Friday, 28 October 2011

Television - Community 'Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps' review / Parks & Recreation 'Meet 'N' Greet' review


'Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps' was by and large a Halloween-themed rewrite of Remedial Chaos Theory from two weeks ago, playing many of the same riffs - the same story told by each of the main cast members, all bringing their own personalities to how it unfolded - and consequently suffering by comparison. It was a poor decision to schedule two episodes so similar in content and theme to air in succession, albeit with two weeks' interval in between rather than one, because 'Horror Fiction' on its own terms had a lot of great ideas and jokes, but constantly strained to not feel repetitive.

The big difference, I suppose, is that every story in 'Chaos Theory' looked at how the group dynamics changed when one member was extracted, whereas 'Horror Fiction' focused on what happens when one member of the group defines the narrative. There were as many fun touches as ever, such as how Shirley now sees Britta as a weed fiend after catching her smoking pot last week, or Annie portrays Britta as being 'totally fine' as vampire Jeff's personal blood bank. (And we all know what a vampire bite stands in for). Alison Brie was also firing on all her sexy/adorable cylinders, which makes me inclined to give 'Horror Fiction' a free pass immediately, but it never felt as clever or insightful as the episode which preceded it.
The episode's framework, where the results of a personality test Britta had subjected the group to reveals that one of them might be a potential psychopath, was pretty flimsy, and didn't evolve as naturally into the main event - the scary stories - as easily as Troy and Abed's flatwarming party from last week. Britta wants to know who the psycho could be, so encourages everyone to tell horror stories in order to get an insight into how each member of the group thinks. The problem, as Pierce of all people pointed out, is that this group have been hanging out together for the better part of two years now. Britta would surely know them all well enough to be able to make a pretty good guess at who gave which answers on the test sheets without having to resort to such elaborate methods.

Then again, she is Britta, so I suppose doing things the easy way isn't really her style. There were some terrific Britta moments here, from her disgust at how her name had been verbed to the way in which the radio newsreader in her story relayed the details of the monster using her 'distinctive' speech patterns, even if Gillian Jacobs didn't get much to do other than deliver some fun lines and snog Jeff and Abed. I'll wager she wasn't complaining, though.

Her story and Abed's, where he tore out every illogical facet out of the genre until it wasn't much more than a safety video, were the most accurate representations of their characters. Shirley's played the Christian card too heavily and though we know she thinks of many of her fellow study group members as sinners, she also likes them enough to consider them redeemable. It seemed a most un-Christian thing to leave them at the mercy of the Devil Dean and his demonic assistant, Pilates, while ascending to heaven herself. There was no sign of any of her maternal instincts. Troy's was a lot of fun, with the highest concentration of absurd sight gags (Top Gun pilots/Troy and Abed sewn together!/feet for hands) but again, only really played on the character's most basic nature as a man-child with an overabundant imagination. Same goes for Pierce, although his story did provide this article's marvellous header image, so all is forgiven.

Annie's story was a little more in-depth (not a comment on Alison Brie's outstanding dress, although...) and gave a fun insight into how she sees Jeff and Britta. Even though the ending revealed everyone except Abed to be a possible candidate for psychopathy, Annie is probably the most naturally deranged of them all. Not only in the joyous perversity of her imagination - Brie describing how her character would tear Jeff apart like a 'gerbil on a Quaker Oats box' was an hilariously overspecific metaphor - but how she sees people only in the most extreme forms. Britta, her rival for Jeff's affections, isn't just seen as a floozy, but someone Jeff can pull out of a cupboard and have his way with at will. Annie doesn't like this, because she daydreams of taming the sexual monster inside Jeff by... teaching it to read. And when she can't tame him, she'll settle for tearing him apart, like a Quaker Oats box. Not to overstate the point about Brie's awesome powers of loveliness, but I could spend all day watching a .gif of Annie looking all proud of herself after describing the gory details of how she would torture the vampire Jeff.

'Horror Fiction' had a lot of great material like that, but little of it offered any information we didn't already know. We have hung around these people long enough to be aware of how they see and interact with each other. Even if having it played out in short Halloween vignettes was fun, compared to the more innovative and expertly structured ideas powering 'Chaos Theory', it was all a bit too obvious and familiar.


'Meet N Greet' was another solid episode of Parks & Rec which was enjoyable, but never threatened to hit the heights that the series is capable of. There was some nice work done in pulling Tom Haverford back down to earth from the heights of his usual self-absorbed excesses, but the character moments felt strangely disconnected from the comedy.

