Bigger is better

Tonight's extra-long episodes of My Name Is Earl, The Office and 30 Rock on NBC (from 8 to 10pm) are part of what's certainly the best network comedy lineup in recent memory, if not one of the best of all time (and it'll only get better come November 30, when they're joined by Scrubs). A lofty claim? I'll go even further and say that it represents a historic event—the completion of a watershed transformation of the sitcom genre.TV history speaks of NBC's alleged glory days, years when the network ruled the roost on Thursdays with shows like Cheers, Frasier, Friends and Seinfeld—shows that, many forget, were strung together by crappy, unfunny, machine-press comedies whose names escape all but the geekiest TV scholars (as one of those geeks, I'll toss some names out there—Madman of the People, Moon Over Miami, Coupling, Cursed, Inside Schwartz, Union Square, The Single Guy, Four get the point). They all had the same garish colors, the same weird pacing (mostly the result of long gaps between lines that were carved out to make space for laughter generated by a studio audience—or a tape machine, if the tourists-wranglers at Venice Beach couldn't find a sufficiently compliant crowd).

NBC's comedy bulwark bottomed out in 2005 when the ill-conceived Joey and the aging Will & Grace wheezed through the 8--9pm hour. After Joey's midseason mercy killing this past winter, the freshman Earl and the returning Office were paired from 9 to 10pm and the seeds of the new lineup were planted.

This is the part where I answer the question you've been sitting on: Exactly why, pray tell, are these comedies so great? In each case, the answer is dramatically different. What they have in common is that they're all single-camera shows, shot on sets and locations without a studio audience and, as a result, there's no disembodied laughter. The elimination of the dead air required to accommodate goosed audience laughter has let all three shows offer a higher joke-per-minute ratio than their predecessors and allowed the series to develop unique personalities—Earl radiates a poignant joie de vivre, while The Office and 30 Rock offer different takes on the workplace experience (the former is brainy but sentimental, the latter anarchic yet neurotic). It's too early to assess how Scrubs will fit in, given how its quality has varied from season to season, but it's clear the longtime black sheep of the NBC lineup has finally found shows it fits in with.

Enough with the deconstruction. You want to know what you'll get if you tune in tonight, and now I'm gonna tell you. Earl offers up a great guest appearance, as Christian Slater plays a onetime superstoner whose commitment to the environment leads Earl to take on global warming, with results that are hysterical, touching and ever-so-slightly educational (goofy vignettes involving Claymated versions of the characters are pure gravy). The Office merges the Scranton and Stamford branches of Dunder-Mifflin in an episode that adds welcome depth to peripheral characters like Phyllis and Creed, and sets up a no-holds-barred ballet of the former Daily Show correspondents between Steve Carell and Ed Helms. On 30 Rock, after an absence of several weeks, Jane Krakowski asserts her presence with authority (to borrow a phrase from Ron Shelton) with a performance of "Muffin Top," her character's No.-1-in-Israel hit, allowing the night to end with a bravura showstopper—and it makes the two-week wait for the next episodes seem almost tortuously long. If Scrubs and 30 Rock can survive their suicide mission against CSI and Grey's Anatomy and the lineup remains intact, the network's hoary "must-see TV" slogan will really mean something for the first time in years.