Thursday, February 28, 2013

Community - "Conventions of Space and Time"

Season 4, Episode 3

Community delivers its worst episode ever. But why? 
Sometimes, after you watch an episode of television, you’re left with only one thought, one singular impression that pretty sums up your entire reaction to watch you just saw, and really doesn’t beg for much explanation or follow up. After watching “Conventions of Space and Time”, my reaction is thus:

I didn’t laugh once.*

Of course, that’s not exactly a fair criticism, both because of my stance that comedies shouldn’t solely be graded on the grounds of how much laughing the audience did, and because Community itself has been known to ditch laughs when in search of telling different kind of stories. (Though I must mention that even “Mixology Certification”, arguably the show’s most serious hour, was able to deliver a good laugh or two around the heavy material it centered on.) Sure, there were a few lines that were clever as turns-of-phrase or what have you, but Community has always had these lines exists alongside actually laugh-out-loud moments. And considering that “Space and Time” was supposed to make us laugh out loud, and probably quite a bit, and it didn’t, well that’s the show failing its own goals and standards, and something that needs to be explored.

It doesn’t help that the episode centers on a central premise that’s so obviously meant as fan-bait, but in a way that perhaps doesn’t quite get what makes that element popular, or how it works in the show’s universe. I’m talking of course of the decision to set the episode at an “Inspector Spacetime” convention. Up until this point, “Inspector Spacetime” existed as something that Troy and (especially Abed) enjoyed themselves, but something we the audience were supposed to see as kind of dumb.**  Thus existed between the fans and “Inspector Spacetime” an ironic love, and even when such fans were making their own Inspector Spacetime media, it was more about their sincere love for Community than there ironic love for “Inspector Spacetime”.

So for an episode to take a marginal aspect of the show and create a whole episode around it gives said aspect a much greater sheen of sincerity and authenticity than it’s former ironic, marginal status indicated.*** Since this is done in the name of fan service, this is obviously an issue of metatextuality, since “Conventions” treats InSpecTiCon as a fairly silly undertaking, meaning that the show is still feigning as if we are take “Inspector Spacetime” ironically. But making it the centerpiece of the episode certainly feels like a nudge toward authenticity, so it’s no surprise that the whole affair feels more than a little off, and thus like a terrible setting for the show to attempt to tell serious stories about the characters. Admittedly, “an episode set an ‘Inspector Spacetime’ convention” sounds like a Harmonesque movie (except for its ignorance of the whole irony thing), so it’s not even the “bigness” of the concept that bothers me; it’s that it doesn’t work as a way to tell the kind of character study stories that the show still wants to pretend is its bread and butter.

Of course, for all of the faulty foundation that this episode sits on, it did manage to tell a somewhat satisfactory Troy-and-Abed story. For the second time in three episodes, the Guarascio and Port once again tried to prove that they knew how to write for Abed, and at this they largely succeeded. That they succeeded by essentially repeating what we already knew about Abed – that he perceives himself as different, and possibly better, than his friends, but he uses their friendship to keep him grounded – rankled a little bit, but at least that emotion was expressed clearly and effectively. The same goes for Troy, where we once again reminded of the fact that he’s emotionally dependent on Abed, but stuck in a relationship that doesn’t pay him back equally, but Donald Glover was able to sell the emotions that needed to land.

The problem was getting to these moments required a lot of set-up, with the sort of character beats reminiscent of the season premiere. In another instance of the show fast-forwarding on the relationship front, we learn that Troy and Britta are sleeping together (so much for the more interesting path hinted in “Paranormal Parentage”), and that they are worried that might upset Abed. It’s quite forced, but it makes sense as a way to explore the evolving group dynamics. The problem is that Abed doesn’t have a problem with Troy and Britta hooking up, and this largely goes unexplained for most of the episode. It seems as if the show was hinting that Abed only hung out with fellow “Inspector Spacetime” fan Toby at the convention as a means to replace Troy, the friend that he thought was losing, but if that’s the case, then that could have been explained more fully. And even so, that doesn’t explain why he was okay letting Britta’s opinions on the show go unchallenged, since how he acted towards her should affect his relationship with Troy if he was distancing himself from it anyways.

Britta and Troy’s actions were a bit more in character, but also a little broader than what we have seen in the past. Troy has always been fairly childlike in his reactions, especially when it comes to Abed, but his freak-out towards Toby during a panel felt especially broad, and lacked a proper build-up. Britta meanwhile acted like quite the jerk in the episode, and while she’s always been prickly, it would have made more sense given what we know about her that she be supportive – not only of Abed’s love of the show, but also for Troy’s on feelings of abandonment, which she didn’t even really acknowledge. (At this point, I want to make it clear that I don’t think this broadness is necessarily a side-effect of Harmon leaving, since many sitcoms go through such problems in their later stages, and even season three of this show had some broad character moments.)

