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Posts Tagged ‘Community’

Disharmony

May 21st, 2012 No comments

In another kidney punch to the collective psyche of Onion A.V. Club commentarians, Community creator Dan Harmon was sacked from his own TV show last Friday night. (Cue the animated .gifs of a weeping Alison Brie.)

I will be blunt. Absolutely no one should have been surprised by this development, least of all Dan Harmon. NBC aired the final three episodes of the season last Thursday and the results were beyond abysmal: fewer than three million viewers enrolled for the first installment, and a half million of those had dropped out by the finale. The 1.3 rating for adults 18-49 (the prime demographic for advertisers) was a series low.

Harmon’s iconoclastic vision, his alleged budget overruns and his very ugly public feud with actor Chevy Chase were all big, flashing arrows pointed toward Shitcan Land. You can get away with one or perhaps even two of those things if the ratings are good, but…

I argued some time ago that Community‘s reliance on high-concept episodes was a major reason that it has had such trouble connecting with a wider audience. And the show knows it: the third season started with a song-and-dance number that promised “We’re gonna have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” Which, of course, it didn’t do. Since it returned from hiatus, it’s presented an elaborate Ken Burns-style documentary about a pillow-fort war, a Star Trek holodeck-inspired bout of personality-swapping, a Law and Order parody (ironically, one of the more accessible episodes) and a group therapy session in which an evil shrink attempted to convince the study group that the community college they’d attended the past three years was a shared psychosis.

And that was before the opening act of last Thursday’s triumvirate, which spent nearly all of its running time animated in the style of an 8-bit videogame.

“All true,” I hear you saying, “but isn’t it better to have a TV show so singularly noncomformist than one that emerges hot and steaming from the stamping press of mass-appeal TV?” Well, made-up-person against whom I have biased this argument, that depends.

Here’s an ugly truth. A television show is not itself a commodity. It’s bait. You are what’s being sold. And the suits at Sony and NBC didn’t roll up a truck full of money so that Dan Harmon could indulge his most off-putting fantasies; they expected him to deliver you and 10 million of your like-minded friends to the people who want you to buy hybrid cars and bassinets and Axe Body Spray.

A successful show can eventually become a product, but even then you are not the consumer. (DVD sales alone can’t support a network-quality sitcom.) When a series has enough episodes (usually around 100, but nowadays even 80-90 may be enough), it can be syndicated to a cable network or local broadcast station where it can once again be used to market suppositories and depilatories and station wagons. (I’ll wager that the only reason Community gained a fourth-season renewal is that it’s approaching the pearly gates of a syndicated afterlife.)

Make no mistake: some truly great television has been found at the intersection of art and business. At its best, commercial TV can be mass entertainment and still have something to say. But never forget that economics rule the day. You want television that doesn’t exist first and foremost to bundle up and market you? Well, my friend, I’ve got a channel for you. And it comes with a tote bag.

Update: Variety’s Andrew Wallerstein says something similar about Harmon’s ouster, and further details the unachieveable balancing act faced by the new showrunners.

 

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See? This Is The Sort Of Thing I Was Talking About

November 23rd, 2011 No comments

I mean, really. Here’s Community inserting a “watch this show obsessively or you’ll miss it” Easter egg reference to the movie Beetlejuice. The gag is that, as in the movie, Beetlejuice appears (watch the background) after his name is said three times. The “oh, I’m so surprised that this show is on hiatus” bit is that the three times are spread out across three seasons.

It’s impressive, but still…

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You Say “Smug” Like It’s A Bad Thing

November 16th, 2011 No comments

November 14, 2011: The Day the Internet Lost Its Collective Shit; aka The Day It Learned that Community Wasn’t on NBC’s Midseason Schedule.

Community, currently in its third season, stars Joel McHale as a smug lawyer whose lack of a legitimate degree sends him to community college, where he becomes the de facto leader of a misfit study group. It’s a good show. Sometimes it’s even a great show. But it’s also a prime example of television that’s too clever for it’s own sake.

Its first breakout character was Abed, a pop culture-immersed twentysomething with what appears to be 21st Century TV’s favored disorder, Undeclared Asperger’s Syndrome. Reportedly, Community creator Dan Harmon has a fair amount in common with his fictional mouthpiece, and that may be why the show has had such difficulty connecting with a mass audience.

Because Community is a show that dares you to enjoy it. It says, “You tune in at 8:00 pm Eastern/7:00 pm Central looking for easy laughs? Fie! We will give you multi-layered meta commentary punctuated by uncomfortable moments and populated by emotionally-damaged and occasionally unlikable characters!”

