Tag Archives: Community

I’m glad ‘Community’ is back in all its glory; now may that glory not kill them

Like a loud drunk at a wedding, "Community" amuses some guests, while grating on others and embarrassing the bride's mother.

“Community” is back on the air and you can count me glad. It’s the only show on TV I care to follow, and when I miss it (which is always) I catch it the next day on Hulu over lunch. When it went on hiatus in December, I wasn’t the only fan who worried NBC was trying to diffuse fan outrage over a pending cancellation, hoping we would become mollified by some other show and forget to launch our blistering letter-writing campaign.

The show has big cult following, but not a big marketable following, and the fans know it. “Community” isn’t for everybody. It’s the funniest thing on TV for my money, but let’s face it, my money’s not always good in this town. The show has two big strikes against it that make it hard for a wider audience to warm up: “Community” is weird and it’s cynical.

Weird shouldn’t be a problem.

“The Office” and “Parks & Recreation” and “30 Rock” are weird too. Tracy Jordan having a drug reaction, clinging to the ceiling of his dressing room, “bugging out” about little blue dudes and shouting out for “Doctor Spaceman” – that’s pretty out there. Then again, having two characters who convert a bedroom in their apartment to a Holodeck-like “Dreamatorium” where they can indulge their deep fantasy role-playing sorts of trumps it all. (Wider audiences failing to embrace this extreme penchant for oddity may be why, at the beginning of Season 3,” the “Community” cast pledged to “have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” Of course, they pledged this as part of a Broadway song-and-dance dream sequence, so maybe they were being a little disingenuous.) Still, shows like “30 Rock” and the others mitigate their insane B plots with sweet, likable characters who can ground the audience in relatively-less-insane A plots.

Which is where cynical comes in.

Here, “cynical” is just a big umbrella word I’m using to wrap up all the deliberately thorny elements that distance viewers from this show and keep them from buying in to the long-term storyline of the characters.

Those likable characters from Dunder Mifflin and Rockefeller Plaza? They’re in short supply at Greendale Community College. (Individual characters are likeable, but “Community” makes sure we never feel sentimental about them for long. Everybody is flawed and occasionally ugly. “Community” writers make sure we remember that.)

Sweetness? It’s more an undercurrent of meanness that pervades this show. (Characters are dicks to each other – so much so, in fact, they occasionally call each other “dick.”)

Often the whole ensemble is at odds with one another and will end the entire show a fair distance short of a group-hugging make-up that gets us back to the cheery status quo. The status quo at Greendale is, indeed, that usually these characters are annoyed with one another.

I know precious little about improv comedy…

…but I know that one of the precepts is that you never improvise a disagreement or an argument that tears your fellow players down. You build them up. You never say, “No, you’re wrong,” you say, “Yes, and…” You build on one another. But “Community” is often an exercise in tearing others down.

To many, that’s the show’s strength. Some fans prefer that the show abandons treacle and contrived sitcom conventions to do something truly daring. It dares to make characters unlikable, racist, dumb, possessive, manipulative, intolerant and egomaniacal. Usually, audiences like shows where lead characters who skewer these traits in others; in “Community,” the characters are skewering these traits in each other.

When the show debuted in 2009, I wrote about my enthusiasm with glee, but I cautioned the main character, Jeff Winger, “seems to be an irredeemable cad. Cads can be a hoot, but he’ll need to be sympathetic before long if he’s going to be a cad in the spotlight.” At times, it seems Winger did grow. One of my favorite sequences in the first season is when he finally relents to become Spanish class partners with Pierce, the boorish old blowhard played by Chevy Chase. Winger doesn’t want to get sucked into Pierce’s weird event horizon, but to heal hurt feelings, Jeff finally lets Pierce dictate their elaborate presentation for tyrannical Spanish professor Senor Chang. Shown in a wordless montage, the presentation involves silly dances, tiny sombreros, dramatic gesturing and fistfuls of sparklers.

