Sunday, April 24, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Paradigms of Human Memory”

Community isn’t the first show to ever try and tweak the lazy staple known as “the clip show”, but without having watched every TV show ever, I’m going to go ahead and declare with certainty that it’s the only show to take a clip show and use it to reveal a “history” of “clips” which actually serve to document an entirely new set of adventures the group has had in our absence.  The Simpsons cleverly used old clips to reimagine the characters as actors inside of the comedy itself, which played smartly, but that was mostly due to the clever story structure of the “Behind the Music” parody of the episode (entitled “Behind the Laughs”).  Which means that Community has probably succeeded in going meta yet again (“Meta Yet Again” would make a good album name), this time to imagine a sitcom world where we don’t actually spend every waking hour with the characters.  Though Community isn’t the first show ever to point it out, it’s important to realize that most shows do operate under the assumption that we do witness every relevant event of the characters’ lives:  There are references to off screen occurrences, but they are either largely irrelevant, ancient history, or else clear inventions of dialogue meant to help shape and structure the current events of the proceedings we are witnessing.  Tonight, Community throws that notion away in favor of scene after scene of “adventures” the study group went ahead and had without us. 

The first thing the writers deserve credit for is being confident enough in the depth of their idea well to go ahead and splash some ideas on the ground haphazardly here in the apparent belief that they’ve still got plenty of good ones hiding down there.  Consider this episode for a moment:  They had an adventure in an old west ghost town and it was tossed away on two gags (funny gags, but still, that felt like an episode worth 22 minutes to me).  It’s an impressive statement of confidence from a team of writers who have already shows their willingness to go out on a limb.  It’s also fun to see them willing to go back and rewrite the show’s “history”.  Sitcoms rarely hesitate to reveal new history in a character’s storyline based on the ancient past in order to reinvent them, or freshen things up, or introduce a new plot element or character with an immediate sense of place and belonging.  No sitcom I can recall has ever gone back to the actual history of existing episodes and undermined them for new laughs and meta-examination.  Yeah, I know that shows as popular as Friends have gone the route of a “look back” at an old episode with some new scenes tossed in to help us “realize” something more was actually going on, but note, again, that this is inevitably pretense:  the real purpose is always to help ingratiate some new twist to the audience by letting us know it had an origin and has been here all along.  Community’s disinterest in its own continuity and audience relationship tonight (or rather, its impersonal meta-interest in those things) is a whole new species of animal.

At moments, the show went perhaps a bit too meta—as has often been the case, it can’t resist being explicit about what it’s doing, usually through the mouthpiece of Abed.  It came across a bit heavy in a few moments tonight, but at its best it was lighthearted and funny.  It certainly opened on a subtly clever joke with the group completing an odd assignment for a class:  a diorama of the group making their 19th diorama.  Tonight’s best (though maybe not laugh-aloudest) meta moment was probably the follow up of a silly Britta-Jeff-meaningful-glance montage with the revelation that with the right music and lingering slow motion shots you can find romance between any two characters, thus giving us a romantic montage between Pierce and Abed.  For anyone wondering what I was babbling about with the Friends references and other sitcoms messing around with flashbacks, this moment pretty much explains it better than I could put into words.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend some time giving credit to Sr. Chang’s hilarious role in tonight’s proceedings.  It was nice to see him play a firm role in an episode again, and to announce his role tonight with a sudden cut to him stripped to his undies and lubing himself up to shoot through another vent was the best sight gag of the evening.  Scratch that—it was tied with the scene of the monkey repeatedly hitting him in the head.  It also wrapped up with a moment to bring us quietly back into the show’s pre-existing reality as Chang returns to the room to find the group departed and observes that he still isn’t even sure if he’s been admitted to the group or not.  It may not play to anything major, but at one point this season, his obsession with these guys was a Gollum/Smeagol level obsession for him, and I get the feeling now that we haven’t quite seen the end of it.  Even if we have, it was a nice stabilizing moment to remind us that for all we’ve seen, the group is still what it is.

