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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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On the loss of ‘Lost’

“Lost” has concluded, and the Internet has now cracked in half as the naysayers and the yaysayers duke it out for What It All Means and whether this is the Best or the Worst Finale Ever.

My additions to this debate are of little merit. I’m already on record about how much I love the show: Nothing, just plain nothing, on TV comes close to offering the same big-ideas-per-minute ratio as “Lost,” and I’ve been fully engaged with every twist, turn and dead end since episode 1.

Now that the show is through shuttling story threads through its loom, I can say this about the finale: I am deeply satisfied.

It was perfect in its imperfection and surprisingly clear for all its ambiguity. This series resolved in the same tenor as it progressed (as always, some questions were answered as new ones were posed), and in this I find it to be an ideal period placed at the end of a long and difficult-to-diagram sentence. I push back from the table sated.

Not everyone agrees. I’ve read more than one Internet Philosopher today who asserted: “I used to love ‘Lost,’ but now I hate it hate it hate it with all the hot heat my heart can muster.” Which can’t be helped; it’s not a show for everyone, even for people who loved it for 5 seasons and 15 hours before changing their minds.

I take the long view of such things: Of all the time we’ve spent together, “Lost” and I, has it been a good and loyal friend to me? Yes, it has. And then some.

Some viewers invest so much time in a show, they think they are owed a particular resolution. But TV is a relationship proposition.  If you don’t like it, move on, the sooner the better. If you do like it — really, really like it — then be patient with it, forgive its occasional missteps, and reward it when it rewards you. As relationships go, this is a pretty sweet deal, since it is the show (and its creators) doing all the work. The rest of us just sit there.

When “Battlestar Galactica” ended, and the Internetosphere again gnashed its teeth in dissatisfaction, my counsel was the same:

Where this finale felt a tad thin, I’m happy to pat in on the back and say, “You did good. You entertained me for a long time. You’ve certainly given me more than I gave you, so go ahead — ask a mild indulgence or two of me. I’m just in the mood to grant it.”

“Lost”‘s finale might yet be dragged down by the list-keepers of the world, the people who had the pet favorite plot threads go unresolved and who Demand Satisfaction. But Linda Holmes at Monkey See, NPR’s culture blog, tries to talk these nitpickers down from their ledge:

I’m interested in bafflement and struggle and confusion about what’s the right thing to do. I’m interested in sacrifice and loss. I’m interested in devotion and loyalty and pondering other ways things might have worked out. … That’s why the most important thing to me, by far, is the human beings who are involved in this story.

I certainly hope that people who have enjoyed this show for six seasons aren’t going to retroactively decide that all their time was wasted because the finale didn’t satisfy them by answering an adequate number of questions. [The creators] are driving the bus, and you’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt and at least give them a shot at showing you where they’ve been going all this time.

And that’s how I’m heading into Sunday’s finale. I’m leaning back in my seat, I’m relaxing, and I’m assuming that I’m in good hands, because I have been so far.

Count me in the ranks of those pleased with both the journey and the landing. Good show, “Lost.” You’ll be sorely missed.

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Three-word review of the 2009 TV premiere of ‘V’

Vaudeville in vain.

V_is_for_vaguely_interesting

Captions don't count: "V" has everything a boy could want, including smooth CG, slick visual designs and nerd-worthy actors such as Elizabeth Mitchell and Alan Tudyk. But heavy-handed plotting and weak dialog kept me at a distance the entire time. Man, this story was *rushed* -- humans were taking tours of alien ships inside the first 15 minutes --so the plot-first pacing left no room for subtlety or surprise or intrigue. Every emotion, every action is sitting right there on the surface to be consumed in order, not to be teased out or hinted at. Helping the spoonfuls go down are lines of dialog so thick with exposition they rolled my eyes off the screen and back into my head. I'll watch these first four episodes, but the needle on my thrill-o-meter is hovering no higher than "hayride."

Nerds, let us not forget the wonders of 1983. Back then, this was the pinnacle of rad:

v-is-for-viguana

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Simpsmoke: TV’s longest-running show restores my faith in the boobtube

Having just eye-rolled over the popularity of Family Guy, I decided it is right and proper to acknowledge that last night The Simpsons surpassed Gunsmoke as TV Land’s longest-running series. (At least in terms of seasons; Simpsons just began season 21, thus besting Gunsmoke‘s 20, but it bears noting that in Gunsmoke‘s day, a season could last 40 episodes, compared to the 20 to 22 or so episodes  in a typical Simpsons season today.)

