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Comedy tonight!

For the first time since the writer's strike began, we finally have all new episodes of NBC's Thursday comedy block tonight. It feels like years have passed since the 7-9 period had fresh content from My Name is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office and Scrubs.

I've missed The Office the most. The last episode was in November - it was the first show to go dark when the picketing began. When we last saw him, Michael Scott had been given a true dilemma: In her wrongful termination suit, do I favor my girlfriend Jan Levinson, who loves me but also hates me? Or do I favor my employer, which has had every possible reason to fire me but hasn't?

Oh, this will not end well. At all.

After hemming, hawing, stalling, and a desperate exchange of that's-what-she-saids, he went with his employer, of course - leaving him and Jan to experience their most uncomfortable car ride home ever. For that pair, that's saying something.

Meanwhile, it's slowly starting to dawn on Jim Halpert that his worst nightmare is coming true - he's becoming inexorably entangled in the Dunder-Mifflin universe. At least he's finally found romantic bliss with Pam Beesley ... but she's showing signs of breaking free of the receptionist's life. Dwight Schrute is experiencing something he never expected: an existential crisis. The cause: Andy Bernard and Dwight's former love monkey Angela Martin are dating, which includes heavy bouts of necking - that is, they nuzzle each other's necks. And self-described wunderkind Ryan Howard's blend of minuscule experience, dubious intelligence, indifferent work habits and negative people skills are all combining to put him at the precipice of a major (and delicious) downfall.

Your time is coming, douchnozzle.

Too bad we only have about 6 weeks to get some short-term closure on these matters. At least we can be reasonably certain that whatever happens will be bleak and heartwarming and hilarious, sometimes all at the same time. Few shows have been able to pull that off.

There are clouds on the horizon, though: NBC has approved a spin-off of the show. As of now, there has been no announcement of even a concept being in place for the new show, to say nothing of cast or crew. The only thing that seems to be in place is that it's scheduled to debut after the Super Bowl. So ... no pressure on producer Greg Daniels or anything. My first reaction is that this seems as bad an idea as selling your condo on eBay.


Preceding The Office is, to my mind, the funniest show on TV: 30 Rock, the spiritual successor of the sublime Arrested Development. Like that show, 30 Rock features absurdist situations, crackling word-play, sly social commentary, and stellar throwaway gags (my personal favorite: Tracy Jordan's Werewolf Bar Mitzvah).

Spooky, scary. Boys becoming men. Men becoming wolves.

It isn't quite as well-drawn as Arrested Development - there are times where it seems the show is trying too hard to get from point A to point B, so much so that you can see the gears turning. "Cougars", for example, strained mightily (and flopped) to analogize a youth baseball team with the Iraq war. It missed the deft touch that "Greenzo" brought to its satire of NBC's smug environmental moralizing during Green Week (recall, if you will, Bob Costas and Keith Olbermann doing halftime commentary of the Cowboys-Eagles game literally in the dark).

The cast is pretty great, with Tina Fey showing no hesitancy to humiliate herself as Liz Lemon, Tracy Morgan bringing just the right touch of real menace to Tracy Jordan and Alec Baldwin somehow finding within himself the ability to concoct a right-wing corporate blowhard who manages to be pretty sympathetic regardless.

I'm a little worried about how the strike will affect 30 Rock. Traditional sitcoms, or even something like The Office, can get away with some dry patches in a particular episode, but 30 Rock has to be constantly moving - like a shark during Shark Week - to sustain its manic energy. That means lots of rehearsals, lots of rewrites. The time off may have interrupted the crew's momentum. We'll see soon enough.

Oh, whatever. You have to have faith in any episode titled "MILF Island".


As for the other comedies in the NBC block, I'm kind of indifferent.

A lot of people love Scrubs. I'm not one of them. I liked it at first - on its debut, it seemed pretty fresh, at least in format (the jokes were above-average Borscht belt, which is fine). But I lost contact when NBC imposed its signature ADD-influenced scheduling policies on the show. By the time I rediscovered it, Scrubs felt different - what seemed like manic fun before now felt like strenuous overreach. Whimsical had become cloying.

But mostly, it was Zach Braff. Like Kramer with Mary Hart's voice, just the sight of Braff these days drives me into convulsions. OK, maybe not convulsions, but definitely shivers. Maybe it's because he's been trying to craft himself as his generation's Benjamin Braddock over the past few years: those movies where he plays a guy who is adrift in the world, unsure about what he wants to do with his future, and kind of hostile to the universe in general ... and yet, despite having such a mindset, manages to get Natalie Portman, Jacinda Barrett and Rachel Bilson to fall desperately in love with him. Or maybe it's just his stupid stupid face!

It's too bad because I have a great deal of affection for the rest of the cast, in particular Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison and, especially, John C. McGinley - the character actor has been great in just about everything he's done, whether it's squirrelly Sgt. Red O'Neill in Platoon, enthusiastically oily Bob Slydell in Office Space, or here as exquisitely prickly Dr. Perry Cox.

I celebrate the guy's entire catalog.

As long as it has lead-ins like The Office and 30 Rock, there's enough true wit and insanity about Scrubs to keep me watching through the remainder of the Spring. Will it be enough to follow the show when it moves to ABC in the Fall? Depends on what the Alphabet surrounds it with.

My Name is Earl is often extremely funny, but there's also something kind of skeevy and unpleasant about it. I'm not talking about the surface redneckitude. Maybe it's because I can't always tell when MNiE is poking fun at redneck life and the characters populating it, and when the show is savagely raking same across the coals.

Less forgivable is the fact that the show quite often is just boring. Last week's strike-return show was guilty of that cardinal sitcom sin. I just can't see how much more they can wring out of the show's central conceit - Earl trying to cross stuff off his karma list - without it becoming repetitive. But it's still amusing enough to tune in. Just barely DVR-worthy.


Also, there's a new ER on tonight. Recently, NBC announced it was coming back for a 15th and final season. This is where I should insert the omnipresent query "Does anyone really watch this show anymore?" And I have to answer uh, yes, um I guess I do. It's basically entertainment muscle-memory on my part. And enough people still watch to justify it limping on through 6 or 7 seasons longer than it probably should have lasted.

As television drama, it's utterly average. The performances are fine, the scripts are fine (if occasionally overwrought), it's professionally and competently put together. It's all just ... OK. It doesn't thrill me like a Battlestar Galactica does, but then again, it doesn't irritate the hell out of me like a Gray's Anatomy does. So, out of habit and nostalgia, I'll keep watching. It's not like I'm going to read a book or socialize or anything.