Monday, 5 December 2011

Television - Community 'Foosball And Nocturnal Vigilantism' review / Parks & Recreation 'The Trial Of Leslie Knope' review


One of Community's biggest strengths is its ability to utilise sitcom conventions against the audience, setting something up one way and then pulling out the rug by going in another direction entirely. That subversiveness is a vital part of the programme's appeal, yet also something which has led to its fanbase being more limited than the likes of The Big Bang Theory or 2 Broke Girls, which offer the comforts of predictability that Community actively tries to avoid.

'Foosball And Nocturnal Vigilantism' was a rare occasion of Community playing a sitcom trope fairly straight - even if it was commented upon - and while many fans will have been disappointed by that, maybe it is what the programme needs right now, at a time when widening its audience is more important than ever. The episode was still a fantastic introduction to the Community combination of a geekily absurdist sense of humour with elegant character writing (plus a sumptuously full serving of Alison Brie, even if Gillian Jacobs was kept on the side this time around), even if the anarchic spirit was more subdued than usual.
The most important thing was that the episode was hilarious all the way through, driven by a number of strong performances - I may frequently bring up Alison Brie as an example of the most adorable woman on television right now, but this was yet another outstanding showcase of her skills in comic timing and delivery - and a rare opportunity to see Yvette Nicole Brown's Shirley given centre stage.

Jeff (Joel McHale) is right when he says that he likes her more when she is bad: if I have one criticism of this otherwise excellent season so far, it is how often her character has been relegated to one-dimensional role of preachy religious sidekick. There is more depth to her character than that - when was the last time we saw or had reference to her children? - and it is a lot more fun to see emerge the darkness that her religious beliefs are trying to conceal, rather than having her constantly complaining about the actions of her fellow study group members.

Yvette Nicole Brown gets vast mileage from Shirley's fearsome side, while having her need to face up to a shameful incident from her past made the character a nice contrast to Jeff. Where he revels in his ability to be underhanded and sarcastic, even while appreciating that being part of the group has made him a better person, Shirley offers the opposite: she places importance on putting out an image of a perpetually cheerful optimist, when there's much in her past she would rather leave behind. He's the bad guy begrudgingly turning good, she's the good woman trying to hide her dark past.

That the two happened to collide at a vital moment in their respective youths was more convenient than Community normally allows, but it allowed the characters to grow a little closer, which is never a bad thing. The 'anime' sequence over which they realised how much they liked each other despite everything came a little out of nowhere, but was a neat spin on how that artform has a habit of blowing minor confrontations into spectacular battles, just as Jeff and Shirley placed huge amounts of importance on the outcome of a foosball game and their past, when neither mattered anywhere near as much as how they felt about each other as friends in the here and now. Good opportunity for laughs at the expense of the Germans as well ("If only there was a word to describe the pleasure I feel at other people's misfortune..."), which as a Brit, I am all in favour of.

The second plot was a hugely entertaining demonstration of the comedic potential of Annie moving into Troy and Abed's flat, where her OCD intensity combined with their OCD geekiness to unleash all manor of havoc and, naturally, end with the revelation that their landlord upstairs is a shoe-stealing fetishist. The scenario leant on the oldest of sitcom tropes and didn't offer much new in the way of character work, but did give Alison Brie's Annie the chance to go into another wild panic (her several-seconds-long squeak was magnificent) and Donald Glover's Troy the chance to be the (relatively) sensible one for a change, which was more than enough to justify the absence of the programme's usual subversiveness.


'The Trial Of Leslie Knope' was once again not quite as funny as Parks & Recreation can be on top form - this season seems to have been set on a low simmer rather than full boil where hilarity is concerned, which still puts it way above most other programmes but is slightly disappointing when compared to last season - but had its warm and affectionate side on full power, more than redeeming other shortcomings. That's not to say there was a shortage of laughs, but the episode's final act was almost entirely devoted to Leslie and Ben reaffirming their love for one another, sacrificing comedy for a big gloop of sweetness.

One of my strongest criticisms against most modern romantic comedies is how the comedic element is often discarded by the end of the second act, if it even gets that far. This episode did much the same thing, but was a testament to how strong, focused character writing can mean prioritising one over the other is not necessarily a bad thing. Leslie and Ben have shared these kinds of moments a number of times before - in the previous episode, even - but because we know the characters so well, as do the writers, the sacrifices they make for each other feel driven by who they are and why they work so well together, rather than the arbitrary declarations of love that Katherine Heigl soullessly recites in the climactic scene of every one of her movies.

Leslie and Ben don't need to say how much they care about one another for us to understand it. The fact that they do (and in such an appropriate way - how more perfect for two such officious people to declare their affections than by them declared via official court transcript?) is just the icing on the cake. These are feelings built up carefully over time, rather than empty gestures to justify a narrative.

The trial itself was a lot of fun, even if the number of big laughs was slightly below the expected Parks & Rec standard. The 'stone-faced monster' line was a highlight, a wonderful visual gag narrated by Adam Scott's flawlessly dry delivery, as was April channelling Janet Snakehole at the stand, placing the blame at the wrinkled feet of poor Ethel Beavers (the name 'Ethel Beavers' can't help but be funny) and Andy hurrying off to collect evidence, even though he hadn't yet been told what evidence he was supposed to be looking for. The Tammy cameo was also a neat one-off gag for fans. For the most part, though, the trial served as a stage for Leslie's friends to stand behind her in her hour of need. Even Chris, the man taking her and Ben to tribunal for breaching his 'no office hook-ups' rule, was overcome with depression at having to discipline his two favourite employees in such a way, even if he was radiating pure joy as usual on the outside.

Where Community escalated its comic situations to climaxes that turned out to be unexpectedly touching, Parks & Rec put its love story - be that Leslie's romance with Ben, or her friends working hard to stop her from being fired - at the forefront, with its gags working in isolation rather than piling on top of each other to cumulative effect. As satisfying as the episode was, it couldn't help but subsequently feel unbalanced. It will be interesting to see how Ben is returned to the fold now that he is no longer working for the Parks department - perhaps as Leslie's campaign manager? - but fingers crossed that the comedic focus of last season will come back with him.

1 comment:

theoncominghope said...

I love your comedy roundups :)

Parks seems to have entertained its latter-season MASH days. That said, I think the humor will start to kick in again now that there's a bit of a resolution to the Ben storyline.