Posts Tagged ‘Community’

Right now the cynical part of me wants to say that television today sucks.  I want to say that the shows on television not only can’t compare to the shows of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but also can’t even compare with themselves a couple of seasons ago.

However, despite my waning opinion of most of the shows that I have enjoyed over the past few years, there are still enough bright spots left to make the sweeping generalization that television sucks seem fallacious.  These are the shows that, in the face of declining fortunes across the board, help me keep faith in television.

It sounds weird to say that one has faith in television, doesn’t it?  But think about it.  Television is reliable: our favourite shows come on at the same time each week and we could set our internal clocks by them if we so chose.  Television gives us joy: it can pick us up when we are feeling down or just ease the stress of a tiring day.  Television requires talent: to keep shows going for seasons can re-affirm our belief that hard work and talent will someday get us somewhere.

Given that, losing our faith in television is kind of a big deal and to think of that fate being dependent on a few shows is kind of scary.  What will happen if every show worth watching is suddenly cancelled?  Where will our faith be then?

30 Rock? Community is the best comedy currently on television (or not).

Luckily for me, NBC didn’t go the whole nine yards when pulling Community from its midseason lineup, assuring viewers that it was only on hiatus and not cancelled completely.  Despite being left like J.K. Rowling’s Nearly-Headless Nick insofar as it’s neither cancelled nor on-air, Community is still one of television’s bright spots.  I recently re-watched most of the first season and the third season—the current one—still compares favourably even though the first six to ten episodes of Community are among my favourite of all time.

Case in point, let’s look at Community’s offering from two weeks ago: “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux.”  On the surface this episode had the makings of a flop: re-treading already worn conceptual territory (see Episodes 205 and 216), an uninspiring synopsis, and being broadcast in the harsh light of NBC’s hiatus announcement.  But somehow, and saving the fat from the fire has become a recurring theme with Community’s writers and producers, the episode pulled through.  While the episode mainly focused on the trials and tribulations of Dean Craig Pelton, the writers were able to create stakes for all the other characters and, unlike a lot of other shows, created an environment in which the actors could show the full range of their talent (see Joel McHale’s Dean Pelton impersonation).  There were also enough funny moments to remind us that while Community is smart and dramatic it is still primarily a comedy series.  Add in to this the continued ability to weave storylines over multiple episodes and you have to wonder why NBC would want anything else on the air…ever?

It might be animated and it might be vulgar, but ignore it at your peril.

Another bright spot on the television radar is South Park.  Yes, South Park, the same South Park who debuted in 1997 with the poignancy of a poorly-timed fart.  Despite the early seasons being marked by vulgarity and jokes about the American Civil War, South Park—now in its fifteenth season—has evolved into the smartest show on television and Trey Parker and Matt Stone into screenwriting geniuses.  See, somewhere in between season three’s “World Wide Recorder Concert” (317) and season six’s “Jared Has Aides” (601) the show stopped being about how to get the entire third grade class of the United States to poop their pants and became a striking social commentary, always on the lookout for something in society to wholeheartedly mock.

But let’s fast forward to the South Park of today, because Messrs. Parker and Stone would be the first to take anyone who rests on their laurels down a peg or three.  The fifteenth season of South Park was marked by a rather mediocre series of episodes including “Crack Baby Athletic Association” (1505), “City Sushi” (1506), and “The Last of the Meheecans” (1509) before redeeming itself in the closing three episodes.  It is this redemption that makes it one of television’s bright spots; that the show can still produce relevant and enjoyable content after fifteen seasons lends it a certain Simpsons-esque quality.

Of particular note is the episode titled “1%” (1512).  I should preface this by saying the following: over the last month I have heard way too many ‘Occupy’ jokes.  They have ranged from the mildly tolerable to the completely dreadful.  Saying that, South Park actually managed to do something original with the Occupy Wall Street movement in this episode where so many have failed before.  The show managed to poke fun at the movement by comparing it to a grade-school fitness test while making smart social commentary with the episode’s conclusion.  Too few shows today manage to do this: they either stray too far towards the commentary side to stick the punch line or lose their social voice by making too many jokes.  South Park walks a fine line and after fifteen seasons is yet to fall off.

They drink in the afternoon. On the job. How can they get any more awesome?

I would be remiss in my coverage of what shows are left to save our faith in television if I didn’t mention Mad Men.  It, like Community, is currently on hiatus (there seems to be a pattern there).  However, showrunner Matthew Weiner is signed on for at least three more seasons, ensuring that television’s premier drama is set to continue for the foreseeable future (three years is a long time in the television world).  ‘But what sets Mad Men apart?’ you might ask.  Simply put, in the plainest way I can manage, there is no point during an episode of Mad Men where the viewer stops and says, ‘What?’  Everything, dialogue, acting, sets, costumes, concepts, everything is done flawlessly.  As a viewer I never question the way the show is run, shot, or written and that is the mark of a truly good series.  Contrast this with a show such as Breaking Bad, where I have to stop every few seconds and ask how people don’t notice that a high school chemistry teacher spends his entire week cooking methamphetamine in a multi-million-dollar bunker when he should be teaching classes, and you can understand why Mad Men is so brilliant, especially when casting itself as a period drama instead of being set in the present day.

