Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Community: A Pre-emptive Eulogy

News of the renewal of Arrested Development for a fourth season via Netflix seems to have been met with a mixture of muted excitement and skepticism from even the three-season sitcom's most ardent fans.  Creator Mitchell Hurwitz has said he plans only ten more episodes (no word yet on that ever-so elusive movie the cast keeps teasing).  Some fans are concerned the show will "Family Guy-itself."  I don't mean to suggest a qualitative comparison between the two shows, only to say that when both shows were cancelled they had garnered a vocally pissed-off viewership.  Though Family Guy began to show signs of spinning its wheels early in its run, protests against its deletion from the Sunday night line-up prompted FOX to allow it to continue to do for the past six years.  "Arrested Development's fate was seemingly more final.  FOX had already cut the second season from 22 episodes to 18 (something the show even winked at - and winking at the mistakes the suits at the network are making always plays out well - I'm looking at you, Norm MacDonald).  By the third season, they only ordered 13 episodes and unceremoniously ran the last four in a two hour block against the opening of the Winter Olympics, effectively pouring cement in Hurwitz child's already deep grave.

There was brief talk of Development being rescued by HBO or Showtime that never came to fruition.  Now, Netflix, desperate for some kind of facelift, has stepped in.

Of course, Arrested Development couldn't possibly Family Guy-itself.  It was a show with a coherent throughline, well-drawn characters and, if we're comparing the two, Development's pop-culture references served the plot as opposed to just being one-off jokes.  The fans' skepticism comes from the fact that, though rushed, the last four episodes successfully wrapped up the lingering plot threads and gave Michael Bluth, the burdened main character, a moment of serenity.  In other words, they managed to conclude it properly.  So a fear of spinning wheels in the sand with a new season and possible film is justified.  Family Guy can go on forever, should the network allow.  The Simpsons have been on air since 1989 and have been repeating plotlines since before the millennium (they're still better than Family Guy, by the way).  Arrested Development completes a story.  So fans' nervousness about continuing a story that ended as best it could in the time it had is legitimate.

Either way, around the same time fans skeptically rejoiced at the resurrection of Arrested Development, NBC saw fit to put a currently-airing, equally cultish sitcom on hiatus.  The rest of season three of Community has been delayed from airing until 2012 and, though NBC has assured audiences that the rest of the season will be shot and aired, it smells to even some of the cast a brief layover is on the way to imminent cancellation.

I've had my issues with Community, but a great deal of them grew out of what I've come to expect from a sitcom since America has started to ween itself off the dreaded laugh track.  While middle-America still wants to be told what's funny via canned laughter, catchphrases and subtle bawdiness, the rest of the country that bookends that particular black hole seems to have gotten a handle on the whole "when to laugh" thing all by themselves.

(Note to middle America: If I'm glad you're poor, it's only because you can't afford a television to ruin the ratings of superior shows.  If I'm upset that you're poor, it's only because I want to rally to find you employment - preferably a nightjob - so you'll be too busy to watch Two and a Half Men.  And if I want you to die off, it's only because I want people who regularly watch The Big Bang Theory to die off.)  

And now, sans-laugh track, the modern sitcoms' ability to inject some kind of heart between characters is equally no longer hampered by a canned-fawning "aw" or a "woo" for an ethnically diverse kiss.  Freed from the necessity of constant one-liners to keep an audience's attention, sitcoms can now allow their characters to grow, develop a continuity that can rival premium cable dramas (which also has picked up some emotionally and plottingly complex half-hour comedies).

With Arrested Development gone, it seemed Community was primed take the mantle of clever, laugh track-free network sitcoms.  Has it entirely succeeded?

Not quite, but on these days, you take what you can get.

For the uninitiated, Community began as a deceptively simple sitcom about disgraced, slimy lawyer, Jeff Winger, forced to attend Greendale College to validate his Bar exam.  Immediately he is sidetracked by an attractive, over-earnest blonde named Britta and, in order to get closer to her, forms a Spanish study group of quirky strangers for her to attend.

Sounds like a standard premise for just about any new sitcom - until, that plotline is almost immediately forgotten, Jeff grows less shallow, and by the end of the first season there's an episode devoted to (expertly directed) action movie-parodies with paintball guns.  The only thing keeping show grounded from then on is the staunch devotion creator Dan Harmon has to continuity.  No matter how zany the premise of the episode may be, its events still manage to effect future and ongoing plotlines.

