Thursday, February 21, 2013

Community - "History 101"/"Paranormal Paternity"

Season 4, Episodes 1-2

Community is back after a long hiatus with a new season and new showrunners, and things feel more than a little bit off.

“I remember when this show was about a community college.”

At this point, it’s impossible to be truly objective about the quality of Community’s fourth season.

To be a fan of a low-rated, meta humor-filled, cultish show like Community practically guarantees, at least in this day and age, that you also follow along with the show’s behind-the-scenes news. When you become so concerned with the show’s general fate re: cancellation, it’s only one logical step further to also follow along with hirings and firings. And when the person fired is the series creator, the person whose almost singular vision made the show what it is, it’s not unreasonable to be suspicious when replacements showrunners are brought in, a decision that seems almost illogical for a show that was so obviously the byproduct of one unique mind.

In that respect, watching Community under the new regime becomes something of catch-22 when trying to evaluate it fairly. If you don’t criticize the show for not being what it used to be, then you feel like your selling out your own love for the show; what does your love for the show mean if you’re not steadfast in your support for the original formula? However, if you only judge a show for what it’s not, that means your not giving it a fair shot based on its own, newly redefined terms, and that means you aren’t doing justice to the general concept of “art” and “authorship”. (This decision to be objective is only made harder by the fact that you as the viewer feel that something must be wrong with this new version of show, because everything isn’t the same behind-the-scenes. In this one case, knowing all the facts is likely to make you less objective, not more so.)

Another layer of complication is placed on the striving-to-be-objective viewer when they realize new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port are clearly trying to keep making the show the same as it was under Dan Harmon, yet something still feels off. You can try going in as optimistic as possible – as I tried to be, on the news that Guarascio and Port singled out “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” and “Mixology Certification” as some of their favorite episodes, ones which I think represent the show at it’s purest. That, plus the fact that the show still holds the excellent cast it’s always had and managed to retain some veteran writers to help shepherd in the new, Harmon-less season, would seem to indicate that there’s enough here to keep things chugging along, relatively unchanged. But then the advanced reviews started pouring in, and they all had essentially the same message: while superficially all the pieces of the show you once loved are still in place, it doesn’t feel quite right at its core.

Those reviews weren’t wrong, but saying the show “isn’t the same” or is a vague way to address the issue, one that writes off this season as an also-ran without necessarily engaging with the text of the show to see if it can be determined what exact aspect(s) it is that have changed. This vagueness undoubtedly comes from an attempt by reviewers not to spoil anything, but it also from attempts to not needlessly nit-pick at a show that’s trying to find its new feet. And that’s the tone that I hope to strike when I write reviews of the show, as I try to suss out just how Community “isn’t the same” while in the process not criticizing so much that I can’t come to accept a new version of a show I (used to?) love.

This attempt at fairness proves difficult right off-that-bat when looking at the premiere, “History 101”, which despite practically screaming in our faces “THIS IS THE SAME SHOW YOU’VE ALWAYS LOVED”, ends up feeling really empty. And not just in the soulless, “it’s not the same” way that I mentioned earlier. The episode starts off engagingly enough, doing a Harmon-esque gag that addresses the feared changes to the show by imagining the show as a four-cam sitcom. (And given Harmon’s obsession with TV’s past, it’s sort of surprising such a gag hadn’t occurred on the show previously.) It’s a good concept – and one which Scrubs used well in a fourth season episode where it decided to simultaneously gently mock and pay reverence to sitcoms past – but one that doesn’t really work as played here. The jokes at play aren’t so off-base for the show; in fact, the idea of everybody wearing glasses accidentally shares its DNA with the tag from “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” where some group members purposely dress up like Jeff. But it doesn’t change the fact that placed in that setting with a laugh track, lines that would only warrant a snort or silent appreciation on a single-cam suddenly takes on the expectation of delivering actual laughs from the at-home audience in a four-cam setting. When they don’t – because they were never meant to – the jokes suddenly feel as if they failed because they were graded on an unfair scale. (Add to that that this would normally be played a fast-paced scene where the back-and-forth dialogue would have only added to the laughs, and the scene as played fails even further.)*

