Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Glee

Farewell to Mystic Falls

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Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of The Vampire Diaries.

On Friday, I said goodbye to The Vampire Diaries, a series that I once thought was one of the best genre shows on television, only to stop watching it for its last two seasons. Despite its flaws, it occupies a special place in my memory, in part because its strengths were inseparable from the reasons that I finally abandoned it. Like Glee, The Vampire Diaries responded to its obvious debt to an earlier franchise—High School Musical for the former, Twilight for the latter—both by subverting its predecessor and by burning through ideas as relentlessly as it could. It’s as if both shows decided to refute any accusations of unoriginality by proving that they could be more ingenious than their inspirations, and amazingly, it sort of worked, at least for a while. There’s a limit to how long any series can repeatedly break down and reassemble itself, however, and both started to lose steam after about three years. In the case of The Vampire Diaries, its problems crystallized around its ostensible lead, Elena Gilbert, as portrayed by the game and talented Nina Dobrev, who left the show two seasons ago before returning for an encore in the finale. Elena spent most of her first sendoff asleep, and she isn’t given much more to do here. There’s a lot about the episode that I liked, and it provides satisfying moments of closure for many of its characters, but Elena isn’t among them. In the end, when she awakens from the magical coma in which she has been slumbering, it’s so anticlimactic that it reminds me of what Pauline Kael wrote of Han’s revival in Return of the Jedi: “It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.”

And what happened to Elena provides a striking case study of why the story’s hero is often fated to become the least interesting person in sight. The main character of a serialized drama is under such pressure to advance the plot that he or she becomes reduced to the diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. Instead of making her own decisions, Elena was obliged to become whatever the series needed her to be. Every protagonist serves as a kind of motor for the story, which is frequently a thankless role, but it was particularly problematic on a show that defined itself by its willingness to burn through a year of potential storylines each month. Every episode felt like a season finale, and characters were freely killed, resurrected, and brainwashed to keep the wheels turning. It was hardest on Elena, who, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine. After six seasons of personality changes, possessions, memory wipes, and the inexplicable choices that she made just because the story demanded it, she became an empty shell. If you were designing a show in a laboratory to see what would happen if its protagonist was forced to live through plot twists at an accelerated rate, like the stress tests that engineers use to put a component through a lifetime’s worth of wear in a short period of time, you couldn’t do much better than The Vampire Diaries. And while it might have been theoretically interesting to see what happened to the series after that one piece was removed, I didn’t think it was worth sitting through another two seasons of increasingly frustrating television.

After the finale was shot, series creators Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec made the rounds of interviews to discuss the ending, and they shared one particular detail that fascinates me. If you haven’t watched The Vampire Diaries, all you need to know is that its early seasons revolved around a love triangle between Elena and the vampire brothers Stefan and Damon, a nod to Twilight that quickly became one of the show’s least interesting aspects. Elena seemed fated to end up with Stefan, but she spent the back half of the series with Damon, and it ended with the two of them reunited. In a conversation with Deadline, Williamson revealed that this wasn’t always the plan:

Well, I always thought it would be Stefan and Elena. They were sort of the anchor of the show, but because we lost Elena in season six, we couldn’t go back. You know Nina could only come back for one episode—maybe if she had came back for the whole season, we could even have warped back towards that, but you can’t just do it in forty-two minutes.

Dobrev’s departure, in other words, froze that part of the story in place, even as the show around it continued its usual frantic developments, and when she returned, there wasn’t time to do anything but keep Elena and Damon where they had left off. There’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the course of a single episode, so it seemed easier for the producers to stick with what they had and figure out a way to make it seem inevitable.

