Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Metabolic Media Metastasis

Community Season 1 Retrospective: Yes, I'm aware that I'm two years late to the party, but there's a lot of quality stuff on TV these days and it takes a long time to catch up with recommendations. Plus a season is a massive investment by comparison with a film or a modestly-lengthened novel, so it takes a lot of recommendation to get me to sit down with one in the first place.

Let's get the dirty business out of the way: Community is nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Dan Harmon is a clever writer obsessed with his own cleverness to the point where he tangles himself up in so many layers of smug postmodern self-referentiality that he strangles his own jokes to death and resuscitates them for additional stranglings in case anyone missed his brilliance the first, second, third, and four-hundredth stranglings around. Ironically, of course, because God forbid Harmon be so mainstream as to allow us to swallow one full scene of dialogue without choking on intertextuality. Take this early exchange:

ABED: Will they or won't they? Sexual tension.
JEFF: Abed, it makes the group uncomfortable when you talk about us like we're characters in a show you're watching.
ABED: Well, that's sort of my gimmick. But we did lean on it pretty hard last week. I can lay low for an episode.

Sure, it's cute the first time. But by the end of the episode the "Abed realizes he is in a television show and provides amusing meta-analysis" gag has been invoked upwards of a dozen times, and by the end of the season it's practically been enshrined in the heart of the show's brand, culminating in a season two premier containing the sequence after a blatant recap of the events of the first-season finale:

ABED: Do you have a wealthy uncle, or an old drinking buddy who may have had a sex-change?
JEFF: Abed, why are you mining my life for classic sitcom scenarios?
ABED: I guess I'm just excited about the new year, looking for ways to improve things. I'm hoping we can move away from the soapy, relationship-ey stuff and into bigger self-contained escapades.

Excuse me while I suffocate from the thick cloud of smug. I'll be back after rinsing my mouth with some heartfelt Modern Family sincerity followed by a dose of honest It's Always Sunny in Philadelphian cynicism for balance. Harmon is what would happen if Seth MacFarlane and Diablo Cody had a neglected brainchild with an inferiority complex whose upbringing was left to its loving but slightly overindulgent grandparents Lena Dunham and Joss Whedon.

All that suffocating smugness aside, I can't for one minute deny that Community is hilarious, probably one of the funniest sitcoms of the past decade (no matter how obviously it thinks it's something better than – no, something transcendent to a classic sitcom), but the cast owes as much praise for this as the writing. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of any other comedic ensemble with this much explosive chemistry in the mix, episode after episode of re-ignition and restoration.

I'm going to assume everyone is familiar with the concept of the show by now – and if not the Wikipedian synopsis is a mere click away–  so let's get right to the character breakdown. Pierce (Chevy Chase) is the best of the bunch, and by all accounts his baffled sincerity is as reflective of Chase's grandiose self-unawareness as of any actual acting ability, which works just fine since the ignorance is funny as hell to watch. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a close second, and perhaps the most bug-eyed, reflexively racist yet sincere take on her particular set of stereotypes to date, again hilarious in execution (for all the characters in this show, after all, are self-conscious stereotypes of such an egalitarian order that there is scarcely any room left for judgment in the face of such overwhelming good humor). Jeff (Joel McHale) is, of course, the glue that holds the group together, though trapped awkwardly between the role of the straight man, the Casanova, and the trickster he probably nets fewer genuine laughs of his own accord than he does in reactions from the group as a whole. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and Annie (Alison Brie) both hold their own as two intelligent, misplaced young idealists who have seen their bright futures delayed (and possibly shattered) for altogether different reasons, though neither have really gotten the script attention their complex and tragically amusing characters deserve; perhaps that will be rectified with the second season, which I have only just begun to consume. Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi), on the other hand, are far less interesting characters – a two-dimensional cartoon in Troy's case – whose goofy shtick has in a single season managed to wear out three seasons' worth of welcome. Harmon and his writing crew are clearly in love with their dynamic duo, and there's a particularly excruciating sequence analyzing the Happy Days infamous "Fonzie water skies over a shark" episode that suggests these two might soon be responsible for some Community shark-jumping themselves. Their over-saturation notwithstanding, the two admittedly have some side-clenching moments, and their post-episode "sketch" sequences are consistently amusing.

I'd be remiss not to mention the fantastic ensemble work going on. Sociopathic, emotionally crippled Chinese-Jewish-American Spanish teacher "SeƱor" Chang (Ken Jeong) steals the spotlight in his every scene, taking his character so far over the top that he winds up back at a perfect medium of insanity recalling the best breakdown moments of John Landis protagonists at his screenwriting peak. Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) is nearly as amusing in his own ambiguously-something gaucheness, and probably the most entertaining example of the show's candid treatment of prejudices, all blissful unawareness and  unsettling enthusiasm. John Oliver is a little less successful as egotistical psychology professor Dr. Ian Duncan, leaning a bit too heavily on his exaggerated British mannerisms and boorish condescension, but even he – like everyone else in the show – has his moments of comedic brilliance.

All in all, Community is a startling, social boundary-pushing spin on the classic fish-out-of-water sitcom, held together in all its zaniness by a brilliant cast and some not-quite-brilliant-but-admittedly-excellent writing. If it's not the funniest thing on network television today, it's certainly close to it, and with Modern Family starting to drop the laughter ball I'll be curious to see whether Community picks it up and carries the court in its following seasons. Future reactions to follow.

Grade: A-

1 comment :

  1. I *love* this review.

    Hopefully with Harmon's departure some of the self-referential meta-analysis will dial back.

    There's a particular episode in season 3 where the meta-analysis becomes the heart of what is supposed to be a heartwrenching plot surrounding Abed's neuroses and his relationship with Troy, but ends up just being painful to watch because it's so confusingly written. I'm interested to see what you think of it if/when you watch season 3.