Friday, 30 September 2011

Weird Sexual Tension: Community, Parks & Recreation, Archer reviews

COMMUNITY: 'Geography Of Global Conflict'

Last night's episode of Community seems to be drawing some fire for not being as ambitious in plot or structure as many of the second season episodes, like 'A Fistful Of Paintballs' or 'Critical Film Studies', which pushed the limit of what the programme could do with its twenty minutes. Personally, that's an argument which doesn't sit all that comfortably, not only because I was laughing very hard all the way through 'Geography Of Global Conflict', but because it's nice to know that Community can do the simple, grounded episodes as well as it can do ones where the ensemble get stuck inside a space shuttle or zombie attack.

One of the reasons South Park went downhill for a while for me was because it stopped doing the small episodes based around the dynamics of the school, thus breaking the characters' (admittedly tenuous) link to an identifiable reality. If Community did so-called 'high concept' episodes every week, Greendale would cease to become the living, breathing campus which makes it so much fun when playing host to the more outlandish events, and instead become an empty stage to fill each week, with characters playing different roles rather than themselves. Also, did I mention that 'Geography of Global Conflict' was, by any measure, very funny indeed?
Even though last week's season premiere apparently got dismal ratings - and if you're an American reader who hasn't tried Community yet, please give it a few episodes' grace, even if only for the rest of us - I can see why Dan Harmon has put these two episodes at the beginning of Greendale's year three. Last week was a great introduction for newcomers to Jeff, Pierce and the roles the study group plays in their lives, while this week put the female characters to the fore. Annie got to be hilariously neurotic about her 'multicultural evil twin', throwing one of those screaming tantrums that is something of an Alison Brie speciality, while Britta panicked when she realised, in typically self-indulgent fashion, how she had forgotten her protester past. Shirley also got a few grace notes, although Yvette Nicole Brown continues to be the least well served member of the cast - a shame, considering how fantastic her line delivery and timing is.

Though the story was based around two characters suffering identity crises (three if you count Jeff trying to rationalise his feelings for Annie by seeing her as an adult), the majority of the jokes were free-form, arriving as a result of whatever was happening at that particular moment rather than drawn from one central idea, à la 'Critical Film Studies'. Garrett's over-emphatic moderation of the duelling model UNs was consistently hysterical, Jeff got a big laugh from the poorly timed realisation that Martin Short's professor had the unfortunate name 'Cligoris' (an easy joke, but perfectly sold) and though Britta and Chang's B-plot was one-note, it was a note which kept on delivering, thanks to the recognition of the inherent hammy hilarity of Lionel Ritchie's 'Hello'. Asian Annie also made a pretty terrific villain and Abed's obsession with his two earths theory got a satisfying pay-off. 'Geography Of Global Conflict' might not have aimed as high as previous Community episodes, but it's reassuring to know the series can still deliver in style when staying down to earth.

PARKS & RECREATION: 'Ron & Tammys'

If there will may well be plenty of people who disagree with me about this week's Community, there will certainly be even more who do so for my finding 'Ron & Tammys' a bit of a disappointment. That's not to say there weren't plenty of laughs, because this is Parks & Recreation after all - and not only that, but an episode of Parks where Leslie gets drunk, which is always a goldmine for Amy Poehler. It's just that everything seemed a bit rushed when it came to the main plot between Ron and his terrifying Tammys, struggling to properly pay off the fear that Tammy One inspired in the previous two episodes (counting last year's season finale).

Patricia Clarkson made a huge impression in her brief cameo at the end of last week's episode, but her character didn't feel as fully developed as it needed to for the scenario to reach its full potential. The audience were expected to see her as fearsome and domineering because that's how we were told to see her, even though there was little she did in action to justify such a reputation. Yes, she got Ron effin' Swanson to shave off his moustache, but that happened off-screen. She came up with a devious plan to find out if getting back together with Ron was financially viable by getting him audited, but that was just taking advantage of her position. In terms of her method of controlling people and honing in on their weaknesses, everything was told but little was shown.

