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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