 

When it’s over, the two stand stock still, panting, under the scrutinizing gaze of Chang. Finally the professor nods as if he has at last given begrudging admiration for such a ballsy and ambitious delivery. Similar situations in movies and TV have taught us what to expect next. We expect him to say, “OK. That took guts. An A for the both of you.” But:

CHANG: “F … and F minus.”

PIERCE: “Did you say S?”

That’s comedy. That’s fresh and unexpected and it piles ridiculousness on top of ridiculousness. “Did you say S?” That kills me.

So there’s evidence of Winger growing. But most of the time the show shelves this, and he and others go back to being snarky and mean to each other again. Which I guess is just like life, you know?

Depth is rare – but there

The thing is, “Community” is chock full of tender moments that mean something. Two Christmases ago, the Rainman-like Abed had a seasonal meltdown that resulted in him seeing everything in a Rankin/Bass stop-motion winter wonderland. The group played along with his delusion to get him to the bottom of his depression (albeit in their own snarky and sarcastic ways). The episode explored how small traditions can resonate more powerfully than the big, gaudy, bedecked traditions that Christmas seems to be about. In a way, it’s the most trenchant commentary on the holiday season since Charlie Brown and his crappy little tree.

Professor Duncan encourages Abed to visit the Cave of Frozen Memories to sort out this crazy Christmas delusion, but Abed is having none of it.

The episode before that, Troy the naïve jock-nerd turned 21 and the gang took him to celebrate “growing up” with his first trip to a bar. But alcohol turned everyone ugly, and Troy realized that growing up meant un-fun stuff like being responsible and driving your incoherent friends home. Amazingly incisive character exploration, all of it.

Hair in your soup

But then there was the much-ballyhooed Dungeons & Dragons episode of last season. As you may be aware, I’m a bit of an enthusiast for D&D, both as a game and as a cultural roadhouse where so many generations and demographics have stopped in for a drink, even a metaphorically tortured one. I had heard that “Community” was embracing a D&D themed episode, and the early buzz was that it was a love letter to the nostalgia of role playing and dice rolling. It started quite promisingly, as the study group tries to buck up the spirits of a seemingly suicidal fellow student by feigning interest in his favorite hobby: D&D. They put on brave faces and try out their first game with their friend, Fat Neil.

Pierce reads ahead in the module. There is no greater sin in a game about storytelling.

So far so good. But Pierce, who creator Dan Harmon once called “the Daffy Duck of the group,” just had to become the antagonist. Often Pierce is the source of derision in the show, and he regularly says and does dumb and detestable things. But in this episode, he takes it to a new level as a D&D villain, both in-game and in-show. He takes umbrage that the group did not invite him to play the game with Neil, and he goes on an episode-long tear replete with such dialog as:

“First of all, gay. Second of all, stupid. And thirdly, why was this a secret? Are you cutting me out of the group?”

“You remembered to let fatty sit in my chair. Get out! You’re stretching it.”

“I’m 66, dick.”

(upon taking Neil’s prize possession in-game) “Maybe I’ll wipe my ass with it. That’s what you get for taking my chair, fatty.”

A lot of people loved this episode. I was so disappointed. I had wanted to share it with others, possibly others who are married to me, and say, “Hey, look at D&D through this very funny lens and see why people like me aren’t totally stupid for getting a kick out of it.” Instead, it was as mean-spirited and nasty as a dracolich with an ochre jelly in his phylactery. (That joke would kill at D&D session.) It wasn’t that the writers did any kind of disservice to role-playing games. In fact, they gave D&D a fair shake, getting legitimate laughs with the tropes, not at them. Instead “Community” did a disservice to its characters and now I don’t recommend that episode to anyone.

But whenever I get down about these characters, they say or do something surprising that reminds me why I tune in. Like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which re-imagines a story six ways based on which character must go to the door to fetch the pizza delivery. Or “Basic Rocket Science,” in which the gang is trapped in a KFC-sponsored space flight simulator. Or “Modern Warfare,” one the greatest-ever sitcom episodes ever about paintball … and possibly one of the greatest-ever episodes of TV comedy anywhere, anywhen.