"A solar eclipse! The cosmic ballet ... goes on."I’ll admit I don’t find the show as relevant these days, but how could it be? It’s strength was in the beginning when it was forging whole new ways to do television comedy, animated or otherwise. Man, do you remember season 3? The one with “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk” (Germans buying the power plant), “Stark Raving Dad” (Homer’s institutionalization for wearing a pink shirt), or one of my all-time favorites, “Marge Versus the Monorail” (the origin of the wacky sing-alongs that Family Guy loves to wring so desperately). This was all eye-opening stuff, with a speed and a sharpness to the wisecracks that audiences had never seen.

Marge: We're just going to have to cut down on luxuries; Homer: Well, we're always buying Maggie vaccinations for diseases she doesn't even have!

If you can, rewatch the season 3 episode “Lisa’s Pony,” which is both riotously funny and genuinely tender. It’s about Homer wanting to give Lisa the one present she’s ever wanted, and what lengths he’ll go through to be the good dad. It’s easy to knock the character of Homer as a big oaf, but in the early days especially, the Simpsons writers knew how to make fun of stupidity while still creating characters worth caring about. Homer wasn’t always a doofus, Bart wasn’t always a brat.

Contrast that to today’s fuzzy carbon copy, Family Guy. Will this show ever be as long-running and endearing? Wait — maybe I don’t want an answer to that. Punishment, Australia style.I think many of today’s 12- to 24-year-old demographic are finding the same memorable TV moments with FG that I had 15 years ago when Bart prank-called Australia, and had to go Down Under to face the consequences. (Oh, man, season 6’s “Bart vs. Australia” still makes me snort with glee.)

Can I tell these poor, deluded kids that they should hold out for better? Or should I just accept that Family Guy is this generation’s pied piper, luring scatology-loving audiences to lower and lower expectations for their laugh thresholds?

Addendum

I can’t resist noting what critics have been saying about the new Family Guy spin-off, The Cleveland Show. As I understand it Cleveland was supposed to be a little more family-themed and heartfelt comedy (a la Simpsons) than its predecessor’s crude output. But the LA Times wrote that it’s “neither sweet nor particularly funny, neither a family comedy nor a true satire,” while the Dallas Morning News posited “there’s no easy way to describe The Cleveland Show. Oh wait, yes there is: It’s not very funny.”

Perhaps most pointed of all is this Newark Ledger Star article, which manages to provide the most deft analysis of Family Guy to date. It captures my attitude perfectly — that when FG is clever, it’s clever, but when it’s bad, it’s unwatchable — and ace the perfect description of creator Seth McFarlane’s modus operandi: “the anything-for-a-laugh approach.”

If McFarlane weren’t worth hundreds of millions of dollars, I’d call it a waste of talent. I guess I just have to settle for a waste of time.

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Let’s just get this out there: I can’t stand ‘Family Guy’

When the 2009 Emmy broadcast this week came to “Outstanding Comedy Series,” I didn’t realize how close to the Apocalypse we had skated. The nominees included some stalwarts (30 Rock, The Office, Entourage) and an underdog favorite of mine (Flight of the Conchords) … and, like a boorish, over-served second cousin at your daughter’s wedding, Family Guy.

It’s not just enough to say I’m relieved 30 Rock won — no, indeed, I didn’t notice that Family Guy‘s presence was history in the making. Awful, embarrassing history that sullies the good name of television. Which is no easy feat, you know?

Here’s the problem: I did not realize until today that FG is the first animated show to be nominated in the high-prestige  “Outstanding Comedy” category since The Flintstones in 1961. What? What? Not once in its 20-odd seasons has The Simpsons merited a nod, yet the crude and obvious Family Guy is what breaks the cartoon barrier? The Simpsons has had more influence on comedy and television than the past 10 Outstanding-est Comedies combined. (Namely 30 Rock [3], The Office, Everybody Loves Raymond [2], Arrested Development, Friends, Sex and the City, and Will & Grace.) Heck, Bart Simpson is on Time magazine’s “100 most influential people of the 20th Century” list.

Sperm cell is to egg as X-Wing is to Death Star; I gotta say, that's pretty good comedy.When I saw my first Family Guy, I found it funny. Because it is. It’s loaded with funny, particularly the martini-swilling dog and Stewie, the evil baby. One of the early gags, about Stewie’s recollection of his birth, got a good laugh out of me. Still does. It’s brilliant.

I distinctly remember the moment I mentioned my Family Guy admiration to Tom Deja, a respected colleague whose taste I trust implicitly. Tom looked at me with a wounded “I expected more from you” expression.