I’ll give you a couple of examples, both from the show’s sophomore year. In “Mixology Certification,” the group convened at a bar to celebrate the 21st birthday of their friend Troy, only to fall into alcohol-laced melancholy. While it worked as an encapsulation of what it was like for me in my early twenties–feeling alone in a room full of friends–it was difficult to watch. Later that season came another birthday episode, “Critical Film Studies,” a demonstration of the series’ self-indulgence. What began as a Pulp Fiction tribute morphed into an extended riff on My Dinner with Andre, a 1981 indie film that even Community‘s hipster audience probably never has seen.

That Community has lasted this long is testament to the floundering of NBC, whose inability to spawn hits has had the not-unwelcome side-effect of encouraging them to stick with low-rated critical darlings such as 30 Rock and (my current favorite) Parks and Recreation.

To be clear, I never miss an episode of Community. I love the ensemble cast. (Even Chevy Chase.) Alison Brie is my girlfriend. (Yeah, right.) And I can appreciate a zombie-themed episode as much as the next AV Club reader.

But my main beef with it is that it’s too in love with its high-concept installments. Lots of TV series have produced format-breaking episodes–think M*A*S*H‘s war documentary or Buffy‘s musical theater–but what made those notable was their deviance from a well-established baseline. Community doesn’t have that. When you tune in, you don’t know what you’re going to get. They’re stop-motion animated! They’re simultaneously existing in seven parallel realities! They’re aboard a Kentucky Fried Chicken-sponsored space shuttle! (All actual episodes.)

Really, it should be no surprise to anyone that Community is taking a little lie down. But don’t despair, it will most likely go on for at least another season. The same economics that kept it around this long should sustain it until it reaches the magic number of episodes required for syndication. (Sony has already been taking out sales ads in broadcasting trade publications.)

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Natural 20

February 5th, 2011 No comments

Time’s resident TV critic James Poniewozik made a good point: for all its pretensions of nerddom, The Big Bang Theory has never done anything “so wholly, committedly geeky” as an entire episode centered around a game of Dungeons & Dragons. They’ve come close, as when the boys purchased the Time Machine from George Pal’s 1960 movie adaptation. But as the series has become a mainstream hit, it has also settled into a string of lazy comic book references.

No, the D&D episode came from time-slot rival Community, aka The Best Show That You’re Not Watching. Now in its second season, Community has at times become too weird (Abed as Jesus) and/or ambitious (a stop-motion animated Christmas show) for its own good, but when it truthfully focuses on its characters it’s pretty terrific. An all-D&D installment initially sounded as if might be a high-concept, elaborate pop-culture parody similar to last year’s zombie apocalypse, but wisely the action remained centered on a table strewn with character sheets and 20-sided dice. (Mostly. There was Chevy Chase’s Throne of Evil constructed from file boxes and traffic cones.)

Now, the little geek that lives inside my head must be allowed to declare that the game of Dungeons & Dragons depicted was greatly simplified. There were no miniatures, charts or graph paper maps, and Abed (in the role of Dungeon Master) was rolling the die for everyone. That’s not wrong, per se, it’s just a different play style. What the episode did very right, however, was to capture the feel of sitting in a group and collectively weaving a story.

I found some of the in-game interactions very familiar. When Britta “the Needlessly Defiant” questioned whether the goblins about to attack the party had had their lands violated or obsessed about giving the gnome waiter at the tavern his dignity, it took me back to my own adventuring days, when all-too-often I attempted to chat up the monsters.

Then there was the brilliantly uncomfortable scene in which Annie (playing Hector the Well-Endowed) seduced Abed (as the comely elf maiden who owned a pegasus stable) while everyone else looked on with a mixture of bemusement, horror and note-taking. We’ll never know exactly what Alison Brie was saying during that montage, but we can assume that it was very, very naughty.* I’m pretty sure that just about every role-playing group ever has had a similar experience.

Somehow, I got through the initial draft of this review without mentioning Senor Chang’s appropriate yet still wildly-inappropriate blackface appearance as one of the game’s Drow dark elves. “So we just gonna ignore that hate crime, huh?”

Normally I would embed the video here, but I know that it’s unlikely to remain available for more than a couple of weeks. So if you missed Thursday night’s broadcast, go to NBC’s Community website.

*I am looking forward to the hits I’m about to get for “naughty Alison Brie.”

Two Terrific Comedies You’re Not Watching

November 19th, 2009 No comments

Amidst all of the hoopla over NBC giving over five hours a week of prime time to Jay Leno, another story has been largely lost: the (creative) resurgence of the Peacock’s Thursday comedy lineup. If anything, it’s better than ever; even back in it’s “Must See TV” days, NBC’s Thursday inevitably had one series that was simply placeholding. There’s no Jesse or Veronica’s Closet here.

