Friday, 7 October 2011

The President's Enemies: Community, Parks & Recreation reviews


COMMUNITY: 'Competitive Ecology'

I enjoyed last week's Community a great deal, while many other people found it decidedly average. This week, the roles are reversed: 'Competitive Ecology' seems to have enjoyed a broadly positive critical reception, but it felt a little too obvious in its comedic targets and perhaps even a little mean-spirited to make its mark.

Community has of course done mean-spirited before and done it very well, through last season's Pierce-as-villain arc. Dan Harmon has reportedly said that this season will be more serialised, so it will be interesting to see whether the ideas laid out here - that the group have become so insular that even the most sympathetic of outsiders is instantly treated as an enemy - pay off further down the line. Personally, I would rather see it left behind. Having one member of the group acting out is one thing, but turning them all to the dark side is taking the edginess a step too far.
The episode began with the group in its most happy-go-lucky mood, awwwing at Shirley's baby and Annie's general Annie-ness, before heading to their Biology class with Professor Kane, who set up each member of the group with brand new partners for their next assignment.

I can see what Maggie Bandur, the episode's writer, was trying to do. Ensemble comedies naturally keep their central cast focused entirely around one another, rarely allowing a fresh face to enter the fold without being the centre of some sort of conflict. Being as self-aware as they are, the Community group are naturally wary of having to interact with new people, but fail to notice that they are the ones whose prejudices are at the heart of all the trouble that is laid at poor Todd's feet. It's a clever idea, reversing a sitcom trope in the way Community usually revels in, but not necessarily a good one: the audience has to feel some degree of sympathy with at least a few of the characters to be able to laugh at what they're doing.

It's perfectly possible to laugh at people being mean, but that either has to be taken to New Statesman/Alan B'Stard levels of extremes or make the people suffering deserve it in some way. (Blackadder was a reprehensible sod at the best of times, but was surrounded by idiots who were practically begging for his scorn). Making Todd a slightly timid but otherwise perfectly bright and pleasant character was a fatal misjudgment, because the study group's blaming their every problem on him felt nasty rather than blackly comic. They weren't quite horrible enough and Todd not quite sweet enough for it to become an abuse-the-kitten situation: it just felt like selfish people arguing and a decent young man stumbling into it and taking some undeserved hits.

The B-plot, involving Chang imagining up a paranoia-driven detective mystery through sheer strength of boredom, had a handful of amusing lines but couldn't get away from the fact that mocking gravelly gumshoe voice-overs and incomprehensible clues has been done countless times before. The big joke was that none of it made the slightest bit of sense outside Chang's misfiring brain, but a lot of the absurdism felt laboured and lacked any sort of context ("Let her go, like a lobster claw letting go of a balloon made for lobsters"). Film noir parody is a well long since run dry, meaning that it either has to be very specific - parodying one specific film and its quirks - or bring some fresh angle to the table, which is nigh-on impossible to do since the genre has really been cannibalising its own clichés since Chinatown.

There were some fun bits here and there - Alison Brie once again showed her gift for physical comedy with a flawless faint upon hearing she had failed her homework, while Chevy Chase's line delivery and timing are getting great gains from limited opportunities in these early episodes -but 'Competitive Ecology' never matched its conceptual intelligence with the required deftness of execution.

PARKS & RECREATION: 'Born And Raised'

If Community was a bit too mean for its own good this week, Parks & Rec was at its loveliest, fuzziest best. I can't think of any other comedy which has been filled almost exclusively with characters so well meaning and so determined to turn life's lemons into lemonade (for want of a less agonising cliché). It gives the series and its comedy a distinctive flavour, drawing a great deal of its laughs from watching these affectionate and charming people stumbling their way towards what they hope is a better town for everyone. Even their flaws - like Leslie's utter disdain for the people of Eagleton and her horror at discovering she is technically one of them - are all sorts of adorable. Only Parks & Rec could pull off a scene where a good-looking man tries to manipulate a desk clerk into giving her what he wants, only for him to come out as the sympathetic one after being rebuffed.

There's almost not a great deal to say about 'Born And Raised' other than that it emphasized many of the series' finest points. The episode thoroughly disarmed my initial cynicism that it was going to be nothing more than a thirty-minute long promotion for a spin-off book by making it so integral to the plot that it was more than satisfying enough as a narrative device to make up for any marketing purposes it may also have been engaged in. It also brought out the full, glorious ludicrousness of the Pawnee townspeople, which never fails to be a joy. Public meetings are one of the series' most enjoyable sources of laughs, with Leslie having to argue against the increasingly incomprehensible logic of the locals to make her point. This time she was at the centre of their ire, after being accused - sorry, GOTCHA!'d - on television for, unbeknownst to her, not actually having been born in Pawnee.

Naturally, the townspeople aren't all that thrilled about this, especially since Leslie is running for office and staking her reputation on being a local champion, meaning there was only one man she could call on. Previously through dead by the President...'s enemies, Burt Macklin and his on-again-off-again sunglasses were back in action. As far as comedic alter-egos go - and there's a terrific list of some of the best ones over at fellow entertainment blog The Oncoming Hope - Burt never fails to amuse for channelling Andy's boundless puppydog enthusiasm into a character who is supposed to be cool and badass. Who else could vault a desk with quite such glorious clumsiness?

The second plot involved Ben and Tom, who have been paired together twice now in these early episodes and both times been highlights. It's easy to understand why: Ben's exasperated intelligence has a perfect foil in Tom's completely naive, misplaced self-belief. This time around they were taking a talk show host out to dinner in order to get her to sponsor Leslie's book, only to discover that she is recently divorced and very, very hungry for men. Specifically, Tom-shaped men.

From her getting more and more drunk as the 'date' went on, Tom's utter terror at the prospect of actually having to sleep with her and Ben's general appal at the whole situation, barely a second went by without some fantastic line ("Is she going to powder her vagina?") or interplay between the actors. I'm also loving how annoyed Ben gets when Tom labels him as a complete nerd, only for him to then be unable to hold himself back when given the opportunity to indulge that side of him, be it 'fun' paperwork, Peter Jackson's interpretation of Lord Of The Rings (not a fan) or J.J. Abrams' Star Trek sequel.

The episode's sole flaw was that its C-plot, where Ann Perkins tried to get Ron and April to have a friendly chat with her, didn't really go anywhere and exposed how little we really know about Ann so far. She's Leslie's friend and she's lovely, but is definitely the least developed of the main cast and the one that the writers most obviously struggle to know what to do with. Rashida Jones is, of course, fantastic and there were some hysterical moments in her ongoing setbacks, be it April expertly rebuffing her questions ("Who's your favourite character from Sex And The City?" "...Alf.") or Ron Swanson whittling a working flute from a twig, which he then used to musically mock her.

Ann's best position is as the straight woman, bringing out the best from other characters, which she certainly did last night - if only the plotline had any relevance to to what was going on elsewhere, it would have been the icing on the cake. But it did have Ron giving a tiny smile at April throwing his own tactic back at him, so all is forgiven in the end.


1 comment:

theoncominghope said...

Glad I'm not the only one who really disliked Community this week!

I seem to be in the minority about Parks this week though. While still good, I thought it was a bit too on-the-nose.