The fact that it works at all is a tribute to the skill of the writers and cast, as well as to the fact that the whole love triangle was basically arbitrary in the first place. As James Joyce said in a very different context, it was a bridge across which the characters could walk, and once they were safely on the other side, it could be blown to smithereens. The real challenge was how to make the finale seem like a definitive ending, after the show had killed off and resurrected so many characters that not even death itself felt like a conclusion. It resorted to much the same solution that Lost did when faced with a similar problem: it shut off all possibility of future narrative by reuniting its characters in heaven. This partially a form of wish fulfillment, as we’ve seen with so many other television series, but it also puts a full stop on the story by leaving us in an afterlife, where, by definition, nothing can ever change. It’s hilariously unlike the various versions of the world to come that the series has presented over the years, from which characters can always be yanked back to life when necessary, but it’s also oddly moving and effective. Watching it, I began to appreciate how the show’s biggest narrative liability—a cast that just can’t be killed—also became its greatest asset. The defining image of The Vampire Diaries was that of a character who has his neck snapped, and then just shakes it off. Williamson and Plec must have realized, consciously or otherwise, that it was a reset button that would allow them to go through more ideas than would be possible than a show on which a broken neck was permanent. Every denizen of Mystic Falls got a great death scene, often multiple times per season, and the show exploited that freedom until it exhausted itself. It only really worked for three years out of eight, but it was a great run while it lasted. And now, after life’s fitful fever, the characters can sleep well, as they sail off into the mystic.

Don’t stay out of Riverdale

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Riverdale

In the opening seconds of the series premiere of Riverdale, a young man speaks quietly in voiceover, his words playing over idyllic shots of American life:

Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.

Much later, we realize that the speaker is Jughead of Archie Comics fame, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, which might seem peculiar enough in itself. But what I noticed first about this monologue is that it basically summarizes the prologue of Blue Velvet, which begins with images of roses and picket fences and then dives into the grass, revealing the insects ravening like feral animals in the darkness. It’s one of the greatest declarations of intent in all of cinema, and initially, there’s something a little disappointing in the way that Riverdale feels obliged to blandly state what Lynch put into a series of unforgettable images. Yet I have the feeling that series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who says that Blue Velvet is one of his favorite movies, knows exactly what he’s doing. And the result promises to be more interesting than even he can anticipate.

Riverdale has been described as The O.C. meets Twin Peaks, which is how it first came to my attention. But it’s also a series on the CW, with all the good, the bad, and the lack of ugly that this implies. This the network that produced The Vampire Diaries, the first three seasons of which unexpectedly generated some of my favorite television from the last few years, and it takes its genre shows very seriously. There’s a fascinating pattern at work within systems that produce such narratives on a regular basis, whether in pulp magazines or comic books or exploitation pictures: as long as you hit all the obligatory notes and come in under budget, you’re granted a surprising amount of freedom. The CW, like its predecessors, has become an unlikely haven for auteurs, and it’s the sort of place where a showrunner like Aguirre-Sacasa—who has an intriguing background in playwriting, comics, and television—can explore a sandbox like this for years. Yet it also requires certain heavy, obvious beats, like structural supports, to prop up the rest of the edifice. A lot of the first episode of Riverdale, like most pilots, is devoted to setting up its premise and characters for even the most distracted viewers, and it can be almost insultingly on the nose. It’s why it feels obliged to spell out its theme of dark shadows beneath its sunlit surfaces, which isn’t exactly hard to grasp. As Roger Ebert wrote decades ago in his notoriously indignant review of Blue Velvet: “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.”