Harmon is a man who clearly grew up on television, poking fun of standard sitcom tropes while still embracing them fully (my favourite: a "clip show" episode in which none of the clips the cast reminisces about in the frame-story were ever actually in an episode).

He's also savvy enough to understand that a die-hard cult audience appreciates layered easter eggs.  It took me several viewings to realize one of the lead characters helped deliver a baby throughout the background of an entire season 2 episode (which also comes into play later in the season in a major way).  Just recently, someone posted this youtube:  Notice that after the third utterance of
"Beetlejuice" a man dressed as the Michael Keaton character walks by behind the blinds.  This is also in keeping with the show's continuity, as it was a Halloween episode.  Also note that all three utterances of "Beetlejuice" occured exactly one season apart from one another.

That same love of classic television makes the casting of Chevy Chase as the curmudgeonly, racist ("I'm not racist...I have a young Afro-American friend") billionaire Pierce Hawthorne.  Chase famously burned a lot of bridges after leaving Saturday Night Live halfway through the second season to pursue Hollywood fame.  Similarly, Hawthorne seems to have lost a lot due to his old-world attitudes and now is trying to garner respect from a world that no longer understands him and he never could grasp ("How long was I out?  Is Napster still a thing?").  Episode two involves Hawthorne trying to impress Jeff by turning a five-line Spanish presentation into an elaborate play that, as Jeff says, was "oddly critical of Israel."  It is to Chase's credit that he can finally easily lampoon himself after years of rumoured bitterness.

Another standout performer in an already stellar cast is Stand-Up/Hip-Hop Artist Donald Glover as Troy Barnes, the dim-witted former-high school football star who finds himself a fish-out-of-water when he finds himself bereft of his glory days.  In a telling and heartfelt early episode, Troy flirts with returning to football at Greendale and reverts to his former cocky self.  It's only when he befriends Abed - a seeming autistic with an elaborate working knowledge of pop-culture - that he embraces his nerdiness and comes full circle.

Even Gillian Jacob's Britta, the show's least-developed character, is wisely portrayed as a needlessly-defiant activist who, as Jeff says, "has seen the world and doesn't get it" with a desire to make an impact in said world but has yet to find her own way.

Try getting anything close to that depth of character from a standard, half-hour laugh-a-thon.

There are episodes seemingly universally beloved by fans that left me cold, mostly laughless.  Some of the more dramatic decisions Community made run incongruous to some of the sillier ones.  But perhaps that's exactly why its audience is so die-hard.  There's a kind of discord between heart and comedy (and plenty of nerdy references and parodies to boot) not seen since Arrested Development, yet its not as cynical.  There is a sincerity to Community that doesn't get undercut with a laugh, as though embarrassed by it.  That's a tight rope to walk, particularly when the sillier, more parody driven episodes are getting more and more outlandish.

Both Community and Arrested Development burst out of their premieres as seemingly shows with nothing to lose - black sheeps of successful line-ups to network executives and the old guard, but pioneering wonder boys of what is to come.

Should this hiatus mean what fans all fear, let that be Community's epitaph.  In a way, Community is the reverse of its character Pierce Hawthorne: boldy progressive and ahead of the times.

Fans might even call it, "Streets ahead."

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Children's Films That Will Irrevocably Screw Up Your Children (pt. 1)

1.  The Monster Squad (1987)

The movie:  A group of ragtag nerdy 11-year-olds go up against Frankenstien, The Mummy, Wolfman and The Creature From The Black Lagoon, who Dracula has recruited to help him find an amulet that could destroy the world.  Also, the kids become friends with Frankenstein and the fat one kicks Wolfman in the nards (hey, he said "nards," not me:

That sounds like fun.  Harmless Halloween-style fun.  What's the problem? 

The story is that director Fred Dekker (since placed in director jail without parole due to Robocop 3) wanted to update the classic Abbott-and-Costello-Meet-MGM-Monster-and-hilarity-ensues formula with a charming, funny, kid-friendly movie.  The DVD's special features explain why and how this plan turned into a fairly violent, creepy, unfriendly kid's movie.

First, MGM would not lend out the rights to the designs, forcing special effects artist Stan Winston to create new looks for the monsters.  This is the late, great Stan Winston of Jurassic Park fame - also Pumpkinhead, Predator, The Terminator, Friday the 13th part 3D, and Danny DeVito in Batman Returns - real kid-friendly looking stuff.  As a result, to a child, the new Creature, the greasy Frankenstien and the decimated Mummy are fairly terrifying.

