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Athens, Ohio, United States
"Art and love are the same thing. It's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dead Island...No, the Other One

I'm going to do my best to keep this one short because my recent blog outputs have been unforgivably verbose. Plus, I need to maintain my busy schedule of sitting on my couch and staring at the wall.

Yep, it's winter intercession. I probably should be doing something productive with my time but a confluence of events that include both my Athens' jobs being unavailable and me not fully understanding the concept of an application deadline have left me stranded in the homeland, Twinsburg, Ohio. And oh has it been boring. But one of the bright spots came this past Sunday with the midseason finale of "The Walking Dead."

I really like "The Walking Dead." But I'm starting to feel like I might be the only person on the planet who still does . My TV critic go-tos, Alan Sepinwall and the A.V. Club have both been lukewarm toward season 2. Ken Tucker at EW and Andy Greenwald at Grantland have downright hated it. And the commenters on all four websites have me fearing for creator and exec-producer Robert Kirkman's safety.

A lot of what the critics say does have merit but I'm started to get a little frustrated with the moving critical target on this show.

Season one of "The Walking Dead" was for the most part, a mess. Over an abbreviated six episodes, a very large unruly cast of characters ran around Atlanta from location to location with shifting sets of motivations. I think the producers felt the pressure to make a good impression with only six episodes and overextended themselves, producing a sense of chaos instead of excitement. Critics pointed this out and rightfully so.

Season two slowed things down considerably with the characters settling on a farm that was largely untouched by the zombie apocalypse. The new setting solved the schizophrenic pacing problems of the first season and has given the characters some space to breathe and interact with each other.

This is where I depart from most critics of the show. Most of them say that yes, it's nice that things have slowed down but it has only revealed that the characters aren't worth following. Some have even opined for the more frenetic zombie-killing porn aspect of the first season. I cry bullshit and for two reasons.

1. Desensitization - The last thing this TV show needs is for its audience to become desensitized to the undead violence its peddling. By kill #3 in most zombie movies, the audience has already become acclimated to the violence and decapitating hundreds of
reanimated corpses becomes no different than euthanizing cattle. "The Walking Dead" has done a great job of keeping its audience (or maybe just me) viscerally frightened and repulsed a the sight of a decaying corpse stumbling around. And the "Walking Dead" has been around for 10+ hours already where most zombie movies are only two hours. Also, if season four of "Breaking Bad" taught us anything it's that a slow burn to an explosive conclusion can be immensely satisfying on cable. It would mean the death of the show for the producers to go "Fuck it, we're not that good at characterization...let's try our hand at zombie-killing porn." We'd all be desensitized within three weeks and the same critics who called for the show to embrace its bloodlust more would say that it had gone too far and now needs to be off the air. But what about their difficulties with characterization...

2. They're Archetypes, Stupid - We get spoiled with TV shows such as "The Sopranos" or "Breaking Bad" and their characters who are so realistically human that we often forget that 98% of all characters who have ever appeared on television are broadly drawn people with a few outsized, exaggerated traits. "The Walking Dead" doesn't have characters as rich as Walter White or Tony Soprano but there is no shame in that. What season two has revealed is that the show has wisely abandoned the ambition to live up to characters in all-time classic cable shows. Instead, it has aimed its sights slightly lower, at an all-time classic network show. "The Walking Dead" is striving to be "Lost."

The characters on "Lost" were not real human beings, they were archetypes. Jack was a generic man of science. Locke was the man of faith. Sawyer was the wild card. Ben was the creepy Machiavellian genius we've all known at some point or another. Occasionally, they would transcend their prescribed roles, but for the most part they represented concepts larger than themselves.

Let's look for a moment at the characters on "The Walking Dead" then. Rick and Shane clearly have a poor man's version of Jack and Locke going where Rick represents morality and Shane represents the sheer desire to survive. They're actually kind of analogous to Piggy and Jack from Lord of the Flies (another classic that "Lost" drew from) as well. Daryl is a Sawyerian wild card as well. Carl represents the old word and how it can potentially be corrupted by this new one. Carol is the capital "M" Mother (and a shitty one at that, mind you). Andrea is a Juliet or Kate-modeled "tough chick." Dale is Rose and Bernard or the wizened elder whose intellectualism is of little use in this new world of physicality. And Glenn? Well Glenn just rocks. Keep doing what you do, dude.

"Lost" was a critical darling from moment one, and while that enthusiasm waned in later years, the reasoning behind it was never "the characters aren't vividly crafted enough."