That this gag is revealed to be a manifestation of Abed’s imagination as a way to cope with the impeding changes that will come with the study group’s senior year, is, much like the gag itself at the outset, something that appears to be a positive sign from the episode, before it quickly proves the opposite. Using a high-concept joke to help tell an emotional story for a group member is something that happened all the time under the Harmon regime, and this would seem to indicate that Guarascio and Port are dedicated to making the same type of episodes as in the past three seasons. (Yes, this episode is credited to seasoned writer Andy Bobrow, but as showrunners G&P hold the lion’s share of credit/blame for all story ideas and execution.) Additionally, that they make Abed the focus of this episode would seem to indicate that they acknowledge the complexity of the character’s role and the ease with which they could screw that up as well.

And yet while trying to prove their hand at two of the show’s trickiest trademarks, they do end up screwing up both. The four-camera gag, which didn’t even work well in its first iteration (beyond the awesome reimagined credits sequence) returns two more times as Abed tries to work through the changes in his real life. The same unsubtle jabs at four-cam humor are repeated, before the whole thing goes up its own ass by having the sitcom version of Abed retreat further in his mind by imaging another safe place within the first safe place. That this new place is Greendale Babies is an inspired idea, and one that highlights how far Abed’s is willing to run to escape reality. However, it’s also a move that seems to be done more for weirdness’ sake than anything else, given the pat, traditional sitcom solution (fitting, given the context) of Abed just sort of realizing that he needs to accept change, without a whole lot of actual reflection to make it believable. Its too simple of a solution, and it doesn’t live up to the complexity of the concept, nor to Abed as a character, who is in fact capable of experiencing complex emotions.

Yet as much as I hold this storyline in contempt for it’s failings, it’s nothing compared to what the rest of the episode brings, or rather fails to bring. While Abed’s journey through his mind serves as something resembling a complete journey for the character (however poorly it might have ended), the other plots don’t really functions as plots so much as distractions from what Abed is going through. Annie gets senioritis and decides to pull some pranks, and Shirley tags along for some reason. Troy and Britta are dating now apparently, and they spend an the episode with Britta learning what Troy likes to do, which somehow means that the only thing they do is drop coins in a fountain before getting into a physical tussle over Troy’s traditions. There was no real ending to either of these, more that they just stop going. (Pierce likewise didn’t get to do much, but show proved long ago that keeping Chevy Chase on the sidelines is for the best.)

Now, when compared to general sitcom practice, these undeveloped bits aren’t necessarily bad; they’re generally referred to as “runners”, and many sitcoms use them in order to give the whole cast screen time when they all can’t fin into an actual storyline. So theoretically, these stories are just fine. But Community has never been a show to over-rely (or even rely a normal amount) on runners, and usually finds a way to incorporate all the actors into actual stories, usually by playing around with the various characters combinations that can be made with the group. Even when characters must be relegated, the show does it in acceptable ways, by just keeping them absent for the bulk of the episode (think anytime Alison Brie isn’t for much of an episode, usually because she’s filming Mad Men or whatever), or they turn it into a glorious joke. Regardless of the show’s past use of runners, for the first episode under new management to feature so many characters in so many runners (or stories that are slight enough to practically be runners) doesn’t bode well. Community usually tries to give its stories (relative) heft (for a comedy), or at least the illusion of such; this just smells like it’s not even trying.

While this lack of heft is technically excusable for Annie, Shirley, Troy, Britta and Pierce, it sort of wrecks the other main story, that of Jeff competing in the “Hunger Deans” for the sake of the rest of the group. Now, Much ballyhoo was made when the first trailers for the season debuted online, since the focus was so heavy on the “Hunger Deans” that many were afraid that Guarascio & Port didn’t understand how and why Harmon used cultural references, and they were merely making references as a means unto itself, and not to build an actual joke off of the reference. (This is something that Family Guy is called out for by many of its detractors.) I’d say that this isn’t actually the case; the show is merely taking a recurring gag – that of the Dean making random and strained references to pop culture in order for his insane decisions to seem hip and cool to the students – and stretching it out to great length, arguably past the point where it’s funny.