“What?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” he promised. And he wasn’t the only one; several other comedic intellects I know shared his view. And after I watched long enough, I began to see what was eating them.

Family Guy is jam-packed with wacky vignettes and clever song lyrics and outrageous sight gags, each of which on their own might be funny as a fraternity skit or locker room prank. But when you shove them all together, it becomes the very outer limits of overkill, to the point where the laughs pile up in a big bland bowl of unsalted gruel. This show exhibits all the restraint of a sugared-up toddler on Christmas morning, and I don’t want to be the kind of parent who indulges children peeing on the Yule log. The exhibits for the prosecution:

* Excessive use of nutty “cutaway gags.” At any given moment, completely irrelevant to the context of the plot, a character will exclaim a non-sequitor like “This is worse than the time I hit Ringo Starr in the face with a pie!” or “Sheesh, this reminds of the time we enlisted in that traveling minstrel show!” That’s the cue for a 10-second segment where we see that very bit of zany mummery played out, and ha ha, what will those guys come up with next? Sadly, coming up with these kinds of asides is about as challenging a writing assignment as filling out Mad Libs. Try it yourself: “This reminds me of the time when [character] [verb]ed that [outrageous noun] with [celebrity reference]!” One at a time, these japes might be mildly amusing. But when they come in an endless stream like a horde of zombies, they make me want to claw my eyes.

* Jokes that go on too long. I think it’s some kind of post-modern reaction to the Simpsons era of jokes that just keep coming atcha. Family Guy (among other modern comedies, I’ve noticed) enjoys deliberately hanging around too long with a joke, milking the comedy of obnoxiousness — if such a thing can be called comedy. Actual barbershop quartets have eaten up valuable YouTube space tperforming their own renditions of this song. Take that, Sweet Adeline! If you care to subject yourself to an example, here’s a barbershop quartet tune about vasectomies. Like most FG songs, it’s got lots of witty, ribald lyrics … and then once the joke is over, they stick around and beat you with the stick. Ha! Ha! They just don’t know when to quit — and that makes it funnier!

* Parodies that add nothing to the original joke. Just because a thing happened once, and it was funny or memorable, doesn’t mean it’s still funny and memorable when you act it out again. That’s high school logic, and the comedy goldmine of teen boys who spent the weekend watching the Austin Powers marathon and want to act out funny scenes on Monday in Government class. Remember that classic news blooper about the reporter who falls while stomping grapes? Wow, that was an easy script to write!FG riffs on that — by re-creating the scene exactly, bringing nothing new to the joke, drawing no clever parallels to anything else, furthering the story not an inch. (Click here for a cruddy YouTube clip.) Many of FG’s jokes feel this way: Look what we remembered about the ’80s! Ho!

* Crudity that makes The Simpsons look like NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. See, Family Guy thrives on “prude bait” — edgy and raw jokes meant to outrage the puritans among us. A lot of shows do this, including, at times, The Simpsons. That’s because subversion is funny, and nothing is more subversive than smart and subtle naughtiness that tweaks establishment values. FG knows smart, but it turned out the lights and pretended it wasn’t home when subtle came knocking on its door. I’m not going to roll my eyes over  babies nursing men’s nipples, or obvious and uncreative boob jokes, or weird allusions to teenager-dog bestiality, because I’ll just sound like an old man. “In my day, Bart Simpson rode skateboards naked and that was naughty enough for us, dag-blame it!” I don’t have to point this out, since groups like the Parents Television Council (gawd, I can’t believe I’m about to sympathize with them) already object strenuously to an episode where “Fox treated viewers to everything from an ‘eleven-way’ gay orgy to baby Stewie eating a bowl of cereal with horse sperm instead of milk.” Look, I know it’s fun to push the envelope … but sometimes what’s on the other side of that envelope is just a guy saying “Poopy! Poopy! Poopy!” into the microphone for 22 minutes straight. That looks to be the natural terminus for the path Family Guy is treading. And lucky us! We’ll all get to see that graceful decline to its inevitable conclusion, since Fox has contracted episodes through 2012.

Happy viewing, friends.

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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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How the Disaffected Star Wars Fan can enjoy the Clone Wars cartoon

The trailer for season two of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” hit the Internet today, sporting a new bounty hunter villain …

No word on whether this new character will actually be clutching a fistful of dollars.

…and a love interest for Obi Wan.

Obi and New Girl sittin' in a tree! J, E, D, I, I, N, G!