One day, Dekker approached the screenwriter during lunch thinking he was doing rewrites. It turned out he was actually tinkering with his next screenplay, which would turn into Lethal Weapon.  Shane Black, the highest paid screenwriter of all time, wrote a kid's movie.  This led to said kids movie involving a lot of blood and death, explosions, near-nudity, vicious stabbings, a mummy unraveling into nothing but a skull and - hey, what the hell - he threw in references to the holocaust too.  Of course, as a grown person in 2011, it's fairly tame, but for 1987, it's pretty gruesome.

Okay...but is it worth fucking up my kid for?

Absolutely.  It was my favourite movie for a time when I was young.  It's often funny, pays plenty of homage to the old great horror films.  It also updates them in inventive, clever ways.  It also includes the most awesome '80s montage ever and an original Monster Squad rap over the credits.  Enjoy it for the camp, or just plain nostalgia.  Basically, it's The Goonies if The Goonies didn't suck.

2.  Watership Down (1978)

The movie:  This animated adaptation of Richard Adams' novel features a group of anthropomorphic rabbits trying to escape a facist rabbit leader.  It all boils down to a rabbit war, involving a dog ripping the animals to shreds.

That sounds like a clever, educational allegory, what's the problem?

Yes, it is a clever, powerful allegory for tyranny and it stays pretty faithful to its source material.  In fact, The Economist hailed the original novel as a triumph, proclaiming, "If there's no place for Watership Down in children's literature, then children's literature is dead."  So its a timeless adapt-Um....I'm sorry, I need to address this, did you miss the part where I said a dog tears a rabbit to shreds on screen?  Because, even though animated, it is gruesome.  It isn't just the dog, it also contains extreme rabbit-on-rabbit violence.  And animated blood.  So much animated blood.

Is it...can I...?

Considering that I saw it for the first time last year and it left me in a fetal position, it's a tough call.  You should, but I'd wait a couple of years or really drill it into the kid that rabbits suck and deserve to be literally torn into pieces in front of their eyes.  The animation is incredibly unique, the voice acting by John Hurt and Nigel Hawthorne is compelling.  And the kid's gotta learn there's awful in the world one day, right?

3.  Cloak and Dagger (1984)

The movie:  For some reason, 11-year-old Davey wants his imaginary friend to resemble his widowed father, a pilot.  Both the father and the friend are played by Dabney Coleman (my imaginary friend was way cooler-looking).  After witnessing a murder, the victim hands Davey a video-game cartridge containing military secrets.  Davey and his imaginary friend - a secret agent named Jack Flack - are on the run from murderous spies.

That sounds like a great child fantasy, in the tradition of The Last Starfighter and The Manhattan Project...wait, what's wrong with this one?  Nothing, right?  This is a trick.  Every healthy, growing boy has an action movie fantasy like that.

Typically, a growing boy's action movie fantasy doesn't involve murdering a guy for killing your imaginary friend and implied psychological trauma.  Near the end of the movie, the villain shoots at the boy, hitting a wall where the boy thought Jack Flack stood.  So the 11-year-old grabs a gun and straight-out murders the guy.  Realizing that Jack Flack had tricked him into shooting the villain, the boy becomes filled with rage, shouting "I don't wanna play anymore" like, you know, a lunatic would.

But the trauma doesn't end there.  The remaining evil spies take over a commercial airliner.  They kidnap little Davey and, in exchange for him unharmed, demand a pilot so that they may flee the country with the military secrets in hand.  The spies are unaware that Davey intentionally smuggled a bomb onto the plane (this is, I forgot to mention, the most malevolently clever 11-year-old boy of all time; also, he seems to have a death wish).

Remember when I mentioned, for seemingly no reason, that Davey's actual Dabney Coleman was a pilot at the start?  Yeah, he volunteers to fly the plane in exchange for his son.  In the distance, Davey watches the plane explode, only moments later seeing his father walk away unharmed and hug him.  The happiest ending ever.

Except, hold on.  We never saw Davey's father leave the plane.  There was no reason he would, he was just as unaware of the bomb as the evil spies.  So we're left to assume that Davey's real Dabney Coleman is as dead as his imaginary one, and his dead father is now his new imaginary friend.  The child, now officially orphaned, has had yet another psychotic break.

Suck on that, kids.

Should I allow them this kind of existential crisis so early on?

It's most likely that your child won't understand that kind of psychological complexity, and rather just think his dad got out of the plane somehow.  Hell, that's what I thought at first.  It would take a pretty advanced toddler to latch on to the fact that little Davey is well on his way to being a serial killer with delusions of grandeur.  Though as I got older, I started to think about the logistics of the ending, and it haunted me.