It’s this sense of broadness that sort of infects the whole rest of the episode, but without any real emotions behind it like those with Troy and Abed, the other characters’ stories fall even flatter. This is mainly the case with Annie, who spent the episode inexplicably pretending to be “Mrs. Jeff Winger”, for reasons that aren’t fully explained. Is it because she still loves Jeff? The episode seems to argue no, it’s just that she still has a child-like fascination with marriage. But wait…hasn’t her whole arc of the series been about her growing up, becoming more mature? During the entire plot, all my brain could come up with was Jeff’s quote from “Geography of Global Conflict”: “Annie, you’re acting like a schoolgirl, and not in a hot way!” (Jeff, meanwhile, spent most of the episode hitting on a hot “Inspector Spacetime” fan, which was fine, I guess, but was also clearly just a way to give him something to do until he and Annie could talk at the end.)

Pierce was once again relegated to the sidelines (and how worrisome it is that the new showrunners seem to be completely running away from dealing with this character at all), and even more bothersome was the fact that Shirley was stuck with him. Yvette Nicole Brown hasn’t really gotten anything to do yet this season, which is mostly a side effect of the fact that the show had problems coming up with things for her to do during the Harmon Era, but it’s sad that this show might not even be willing to try. Anyways, the pair of them being stuck in a focus group for the American adaptation of “Inspector Spacetime” may have worked a Doctor Who reference, but it failed as another attempt to meta-textualize a joke about Community having new showrunners. Who exactly Guarascio and Port in this scenario? The network lackeys, taking any old suggestion? Pierce, suggesting terrible changes? Or Shirley, trying to stick up for the original formula show? The answer seems to be all three, as they are both lampooning fears and offering assurances, but it doesn’t really work.

It’s funny that the show would spend another episode trying to pull itself out from under the shadow of Harmon’s ouster, instead of just focusing on the material at hand. Despite the misguided premise of the episode, this was actually conceptually a solid way for the new showrunners to try and produce a high-concept episode like the one that Harmon made so famous. The real problem here is that nobody can seem to get the characters just right, and that inevitably pulls down the rest of the material, or at least exposes how dumb it all is. A show can survive some dumb plotlines if its characters are emotionally grounded and true, and usually seeking to have emotionally grounded characters can help guide writers to the create the right kind of plots/stories. But this episode feels as if the writers came up with the concept first, and then didn’t really back down when it became clear that the concept wouldn’t fit the characters.

If the new show runner would just put their supposed love of the show to work and present characters that were more in line with the iterations we left at the end of last season, all of these problems would be less severe. Instead we have a show that doesn’t feel like itself. And it’s not the bad jokes that are doing that; it’s the bad characterization.

*An alternate singular reaction that would have similarly expressed my frustration with the episode would have gone as such: “Six minutes into this episode, my power briefly flickered out, knocking my cable box out of commission for ten minutes and leaving me to catch up with this episode later. While in the old days, I would have torrented this episode so I could watch it that night, those first few minutes so put me off that it took me six days to muster up the courage/interest to watch the whole thing.” But apart from being quite long, it’s also a thought that doesn’t give the whole episode proper consideration, so here we are.

**Yes, yes “Inspector Spacetime” is a spoof on Doctor Who, and so it would seem as if I’m saying that Doctor Who is dumb, which I’m not. I love Doctor Who, and it’s not dumb – expect, of course for when it is. There’s also been a large amount of cheese to DW (especially in the original incarnation, which is what “Inspector Spacetime” seems to be aping), and IS seems to be making a spoof soup out of all the cheese, and leaving the better stuff behind, or at least hidden from the audience. Thus, in the universe of Community, “Inspector Spacetime”, as we see it, is a dumb program.

***And according to the last trailer NBC released before the season four premiere, there’s another example of the show taking a marginal joke and blowing it up into a plotline, and this one has me even more worried that I was about this week’s.

Quotes, Etc.:

“We can go anywhere in the universe. But I’d rather go to London during the Blitz.”

“Wait, was there a female inspector?” “Yes, and everyone hates her. Not because they’re sexist, but because she sucks.”

“It’s Troy. The first part of ‘Troy and Abed’. ‘Toby and Abed in the Morning’? That makes no sense.”

“Normally we don’t concern ourselves with adultery, because then hotels wouldn’t exist.”

Abed, taking on the big speech for the episode: “If I could Winger you for a second?”

“You have to let me out!” “No, not until Stockholm syndrome sets in. How long do you think that will be? A couple of hours? Would you love me if I got you a churro?”

“Oh my god he can make a fist. That would hurt harder than a slap.” 

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