Friday, 11 November 2011

Television - Community 'Studies In Modern Movement' review / Parks & Recreation 'The Treaty' review


Like Wednesday's South Park, last night's Community didn't have a great deal going on beneath the surface, but was so uproariously funny that it didn't matter one iota. There were some things I could criticise, such as at least two of the storylines not reaching any real conclusion, but they were only noticeable in retrospect. At the time, the onslaught of brilliant physical comedy, plots deepening in ridiculousness with every fresh turn, plus a whole lot of Alison Brie at her most snugglably adorable, had laughs coming too quickly for any minor quibbles to matter. And yes, snugglably is a word. If I had time to do Word Of The Week this week, that would be it. Snugglably, see: Alison Brie.

Given the ensemble nature of the cast, most episodes tend to centre around three or four characters while leaving the others to pipe in occasionally with a quick gag before ducking back into the background. 'Studies In Modern Movement' gave everyone something to do and played to each of their strengths. No-one will come away from the episode feeling like they know anything new about any of them, but will have been reminded of why they like them so much. Community is at its best when deriving its comedy from the quirks of its cast and this was the best episode of the season so far for my money, and possibly one of my favourites of the series.
Let's go through the storylines one by one. Annie's move into Troy and Abed's flat was the A-plot (no mention of Dildopolis, sadly), with Britta's warning about moving in with friends always being a bad idea looking perilously close to coming true. Troy and Abed were much the same as always, but while their playfulness is endearing when they have nothing else to do in the study room, in the context of them being needed to provide help, their constant mucking around quickly became irritating... although Troy taped to the bathroom door was hilarious. How did he even get up there?!

What worked particularly well was that while Troy and Abed (T&A?) were a little louder than usual, it didn't feel like their behaviour was out of character from what has previously made them charming. They were obviously thrilled at having someone new in their flat around to play with, but just couldn't see at first how Annie's differences from them meant that moving from her own flat into a laundry fort wasn't exactly what she had signed up for. Where a lesser series might have made them screechy and annoying - see last night's Big Bang Theory for a grim example of a character's quirks being excruciatingly exaggerated to justify a plotline - there was never any question of how well-meaning they were, or of any shadows being cast over their friendship with Annie. The fact that they briefly won her around with a shadow puppet show proved how far they were going to try and make her happy, even if they overdid it a lot of the time.

The story also gave Alison 'Snugglably' Brie a superb showcase for her character's trademark over-intensity and she killed it from start to finish. From her wonderful attempt at going loosey-goosey (wobbling her arms and speaking in a messy pseudo-Caribbean patois) to her enormous range of over-the-top reactions and line deliveries, it was the Brie's most extensive opportunity to show off her skills in some time, and she got laughs from what seemed like every second she was on-screen.

The second plot involved Jeff faking illness in order to go shopping, only to be called out by Dean Pelton - or should I call him Craig? The Dean arguably veered uncharacteristically close to Chang territory here, from delightfully terrible wordplay ("I'm just a Craig-ular joe") to forcing his delusions onto the real world and recklessly invading other people's privacy. Nevertheless, Jim Rash's campness made a perfect foil for Joel McHale's wry cynicism - let's also not forget the matching outfits! - and putting all the power in the Dean's hands for a change, and for Jeff to briefly have fun after being forced to do a karaoke rendition of Seal's 'Kiss From A Rose', brought out the best in both of them, while changing the dynamic ever so slightly to keep it fresh. The gags weren't particularly new, but were consistently funny - Jeff roping in a shop assistant to add depth to his pretence of being ill to Britta was a great touch.

The other two plots involved Shirley and Britta arguing during a car journey as to whether atheists were as moral as Christians, and Pierce accidentally wrecking Annie's old flat and falling into a paint-induced hallucinogenic stupour. Neither story had any depth beyond those descriptions (and neither got an ending at all, really), but were great excuses to indulge Chevy Chase's gift for physical comedy, while bouncing Gillian Jacobs and Yvette Nicole Brown, the actors with arguably the series' most obvious talents for comic delivery, against each other. I still am not sure about how Shirley is increasingly becoming a one-note stereotype of the self-righteous Christian, but the constantly twisting story of the hitchhiker they picked up hit the mark every time, while the refrain of 'Oh, that's nice' (and accompanying facial reactions from the person on the end of it) was a joy.