While the same could be said for Tammy Two, her power over Ron is entirely sexual and sex is nowhere near as complicated as fear (though can make people do things just as insane). It was also a tad underwhelming that Tammy One turned out to be an archetypal villain, the domineering ice-queen mother figure, where last week vaguely intimated that what made her scary might be a cold and calculating approach to doing what she thought was best for people. (Hence her comment to April about her breasts). For such a character to work, we needed to spend more time with her than just the one episode as to get a feel for her way of thinking and how she turns those plans into action.

Tammy Zero was fun, if a little obvious: her room full of guns and strong distrust in government obviously made Ron the man he is today, but it would have been more effective had we seen his characteristics come from a number of different sources - all the Tammys - rather than just the one. Also, was it just me who was disappointed that Ron's moustache hadn't grown back once he had finished chugging the 'punchin' juice'? Sure, it might have pushed the boundaries of realism, but those boundaries are pretty broad on Parks anyway. A rare opportunity missed for some Swanson badassery.

There was plenty of great stuff in the episode even if the A-plot, for me, fell a bit short. Everything involving Entertainment 720 was wonderful, from the inexplicable chairs to Ben's fantastic line about how he expected them to be bankrupt by the time he finished his sentence. Jean-Ralphio and Tom are a fantastic combination, their powers combined into a Captain Planet of comedy when  given Ben's straight face to bounce off. The stuff with Chris and Ann was weaker, but may be setting up a situation where he annuls the rule against office romances to allow the two to get back together (thus giving Ben and Leslie the same opportunity) and did give Rashida Jones the opportunity to do some of her signature dry line delivery, especially on 'There's no-one else here'. Her accompanying facial expression of sheer despondency was wonderful.

ARCHER: 'Heart Of Archness Part III'

My reaction to the concluding part of the 'Heart of Archness' trilogy was similar in many ways to how I felt about 'Ron & Tammys' in that both felt a little too rushed to make the most of their opportunities. As with Parks, Archer is so naturally strong that when it falls short in one department, there's always somewhere else that picks up and covers, with a wealth of terrific one-liners compensating for a plot that was even flimsier than usual. My slightly disappointed reaction might also have had something to do with how these three episodes, as entertaining as they have been, haven't really done anything special by the series' standards other than take the characters on a pirate adventure.

By the end, everything was reset to normal - Ray was in a wheelchair, but given how Archer recovered from cancer in two episodes, I don't see that as being a long-term situation - and Katya's death, which set the whole scenario in motion, was barely given more than a handful of lines throughout the entire mini-series. I don't think that 'Heart of Archness' needed to be the revenge epic I was initially hoping for, but it did need to justify its existence outside the usual seasonal structure, as something greater than just an excuse for more Archer. Which is pretty great, but you know what I mean. Now that we're at the end, I don't see why the 'Archness' trilogy couldn't have just been the first three episodes of next season, rather than existing on their own. Nothing needs to change in the Archer universe, which is a relief because I doubt it ever will, but when something is positioned as an event, it is a little underwhelming when it turns out to be more of the same, even if that same is of such a ridiculously high standard.

Anyway, the positives: lots of laughs, especially Archer's Get Smart reference (a perfect impersonation of the legendary Don Adams from H. Jon Benjamin) and Cheryl/Carol's inspired mockery of Malory's haughty tones. Even moreso than usual, a great deal of the humour consisted of callbacks and running jokes, including another 'Lana... Lana... LANAAAA!', but part of the fun of these characters is all the absurd little rituals and idiosyncrasies they share, so while there's probably a legitimate criticism to be found somewhere for the lack of new material, there's absolutely nothing wrong with wheeling out the classics.

If anything, it was the new stuff which fell short: Archer being conflicted between getting a dangerously wounded Ray to safety or going to watch a lacrosse game was a step too far even for him, while Noah's attempts to escape the gaol cell by scraping the stone floor with a spoon never really paid off as anything more than a below-par sight gag.I did love how Lana finally called Archer out on how he can have the most insanely arcane knowledge at his fingertips (such as who discovered blood groups) yet fall short when it comes to far more mundane stuff (what his own blood group is, or knowing that Houdini is dead). 'Heart of Archness' has been a very enjoyable mini-series and 'Part III' often very funny, but it is a bit of a shame it couldn't amount to anything more than that in the end.


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