More importantly, this story isn’t just meant to fill time, but rather to also service what’s arguably the show’s longest running arc, that of Jeff transforming from a self-centered, jackass lawyer to a human being capable of carrying about others. We can argue about exactly how dedicated Harmon was to seeing this arc through, as well as how much self-centeredness he wished for Jeff to retain, but regardless of these factors, this latest addition loses the subtly that this arc had.**  While it’s not hard to believe that Jeff would have grown close enough to the group over three years that he would compete so they could all take a class together, the show did push this fact quite hard. Usually such revelations are saved for the end of the episode, where they can make most impact, but this one was revealed fairly early on, and then the show just seemed to want to repeat it over and over again for the rest of the episode. If this were the only instance of the episode being over-obvious, perhaps I wouldn’t worry about it so much. But Troy and Britta’s hesitant relationship of last season also seems to have hit some sort of gas pedal between seasons, shifting them into the context of “early dating”. Again, this something that makes sense, but the show isn’t doing the advancement of these storylines any favors by making them so explicit.

As Jeff’s story goes on, it sort of feels as if these two big aspects of his plot– both the Dean’s insistence on linking the contest to The Hunger Games, as well as the show attempting to use it as a big push forward in Jeff’s evolution – sort of distract from how empty that it all ends up feeling. While it’s okay (in fact, it’s probably for the better) that the actual competition wasn’t set to ape The Hunger Games, the competition as presented didn’t really seem to have unifying theme; it was just a series of random physical challenges, most of which we only saw bit and pieces of. This feels both the product of the show pushing the two big characteristics mentioned above, as well as the fact that the camera had to keep cutting to all of the other characters doing all of the other things. That left no time for us to become invested in Jeff actually competing. It was pretty much a given that he would win the seven needed balls, so with no arc connecting the various competitions to one another, they just float about as window dressing.

And I bring up all of all of these critiques not to tear into this new mutated form of Community – though I realize that this probably reads like I’m doing just that – but because of the importance the show’s season premieres have held in the past. Looking back, it becomes clear that the premieres, whether intentionally or not, end up serving as theses for their respective seasons.  The pilot introduced to a relatively straightforward show that featured fast, quippy conversation and an over-reliance on will-they/wont-they rom-com tension. “Anthropology 101” displayed Community’s sharper storytelling, while also introducing an interesting undercurrent of darkness. “Biology 101” upped that darkness to less-subtle, but more stunning, levels, while also announcing that the show had reached its highest level of mercurial experimentation. And “History 101”…well, it just felt empty. And if the pattern (unfortunately) holds, that means there’s a lot more disappointment and feeling of loss up ahead for fans.

And that’s where “Paranormal Parentage” comes in. Somewhat tellingly, this was not one of the episodes included on the advanced screener sent to critics. The usual practice for a network, when sending out screeners, is to cherry-pick the best of the early bunch, so as to achieve the best press possible in reviews. By this logic, that means that the premiere and the third episode of the season were somehow better than the second, and given that all the reviews talked about how episodes one and three weren’t that good, that would indicate episode two was somehow even worse. And yet…I sort of liked “Paranormal Parentage”. This isn’t meant to be a rave by any means, and were it an episode made under Harmon’s reign I would probably hold it to a higher standard. But more so than “History 101”, it feels both most like the old Community that I love, and as the best possible path that the show could take under new management. (It also probably means that NBC brass still doesn’t get this show, but that’s not longer worth caring about at this point.)

For starters, the episode sees the show not trying so hard to make everything big and bold, instead happy to just let the episode be it’s own weird little self. I realize I say this about an episode where we are supposed to believe, however briefly, that Pierce’s mansion might in fact be haunted, but this is a episode that places much greater emphasis on the interaction between the characters, something that has always been a key part of the best episodes, and was sorely lacking in the premiere. This could have been a big mess if the show tried to make this episode into an homage at any point. And at times it did seem as if the show was trying to ape tropes from old haunted house movies, or possibly any type of horror movie (I don’t watch them, so I’d be terrible at picking these things out). Add that Jeff had that line about the group acting like the gang from Scooby Doo, and the episode felt like it could have gone off the rails at any moment. (It was kind of a mess thematically – assuming writers were even trying to do one – is what I’m saying.)

