Friday, 6 May 2011

Pretty Awesome Today: Community, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock reviews


COMMUNITY: 'A Fistful of Paintballs'


Abed certainly got that right. Like most people, I adored Community's first season paintball episode, though was wary of them going back to the well. Revisiting old glories is a tricky business and more than most, that episode feels as though it has been hanging over the series' head ever since. I doubt there would have been so many 'gimmick' episodes this season, in the vein of the 'Basic Rocket Science', 'Epidemiology' or 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas', had the writers not felt the need to prove that 'Modern Warfare' wasn't a one-off. (Fortunately, those episodes were all pretty terrific). Even the characters joked about what a defining moment their paintball adventure was, such as Abed's hoodie in 'Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy'. Hopefully, any lingering doubts that those heights could never again be reached have now been quashed. 'A Fistful of Paintballs' not just matched its paintball predecessor, but surpassed it.

I can see there being an argument that 'Fistful' wasn't as funny as 'Modern Warfare', nor as ambitious. Both points are true, but not completely fair. Where the season one episode was a broad take on many different types of action movie, including Chang's awesome John Woo-style gangster, this episode focused entirely on the single genre of the spaghetti western, which has a very distinct flavour that few subsequent homages have got right, and hit it out of the park.
Community is generally a series that uses visuals very well, be it the extravagance of the claymation Christmas or the Dungeons and Dragons episode creating a fantasy world solely from the characters' gestures and descriptions. From the start, this episode felt like the production values had been kicked up several notches, from the fantastic credits sequence, character flashcards and costume (I'm pretty sure Troy was wearing Sheriff Bart's outfit from Blazing Saddles) to shots like the four-way standoff between Pierce, Annie, Jeff and the mysterious Black Rider, or the 'Fort Hawthorne' set. Being a spaghetti western junkie, I adored the many moments like Abed's introduction recalling that of Lee Van Cleef chowing on someone else's food in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. The Morricone-esque soundtrack was spot-on and the dialogue dry enough to earn its Leone spurs, but made the most of every word in a very Community way. The way Annie said 'beans' made me very happy indeed.

Actually, Annie in general made me very happy indeed. Alison Brie is never anything less than wondrous, but by god was she breathtaking here, and not just the slow-motion running, though I certainly wasn't complaining. It made a perfect kind of sense for Annie to throw herself so completely into the Western vibe, as she's not someone who does things by halves. In that respect, Jeff and co. might only want the $100k prize money, but Annie would naturally be the one to turn herself into the badass of the group through her striving for perfection in all things Greendale-related. The on-edge intensity that Brie brings to the character turned into an hilarious spin on Clint Eastwood's no-nonsense vibe and more importantly, li'l awesome Annie gunning down cheerleaders with a six-shooter drawn from her thigh holster was sexy beyond words.

On a less lascivious note, it was terrific to see Pierce's villainy central to the storyline and Chevy Chase again played a blinder, making his speech about the study group being his life feel sincere, yet his betrayal of them a kind of sad inevitability of his character. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out in the finale: I suspected Pierce might have been behind the whole plot at one point, wondering why such a rich man would be so keen to win the prize money, before realising it would be the same reason he's at Greendale: to feel part of something and prove himself. My guess would be that he'll be the one to 'save' the group from the new threat promised in the excellent cliffhanger.

The other characters didn't get so much to do, with Britta especially in the background (only fair I suppose, since she was at the centre of the first round of paintballing). Abed and Troy had a lovely moment when they found each other still 'alive', and though Jeff's sudden bout of insecurity at the appearance of the ├╝ber-handsome Black Rider (a pitch-perfect Josh Holloway) didn't quite ring true, it did produce a few good lines. This was a perfect example of what Community does brilliantly, mixing intelligent pastiche with great character writing, laying the ghost of 'Modern Warfare' to rest even though the writers now have to somehow overcome this new standard-bearer in their very next episode.