Blue Velvet

As a result, if you want to watch Riverdale at all, you need to get used to being treated occasionally as if you were twelve years old. But Aguirre-Sacasa seems determined to have it both ways. Like Glee before it, it feels as if it’s being pulled in three different directions even before it begins, but in this case, it comes off less as an unwanted side effect than as a strategy. It’s worth noting that not only did Aguirre-Sacasa write for Glee itself, but he’s also the guy who stepped in rewrite Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which means that he knows something about wrangling intractable material for a mass audience under enormous scrutiny. (He’s also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which feels like a dream job in the best sort of way: one of his projects at the Yale School of Drama was a play about Archie encountering the murderers Leopold and Loeb, and he later received a cease and desist order from his future employer over Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which depicted its lead character as coming out of the closet.) Riverdale often plays like the work of a prodigiously talented writer trying to put his ideas into a form that could plausibly air on Thursdays after Supernatural. Like most shows at this stage, it’s also openly trying to decide what it’s supposed to be about. And I want to believe, on the basis of almost zero evidence, that Aguirre-Sacasa is deliberately attempting something almost unworkable, in hopes that he’ll be able to stick with it long enough—on a network that seems fairly indulgent of shows on the margins—to make it something special.

Most great television results from this sort of evolutionary process, and I’ve noted before—most explicitly in my Salon piece on The X-Files—that the best genre shows emerge when a jumble of inconsistent elements is given the chance to find its ideal form, usually because it lucks into a position where it can play under the radar for years. The pressures of weekly airings, fan response, critical reviews, and ratings, along with the unpredictable inputs of the cast and writing staff, lead to far more rewarding results than even the most visionary showrunner could produce in isolation. Writers of serialized narratives like comic books know this intuitively, and consciously or not, Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying something similar on television. It’s not an approach that would make sense for a series like Westworld, which was produced for so much money and with such high expectations that its creators had no choice but to start with a plan. But it might just work on the CW. I’m hopeful that Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators will use the mystery at the heart of the series much as Twin Peaks did, as a kind of clothesline on which they can hang a lot of wild experiments, only a certain percentage of which can be expected to work. Twin Peaks itself provides a measure of this method’s limitations: it mutated into something extraordinary, but it didn’t survive the departure of its original creative team. Riverdale feels like an attempt to recreate those conditions, and if it utilizes the Archie characters as its available raw material, well, why not? If Lynch had been able to get the rights, he might have used them, too.

You can’t always get what you want

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Glee

Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of Glee.

“The best way to criticize a movie,” Jean-Luc Godard once said, “is to make another movie.” Intentional or not, we find apparent examples of this everywhere: the works of art we experience are constantly commenting on one another, often because similar ideas are in the air at the same time. And two parallel approaches viewed side by side can be more enlightening than either one on its own. Take, for instance, the series finales of Parks and Recreation and Glee, which aired less than a month apart. Both are built around an identical formal conceit—a series of self-contained flashforwards that tell us what happened to all the characters after the bulk of the story was over—and both are essentially exercises in wish fulfillment, in which everyone gets more or less exactly what they want. Yet the Parks and Rec finale was one of the best of its kind ever made, while the conclusion of Glee was yet another misfire, even as it offered a few small pleasures along the way. And the comparison is telling. On Parks and Rec, the characters get what they need, but it isn’t what they thought they wanted: Ron ends up working happily in a government job, while April settles down into marriage and family, even if her firstborn son’s name happens to be Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack-o-Lantern Dwyer. It’s sweet, but it’s also the endpoint of a journey that lasted for six seasons.

On Glee, by contrast, Rachel wins a Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Musical—or exactly what she told us she wanted within five minutes of appearing onscreen in the pilot. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. Glee always approached characterization as a variable that could be altered at will, or by Will, from one moment to the next, cheerfully dumping entire story arcs for the sake of a cheap gag or a musical number. When you can’t be bothered to sustain anyone’s emotional growth for more than an episode at a time, it’s no wonder that each student or teacher’s ultimate fulfillment takes a form that could have been predicted from a few lines of character description written before the pilot was even shot. Those capsule summaries are all we ever learned about these people, so when it came to write endings for them all, the show had no choice but to fall back on what it had originally jotted down. For a show that always seemed endlessly busy, it’s startling how little happened in the meantime, or how much it sacrificed its long game for the sake of a minute of momentum. It was ostensibly about the collision of dreams with reality—or about how hard it can be to escape the small town in which you were born—but in its final, crucial scenes, it seemed to say that happiness lies in getting everything you wanted in high school, and within five years, no less.