But let’s get back to those character interactions, the pairings that helped to structure the episode in an enjoyable way. Sure, the bulk of this episode was just the characters hanging around Pierce’s mansion, shooting the shit while they learns all sorts of odd-but-not-that-surprising things about Pierce. At the start, Jeff and Britta were paired off, allowing them to address Jeff’s father issues, while Shirley and Troy walked together, and Shirley tried to warn Troy that Britta might be too sexually advanced for him.*** Meanwhile, Annie and Abed explored the mansion together, and…well, nothing substantial really came from their interaction, but that’s not the point. From the point that Annie “loses” Abed, the episode is suddenly free to start switching up all the groupings, and not let the dynamics get worn out before the episode was over. (This was also of course a blatant move to sideline Abed for a portion of episode, since he clearly would have been reactionless to the scares Pierce put on the rest of the group. Pierce was also sidelined, but again, everybody is okay with that.)

The episode even attempts to get some solid moments of pathos into the episode (and correctly leaves them towards the end), though they lack power thanks to poor execution. The biggest moment was of course the return of Giancarlo Esposito as Pierce’s brother Gilbert. (Whatever its faults, this episode gets high praise for returning such a memorable character in an interesting way.) While the end moment where Pierce invites Gilbert to stay with him, so that they might become better brothers, is a moving one, and smartly plays off the end of “Digital Estate Planning”, in weakened by the racial politics is accidentally unleashes. While it sort of makes sense that Gilbert, who his whole live served as Cornelius servant, would be drawn to a live of servitude under Pierce, and that Pierce would accept the idea of making his brother his servant as somehow okay, this move ignores the fact that a black man is working for a white man in such capacity in the 21st century. I think maybe it was meant to be a joke, but it wasn’t made as explicit as it need be to be effective as such.

While Pierce gets the “big” moment of pathos, the episode also tries to draw out a smaller one with Jeff, who it turns out was wearing a boxer outfit not because it showed off his abs, but because it turns out his father was once a boxer and those gloves are his. That’s a sweet moment, but I think two much time had passed between the focus of Jeff-as-a-boxer at the beginning of the episode, and the reveal about the gloves at the end, for it to make much impact in the moment it happened. (I only realized what Jeff was doing after the episode finished, and I think part of the issue was how quickly the moment played out towards the end of the episode.) A similar, yet even smaller moment seemed to be doled out to Troy & Britta, and while it was a sweet note, it also wasn’t a very deep or affecting one.

Just like with “History 101”, “Paternity” seems to be a bit too stuffed for it biggest moments to land, but this one was significantly more successful because the over-stuffing here was due to trying to fill the episode with hefty storylines, not empty one. Still, three moderately affecting storylines aren’t as effective storytelling wise as a singular, largely affecting storyline, and it seems the show still needs to find that balance. Earlier episodes generally kept the A and B storylines separate, and was able to give enough time to the A to let its emotions land, while still giving enough to the B that none of the characters felt slighted. That Guarascio & Port seemed to try to be applying this method to one of the episode, if not both, is at least a somewhat positive sign.

Of course, none of this makes up for the fact that Community just isn’t as funny as it used to be, at least from a joke standpoint. I usually try not to focus on jokes too much in my reviews for any sitcom episode, as I feel that the best comedies (and thus those worth talking about) aren’t just jokes machines, but are solid if not downright inventive in terms of plot, structure, and/or characterization. But I also can’t ignore that I found a lot less jokes worthy of inclusion at the end of this review, and even some of those that I did write down, looking back it clear it’s only because they had the same cadence of jokes I enjoyed from past seasons. But much like the show itself, just because these jokes ape what came before doesn’t mean they contain the same heart that made the past one so successful.

Of course the amount of “heart” any episode has is something that fluctuates week-to-week, and for all we know, later episodes this season will find Guarascio, Port, and the rest of the writers more sure of themselves and the new (or even old) version of the show, and turning out better episodes than the first two that we’ve seen. (We also must remember that Community is never strongest at the beginning of its season, something we apparently forgot from season 3.) For only with optimism will we be able to make it through the rough times this season, and be open to recognizing and accepting what ever new strengths the show will display.

