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

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.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Some of the comments you bring up in the pulp fiction episode about being so plugged in and can we develop this into worthy interaction is stuff I'm looking at in my thesis. Granted it's pretty social media heavy, but file sharing could loosely be seen as a social media. You know how I feel about Community but I'm not sure what my top 10 would be. Perhaps, there wouldn't be much change--but the order would be drastically different. I love me some bantering wit and sometimes don't automatically plug into the deep probing subtext. I know this is sacrilege but I wasn't a fan of the pulp fiction episode...granted I also haven't seen half of the movies it parodies. Overall, awesome listing. Trilla!