Friday, 14 October 2011

Whole New Level Of Nerd: Community, Parks & Recreation reviews


TELEVISION REVIEWS

COMMUNITY: 'Remedial Chaos Theory'

By their nature, a lot of sitcoms concern themselves with group dynamics. When you put a set of characters together on a regular basis, it is only a matter of time before questions start coming up about what happens if this character disappears, or what effect two others getting together will have on the ensemble as a whole. The difference with Community is that its characters have always had a certain level of awareness of the nature of their group, in no small part thanks to Abed's meta-commentary on how they constantly find themselves in strangely sit-commy situations.

Last night's episode was a terrific example of how Community sees its characters first and foremost as a group made up of individuals, rather than the usual viewpoint of individuals making up a group. Apologies if that reads as pretentiously as it writes, but I couldn't come up with any better way of expressing it in short form. It's not so much the personalities and traits of each individual that are of primary importance, but what role they play in making the group what it is. 'Remedial Chaos Theory' played out seven scenarios (in twenty-one minutes!) looking at the effects of removing one piece each time from the group dynamic.
 
I spent the episode wondering if it had ever occurred to the writers to abandon their usual tradition of naming each episode as though it were a college class and instead go with something along the lines of 'Crisis In Infinite Communities'. There seemed to be a great deal of inspiration taking from the way comic books bounce between timelines and continuities.

What made the episode a lot of fun was that, excepting a few small nods to ongoing story arcs such as the Jeff and Annie chemistry, the continuity that 'Chaos Theory' dealt with was entirely self-contained within its twenty-one minute running time. So we got Abed's faithful model of the Raiders Of The Lost Ark  boulder sequence, establishing across multiple timelines that Abed always needed to be present to catch the boulder as it fell, only for him not to be there in a later timeline, causing a sequence of events that results in his and Troy's new flat about to burn down and ending with Jeff losing an arm, Pierce dying and a drunk Shirley dealing with the loss in a way that emphasized how much Yvette Nicole Brown needs to have her awesome comic delivery indulged much more often. ("May you rest in Pierce!").

We'll likely never know how much time and planning went into this episode, but it was an exception feat of writing, playing out with perfect clarity and making a clever point about how subtly, but crucially, each character affects the group's behaviour and reactions. 'Paradigms Of Human Memory', the flashback episode, is one of the series' most celebrated episodes, but 'Chaos Theory' struck me as a cleverer, more focused version of it. 'Paradigms' was a witty parody of clip show episodes, but its pieces felt (to me) rather disconnected. 'Chaos Theory' had the unifying sense of purpose that episode lacked and used it to give greater insight into the role these characters play.

We already know that Jeff is the acerbic leader, Pierce sets the limits by regular going over them, Shirley is the mother figure, Annie the heart, Britta the energy and rebellious streak, Abed the observer and commentator and Troy the son, but this was a more precise examination of how, for example, the removal of Abed eliminates the self-awareness that prevents each personality from spiralling out of control. Whole essays could be written about each individual segment, what it tells us about each character, group dynamics, writing, or just sitcoms in general. It will be interesting to read what people make of the ending: was it sad, that Jeff's cynicism prevents the group from having the fun they could have? Or a little more positive, a reminder that his presence is what has been the catalyst for these characters' growth? I'm more in the latter camp.

Most importantly, though, 'Remedial Chaos Theory' was the funniest episode of the season so far by a long shot. There were several big laughs within the first few minutes alone, most of them coming from Troy (for whom this episode is arguably the first where Donald Glover really got a showcase), but then quickly spreading out to Britta's amazing pizza song-and-dance, Shirley's determination to get someone to eat one of her pies (if this episode had a bum note, it's that it was never adequately explained why Jeff took such umbrage with her baking, even if she did do a lot of it) and Pierce being his usual spiteful self. With big laughs complementing big ideas, this was surely the episode to prove to any naysayers that Community is still as hilarious and innovative as it ever.


PARKS & RECREATION: 'Pawnee Rangers' 

By contrast, last night's Parks came across as a standard filler episode - not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but a little bit flat. It also made the exceptionally rare mistake for this programme of feeling as though its characters were sometimes acting slightly outside their usual patterns of behaviour. Ann Perkins has taken her fair share of knock-backs before, but her complete exclusion from the group of Pawnee Goddesses felt unusually mean, while Leslie's seeming indifference to her best friend's plight was no less out of character. She might have been distracted by her desire to win her 'competition' with Ron, but friends have always been of immense importance to her and it struck all the wrong notes to see her turning her back on Ann, who was sitting alone during the pillow fight. The moment when she couldn't decide whether she was proud or annoyed at having created an army of li'l Knopes was nice, though, and any excuse for puppies is something to be celebrated.

Even Ron seemed slightly off this week. Let's give the benefit of the doubt and assume that his usual dislike of interacting with anyone was offset by his desire to teach the youth of today how to put down their videogames and become more Swanson-esque, yet considering how much of a presence he was in the episode, actor Nick Offerman didn't get any particularly juicy lines to wrap his 'tache around (his opening salvo at the public forum was probably his best, but a familar line) or instances of physical comedy to perform. For the most part, he just played the part of grouchy group leader.

I liked his realisation that today's generation was different to his and that such changes were important, but it was undermined by Leslie effectively reforming the Rangers at the end under the new (better) name, 'The Swansons'. Surely it would have been better to have her introduce a 'Swanson badge' into her Pawnee Goddess schedule, thus making the point that while things do change, there is still room for the old ways as well. By putting Ron back in charge of a group and not having his outlook evolve at all, it seemed to be trying to backtrack on what should have been an important moment for Ron and his perspective on life.

Much better was the B-plot, where Ben was taken on a 'treat yo'self' day out with Donna and Tom. Donna only gets the spotlight sporadically, so her every appearance is more fun for how rarely we get to spend time with her. Her fizzing personality is a perfect match for Tom's reckless enthusiasm for everything, which in turn makes Ben the perfect straight man to balance them out - I think I wrote last week about how Tom and Ben have become one of the series' strongest pairings.

Most of the laughs came from Ben's complete inability to enjoy what Tom and Donna considered to be the ultimate day of self-indulgence, which is of course a complete nightmare for a devoted accountant. Was his ultimate desire to buy a full Batman costume taking the nerd thing a little too far? Maybe, but unlike in the camping A-plot, the jokes were strong enough to compensate. Donna's face as Ben emerged from the dressing room was glorious, as was seeing how badly Ben filled out the bulky suit, while witnessing Batman sob is hilariously pathetic.

The Chris/Jerry story also got a few small laughs from Chris' trademark intensity for doing things exactly the right way, but unless his budding romance with Jerry's attractive daughter is going to be an ongoing story, it was more or less a one-joke scenario. A decent joke, but no surprise that it found itself relegated to the interludes between the Leslie/Ron primary story and the funnier Donna/Tom/Ben second. Where this week's Community had the programme operating at the top of its game, 'Pawnee Rangers' felt like Parks going through the motions. They're fun motions, just not a patch on what it can do when really trying.


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