Apologies for this review mostly consisting of 'this was funny, then that was funny and that was funny', but 'Studies In Modern Movement' wasn't an episode suited to in-depth analysis: it really was just a procession of hilarious gags, delivered by characters who love each other as much as the audience loves them. It might not give me much to write about, but I would be more than happy if every other comedy I watch could pull that trick off each week.


Parks hasn't been at the top of its game this season and 'The Treaty' was another episode which was frequently enjoyable and often very funny, but always a step or two removed from what the series can do when playing its top game. That said, it was still one of the stronger episodes of the season so far, lacking the emotion impact of last week's 'End Of The World' but compensating with bigger laughs.

In some ways, this episode formed a neat follow-through from the agreement that Ben and Leslie reached at the end of the last one, where they realised that they would have to settle for being friends for the foreseeable future and ignore any feelings of possessiveness or jealousy arising from seeing each other moving on with their lives. A Model UN club is pretty much the worst place the two characters could be in close proximity with each other at this moment in time, given the tumultuous nature of their feelings and how it plays into both of their obsessions with micro-managing. 

Leslie has been a bit more irrational than usual this season, mostly as a result of having to give up Ben whilst seeing him every day in her office, which gives the great Amy Poehler a whole world of crazy to play around with (the way her trash talk escalated into a threat to wave Ben's decapitated head around in front of his weeping mother, and the horrified silence that greeted her going so far over the top, was magic) but has arguably cost the character a lot of the sweetness which makes her so appealing. It is understandable within the context, but hopefully not a direction that the character will be taking for long. First it was her reaction to seeing another woman be interested in Ben, before last night being driven nuts by the idea that she was written out of her own UN treaty after taking too long on a photoshoot.

The way that their argument escalated from a petty spat into full-scale model UN global conflict (hmm...) was full of fantastic moments - from Leslie's aforementioned threat, to Ben throwing down the microphone after winning a resolution - but might have worked better were responsibility for the argument more evenly divided, rather than Leslie being solely responsible. (Why should Ben have kept everyone waiting around while she had her photos taken?). Fortunately, Andy and April were on hand to provide the situation with their usual saving sweetness, courtesy of April's determination to own the moon (and subsequently joining Leslie's coalition - "What are you gonna do without tides, Peru?") and Andy selling off all his nation's resources to acquire as many lions as possible, partly out of not understanding what he was supposed to be doing and partly because he knows, as we all do, that lions are brilliant and better than an army because you don't have to pay them.

The other big laughs came from Ron attempting to lure Tom into taking his old job back. As was shown at the end of last season, Ron respects Tom's desire to make a success of himself (no matter how badly he fails), so seeing him working at a perfume counter following the demise of Entertainment 720 rates pretty low on the Swanson meter of acceptability. If Tom is going to have to slum it for a while in order to pick himself up, it should be in a place where he has plenty of appreciative friends and can maintain his dignity. Probably not the P&R offices, in other words, but it's the closest he'll ever find.

In order to convince Tom to put his pride aside (slogan) and return to his old position, Ron asks for his expertise in picking a successor from a range of increasingly appalling candidates, such as an old racist or a student who seems barely aware of what job he is applying for, or what time of day it is. Tom, naturally, thinks he left behind a legacy of revolution, changing the way the office worked forever - in his mind, what was once 'Parks And Recreation', then 'Parks And Rec', then 'P&R', was really just 'Tom's place' - and is distraught to see the people interviewed to follow him have no chance of living up to his inflated image of his achievements. Nevertheless, he holds firm in his beliefs and forces that rarest of things from Ron: a public plea. Tom, of course, turns the situation around in his trademark fashion and strides out of the door, leading to the episode's biggest laugh as Ron speed-walked to drag him back and force him beg for his job back.

Once again, a Chris/Ann/Jerry plot made up the least essential part of the episode, managing to earn a little more honesty and importance than usual in rounding up exactly why Ann felt the need to break up with Chris and by having him realise that his boundless enthusiasm isn't always as great for other people as it is for him. The problem was that there really weren't any laughs at all in those scenes, with Donna coming closest but having far too few lines to build up any sense of continuity in the humour. There wasn't enough intimacy for Chris' soul-searching to gain any emotional momentum, and the way the character has been developed recently didn't give him the most sympathetic position to start from. On that same note, Ann Perkins has also been sidelined for virtually all of this season, so asking us to suddenly care about how she felt in a romance last season was a stretch too far. 'The Treaty' had plenty of great gags and some great performances, especially from Adam Scott (Ben), but was let down by this season's ongoing difficulty in making the supporting stories as strong as those revolving around Leslie.


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