Time will only tell though whether these shows can reach the heights of such television giants as Friends, The Simpsons, or The Sopranos.  But the fact of the matter is that of everything on television at the moment, these three shows have the best shot.

Whether any of them will challenge Due South as the greatest television show of all time is a completely different question though…

For the past two weeks, Community has been running unopposed in the 8pm Thursday time slot.  The Big Bang Theory has taken a few weeks off, for whatever reason, and it has left Community with the center stage.

However, instead of doing an individual review of both Custody Law and Eastern European Democracy (218) and Critical Film Studies (219), I have decided to review them together.  On the surface, they are very different episodes: Custody Law moving along the Shirley-Chang storyline and Critical Film moving along the Abed’s weird fascination with movies storyline.  But they come together around a couple different points regarding the way the show is written and run.

The first point is that of multiple storylines.  Mainly that the show’s writers are able to work with multiple storylines without bringing down the general quality of the show.  While some episodes ignore one storyline in favour of another storyline, there are no episodes that do not fit or seem extraneous to the episode.  At no point does the viewer stop and say “Hey, what’s going on?  None of this makes sense.  Where’s the other storyline?”

In Custody Law and Critical Film, Community’s writers have taken two completely different storylines – with the characters taking on completely different roles – and placed them in back-to-back episodes.  One has been a primary feature of Season Two while the other has been a recurring theme that pops up here and there throughout the show.  Each one has consequences for the future of the show and the primary characters involved.

However, the main point here is that, while these storylines have came and gone throughout the series, they feel like they’ve never really left, that they’ve always been there under the surface just waiting for the perfect moment to emerge.  The fact that the show has so many storylines going – there are also the crazy, old Pierce storyline and the Jeff-Annie relationship – points to an exciting end-run for the season and a thrilling season finale.

The Shirley-Chang storyline started with episode 206, Epidemiology.  It wasn’t seen again until episode 212, Asian Population Studies.  The Abed storyline started way back in episode 103, Introduction to Film.  It has cropped up in episodes such as Communication Studies (116), Contemporary American Poultry (121), Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples (205), and Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (211).

The Shirley-Chang storyline is fueled by Chang’s closeness with the study group and him temporarily living with Jeff.  Abed’s storyline is fueled by, well, Abed himself.  They come about naturally, almost like you’d expect them to.  As such, they don’t require a long run of consecutive episodes to keep them relevant.

The second major point that has come out of Custody Law and Critical Film is that of how the show’s writers utilize the show’s main characters.  This is a study of contrasts as well as an analysis of a trend throughout the series.  On one hand you have episodes like Custody Law and Eastern European Democracy that take two different stories and wrap them up in one episode, and in doing so only really focusing on smaller subsets of the entire main cast.  On the other you have episodes like Critical Film Studies feature the entire main cast in a single, contained storyline.

I tend to find the storylines that divide the cast into subsets less appealing than those that utilize the cast as a whole.  Those that divide the cast into subsets tend to leave out certain characters, whether it be Annie and Pierce in Custody Law or Shirley in Intro to Political Science (217).  Each character brings something different to the table.  They bring a different dynamic to the show in terms of they way they relate to other characters or the just through their own personality quirks.  Episodes that leave out one or more characters leave out some of that dynamic.

However, episodes that utilize all of the main cast, whether together in a bottle episode like Cooperative Calligraphy (208) or in an episode with diverging storylines such as Early 21st Century Romanticism (215), give the viewer the full load of tension and comedic relief.  They pack the action and excitement into one episode.  These are the episodes where major story arcs are usually developed or concluded.  Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (216) is a good example of this.  The whole old, crazy Pierce storyline is largely resolved in this episode, which features the entire main cast in key dramatic roles.

Overall, Custody Law and Critical Film are both solid episodes despite being very different in both their storylines and the way that they utilize the show’s cast.

Stay tuned for the next Review featuring The Big Bang Theory episodes The Zarnecki Incursion (219) and The Herb Garden Germination (220).

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@bazinga_shaw just in case you don’t already follow me) and are my friends on Facebook will know what is coming here: it is my weekly comparison of the television series The Big Bang Theory and Community.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with this comparison, I’ll fill you in on a little history.

When it was first announced that The Big Bang Theory would be moving from Monday nights to the 8pm on Thursday timeslot, I was torn.  It would directly conflict with another of my favourite shows: Community.  I had been routinely praising both shows for their humour, writing, and acting, so I was in quite a dilemma.  Given that I could only watch one at a time, I needed a system to figure out which one to watch.

