Critic's Notebook: 'All Rise' Quarantine Episode Raises the Bar by Being Average

virtual All Rise-Publicity still - H 2020

When is making a so-so episode of broadcast television actually quite brilliant?

I would point to this week's episode of CBS' All Rise, which became the first drama series to attempt a filmed-at-home, quarantine-specific new episode of television.

It helps that All Rise was never all that great a show to begin with. When it premiered in the fall, the most encouraging note in my review was a positive comparison to NBC's Bluff City Law, which has held true the few times I've checked in subsequently — especially since Bluff City Law evaporated into the ether early in the fall. [It was that legal show with Jimmy Smits. No, not THAT legal show with Jimmy Smits. Nor THAT legal show with Jimmy Smits.]

The appeal of All Rise boils down to a very good cast and at least a passing interest in topical case-of-the-week storytelling. It's not a wildly adventurous show — CBS' wildly adventurous new legal series was Evil — but it tried.

That effort was the thing that marked Monday's episode, titled "Dancing at Los Angeles," written by Greg Spottiswood and Gregory Nelson and directed by Michael M. Robin. When broadcast shows rush to address major global events, the results tend to be grind-to-a-halt exercises in sanctimony; "Isaac and Ishmael," the astonishingly clunky post-9/11 episode of The West Wing, is the ultimate illustration.

"Dancing at Los Angeles," in contrast, was assertively sanctimony-free. It was, and I say this as the highest of compliments in this case, a regular episode of All Rise told in a very specific style. It contained an episodic plotline, with Simone Missick's Lola volunteering to use her virtual courtroom as a guinea pig for online bench trials in order to ease a coronavirus-spawned backlog in the judicial system.

It delivered all the basic character interactions that All Rise fans (I'm assuming they exist) presumably enjoy, whether it's the platonic bantering between Lola and Mark (Wilson Bethel), the early relationship sweetness between Luke (J. Alex Brinson) and Emily (Jessica Camacho), the no-nonsense attitude of Sherri (Ruthie Ann Miles) or the annoying quirkiness of Sara (Lindsay Mendez). And it even moved a couple serialized elements forward, like Quinn (Lindsey Gort) agreeing to come quarantine with Mark.

Even if all of the show's courtroom locations were off-limits, meaning no stairwell conversations, the episode effectively used Zoom/Skype-type streaming interludes for the same purpose. Plus, thanks to B-roll footage of Los Angeles in lockdown, the episode never felt entirely claustrophobic. I'm not sure if the final cathartic group Zoom dance came across as Ally McBeal-esque because of the presence of Peter MacNicol, but there are much worse shows for your legal dramedy to evoke. This was a completely legitimate "Here's how our characters would actually be going through life in these bizarre times" episode of TV that used technology in a way that somehow avoided feeling like a stunt.

It was also an instance in which having a middling bar for success benefited All Rise tremendously. I never got the impression the All Rise team was trying to achieve something definitive or to try to be all things to all viewers.

That was, for me, what plagued the return of Parks and Recreation on NBC last week. I love Parks and Recreation and enjoyed spending 30 minutes with these characters again, but was there a second of that special that didn't feel like it was working its way down a checklist of references, call-backs and other fandom pandering? This isn't anybody's fault, exactly. The show had been off the air for five years and the very real possibility is that it will never return again (or that it won't return until the next global catastrophe in which we need its unique brand of warm fuzzies).

So Mike Schur and his team knew that audiences would have characters they needed to see, references they needed made and shout-outs that demanded bellowing to the back of the theater, and that's what the special was. I'm not sure I laughed a single time, but I smiled frequently and nodded enthusiastically in places and I cheered when NBC reported how much money had been raised for charity. If it was pandering, and it surely was pandering, there are worse ways you can pander.

I'm betting a second or third Parks and Recreation reunion this spring or summer would be better or funnier.

Look at Saturday Night Live. The first Saturday Night Live at Home episode had emotional responsibilities when it came to honoring the late Hal Willner and letting Michael Che acknowledge the death of his grandmother. It also had technological uncertainty, but we understood why Lorne Michaels and company felt it was a thing they had to do and we evaluated it as something outside the run of the show.

The second Saturday Night Live at Home episode was much closer to just being an episode of SNL, letting people spend the next day or two talking about Brad Pitt's cameo, Kate McKinnon's cats and honoring it as a typical hit-and-miss 90 minutes.

Or look at all of the other comics in the late-night space. For a while, they giggled about Skype interviews or the oddness of having to do episodes in their living rooms or attics or whatever. Subsequently, though, they've just had to find ways to be funny on a daily or weekly basis, to turn the extraordinary into the everyday. If those first couple weeks of bringing laughter seemed borderline heroic, I've been more impressed with how John Oliver and Desus & Mero and Trevor Noah and Seth Meyers have settled back into the mundane.

So congratulations to All Rise for settling into the mundane immediately. It looked easy, but it couldn't possibly have been. There's a template here for quarantine episodes, not that I expect many more dramas to make the effort.