The more I think about it the more "The Walking Dead" and "Lost" are similar. TWD has replaced "Lost" as the show that people continue to bitch about but refuse to stop watching. They both feature archetypical characters reacting to supernatural events and they both feature a fair share of mysteries. The mysteries on "Lost" are well known and numerous but TWD is building up an impressive roster of them with Merle's disappearance, Jenner's words to Rick and oh year, WHY ARE THE DEAD WALKING THE EARTH?

Anywho, I've prattled on too long. Let me know how wrong or right I am in the comments section.

P.S. SPOILER ALERT. While my brother and I were watching the midseason finale of TWD, my mom was upstairs watching an episode of "The Next Iron Chef" on Food Network. She came down afterward.
Mom: "They chopped Chef Samuelson on 'The Next Iron Chef.'"
Me: "A little girl got shot in the face on 'The Walking Dead.'"
Mom: "Oh. I guess your news is worse."

P.P.S. I started reading the "Walking Dead" comic books recently and...oh man, I don't know if I could possibly hate them more. All I can say is that if there are any fanboys out there who say the show is ruining the book's richly drawn characters, they need to go to a hospital immediately and have the 4 lb. tumor of stupid removed from their brain.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Gimme Some Rope, Tie Me to Dream

"Community" isn't my TV favorite comedy of all time. "Arrested Development" is unquestionably more brilliant. "Scrubs" cracked the "goofy-group-of-strangers-as-family" code far earlier and more effectively than "Community." Hell, I don't even think "Community" is the best comedy currently on television. "Parks and Recreation" probably has the crown. But even "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" has been more consistent. "Sunny's" FX mates, Archer and Louie would also ultimately finish ahead of "Community" in a top ten list for me (and that top ten is probably coming later this year, by the way).

But since you're observant reader, you notice that I'm not writing about any of those shows right now. I'm writing about "Community." Part of that is due to some unfortunate timing. NBC in its infinite wisdom, struck "Community" from its midseason schedule. The show will probably be able to finish out its excellent third season but its long-term prospects with the peacock don't look as sunny. So I felt compelled to write a little about network TV's strangest experiment beyond the obligatory #savecommunity and #sixseasonsandamovie hashtag. The other reason for this post, however, is just that it's overdue.

I got a little bored this finals week so instead of studying for finals I watched the most recent episode, "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux," three times. Every time I marvel at its absolute ridiculousness as Greendale College's becomes an ambiguously gay Francis Ford Coppola/Martin Sheen/Colonel Kurtz hybrid monster while directing a commercial for the school. I enjoyed it so much that I thought I would try to fit it into my own personal pantheon of great "Community" episodes. And as I researched past episodes, I realized just how many truly great episodes of TV "Community" has produced.

While "Community" would probably not ultimately crack a top ten list of my favorite TV comedies, if I were to make a list of my favorite comedic episodes ever I would have a hard time finding room for anything that WASN'T "Community." I don't what it is about Dan Harmon's creation that lends it to such brilliant individual episodes that transcend the possibilities of his show's own framework and the expectations of network television in general. The simple answer might be that "Community" swings for the fences in certain high-concept episodes like "Modern Warfare" and "Epidemiology." But my eventual top ten list doesn't feature those episodes. It actually features as many "normal" episodes as it does high-concept ones. So, no, I don't get why Community has been able to kick so much ass in certain episodes but I'm certainly not complaining. Here is my full list. Let me know what I got wrong in the comments section.

10. Physical Education

There is a moment at the end of this episode that encapsulates modern culture more than anything else I've ever seen. Jeff Winger is in love with billiards. But his old school phys-ed coach dismisses his skills because he is too enthralled with the style of the "sport," jeans, leather jackets and a Winger-ian grin. So the climax involves Winger challengers his teacher to a game while wearing the customary gym shorts and t-shirt. But the coach still thinks that Winger is still somehow creating some sort of ironic fashion statement so the two men strip down to nothing and battle like B.C. Greco-Roman wrestlers. The scene of two naked men playing billiards says more about style vs. substance (a.k.a. the chief bugaboo of hipster culture) than anything I've ever seen.

9. Cooperative Caligraphy

This is the bottle episode that a character (Abed, who else) openly acknowledges that it's a bottle episode. Every group needs an Abed who fully understands that reality is just a farce and is only meaningful when every aspect of your existence can be repackaged into several seasons of 18-24 episodes each. Also: Annie's Boobs.

8. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

This is kind of the antithesis to the Christmas episode where the group remains in a room and we get to see where their imaginations go. In this episode, the group remains in the room and we don't follow their imaginative paths of claymation whimsy. But somehow the stakes are incredibly higher. Actually, that's the part that I like about this episode. The writers establish from the first scene that the stakes are nothing short of the death of a peripheral character. And somehow it's not absurd in the slightest. It's the world most intense game of D&D ever where the group playing actually doesn't really care about D&D. It's also a testament to the sheer power of dialog.

7. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design

I have no deep philosophical interpretation of this episode. Because blanket fort.

6. For a Few Paintballs More

You know what really bugs me? When "The Incredibles" is classified as a comedy. Look, I know it's a cartoon and I know it's pretty funny but "The Incredibles" is nothing short of the best action film of the past decade. I feel the same way about all the "Community" paintball episodes, especially "For a Few Paintballs More." Of course, there are a lot of ridiculous elements in "For a Few Paintballs Mores." chief among them the fact that there is a school-wide paintball war. But that doesn't change the fact that it is just straight badass. Abed-as-Han-Solo making out with Annie as orange paint rains down upon them is a stunningly beautiful shot. And the final story of Pierce's redemption of Greendale's triumph is actually quite thrilling. It would have made an excellent series finale but it also wouldn't have brought us episodes like...

5. Documentary Filmmaking: Redux

So this is where this episode ends up in the pantheon. Everything about this one is just genius. Annie's stockholm syndrome. Jeff "becoming" a bald man, Greendale's most famous alum, Luis Guzman, coming home. But it would amount to nothing without Jim Rash's weirdly incredibly layered performance as Dean Pelton. Every time I've watched this I've started laughing once he turns up with a gravelly voice and hoodie and no shirt, and don't stop laughing until the final frame of the episode.

4. Contemporary American Poultry

This is the moment I knew "Community" was a show for me. Only a show as warped as this one could pull off such a flawless parody of a 21-year-old mob movie and American classic this effectively. Given the option of watching this episode or "Goodfellas," I would almost always watch this episode. It all wouldn't matter, however, without that final tender scene with Jeff and Abed. The U.S Autism and Aspberger Association really needs to send Dan Harmon some kind of award.

3. Remedial Chaos Theory

This is the crown-jewel of season three so far. Wired's recent (and excellent) profile of Dan Harmon reveals just how much effort and thought he and the writing staff put into each episode. Harmon even creates little circles for each character's arc for every episode. Per Wired:

Harmon calls his circles embryos—they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story—and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”

That must mean that for this episode, Harmon created 49 circles for seven characters in seven timelines. That kind of effort for a half-hour network sitcom that only 3.5 million people regularly watch is astounding. Of course, it would mean nothing if the effort sucked. Each timeline brilliantly and usually quite accurately shows the results of what happens when a particular member of a group is absent, even if for only two minutes. That the story reaches a satisfying and total conclusion with seven different stories set in different universes is astonishing. Also, it's just damn funny.

2. Mixology Certification

"You were talking about the same bar?!?!?!" See: "Physical Education", "commenting on hipster culture."

1. Critical Film Studies

"Conversation was invented by humans to conceal reality. We use it to sweet talk away around natural selection."

When I saw NBC advertising for the "Pulp Fiction" episode of "Community," I was positive that it would be my favorite episode ever. It ended up being my favorite episode ever but it had almost nothing to do with "Pulp Fiction," and it's all because of several scenes of dialog that contain no score and almost no jokes. Abed convinces Jeff that he got to be an extra on the set of his favorite show "Cougar Town." While filming he developed an alter-ego named Chet and immediately constructed an entire life story for Chet. But once filming is done, Abed's reality is thrown into crisis. How can Chet still be if filming stops...and conversely, how could Abed ever be is all Abed cares about is television and all television shows one day stop filming. So Abed becomes Chet. Chet and Jeff have a conversation in which Jeff gets into some deep shit. Jeff feels like he has gotten a huge emotional weight off of his chest but of course it turns out that Abed was only "doing" another movie, this time a scene form "My Dinner with Andre." Jeff feels betrayed and viciously attacks Abed for his inability to connect with another human being without the context of pop culture. I watch this scene all the time now because I very much identify with Abed. And now that we live in a time where we can watch pretty much whatever we want, whenever we want, I think more and more people are beginning to identify with Abed. So is that time that we spend in front of the television or computer screen real? Can it be a shared experience for communities to interact with, or is it just indulging meaningless fantasies that are only robbing us of our time here on earth? And if we have a meaningful experience with someone else with pop culture as the basis, does it demean or degrade it? These are some of the most fascinating questions we can ask ourselves in this era of media saturation and I will always pinpoint those two quiet scenes with two characters at a restaurant as the moment that society finally asked those questions in the most eloquent, entertaining and ultimately most meta way possible.