BEST LINE: "He's a bad shot too? What does this guy have going for him?"


This week's episode of Parks didn't make me laugh quite as often as others have this year, but it hardly mattered. I only started watching the series at the beginning of this season and at first, though I enjoyed it, didn't see what all the fuss was about. Since then, I've come to appreciate that while Community will pull a full-scale Western out of its hat and 30 Rock will keep delving to new depths of silliness for laughs, almost everything that  makes Parks work revolves around its characters, both human (The Mighty Ron Swanson possibly counting as superhuman though) or Pawnee itself. So though the gag hit-rate was slightly lower than the series' average, this was an episode all about those characters and how much they care for each other, which happens to also be the reason they are so easy to care about in turn.

Being Parks, a slightly lower number of successful gags is still way above the standard of even most strong comedies. Nick Offerman's physical tics, as Ron tried with increasing desperation to find out what Leslie was planning for his birthday, were the gift that kept on giving ("Shut your damn mouth!") and his terrified twitch when she opened the door on his surprise was glorious. Leslie's fraught relationship with her Eagleton nemesis and former friend Lindsey also produced the sights of Amy Poehler launching herself on top of Parker Posey amidst a pile of rubbish bags, and her absolute horror that her favourite waffles might be used as dog laxatives. That scene, the episode's comedic highlight, also had Tom's pseudo-threatening offer of his CV to join Lindsey's affluent Eagleton department, and Andy's subsequent delighted ignorance at what was really going on. When Leslie was carted off to gaol, the ridiculously accomodating Eagleton cells were also good for a laugh. It's more a credit to how regularly hysterical Parks is that even an episode with this many great moments felt marginally lacking.

It was the character work which really made this special though, with everything we saw of Eagleton proving a rich but heartless version of Pawnee. The episode offered two town conferences, one where Leslie asked the Eagleton residents to remove the fence they had erected through their half of a communal park, and the Pawnee equivalent where outraged townspeople devised increasingly deranged suggestions as to what to do about the fence, starting and ending up back at arson.

While Eagleton had the pancake chefs and the applause every time a speaker declared themselves a resident of the town, it was quickly established that these ceremonies were entirely self-congratulatory, exercises in snobbery by people who could only define themselves by who they were better than, rather than who they were themselves. The fence wasn't put up to protect anything other than their fragile sense of superiority, which the residents of Pawnee took affront to because not only was it an attack on their sense of community, but also their belief that children should be able to play together regardless of wealth or status. 

Leslie, as symbolic of her town in this episode as ever, values communal togetherness and loyalty above all, making Lindsay's betrayal all the more painful as she came to represent everything that Leslie fights against. This being Leslie Knope, her triumph came as a natural and touching extension of those principles: her conversation in the gaol cell with Ann reminded her not only how valuable her true friends were, but also inspired her to come up with a way for both towns to enjoy the park with neither losing face. Her offer to take Lindsay out for a beer at her moment of victory, when a lesser person would have gloated, was the perfect way for Leslie to triumph as Leslie. 

As touching as the moment was, it didn't come close to her unveiling of Ron's real birthday gift though, which was revealed as a steak dinner in front of Bridge Over The River Kwai. As she reminded Ron and us, why would she throw Ron Swanson an Ann Perkins party? It was a beautiful moment between two people who share the deepest bond of friendship - though like all strong friendships, isn't above one person using that knowledge to put their friend through a bit of hell every now and again for the sake of hilarity.

Best Line: "Why don't we build a fence around their fence?"

30 ROCK: 'Respawn'

Once again, I don't think that the season finale of 30 Rock's fifth season was one of its funniest episodes by a long shot, but the character notes brought it together for a reasonably satisfying end. You don't need to have much of an analytic mind to notice that this episode was about the relative values of normalcy, and how people shouldn't feel the need to drastically change who they are in order to be accepted. This message felt a tad ironic at the end of a season which has intermittently tried to alter a working formula, perhaps to reclaim the rabidly acclaiming fanbase which has moved onto more experimental shows like Community after being 30 Rock's preserve for its first two seasons. 