Jesus God, what have you done to my child?

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On Mean Doctors and Meth Manufacturers: The Limits and Virtues of Network Television

In case you haven't noticed, last month Fox's medical procedural drama "House" entered it's eighth and most likely final season.  And of course you haven't, you have basic cable - and in the past ten  years, it's become far more interesting than some story-of-the-week that will easily be forgotten come 7 days later. I sincerely doubt you noticed beyond catching a teaser in between your beloved sitcom of choice (if said sitcom is not currently "Community," it's unlikely you and I are terribly close) or passing through the room while your parents watched a Criminal Mind or an NCIS or a CSI: JAG (which I think is just what I call NCIS).  

Occasionally a network show will have a two-parter, some will even drag out story arcs over half a season or so.  But ultimately network television was borne of and worships but one God:  Episode.  No matter how many follow or reference past events, past events will remain just that.  Once said arc is completed, there may be passing reference for superfans (of which I can't imagine there would be many for shows that are intentionally disposable), but otherwise, no matter who nearly dies, who has sleeps with who, who has guilt over shooting who, who gets addicted to what - for the most part - network TV has remained successful for nearly 50 years because people have lives outside of television (read: the employed, attractive or World of Warcraft-obsessed).  By it's very nature, it has to be familiar, but not intrusive.

I realize I'm not saying anything new, necessarily.

Throughout my childhood, I suffered severe migraines and missed a lot of school. This meant I grew up with hours of reruns of '70s and '80s television each day.  A&E, weekdays, by 2 p.m. I'd be in my parents' room leaning on a chest and a pillow on the floor, parked in front of the most diligent, clever, and kind detectives, judges, doctors - it ran the typical TV drama gamut.  Judge Harry Stone would rather show a perp a magic trick than convict.  Peter Falk's Detective Columbo used to constantly ask forgiveness for bothering people he totally knew just murdered some guy (I recall more than once, the killer was Leslie Nielsen - how did he get out of jail the first time?); hell, they even ran the ill-fated "MASH" spin-off "Trapper John M.D." - who had aged greatly but was as benevolent as ever.  That's how doctors were in those days, that's how heroes on TV were.  They were the ombudsmen between the ensuing episodic conflict and resolution and - rest assured audience that just endured Vietnam, The Manson Family Murders, Watergate, Mark David Chapman killing John Lennon, assassination attempts on both Carter and Reagan, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Iran-Contra, gas shortages - at least they wouldn't fail you.

Until recently.  A lot has been written of the rise of television's anti-hero as the predominantly popular figure since James Gandolfini first hunkered down with his therapist in the pilot episode of "The Sopranos."  Ever since, premium cable channels such as HBO and AMC (and Showtime, but only if you're a 14 year-old living with Ambien-induced parents who has no other access to softcore pornography), have been rightly praised as a new kind of television drama.  For talented, sometimes legendary actors appearing in a television show ten years earlier would have been considered a step down.  Today, those very same actors you'd think would remain forever on the silver screen, are flocking to premium television dramas.  It's not just the actors, either.  Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte will soon star in director Michael Mann's executive-produced HBO series "Luck" (and, being a prominent EP for a high-profile show means you must at least direct the pilot).  Alexander Payne produces "Hung."  Martin Scorcesse, of course, works just as closely with "Boardwalk Empire."

Once again, I doubt I'm reporting new information.  A lot credit has been given to those premium cable channels for changing the game.  So it may be a little controversial to argue that, next to HBO's "The Sopranos," "House" deserves a little bit of credit as well.

That fact that "House," a network procedural that wrestles with complex ideas without the criteria to explore them beyond heavy-handed dialogue, is still on the air is emblematic of the reason it's not credited more for paving the way for more bold television storytelling.

When it began in 2003, it wasn't a procedural that most of America who would invest their time weekly would have a lot of fun with.  Its themes were dark.  The first three seasons addressed issues such as why people lie; why we like one another; do we test our friends intentionally?  What's the limit to a cynical philosophy?  What good does commitment to such a philosophy do?  And my favourite, parents have a natural impetus to protect their offspring, except for all the ones who don't.