Regular Retort readers may already know I have no real love of the Prequel Trilogy, so when the first of these post-Revenge of the Sith animated projects began to trickle out (featuring not the original Star Wars setting with Han and Leia and asskicking, but the new ones, with Anakin and trade disputes and whining) I sniffed my haughtiest sniff.

But in 2003 Genndy Tartakovsky, maker of Dexter’s Laboratory and the delicious-like-sake Samurai Jack, hit Cartoon Network with this:

This ain't a showing of "Chorus Line."

The first Star Wars: The Clone Wars project bought my attention because it gave us Jedi like this …

He's about to get medieval on their asses.

… who could do this …

Black Droid Moan

… and this …

"I have had it with these motherf%$#@ bolts on this motherf%&*@ droid!"

That’s right. A Jedi removed the bolts from a droid using his mind. These were not your father’s Jedi. These were a bunch of magic ninjas who said, “You know what? We can do a lot of cool moves with this Force thing. Let’s really push it and see what this baby can do, eh?” The series almost redeemed the Prequel Trilogy in my eyes.

But could lightning strike twice? Last summer, a feature-length, non-Tartakovsky Clone Wars hit theaters bearing Tartakovsky’s influence, but with decidedly fuglier animation choices:

Yoda and Batboy: Separated at birth?

Yoda and Batboy: Separated at birth?

Not just moxie -- *space* moxie!Reviews were pretty tepid, and by the time the boys and I sat down to watch it on DVD, I had gone lukewarm on the whole thing. I have to admit that as I watched, I found it more endearing than I expected: It made a little more hay out of its characters than the live-action movies. For example, Anakin gets an apprentice, the spunky Ahsoka (left), requiring Ani to develop as a leader and giving him a chance to be more than the whiny hanger-on he appeared to be in the Prequel Trilogy. Also, the clone troopers are treated as more than cannon fodder, building a few new key characters under those generic masks. Commander Cody and Captain Rex turn a troop of faceless clones into a “Band of Brothers” episode. (Of course, clones are still cannon fodder. Plenty make messy exits. But now, I actually cared if some of them were going to get Private Ryan’ed into oblivion.)

The movie kicked off a half-hour series on Cartoon Network, and I found my admiration growing. Characters had things to do! Choices weren’t easy! Dialog was crisp! Or funny! Or both! My kids and I howled several times at the memorable lines now coming out of the lowly B1 droids, those Laurel & Hardy everybots of the Star Wars universe. We still repeat a line said by one exasperated droid seen scrubbing down a dirty holding cell:

“No doubt about it,” he mopes. “Worst job in the droid army.”

Even robots have a rat race! In the episode “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we even get to see what happens when B1s get abandoned by their evil bosses and reprogrammed by scrappy street kids with a sense of humor:

Grapes not included.

I was thoroughly enjoying this show, but couldn’t put my finger on something eating away at me. Something was wrong about it somewhere. Was I just not allowing myself to enjoy a Star Wars story again? Was my inner geek too bitter and pouty to let me have this moment? Then my friend Tim put a fine point on it:

“It would be great,” he said, “if it just weren’t about the most evil guy in the Star Wars universe who was about to go kill all the Jedi babies.”

Bingo. The problem here is that we’re still looking at the conflicted and conflicting Anakin Skywalker being turned into a hero on a regular, episodic basis. We’re cheering for him at every turn, even when he’s being disobedient and flirtatious with the Dark Side. But we all know, just a few months in the future from where these characters sit, Rex and Cody and their buddies are going to rat-a-tat-tat a bunch of Jedi, and Anakin is going to Do His Part for the Revolution by practicing infanticide on little kids with rat-tail haircuts and shaggy burlap swaddling cloths.

It doesn’t click. You can’t reconcile these two characters, not when Anakin is clearly meant to be sympathetic and heroic. It’s difficult to enjoy these stories, knowing in the back of your head that all of the derring-do is going to net a big, fat goose egg in the big, fat picture. All of these victories? Soon to be pointless. All of the relationships? Soon to be betrayed. All of the emotion? Soon to be wasted.

But it’s too good of a show (and for me, too necessary a catharsis) to ignore. How to enjoy it then? Do like I do. Pretend you’re not looking at Anakin Skywalker, but another Jedi completely, one named Bananakin Sky-Walter or something. This story could fit anywhere at any time in the Star Wars timeline. Whatever comes next is a big surprise — no telling how this conflict will play out! Whatever you pretend, shut down that part of your brain that tells you what you already know about the story. Shut. It. Down.

It’s asking a lot, I know. But storytelling is all a game of pretend, after all. My way, it’s not just a one-way street of pretending coming at you from your TV — now you get to send some back for a change.

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