Friday, 18 November 2011

Television - Community 'Documentary Filmmaking: Redux' review / Parks & Recreation 'Smallest Park' review


Anyone hoping to convince new viewers to stick around for the remaining few episodes of Community before it goes on its enforced hiatus will not have been happy at 'Documentary Filmmaking: Redux' making their case for this cult delight even more difficult than usual. For longtime viewers, the episode was a delight, packed from start to finish with wonderful character work and nods to the past, emphasizing everything that makes the programme so special. For newcomers, unaware of who these people are, a more likely feeling is complete bafflement.

A sequel of sorts to last season's 'Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking', with Abed returning behind the camera to film a character's descent into madness - last year it was Pierce trying to get revenge on the group for sidelining him; this time it was the Dean, never the most stable of people, trying to direct an advert for the college - the pseudo-documentary format was used to brilliantly subversive effect, making for a hugely fulfilling thirty minutes, even if it almost certainly was the wrong episode to have on air at this precarious point in the programme's lifespan.
Community's biggest obstacle in acquiring the kind of dedicated viewership it deserves is, in my opinion, that few people settle down for an evening watching comedy with a desire to be challenged. That is why broad strokes sitcoms like Big Bang Theory, which I don't share many Community fans' hate for, are so dominant in their timeslots. You know what you are getting each week, the jokes are obvious (not a criticism) and the characters fit into certain comfortable archetypes that viewers will be familiar with, or understand very quickly after first exposure. It is an easy way to unwind with a few laughs and there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever.

Community, on the other hand, goes the opposite route: it actively seeks to keep viewers guessing, to subvert expectations and question its own nature. For those willing to put in the brainwork, that density is hugely rewarding, making the viewer feel clever along and getting big laughs on the back of its quasi-intellectualism. Many fans, at least judging by my and many internet commenters' expressed habits, like to watch episodes several times over to absorb every last detail and unravel every layer of each episode. Anyone remember 'The Psychology Of Letting Go', where Abed performed a circle-of-life subplot that took place entirely in the background of the episode, complementing its (literally) foreground themes? That's the sort of thing I'm talking about.

Unfortunately for Community, the average person's viewing habits start and end with the first showing of each episode. What tends to count are how many laughs can be wrung out of the running time and whether the characters are in some way relatable, or at least engaging. Community's love of subverting the rules of the format create a distance between the viewer and the narrative, making it ever more difficult for people just looking for half an hour of easy laughs to get their fix.

Tonight's episode had a character spending the vast majority of the running time supposedly directing the episode and commenting as he went, another going slowly insane, another imitating the character going insane before he went insane (Joel McHale's Dean impersonation was magnificent, but there wasn't much of the Dean's camp flamboyance on show here), two others hinting at a will-they-won't-they which has only been referenced once or twice on the programme before... for dedicated fans, these are the foundations of what made the episode so much fun. But where is the starting point for newcomers?

This review has turned into a pessimistic analysis of why Community will, in my opinion, struggle to survive at the longest beyond a possible stay of execution to allow syndication, so apologies to everyone expecting a breakdown of this specific episode. It is just that this episode did everything I love about Community and did it so often and so well, yet my joy at watching it was tempered by the knowledge that those things seemed to me the very reasons that the programme's fans should start preparing themselves for the worst.  Still, if the upcoming hiatus is an ominous sign of things to come, at least episodes like 'Documentary Filmmaking: Redux' are (appropriately self-conscious too, going by the finished commercial selling Greendale so perfectly) reminders of why every minute spent with these remarkable characters, in that remarkable college, is to be cherished.


Last night's Parks & Recreation was also full of the things that make the programme so special. While my previous reviews have criticised Leslie's characterisation this year for going too far over the top and threatening the considerable reserves of sympathy she has had built up, 'Smallest Park' directly tackled how inappropriate her behaviour has been in recent episodes and brought it to a lovely conclusion.

At last, I think I am buying into her and Ben's continuously frustrated romance.Unrequited love stories rarely sit comfortably, because there is an element of writer's manufacture both in how to keep the couple apart - Leslie's run for office was a more natural way of doing it than usual, but still a little too obvious - and the idea of two people seemingly becoming star-crossed lovers. I'm not saying people don't fall so passionately in love in real life sometimes, but it happens far too often and too simplistically in the media for it to seem anything other than blandly conventional.

Fortunately, while Parks & Rec's Leslie and Ben may fit fairly comfortably into that trope, at least the writers delved wholeheartedly into the effect that being kept apart is having on both characters, with plenty of indecision, irrationality and irritation on both sides, giving us a deeper insight into what is driving them. Amy Poehler and Adam Scott also have a great deal of chemistry together and are far from a traditional television coupling - her being a slightly obsessive government bureaucrat, him being a nerdy accountant.

Their kiss last night felt like and had all the emotional impact of their first - even though it obviously wasn't - because it was the first time that they have had to compromise who they are, rather than what they are doing, to be together. Leslie acknowledged her terrible behaviour and took a risk that under any other circumstance would seem profoundly un-Knopian. Ben, finally, was ready to take the initiative. It was sort of appropriate as well that it happened on the tiny park that looked like being their last working project together: these are people who build such places for other to enjoy, often at the cost of their own personal lives. Finally, they had made a little space for themselves.

The other plots also dealt with the idea of people needing to come out of themselves to move forward. In a development that was slightly out of the blue, Andy decided that he wanted to take a college course and was trapped between the conflicting advice of his wife and his boss as to what direction to take: go for something easy and get a comfortable pass, or go for a challenge? Both April and Ron have Andy's best interests at heart when they try to push him one way or another - April wants to see him succeed, Ron wants to see him make the most of an opportunity to better himself - but in the end, it is Andy who has to make the call, which he does in a manner only he can: selecting at random. That is how he has lived much of his life, bumbling through by accident, and it led him to a course that suited him down to the ground: Women's Studies, which appeals to his love of simplistically brash dramatics in its fundamental feminism, while forcing him to see things a little differently. Extremely incorrect for now, but he'll get it next time.

Tom, meanwhile, was on the comedown after the collapse of Entertainment 720 and needed not only to be picked up, but picked up in a way that he could gain some perspective on where everything went wrong last time. Given the task by Chris of redesigning the P&R logo, his first instinct is to naturally go big, adopting a Sopranos font for dramatic effect and pitching a reality show for park rangers, but though he was increasingly exasperated at Jerry's encouragement that he just follow his brief, his brainwave came when upon realising how to balance his love of extravagance with Jerry's old-fashioned approach. It is unlikely to herald the birth of a new, more considerate Tom - because then he wouldn't be Tom - but at least he might be ready to consider how success can be found in simpler pleasures than expensive flourishes, for a change. Cue Don Draper.


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