if Carell is reaching back to this earlier comic mode as a kind of palette cleanser before moving on to the next phase in his career, part of a wider process that has involved him embracing the kinds of dramatic – or at least dramedic – roles provided by films like Foxcatcher, The Big Short and Freeheld.
On paper, that sounds like a pretty appealing prospect for a series. There’s so much contrived eccentricity in television comedy right now that Angie Tribeca’s brand of dated dagginess almost has a certain kind of cache. At the same time, the series is refreshingly free from a certain tendency in contemporary television that I think of as competitively queered heterosexuality. While I have more to say about this in another post, it perhaps suffices to say here that the flexibility of contemporary television combined with the new wave of queer visibility ushered in by transgender and genderqueer agitation has meant that television is less able to ignore the existence of queerness than ever before. To depict a world without queerness is simply not tenable on contemporary television, even or especially within the kinds of nostalgic period dramas that have continued the legacy of Mad Men. While many shows have embraced that queerness with great grace and delicacy, there is a rearguard of series – especially comedies – that have proved quite resistant, and which tend to respond by trying to absorb this queer energy back into heteronormative narratives. Ironically, these series, which are often classified as “indie,” tend to be more regressive in their sexual politics than aesthetically conservative formats such as the sitcom, usually proceeding by painting such unsympathetic and deliberately repulsive visions of heterosexual life as to effectively subsume all the negativity of this new queer ethos, as well as – most critically – discarding what makes this negativity so productive and inclusive. The sum total is a body of television comedy – Catastrophe, You’re The Worst, Difficult People, Master of None – that seems to set out to render heterosexuality as grating as possible in order to transform it into a new kind of vanguard. Having seen quite a large number of these series over the last year or two, there is something quite refreshing about the breezy, easy rapport between Jones and MacArthur that harkens back to an older style of pre-indie comedy – it’s a sitcom at heart – just as the series itself harkens back to a distant era of pre-“quality” television.
Despite all those factors, however, I must admit that I still found Angie Tribeca something of a disappointment, even though I loved certain scenes and moments. After all, the risk of organising comedy along this kind of literalist model is that it is inherently repetitive, and can quickly become stale or formulaic over the course of a ten-episode season. In the Zucker comedies, that repetition was both intensified and treated as a source of surrealism in itself, leading to gags that just kept on accelerating, and a literalism that kept on intensifying, despite all narrative or emotional logic. While there’s something of that in Angie Tribeca as well, Steve and Nancy Carell come up with a solution that’s just as ingenious. Prescient that this kind of insane literalism mitigates against any real sense of spoken communication, they couch it within moments of extreme nonverbal communication, where characters laugh at a joke, share a knowing look, or have a fleeting romantic moment for much, much too long. That sense of knowingness so precious to a certain brand of indie comedy is intensified to insane proportions here, often by way of Angie’s dog, who’s included in a lot of the jokes and extended eyeplay, to the point where it feels as if having a surreally heightened in-joke is the only real way that the characters have to communicate with each other. At those moments, I found the series really hilarious, as well as quite contemporary in the way it which it punctured a comic milieu in which the pleasure of being a privileged insider is particularly prominent.
It’s unfortunate, then, that these wonderful moments are more or less restricted to the first episode, which is also where most of the promotional material for the series has come from. After that, things tend to become a bit less anarchic and irreverent, as if the Carells are cautious about how much they can puncture their audience’s desire for insider humour without alienating them in the process (possibly another reason for the marathon format). Since their comic style is so sweet, the series is still more than watchable, but part of what is great about that opening episode is the crazed sugar-high of this sweetness. At those moments you can actually see a definite continuity between the manic niceness of the Office and Parks – there’s more than a touch of Leslie Knope to the overall tone of the series – although it’s also twisted into something a bit more cynical and a bit more jaded, while somehow also managing to hark back to an earlier and more innocent brand of comedy, both generally and within the Carells own careers. All of which means that there’s a great deal of potential here, which will hopefully be fulfilled when the second season comes around.