Or even just a snippet of awesome banter, like this from last week’s back-from-hiatus episode:

BRITTA: Weddings are like a little girl’s tea parties, except the women are the stuffed animals, the men are making them talk, and they aren’t drinking tea. They’re drinking antiquated gender roles.

JEFF: Somebody tell Britta what an analogy is.

BRITTA: I know what it is. It’s like a thought with another thought’s hat on.

See what I mean?

So hooray for being back, “Community.” I await more laughs of this caliber and beyond. May I just request that your writers familiarize themselves with Wheaton’s Law?

You know: Don’t Be a Dick.

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Fall TV: What’s punching my dance card

What I’m watching this fall:

From the Twitter postings of "Community" actress Allison Brie. Aren't they all just so cute?

Community: I’ve already talked about how this show roared off the blocks — and as I predicted, the pilot was so good it made itself a tough act to follow. Subsequent episodes haven’t been as crackling, the humor a bit less zippy and incisive. But even when its jokes don’t split my gut, Community is still funnier than most other comedies. It’s swinging for the fences way more than other sitcoms, and my chief concern (that the selfish, narcissistic, con-artist lawyer would earn some redeeming value) is being addressed bit by bit. He’s still a shallow cad, but you can believe he’s looking for ways to be slightly less so. Whenever I think the jokes are flagging, I remember Chevy Chase’s response to getting an F (“Did you say S?”) and I’m all a-giggle again.

My two favorite characters on this show, played by John Cho and Christine Woods. They're fun to watch, with plenty roiling under their surfaces.

FlashForward: It would take a lot to shake me off this show, more even than the ’90s software spelling of the title (two words, two capitals, no space; right outta the Adobe playbook). FlashForward is a killer concept — a mass, worldwide blackout perpetrated by mask-wearing weirdos — and the first episode blitzed my senses with hook after delicious hook. That should be enough to ensure my butt is in my seat for this weekly, and so far my butt is fine with this arrangement. But, like Community, subsequent episodes have bogged down, dragging out the mystery with medical drama and political maneuvering and yawwwn. Sometimes I feel I’m watching a prize fight with a one-armed boxer: Fully conscious “walkies” are caught skulking during the blackout? BAM! Repetetive, boring flashforwards? Whiff. Mysterious towers in Somalia? BOOM! Surprisingly flat dialog? Whoosh. FlashForward yearns to be Lost, and it isn’t there yet. Its mysteries are intriguing; with time, I hope, they’ll become irresistible.

Tra! La! La!

Glee: I can admit it. On the list of Worst Things Ever in the Universe, you will not find Glee. I’m late to the party here, because I refused to give Glee the time of day at first. And why should I? As an adult male, I am duty bound to feel my flesh crawl at the sight of another High School Musical or a DeGrassi High reunion. But Glee took a factory-made formula (ragtag outsiders band together through the miracles of music and infectious enthusiasm) and added self-awareness, wit, ribaldry and mysophobia (fear of germs). It shouldn’t work. But it does. Some of the characters are horrible caricatures: the bitchy head cheerleader, the mohawked bully, the clearly-not-right-for-him wife of the protagonist. But the writing rises above the formula, helped by uncanny casting: Jane Lynch as the hilariously vindictive cheer coach, Chris Colfer as a gay kid’s gay kid, and Matthew Morrison as the cool-teacher Glee Club director. His crucial role could have come across as saccharine and Mousketeery, but Morrison plays it so gamely, he’s just plain genuine. The premise is light: In a school where Glee Club used to be popular, one determined former student plans to Welcome Back, Kotter a new club back to prominence. The actors know the campiness inherent in this but they squeeze that awareness like a Florida orange until something sparkly, biting and sweet (but not too sweet) trickles out. I can’t get over how brilliant something this cheesy can be, and I don’t understand how the creators accomplished it. Glee is a tightrope walker back-flipping along a filament I can’t even see. (Plus, if I had any reservations about watching a quasi-musical, high-school rom-com, Joss Whedon has announced he’ll be directing an episode, so now I know it’s cool.)

You'll never be so creeped out by children in matching sweaters.