And so the comparison system you see today was born.  The premise is simple: whichever show’s episode is better in a given week gets a point.  The show with the most points at the end of the season would be declared the best, and therefore the one to watch first.  If I can’t choose between them on a given week, half a point will be given to each show.

The current score, after 14 weeks, is 9 points for Community and 5 points for The Big Bang Theory.

So, now that you’re up to speed, it’s time to move on to this week’s episodes…and just as a head’s up, there will be spoilers…

The Contestants: The Toast Derivation (The Big Bang Theory) vs. Intro to Political Science (Community)

Let’s start by breaking down what each episode did right.

Community’s Intro to Political Science gave us a couple things that I found very interesting, both of which have been touched upon in previous episodes.

The first is the Jeff-Annie romance sparking up again.  While some viewers might not see these two characters as a good fit, the key point is that a new multi-episode arc seems to be picking up, replacing the rather mediocre Pierce-trying-to-be-accepted storyline that took up most of the season to this point.  And deep down, we really pull for characters like Jeff and Annie.  Despite Jeff’s standoffish attitude towards his friends and family, he is a likable character and Annie, because she’s so innocent most of the time, really tugs at our proverbial heart-strings.  By pairing two like-able characters in a multi-episode arc Community’s writers have given themselves a very good platform to work off of in future episodes.

The second item is the testing of Troy and Abed’s relationship.  In Early 21st Century Romanticism, the inseparable duo were tested by a shared crush on the school’s librarian.  This time the testing sets out to be more subtle.  After having their elections-coverage talkshow interrupted by FBI investigators, a relationship seems to be slowly developing between Abed and Special Agent Robin Vollers, despite her job getting in the way.  We don’t know how this storyline will develop, but at some point Troy will have to deal with Abed spending more time with Robin and how that plays out will definitely be worth watching.

Both of these items are all about moving the show forward and giving the audience something new to watch.  Without this progress, the show becomes stale (much like Season 5 of How I Met Your Mother).  Although Annie and Jeff kissed in the Season 1 finale and have shown some hints of attraction between then and now (see Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design and Asian Population Studies), we have yet to see them in any kind of real relationship with real, consistent feelings.  New relationships always signify forward movement in the story as the relationship will either fail – and the characters will learn something new about themselves – or succeed – and the characters will be one step closer to the point at which their story concludes.

Community also did a very good job depicting student elections in this week’s episode.  You UWO students out there, just picture Omid Salari as Jeff Winger talking his way past Andrew Forgione as Annie Edison, only to be undone by Annie/Andrew’s resourcefulness (except that I think you’d be hard pressed to make Omid ashamed of anything you caught him doing on camera…).  From the silly Dean Pelton-style applause-o-meter to South Park being the write-in winner, nothing seemed out of place.

On the other hand (or should I say “out of the other eye?”), The Big Bang Theory finally produced an episode that was high on substance and/or emotion and wasn’t boxed in by the same, heavily broken-in character types, instead using the traits of the characters to set up the story before letting it loose.

What I’m talking about here isn’t immediately obvious upon first viewing.  Sheldon’s initial reaction to the group moving their hangout spot to Raj’s apartment was to be expected.  In this instance, the writers have used our familiarity with Sheldon’s personality and quirky tendencies to draw us into the episode and that’s what we want.  From the point that Sheldon parts ways with the group for his conglomerate of Stewart, Barry, and Zach, the episode could have gone two different ways.  The way it went, with Sheldon and the group making up in a very co-dependent and bittersweet manner, was one way and it was a positive move on the behalf of the show’s writers as it gave us something that we wouldn’t expect.  Given what we know of the characters, we might have expected the rest of the group to be on top of the world without Sheldon to drag them down and Sheldon to engage in a maniacal scheme to bring them down.  All of which would be concluded with a yelling match between Sheldon and Leonard and an abrupt and unsatisfying make-up.

This leads perfectly into the other side of the equation: how the group fared without Sheldon.  Despite adding a member who is inherently more stable than the erratic Sheldon in Priya, the group misses its, as Sheldon would put it, “social glue.”  Given what we have seen in previous episodes like The Vegas Renormalization or, more recently, The Bus Pants Utilization, the group should get along just fine without Sheldon around.  That they don’t is a great sign that the show can still defy our expectations, which has been sadly lacking so far this season and is a big reason why the show is 4 points behind Community in the rankings.

All in all, there’s not much bad I have to say about each contestant this week.  I could have done without the Girls’ Night storyline of The Toast Derivation as I felt it just slowed down and dragged out the episode.  With Community, Pierce, Shirley, and Britta were mostly missing from the episode.  Pierce and Britta were both “candidates” for the Presidency, but apart from a few lines, they didn’t figure in the main storylines of the episode and Shirley was pretty much non-existent.

Therefore, this week I will award both shows half a point.  Both had me laughing and both impressed me with their writing, meaning that choosing between the two is a near impossible task.

The score after this week is now Community 9.5 – The Big Bang Theory 5.5.