That can hardly come as a surprise though: after so long, a show will naturally find its own rhythms and seem less dynamic and edgy than it used to, purely because the audience are used to it. One of the reasons that 'Modern Warfare' is still such a powerful memory to Community fans is because subsequent efforts to recapture that glory didn't hit the same heights, though they were perfectly entertaining in their own right. I couldn't help but feel, as the gang gathered in Central Park, that their bonding over each other's quirks and fetishes might have been a sly nod to the importance of maintaining the soul of what makes 30 Rock the show it is, without the need for live shows or their like.

It's also mildly ironic because one of my main grievances with this episode was how Jack turned into a needy buffoon with Avery still held in North Korea. Since having a daughter, Jack has become (slightly) more in touch with his emotional side, though the idea of this ultra-Republican man's man suddenly turning into a wreck in his wife's absence just didn't ring true. The previous episode did tackle Jack's inability to get her back, even with Condoleeza Rice batting on his behalf, and Kenneth, who was unwittingly recruited as Avery's replacement, did manage to boss some sense back into him at the episode's end. I just couldn't invest in the character falling that far into self-pity, especially after Liz had already revived his fighting spirit by 'acting like Obama' when her sad voice wasn't working. 30 Rock's default setting is ridiculous, but I personally prefer it when the characters are placed in ridiculous situations rather than becoming ridiculous themselves.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the rest of the episode, although what I just said about Jack could also apply to Tracy's oblivious ruining of Liz's peaceful holiday (the line about the party not having started yet was fun, though). Dr. Spaceman is always a highlight and Kenneth is at his best when popping up to deliver random non-sequiturs, such as his one about 'Aunt Alice', but overall this was an episode that had more chuckles than laughs. (I think the hardest I laughed was when Katrina Bowden was listed in the credits, then only appeared in the background of a single shot. Seriously, 30 Rock, you've got the woman who has just received a 'sexiest in the world' prize and that's the best use you can put her to?). Liz's solution to her not being able to find peace and quiet was clever and the judge's lost gavel amusing, while the chairman of the wool council and his numerous puns raised a smile, but nothing much more than that. It's possibly because I watched Parks & Rec and Community first that this episode seemed tame - as anything would, in the wake of those two on such form - but it never really rose to the occasion you expect a season finale to be.

Regardless, I think 30 Rock has enjoyed a good year. It needed to recover after a disappointing fourth season and by giving the characters more stability and happiness, reminding us that they can be warm and giving as well as acerbic and needy, regained the heart to anchor the silliness. Although the show spluttered when it tried to experiment, in particular with the painful live show, this season was a welcome reminder of how strong the formula is and only this show can get away with being so delightfully mad as when Tracy's 'son' opened a movie monster smackdown themed restaurant in 'Chain Reaction of Mental Anguish' and in the same episode, Kenneth relays to Jack the hysterically twisted  memory of how he came to eat his father-figure pig - possibly my favourite scene of the season, with Alec Baldwin in majestically over-the-top form. Let's also not forget Liz's showdown with her boyfriend Carol on a grounded airplane that turned into a hostage situation, another of the year's many superb comic set-pieces. If the programme isn't as edgy or surprising as it used to be, I don't think that's a bad thing. I enjoy these characters and what they do, so having that consistency just increases the chances of there being more great television every week. There's no shame in being a Liz-bian.

BEST LINE: "Gavel, gavel, gavel! I lost my gavel!"



Matt said...

Nice writing. I don't watch P&R but I agree on the other two.
A thought I had, isn't Annie the one who would need the prize money the most?
She lives by herself next to a dump or something, recycling every last soda can. ("Can you believe I made these curtains myself?" "...Yes.")
Then again, probably true that she just commits herself to this event as she does to everything.

Lers said...

Excellent work as always Xander. I agree on everything, haha!