The cast of Glee

There’s one large exception, of course, and it’s a reminder that however haphazard Glee could be, it was also forced to deal with factors outside its control. Cory Monteith’s death was a tragedy on many levels, and it crippled whatever hope the show might have had for honoring its own premise. From the start, it was clear that Finn was the one character who might be forced to confront the reality behind his own dreams, looking for a form of meaning and contentment that didn’t resemble what he wanted when he was a teenager. His absence meant that the show had to recalibrate its endgame on the fly, and there’s a sense in which its decision to give everyone else outsized forms of happiness feels like a reaction to the real loss that the cast and crew endured. (It reminds me a little of The West Wing: originally, the Democratic candidate was supposed to lose the election in the final season, but after John Spencer’s sudden passing, the storyline was altered, since a political defeat on top of Leo’s death felt like just too much to bear.) I can understand the impulse, but I wish that it had been handled in a way that lived up to what Finn represented. His most memorable number expressed a sentiment that Glee seemed to have forgotten at the end: you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

And by trying to be all things, Glee ended up as less than it could have been. Last week, while writing about three recent sitcoms, I pointed out that for all their surface similarity, they’re very different on the inside. What set Glee apart is that it wanted to have it all: the flyover sentimentality of Parks and Rec, the genre-bending of Community, the rapid succession of throwaway jokes we see in the likes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That’s a lot for one show to handle, and Glee never lacked for ambition; unfortunately, it just wasn’t very competent or consistent, although its good intentions carried it surprisingly far. After the finale, my wife pointed out that the show’s most lasting legacy might be in the inner lives of teenagers coming to terms with their own sexuality, which can’t be denied. But it could have done all this and been a good show. I’m grateful to it for a handful of unforgettable moments, but that’s true of any television series, which time and memory tend to reduce to little more than a single look on an actor’s face. As Howard Hawks, one of Godard’s idols, said: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.” For television, you can multiply that number by five. Glee had all the great scenes we could ever need, but it racked up countless bad scenes and diminished itself as it tried to be everything to everyone. And it got the finale that it wanted, even if Finn deserved more.

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March 23, 2015 at 9:25 am

The completist’s dilemma

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Bart's Comet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture that you once loved became a chore?”

At some point, almost without knowing it, we all became completists. Twenty or even ten years ago, the idea that you couldn’t dip into a show like, say, The Vampire Diaries without first working chronologically through the four previous seasons would have seemed vaguely ridiculous. When I was growing up, I thought nothing of checking in occasionally with the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation without any notion of trying to see every episode. That’s the beauty of the medium—we’re all naturally good at figuring out stories in progress, so it’s possible to to start watching midway through an unfamiliar show and catch up fairly quickly with the narrative. (David Mamet, who advises writers to throw out the first ten minutes of every script, notes: “When you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatsoever understanding what’s going on?”) Yet between Netflix, various other streaming options, and the rise in intensely serialized storytelling, many of us have gotten to the point where we feel like we need to watch an entire series to watch it at all, so that committing to a new show implicitly means investing dozens or hundreds of hours of our lives.

This hasn’t been a bad thing for the medium as a whole, and it’s hard to imagine a show like Mad Men thriving in a world of casual viewers. Yet there’s also a loss here on a number of levels. It makes it harder to get into a new show that has been on the air for a few seasons: as much as we’d like to start watching Person of Interest or Elementary, there’s the nagging sense that we need to put in hours of remedial work before we can start tuning in each week. It’s hard on the creators of shows that don’t lend themselves to this kind of immersive viewing, many of which find themselves trying to split the difference. (In a recent discussion of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club referred to this problem as “how to tell a 22-episode story in a 13-episode world.”) At worst, it can turn even the shows we love into a chore. When you’re catching up on three or more seasons—keeping an eye out for spoilers the entire time—a show as great as Breaking Bad can start to feel like homework. And when you’re staking so much onto a single series, it’s easier to get burned out on the whole thing than if you were sampling it whenever you caught it on the air.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