Torchwood: Children of the Earth: OK, technically this is not a fall 2009 show; it’s the third season of a BBC show I’m watching via Netflix DVDs. This suggestion came to me from amiga Kathryn Achenbach in an e-mail titled: “Have I got five hours of television for you!” Well, that is a difficult dare to ignore, and I almost didn’t need the prompting of the rest of the e-mail, in which Kathryn called it “AWESOME. Like, no-they-didn’t, rip-out-your-heart awesome.” Strong praise indeed.  Torchwood is a spin-off of Doctor Who, and that’s a barrier I’ve never been able to leap. I’ve always found old episodes of DW to be much too hokey to enjoy. Yet Kathryn’s encouragement was too persuasive. I leapt into this 5-episode miniseries with both feet, and here’s my review: Anyone who cares about suspenseful, tight storytelling would be a fool not to tune into this. Aliens bound for earth use the world’s children to broadcast their taunting message: “We are coming … back.” The world freaks out, and Torchwood, Britain’s alien investigation team, finds itself classified a threat rather than an asset. Things get ugly. I’ll admit that, after catching up on the 2005 Doctor Who reboot starring Christopher Eccleston, DW proved to be much better property than I gave it credit for. Very watchable and enjoyable. DW fires a packed blunderbuss of crazy-future sci-fi at the viewer. But where the Doctor reaches for terror and often ends up with a handful of goofy, Torchwood is straight-up Ridley Scott with a Monty Python chaser. Fun, furious, essential viewing, even if you’ve never seen a single episode of either series.

Now I eagerly await the return of V to the airwaves next week. If it doesn’t stink, then life will be complete.

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Community: Will NBC’s new fall sitcom make TV fun again? Please?

NBC has posted the pilot episode of its new fall sitcom, “Community,” on Facebook, and it’s available for free watching through the end of the week. I urge you to do it. It’s smart, funny stuff set at a community college, and I laughed (or at least grinned contentedly) for the two-thirds I could watch before the video playback crapped out.

At one point, Joel McHale delivers the line: "If I wanted to learn something, I wouldn't have come to commnity college." OK, ouch.

Not many sitcoms can coax a grin out of me these days — so black has become my heart — but “Community” has the right kind of snark, hiptitude and cynicism that’s going to make “30 Rock” step up its game, I should think. It skewers academia like a Richard Russo novel, while making fun of its own “Breakfast Club” collision of diverse worlds, all of it stitched together with snappy dialog from yuksters such as Joel McHale (“The Soup”), John Oliver (“The Daily Show”), and Chevy Chase (The Karate Dog). Yes, I said Chevy Chase, whose aging Toastmaster character just may find this comedian back in form. (Seriously: The Karate Dog, 2004. Look it up.)

I really want you to succeed, Chevy. You are responsible for so many laughs. So long ago.

“Community” has a few hurdles, namely that it’s kind of mean-spirited, and the main character, Jeff, seems to be an irredeemable cad. Cads can be a hoot, but he’ll need to be sympathetic before long if he’s going to be a cad in the spotlight. Still, “Community” is buoyed by the sound of me choking on my unexpected laughter through sips of  Coke Zero.

Not every TV show can give you an exchange like this. Jeff, the disbarred lawyer new to community college, is looking for test answers from Duncan, a professor who is a former client of Jeff’s:

John Oliver (and the writers) get major props from me for this line: "The average person has a more difficult time saying *booyah* to moral relativism." Yeah: A moral relativism joke. Booyah.

DUNCAN: Are you trying to use reverse psychology on a psychologist?

JEFF: No, I’m using regular psychology on a spineless, British twit.

DUNCAN: I’m a professor! You can’t talk to me that way.

JEFF: A six-year-old girl could talk to you that way!

DUNCAN: Yes, because that would be adorable!

JEFF: No, because you’re a five-year-old girl, and there’s a pecking order!

Paired with “30 Rock” on Thursday nights this fall, “Community”‘s Sept. 17 debut may be NBC’s best chance to reclaim its Must-See-TV Thursday glories of yesteryear. And wouldn’t it be sweet if Fletch himself were part of the reason?

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