A recurring theme across the three main plots was people being pushed to their limits in order to express themselves more freely. On the brink of desperation at Entertainment 720 going bankrupt, Tom completely took over Leslie's business presentation in order to do as much self-promotion as he possibly could. Andy realised, at his Halloween party, how incapable Ben was of voicing his frustrations and bullied him until he finally exploded. Chris, meanwhile, continued in his mistaken belief that the best way of handling his romance with Jerry's daughter was to keep her father informed of everything - EVERYTHING - they were doing together. Predictably, Jerry could only maintain his stone face for so long.

The problem was that this made several of the characters out to be selfish and even a little mean. The great thing about Parks is how upbeat it usually is, but tonight Tom, Andy and Chris all came across badly, even if their actions were ultimately justified. Andy bullies Ben because he wants him to be more capable of asserting himself, yet holding him in a headlock for the duration of the party seemed unnecessarily humiliating and a little out of character for someone who is usually a big, dumb teddy bear. April, the character who might have been able to get away with being more mean than the others due to her darkly sarcastic personality, was strangely subdued throughout, but got a nice bit of revenge in Jerry's defence when she made Chris look like a fool by stealing his keys. Aubrey Plaza also looked inexplicably, incredibly sexy when snarling at the camera in the cold open.

The plot ended on a lovely note, with Andy hugging Tom and declaring him his brother, but everything up to that point was drawn in the uncomfortable image of the big man harassing the weaker man. Again, Andy might have been doing it for the right reasons, but given how most people's sympathies will go out to the underdog, it wasn't an easy watch seeing Ben being dragged around by someone dressed as a wrestler. Plus, given how Ben has already confronted Tom about his business accounts and must have had to do so in countless previous jobs, surely he can't be quite so meek as presented here?

Much the same goes for Tom. We can see how much the business event means to Leslie as an opportunity to make herself a serious candidate for Pawnee office, and having Tom take advantage of her when she was already kind enough to be his only apparent employer was taking the character's obnoxiousness too far. It was alleviated by his confession in the hot tub, and we know Tom well enough that there's no way he could ever have asked for help without Leslie dunking the truth out of him (a great physical comedy skit from Poehler and Ansari), but the bulk of the episode still had him taking advantage of a friend's generosity and potentially capsizing her ambitions to promote his own, which just didn't sit right.

There was little humour inherent to the situation, with all the best lines coming as independent asides, especially the always funny reminders of how averse the town of Pawnee is to anything approaching good health ("When in doubt in Pawnee, slam salads."). Tom's real tribute to Leslie was his funniest contribution to 'Meet 'N' Greet', because it brought back the sweetness crucial to making the character's outlandishly selfish personality bearable.

The other two stories were pretty slight - Jerry getting increasingly frustrated at how his daughter is carrying on with Chris, and Ron roping in Ann Perkins as his assistant in fixing up Andy and April's deathtrap of a house - and only the Ron/Ann story caught the good natured spirit that is Parks' strongest suit, even though it had the same issue as many of Ann's stories have so far this season, that the writers don't seem sure of what to do with her. The dating arc last season was the closest she has come to being properly defined as a character and though there was plenty of joy in seeing the second meekest of the series' characters (after Ben) being recruited by the most overtly dominant, and having a wonderful time learning a new skill from the master, it was a throwaway story through and through. Rashida Jones has terrific skills for comic delivery and her plumber gobbledegook was possibly the episode's biggest laugh outside of April turning Jerry's Mr. Potato head smile into a frown. If the writers can find a way of exploiting that talent in a more meaningful way than a vehicle for C-plots, both the character and the series would benefit.

I won't say too much about the Jerry/Chris storyline, because my thoughts are pretty much the same as for the Leslie/Tom and Andy/Ben plots. Jerry is perfectly rational and decent about letting Chris date his daughter, but Chris is remarkably inconsiderate about it (albeit by accidentally), especially in dancing raunchily right in front of him. Chris has always been ridiculous, but he's moving into caricature in the same way that Big Bang Theory turned Sheldon into an excessively exaggerated version of what once made him fun, thus making him difficult to watch. Jerry is a terrific punching bag for the series, but when the blows get personal, it's another case that the natural alignment with the underdog means the person delivering the blows - Chris - starts to look bad. Given how the appeal of Parks & Recreation, for me, has always been that it is the warmest series on television, hopefully 'Meet 'N' Greet' just represents a temporary blip on the way back to everyone being friends again.


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