Of course, now the question remains if Guarascio & Port could actually make Community their own. Setting aside the fact that the season premiere didn’t work, G&P trying to make the show feel unique to their personal style is not a bad thing. And it must be said, as much as I dislike the premiere, I have to admit that it was a far more interesting episode than the next one was (albeit only a piece of failure), and I found myself able to remember what happened in that one far more easier than I could the event of “Paternity”. This leaves us, and the show, with two options****: It can become a boring and ultimately disappointing attempt to just recreate the magic, something that the fans would respect, but not enjoy. Or, the new showrunners could attempt to go out on their own, and make episodes their way. (Third option: we see a mix of these two approaches.) Sure, they might stumble, and the end results could go badly, but at least it will make for an interesting ride.

*In addition to not working on comedic or thematic level, the four-cam gag also plants in our heads the idea that Fred Willard could have acted in the Pierce role, and wouldn’t that have been awesome, but only we’re still stuck with Chevy Chase, and isn’t that just heart-breaking.

**Another theory, to add on top of my “season premieres serve as a season’s thesis” argument: Community’s arcs work best when the are unannounced and build up to a point (like say Pierce’s pill addiction and falling-out with the group) rather than when the show announces the start of a new arc and fails to follow through (such as the time Jeff admitted to Rich that he wanted to fake being a better man, or told Britta he was going to get therapy, or generally any of Jeff’s possible romantic pairings). This of course might also mean that Jeff’s arc to Being a Better Man might not have been subtle as I argued above, but rather just addressed in fits and starts, and thus only appears to be subtle because the show didn’t spend all that much time on in the past.

***This plot was clearly meant to play up Shirley’s judgmental side, but buried in this is a legitimate and potentially interesting obstacle for Troy and Britta that I hope the show explore later this season. Sure, at the end of this episode, Britta says she’s fine keeping things low-key and just watching TV with Troy, but she’s also been know to make idealistic statements which she can’t live up to.

****Yes, I know that at this point, all of the episodes are in the can, but I’m speaking from a point of speculation rather than as if I’m trying to give notes to the producers to shore up problems before the finale.

Quotes and Other Thoughts:

“I found my lucky notebook.” “Found my Lucky Charm.”

Abed’s Happy Community College Show is filmed in front of a live audience in my head.”

“If you want wishes come true, if have to work for it. Or use magic.”

“Hey, you can’t just walk in here. I’ve been pissing in jars for an hour trying to save seats.”

“Jeff, you’re graduating early?” “Well, after thirty can’t be considered early.”

“As you know, out records were stores on a Microsoft Paint file, which I was assured was future-proof.”

“Jeff’s going after than ball. There has to be a joke in there somewhere.”

“Jeffery, is that blood on your shirt?” “Oh no, it’s cool. It’s Leonard’s.”

“Pierce, what did you do to Abed?” “GAY BALLS! Got it!”

“That was a killer speech, Jeff.” “I didn’t say anything. I literally just walked up.”

“You smell like the floor of a movie theatre.” “Yeah, but not for the normal reason.”

“Oh good, you’ve got wine. I’ve got Friends With Benefits – no subtext.”


"Calling for help. A classic…call for help."

"The only thing tacky about this place is the decor. It's like David Lee Roth threw up Miami Vice."

"Wait, it might be a trap. Or it might let him out. Either way…"

"I've been locked in way worse places than this. Oh, not against my will."

"What in the Scooby Doo is happening to you people?"

"Unlike you, I didn't leave my short-term memory at Cochella." "Geez, Bear, keep it above the belt."

"Sorry." "That's all right, I already forgot."

"Okay, so maybe I spent less time in the library than, say, the walk-in cereal closet."

"Why does he have so man collars?….Oh, secret dogs!"

"Great. You won't tell me, Pierce won't tell me. I don't know what to Google."

"I lost Abed. I turned around and he was gone." "I told you to never let him out of your sight. That goes double for holidays and wax museums."

"Indoor swing? That's ridiculous. Someone's going to break a lamp."

"Ghost can't go through doors, stupid. They're not fire."

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