This isn’t always fair to the shows themselves. My wife and I may have been less forgiving toward Lost and Battlestar Galactica, both of which we started on Netflix and abandoned halfway through, because the effort required seemed greater than either show’s immediate rewards. (It didn’t help that we had only begun to build some momentum when word trickled out about what were widely regarded as their unsatisfying finales. It’s hard to give a show your all when you suspect that the destination may not be worth it.) Yet this experience was only a highly compressed version of what happens to many of us once our favorite shows start to lose their appeal. There came an indefinable point when it no longer seemed worth the effort for me to keep up with Glee or 24, but it wasn’t exactly a burnout—more of a slow, steady fade, to the point where I don’t even remember where I gave up. Saddest of all are the cases of arguably my two favorite shows of all time, The Simpsons and The X-Files, neither of which I managed to watch—or, in the case of The Simpsons, continue to watch—to the end. Part of this was due to a drop in quality, part to changes in my own life, but it seems likely that I’m never going to be a true completist when it comes to the shows that have mattered to me the most.

But then again, maybe that’s how it should be. The trouble with being a completist is that once you’re finished, there isn’t much more to discover, while the best television shows seem to go on and on—often because there’s so much there we haven’t experienced. David Thomson, speaking about the work of Japanese director Mikio Naruse, whose films he once claimed to have never seen, has written: “There is nothing like knowing that one has still to see a body of great work. And no gamble as interesting as pushing the desire to its limit.” That’s how I feel about many of my own favorite shows. As much as I look forward to squeezing every last drop out of Mad Men, I’m also oddly reassured by the fact that there are still excellent episodes of The X-Files, Star Trek, and even The Simpsons that I’ve never seen, and possibly never will. They’ll always be out there, tantalizingly unexplored, and the worlds they encompass remain open and unbounded. And it’s possible that this is a healthier, more natural way to think about television, or any work of art that lends itself to elaborate, obsessive fandoms. Being a completist has rewards of its own, but there’s also something to be said for the promise of the incomplete.

The Bottle Test

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Earlier this year, while watching the entire run of Breaking Bad for the first time, I finally saw “Fly,” which is generally considered to be one of the show’s definitive episodes. It takes place almost entirely in the secret meth lab, as Walt and Jesse go to increasingly elaborate—and dangerous—lengths to kill a pesky fly that ends up symbolizing everything that has gone wrong with both of their lives. And while the conceit was divisive at time, I think it’s easily one of the strongest episodes of the series, and more riveting than many of the show’s busier, more conventionally plotted installments. Part of this is because it focuses squarely on its two most compelling characters, without the digressions to relatively weaker players like Skyler or Marie who tend to sap the momentum. But it’s also a reflection of the inherent strength of one of the most fascinating conventions of episodic television, a form of storytelling that, at its best, offers us nothing less than a distilled version of the shows we love: the bottle episode.