I was quite excited to enjoy a procedural drama of a caustic, vicodin-addicted doctor who doesn't care about his patients, as past television doctors.  Quite the opposite.  I think he was as necessary, if not more so, as Tony Soprano in the through-line TV critics like to trace in the evolution of the anti-hero.  If network television, or more importantly, an audience hadn't embraced a show in which the hero was pretty much fully unlikable, then who would have taken a risk on "Breaking Bad," whose character winds up inexcusably evil in ways his milquetoast personality would have never suggested?

Of course, in network TV, "House" had to the have a caveat to be sold - "He's a jerk...but he saves lives! And he's flawed!  See?  He's actually the good guy."  But Dr. House earned another get-out-of-jail free card that other shows with an anti-hero don't:  he's funny.  He's a wisecracking prick, and that's worked since screwball comedies, so long as they get their comeuppance.  The issue with House now, is that he's been shot by the husband of an angry patient, nearly imprisoned by a vengeful cop he unnecessarily stuck with a rectal thermometer, is constantly tormented by his addiction and his leg (even trying methadone), and been imprisoned.  Thus is the curse of network television.  If the ratings work, they always want more.  Premium cable has all but eradicated that issue.  It's the economy of story that creates this possibility.  Think about how much happens during an episode of a show such as "Breaking Bad" or "Mad Men" (a friend mentioned to me last night that, during the last season of the latter, pretty much nothing happened).  An entire episode of "Breaking Bad" focused on Walter White and his partner trying to get a fly out of the meth lab lest it contaminate it, but the minutiae and gravity of previous episodes gave "Fly" an epic emotional resonance.

The networks allow creators to tell complete stories, have arcs that will call back to several seasons previous.  In short, it forces the audience to become far more engaged and attentive and doesn't ask forgiveness for the sometimes horrible acts the characters sometimes carry out.  There aren't always the easy outs of humour and decency, no comfort zones (oh, and they get to say "shit" after 10 p.m. now).  This allows a much darker look at the worlds each show inhabits, but also a much broader and interesting one.

There are plenty of network shows that are dark - I've mentioned a few of them - but they serve another purpose. I recall an episode of "Criminal Minds" (a show I'm convinced has some kind of Videodrome-esque ability to make you dumber should you succumb to it) in which the killer was rather brutally cutting off someone's hand - yet many fans of the show would never sit through a gruesomely violent horror film, or an episode of "The Walking Dead" because - well, quite like the characters in "The Walking Dead," they'd be in unfamiliar territory.  A show in which, after 10 p.m. jaws are allowed to be ripped off and eyes blown out by revolvers.  What particularly angers me about "Criminal Minds" is the audience's willingness to take it seriously.  Criminal profiling has often been debunked - and though there are psychological ideas in the minds of killers that many sub-types share, it's much more undramatic and far more complex.  This is evidence of what I consider a danger of cracking a drink, sitting down after a hard day and "turning your brain off" as too many people like to say.

But there's hope for primetime as well, as many recent critically-acclaimed dramas are beggining to emulate their premium cable counterparts.  "The Good Wife," a CBS hit, began as a standard procedural with a Blagojevichian-hook and quickly developed into a West Wing-esque show about the sacrifices one makes in balancing personal and private life.  "Lost" spent six seasons (three to four of them nearly universally appreciated) laid out a complex, epic mystery that it doled out in ways that often tested it's fans' patience (and infuriated others).  Risks are still being taken, even though these shows still must adhere to the standard primetime formula.

After there was a television in nearly every home in America - so ashamed at what was coming out of his precious cathode receptor - inventor Philo T. Farnsworth drank his ass to death.  He lived just long enough to witness the moon landing on his invention, which he considered the one redeeming piece of footage for which it was ever used.  It almost, he claimed, made it worthwhile.  A lot has happened since we faked the moon landing (I'm kidding, we totally landed on the moon, I just assumed "faked the moon landing" might draw a lot of hits from crazy people who just learned google), both in fictional shows as well as innovations such as 24 hour news networks.  One must wonder just what Farnsworth, if anything, would have thought of a more innovative, exploratory kind of storytelling.  Though one also must wonder what he watched, if anything, that made him think he brought about the end of intellectual thinking.  If he were still alive, would he have preferred the cynicism of Dr. House or Walter White of "Breaking Bad"?  Would he have preferred a show with a barrage of cliche or obnoxious catch-phrases and laugh tracks like "Laugh-In" or something like "The Dick Van Dyke Show" - a show that preternaturally understood the absurdity of Farnsworth's gift to humanity, and embraced its invention just as much as it did its silly, silly use?

What will the next show offer us?

We'll never know, of course.  But we certainly all know what we like.

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