Now, none of them are “hits,” even under the greatly diminished expectations of today’s broadcast industry. The biggest audience success is The Office, which pulls down a 5 rating on a good day. And, despite all the awards and the post-Palin buzz surrounding Tina Fey, 30 Rock is nothing like a mass-audience appeal show. (In fact, the running storyline this season has the show-within-a-show trying to hire new talent in an attempt to win over “real America.”)

Unfortunately, the two newcomers–Community and Parks and Recreation–aren’t doing even that well in terms of Nielsen numbers. Yet for me they’ve made Thursday a night on which I can anticipate the laughing off of my ass.

(One caveat here: I am not a fan of The Office. I know people like it, but neither version of the series has ever done a thing for me. I checked out a few early episodes because of Steve Carell, but it comes from the school of comedy that depends on awkward pauses and cringe-worthy moments.)

Community is built around Joel McHale–a comedian Vic and I have enjoyed as the host of E’s The Soup.–but I think that the real strength of the series is its ensemble. McHale plays a lawyer who has to go back to school after his dodgy college degree is invalidated. Smitten with a hot, young thing named Britta, he creates a fake Spanish study group in an attempt to bed her, but the group soon takes on a life of its own. It becomes, if you will, a community.

I like how it takes a bunch of random people who would normally have no reason to hang together and bounces them off each other in unexpected ways. In addition to McHale’s semi-skeevy Jeff and aforementioned lust interest Britta, there’s divorcee Shirley, ex-football star Troy, film student/savant Abed, brainy Annie and elder weirdo Pierce.

Pierce is played by Chevy Chase, someone I’d long ago written off as a once-funny asshole. But here he reminds me of what I liked about him in the first place. And, to my surprise, he can still pull off a pratfall.

alisonbrieI must admit that I’ve become rather fond of Alison Brie as Annie. No doubt that some of that is wish-fulfillment; her character is exactly the sort of girlfriend I longed for back in high school. But I like that she’s been able to throw off the shackles of simply being “the smart one” on the show. A recent episode had her as an all-too-willing enabler of an experiment in psychological torture to which only Abed was immune.

Abed is the breakout character of the show, a milder version of Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. Like Sheldon, he appears to be living with Asperger’s, but unlike him, he seems to be a keen student of character. Last week’s episode hinged around his strangely prescient student films based on the lives of his fellow study groupees.

Also, he makes a great Batman.



Meanwhile, Parks and Recreation has turned from a fluttering Office-wannabe into the night’s most dependable comedy. During its short test-run last season it didn’t generate a lot of laughs, but I could at least see the potential there.

Like Community, I was drawn to the show by the presence of someone I’ve liked elsewhere: Saturday Night Live star Amy Poehler. Poehler’s character, well-intentioned deputy director Leslie Knope, has been toned down a lot this season after initial episodes played her as intensely-focused yet clueless. She’s become much more self-aware and therefore more sympathetic, even as she’s continued on her tireless crusade to turn the local dumping pit into a children’s park.

The show has a great deal of fun lampooning small-town politics, with ferocious turf-battles fought over the likes of zoning permits. Pawnee, Indiana is a place with a rich history of institutionalized racism (decorated with such hilarious WPA-era murals as “A Lively Fisting“), where everyone acknowledges that the library is “evil” (its librarians are notoriously vicious schemers).

Here again, Parks and Recreation benefits from a strong supporting cast, including Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford, who adopted his unlikely, white bread moniker because he didn’t think his given name of Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani would get him far in politics. He’s the office sleaze, but there are hints of heart lurking underneath.

And, as with Alison Brie over on Community, I like Rashida Jones as Leslie’s friend Ann. Rashida is the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton (of The Mod Squad), and she’s easy on my bleary eyes. She’s also pretty funny, even though she’s more of the straight woman to the more broadly comic characters.

The funniest of these is Ron Swanson, played by former University of Illinois grad Nick Offerman. (He graduated in 1993 according to Wikipedia; that’s four years after I started work here!) Swanson’s deadpan minimalism masks his inner absurdity. He moonlights as saxophonist “Duke Silver;” has a thing for dark-haired women and breakfast foods; and has two ex-wives and a mother all named Tammy. (One of the Tammys is Offerman’s real-life wife Megan Mullally, who recently played the wicked head of the Pawnee library.)

I could do without the series’ employment of the fake-documentary style used by The Office. That sort of thing works fine in a one-off like This is Spinal Tap, but for an on-going series it starts to grate after a while. I mean, really, there’s been a film crew following around Jim and Pam for five years?

While both Parks and Recreation and Community continue to struggle in the ratings, hopefully NBC has enough other problems that it will be patient with them. For me, at least, they really are Must See TV.