A bottle episode, as viewers of the “Cooperative Calligraphy” episode of Community or the nerds on TV Tropes already know, is an episode of a television series that takes place mostly on one set, and often with only the show’s regular cast. Bottle episodes are usually a budgetary measure, born out of a need to save time or money, but as is often the case when constraints are imposed, the results can be remarkable. My own favorite example is the X-Files episode “Ice,” which, aside from a couple of establishing scenes, takes place entirely in an abandoned research base in Alaska. The result seems designed to economize in more ways than one—the plot is essentially an extended riff on The Thing—but it’s also the first great episode of the series, and one of the best the show ever did. It established the fact that the show’s true strengths had nothing to do with elaborate conspiracies or special effects, but with the ingenious working out of tense, surprising premises. And it’s no accident that the show’s storytelling became immediately more confident after “Ice” established what the series could really do.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’d argue that the ability to deliver a great bottle episode is a measure of a show’s quality. Only a show with supreme confidence in its cast, its premise, the technical qualities of its writing and direction, and a willingness to embrace constraint and simplicity can pull off an episode like this. And if we apply this hypothetical test to an actual show, the resulting thought experiment tells us a lot about the series in question. It’s hard to imagine a show like Glee, for instance, with its obsession with burning through ideas and plotlines as quickly as possible, generating the necessary focus to keep its primary cast in a room for forty minutes while still keeping our attention. (“Blame It On the Alcohol” is a great example of a potentially promising bottle episode that chickens out halfway through.) Conversely, while Mad Men has never done a true bottle episode—“The Suitcase” probably comes closest—the prospect of keeping these characters in a single location is undeniably enticing.

Which only demonstrates that part of the appeal of the bottle episode is that it’s really an allegory for the act of making television itself. Any television series, after all, really amounts to a bottle episode being played out in real life over the course of many seasons: it involves a group of actors, writers, and other professionals thrown together on a few standing sets, often without a lot of advance preparation, so that it’s anyone’s guess what will come next. This is especially true of comedy, in which the dynamics present in the pilot will often evolve in ways that nobody could have anticipated at the time: a secondary character will turn into a breakout star, supporting players will fall flat or rise to the occasion, and unusual pairings and combinations will arise under the endless pressure of producing new stories. The more interesting the ensuing collisions, the better the show will be. And none of this would happen if the process weren’t already taking place in a bottle—and unfolding before our eyes.

Note: If this is your first time here, please take a moment to visit my author page and learn a bit about my novel The Icon Thief.

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August 14, 2012 at 10:02 am

Farewell to Glee

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I can’t quite remember when I gave up on Glee. For the first two seasons, I watched the show regularly, both because I enjoyed it and because it was the kind of creative, ambitious mess that can be more interesting to think about than a conventionally tidy series. Glee often fell flat on its face, but it did so in unexpected ways that made me reflect on the nature of storytelling, the challenges of episodic television, and the power of ensembles. After a while, though, it just became too exhausting. The show was still good for a handful of transcendent moments, but I found it increasingly hard to sit through the rest, especially as it became clear that the writers had no idea what to do with their most important characters. Finally, I just stopped. Until this week, I hadn’t watched an episode all year, not since “Asian F,” which aired all the way back in October.

And yet I occasionally found myself missing it. Sometimes I’d watch a clip online, or think back to the promise of Glee‘s first season, or just remember the characters, some of whom I still cared about, at least in their earlier incarnations. (I also had a surprisingly good time watching the concert movie on a plane.) Still, I wasn’t really tempted to check in again. As I recently put it to a friend of mine, there’s so much good television available these days, both on the air and on DVD, that I have no excuse for watching a show that doesn’t stand at the very top of its game. Mad Men, for instance, is basically awesome all the time, and Community isn’t far behind. And when I still haven’t seen most of the Sorkin years of The West Wing or all but a few episodes of The Sopranos, it’s hard to justify investing time in a show that pays off only intermittently.

Of course, if I’d followed this rule my entire life, I never would have watched The X-Files, my favorite show of all time, which seemed perversely intent on punishing viewers who expected anything like consistency. And sometimes it can be thrilling to see a show you love suddenly return to form. Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club has always been one of Glee’s most interesting critics—he’s the one responsible for the theory of the three Glees—and he has an interesting take on this. To his mind, Glee could have been an observant, sad, but ultimately triumphant series about growing up in a small town while dealing with the failure of your own dreams, which is what it felt like in the pilot. Instead, it was taken over by ridiculous high concepts, big production numbers, and theme episodes, but would occasionally still send dispatches from an alternate universe where that other show still existed.

