Tag Archives: dan harmon

editorial time: the problem with community (ruh-roh!)

21 Jan

Season one of Community is about as perfect a first season as you can get—especially for a comedy series, which are notorious for the degree of difficulty in establishing distinct voices for the characters early on. (I can think of only a handful of comedies, particularly Arrested Development, that knocked it out of the park in their freshman years.) The characters on Community came almost pre-established; each member of the Greendale study group was so well-defined and so unique in terms of what they brought to the table that the show never had to flounder with finding its footing—at least regarding character dynamics.

In the second season, the show seemed to shelve its concern with character maintenance, let alone development, opting instead to try and flesh out each episode from the premise of a different parody or gimmick. Community came into season 2 off of the absolutely audacious season one finale, “Modern Warfare”, an episode that played with various action movie tropes as the students competed in an epic game of paintball, and gained it a certain level of notoriety as “the paintball episode” (as in, “Dude, the paintball episode was soooo good.”).  As season two started, however, the show seemed poised to coast on this notoriety; and, as a result, became a slave to kitsch and gimmickry. It sort of felt as if Dan Harmon had realized he had such great characters that he no longer needed to worry about an inane thing like character development. Instead, the show started focusing on what kinds of episodes he wanted to do. There was the Halloween episode of season two, a parody of zombie flicks; another paintball episode that so clearly rode the coattails of “Modern Warfare” (and the stunt casting of LOST’s Josh Holloway); and a holiday episode that found the gang sucked into a clay-mation world.

Community, in a way, fell into what we might call “The Glee trap” (stay with me for a second). Glee, when it first started, offered something to kids of the theater world (a large sect of the high school television audience) that not many shows had before; that desire to burst into the songs that sountracked their inner lives was suddenly not only a possible vicarious action but fully sanctioned by a network show.  Feeling like you’re only appreciated in your own fantasy? Listen to the under-valued belting of Rachel Berry’s performance of On My Own in the pilot, a staple of newbies with a blossoming Broadway obsession. Likewise, throughout the whole season characters would emote so hard that singing became an organic necessity, like breathing.  The perils of high school were being given the power to overtake in a way that had not been as well captivated since Buffy the Vampire Slayer; while the demons of McKinley high were still confined to the realm of natural science, they were nonetheless taken to be drastic and scary enough to prompt the playing of some greater band in the sky, force kids to carry out a calling to croon much like Buffy’s calling to slay.

When Glee gained enough popularity to get a second season, and it became clear how much the networks, creators and cast members were going to be cashing in, the show stopped being about kids who felt overwhelmingly and thus sang from that place, but became the complete converse, a series of “Which songs can we get the rights for this week, and how can we write the adoption of convenient motives into our characters to carry that out?” The result was a series of roller-coaster like characters, changing violently in everything from fundamental convictions to personality traits to sexual orientation each week.  There’s an extent to which this does happen throughout adolescence, but not to the quippy-yet-dire emotional degree that Murphy has chosen to go with. So while we might give him the benefit of the doubt that it comes from a place of meta-analysis, his way of showing how sometimes as a kid you take a Beyonce song to be “life changing”, there’s something about the God-awful dialogue and lack of coherent story arcs that tells me it is not the case.  Unfortunately, this is almost exactly what happened to Community; Harmon would choose a gimmick for each episode such as “Secret garden trampoline parody” or “Apollo Thirteen on a roving campus bus”, something kind of brilliant in its adaptation to a community college setting, but he would leave behind everything else like character development and story line, cramming it uncomfortably into an ill-fitting one-shot arc.  None of the execution would spring organically from the style of the episode.This is not to say that Community wasn’t noble in its pursuits.  The first season followed a traditional sitcom style with a hint of subversion, retrospectively indicating that given the proper audience and commitment to episodes, Harmon and co. might just break free from the mold altogether.

In his brilliant new book,  The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall discusses other shows that either aimed to or inadvertently changed the way television is made. For instance, with episodes such of Buffy like “Hush” and “The Body” and “Once More With Feeling”, Whedon was able to play with the mode of story-telling, the shape of his show as well as its content, in a way that left the viewer with an impression of having watched something totally unique.  Similarly,  one can point to Vince Gilligan, who is behind both Breaking Bad and numerous episodes on The X-Files (think especially of his amalgamation of that show and Cops). Gilligan’s performance of the auteur has been made most clear by his writing of the former; ask anyone if they’ve ever seen anything the likes of Breaking Bad’s cold opens, or season 3’s “The Fly” and it’ll be hard to get anything but a dumb-struck look of awe. Both of these men have managed to produce shows with revolutionary episodes that employ a unique storytelling device, but never become products of gimmickry. Instead, these episodes are in service to the stories they tell. In other words, the style of the episode compliments the substance of the episode. Community, conversely, emphasizes style over substance.

To illustrate, take the two Halloween episodes from season one and two. The Halloween episode from the show’s first year is pretty amazeballs, filled with insight into who those people are and what they mean to each other. The second season Halloween episode, on the other hand, is pure gimmick; it’s so clearly an homage to zombie movies first and foremost, and forsakes coherent and incisive storytelling.

I’d be remiss if i didn’t mention “Remedial Chaos Theory”, the episode where the simple act of ordering a pizza and determining who answers the door when said pizza comes leads to a story in which each choice leads to the creation of a new universe. No bullshit: the episode is brilliant. The reason: the episode is more concerned with exploring the character dynamics then it is with employing a really cool gimmick. In the episode we learn what each member of the group brings to the table. The “multiple universes” element compliments this exploration. But for every “Remedial Chaos Theory” there’s an episode like “Digital Estate Planning” where you just know the writers were like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did an episode using 8-bit animation style?”

There are a lot of reasons to love Community. I get it. For one thing, the show celebrates nerd culture more than any other show on air (as opposed to the dreck that is Big Bang Theory, which is laughing at you, not with you). I just wish people would stop mythologizing the show as much as they do just because it has the gall to center an entire episode around an extended homage to My Dinner with Andre.

For more discussion on this and other shows, tune into the next episode of TGOTV!

-The Two Girls