Which is not to say that the flashback-driven argument between the friends didn’t have an impact.  The semi-discovery of “secret sex” between Jeff and Britta was more of a shock to the rest of the group than to us, but it seems to have resulted in enough embarrassment and self-realization (interesting to see that when called to task on it, neither seems to find anything magical about their secret rendezvouses—I’m sort of disappointed to discover that that’s actually how you pluralize that word) to lead them to unceremoniously end things.  The episode’s use of moments we were never privy to also played cleverly to enrich side stories that most alert viewers had noticed but dismissed because, hey, if the show isn’t interested in it, what point is there in keeping it on your radar.  We’ve all had the experience of watching a show and saying “whatever happened to…” and filling in the ellipsis with a situation or incident which it seemed demanded follow-up but was never addressed again.  Tonight Community introduced the idea that maybe the characters have reflected on those issues, it was just in our absence.  By itself that amounts to nothing (the big question of tonight’s show might philosophically be simply What’s the point of characters existing on a show when no one is around to watch them?), but within the context of everyone reflecting on the times they’ve had together, it allowed the writers to address (and redress) some of those issues very directly and boldly—most notably the sexual tension between Annie and Jeff.  I couldn’t really tell whether it was a bone thrown to viewers who refuse to let these sorts of things go or a genuine admission that these have been lingering and needed to be dealt with, but it was interesting of them to draw them out into the open. 

For those who just aren’t into the show’s meta-elements or bristle at the mention of that term (which I’m self-conscious about overusing for that very reason), then perhaps the most interesting observation I could make about tonight’s clever little episode is this:  I don’t really have much else to say about it.  In other words, for all of the subtlety this week; for all of the turning inwards of plot elements upon themselves (to put it more delicately than Jeff does), the show doesn’t really require any analysis at all except to observe that tonight we got a half hour of comedy which was funny, original, character driven, and full of rewarding “easter egg” type jokes for loyal viewers.  It’s pretty rare that you get an episode of comedy like that anymore (The Office hasn’t been able to deliver it in more than two years), let alone from one of those annoying clip shows.

Overall Rating: 9.4/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot and Occasionally What-Have-You:

“Trust me, I know these vents like the back of my chang.”

“Is that a new stereotype?” Pierce asks as Chang crawls into the vent in his underwear.

“It’s like a sentimental treasure pile…that’s my spoon…nooo…ohhh Hubba Bubba, I thought they stopped making this!”  Chang’s streams of consciousness are second to none.

“It’s like a reverse cow birth.”

Love the misleads:  The first item they talk about is the deputy’s badge we would know as part of Jeff’s Halloween costume, but apparently it’s from the day they spent in an old ghost town.

Glee lyrics in Community’s world:  “Singalingalingdingdong!” 

“Abed, you’re a computer.  Scan your mainframe for some memories.”

“Jeff and Britta are having secret sex.”

Great sight gag when the Dean asks whoever is responsible to step forward and Britta and Jeff do the lean and then when everyone else steps forward they lean back.  This show can get away with stuff like that.

“Feast your ear tongues on these memory pops.”

“I’ve seen enough movies to know that popping the back of the raft makes it go faster.”

I love that NBC either allowed or couldn’t stop Community from taking digs at The Cape.  My favorite:

Jeff:  (to Abed after he whips Jeff’s magazine out of his hand with a homemade cape) That show’s gonna last 6 weeks.
Abed:  (running off) Three seasons and a movie!

Did I miss one of the Dean’s costumes: baroque Frenchman, Tina Turner, carnival, Caesar, Scarlet O’Hara, Catwoman?

Troy screaming until his nose bleeds—hilarious. 

“Abed, stop being meta.  Why do you always have to take whatever we’re doing and shove it up its own ass?”

“Harrison Ford is irradiating our testicles with microwave satellite transmissions.”

Now here’s an obscure reference:  The group is accused of being “Like the Traveling Willburys of pain.”

1 comment:

  1. Clerks: The Animated Series second episode was a clip show.