All of which is to say that I watched the show again this week, if only to see the kids win Nationals at last, and I enjoyed it. Still, it’s startling to realize how little I regret missing the past fifteen episodes: there were plot points or characters I didn’t recognize, but for the most part, this is the same show I remembered—and perhaps more fondly than if I’d been around for some of the low points in between. And as much as I liked this episode, I can also safely say that after this season, I’m done with Glee. Every television show ultimately boils down to a handful of moments in the viewer’s memory, an idealized version constructed out of its best pieces, and the Glee of my imagination—the one that was wistful, funny, and occasionally spectacular—is now complete. It was good to tune in one last time, but now that I’ve shared in that moment, it’s finally time to graduate.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2012 at 9:49 am

What would the Community think?

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The more I think about it, the more I suspect that making great television over the course of multiple seasons might be the most challenging of all sustained creative acts. On a practical level, it’s arguably harder than directing a movie or writing a novel, not just because of the scale and speed required, but because of the uncertainty inherent in network scheduling, in which a show’s creator doesn’t know whether he’ll have one episode, half a season, or six seasons and a movie. Few series have suffered from more uncertainty than Dan Harmon’s Community, which, despite a vocal fan following, has always seemed on the verge of cancellation. Its return is therefore all the more cause for celebration, not simply because the show survived, but because it thrived under awful circumstances: no other contemporary series, not even Mad Men, has faced the vagaries of modern television as well as Community, which has pushed the boundaries of the sitcom in every episode while somehow adding up to a satisfying whole. The result is a master class in both comedy and storytelling.

When I think of Community, the first word that comes to mind is balance. This may seem surprising, given some of the truly unhinged episodes that the show has produced over the past few years, but what really stands out with this series is its ability to coordinate a wide range of impulses and ambitions—any one of which, left unchecked, would lead to disaster—within one remarkably cohesive vision. It’s a fantastically structured and plotted show that also leaves room for its characters to evolve through improvisation. It’s breathtakingly smart and honestly emotional. It’s a whirlwind history of recent pop culture (the second season is the first thing I’d throw into a time capsule to give future generations a sense of what this decade was like) and also fundamentally grounded in the lives of its seven major characters. And like Glee, it began with a cast meant to evoke sitcom stereotypes and then gradually reveal greater depths, but unlike Glee, it succeeded.

The comparison with Glee, which I’m not the first to make—Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club has set it out admirably—is perhaps the most instructive. From its first episodes on, Glee was manifestly a show of vast ambition but limited ability to realize its goals. Community, by contrast, has aimed even higher and nailed every challenge it set for itself. And its ambitions have only grown over time. This was a smart, funny show right out of the gate, but it wasn’t until late in the first season that it locked on to its true potential. Part of this was its discovery of the range of things it could do, from tightly written bottle episodes to fake clip shows to epic parodies of action and science fiction movies, but it also involved refining the characters to take advantage of the strengths of its cast, particularly the astonishing triumvirate of Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, and Gillian Jacobs. (Jacobs, in particular, has been a revelation in the second half of the show’s run, as Britta evolved from a bland voice of reason to a glorious train wreck of a human being.)

Above all else, Community reminds us how to be clever. I’ve written at length about the perils of cleverness, and there are certainly critics who see the show as nothing more than a cleverness machine, churning out movie references and pastiches for its tiny audience. Yet the show’s real cleverness doesn’t lie in its inside jokes and nerd-culture homages—otherwise, it would be little more than a more cuddly version of Family Guy—but in its ability to integrate them into a world that feels emotional and real. Greendale is one of those fictional places in which we want to believe, populated by characters who feel like our friends, and whose lives and problems remain consistent even as they’re fighting zombies or split into alternate timelines. That’s more than clever; it’s astounding. My favorite episode consists of nothing but the characters talking around a table for twenty minutes, but it works because they’re doing exactly what the show does every week: telling stories. And it does it as well as any show I’ve ever seen.

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2012 at 10:20 am

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