Friday, 30 March 2012

Television - Community 'Digital Exploration Of Interior Design' review


'Digital Exploration Of Interior Design' mercifully abandons the thought bubbles and CGI apples which blighted last week's 'Contemporary Impressionists', instead focusing on the strongest part of that episode: the heightening tension between Troy and Abed. It was a story I was expecting to arc across the entire season, but now looks like it will come to a head next week, in the conclusion of what could loosely be termed a two-parter.

Even though it had surprisingly few jokes, beyond the always-welcome reappearance of John Goodman's Vice-Dean Laybourne as a conniving mastermind 'going through some stuff', the plot worked because Troy and Abed are at this point virtually the only pairing in the group who have not only avoided any kind of conflict, having shared an almost telepathically tight friendship. Abed, previously fĂȘted as the wisest, most generous member of the group, is revealing the dark side to his obsessive behaviour. Does it fit flawless with how he's previously been portrayed? Not quite, but the drama is effective enough for it not to matter.
 
Troy, meanwhile, realises he is the tin dog to Abed's Doctor, or the Constable Reggie to his Inspector Spacetime in the Greendale-verse, an observation that rings true across much of what we've seen from their relationship. Having started as a stereotypical jock, Troy was the one who attached himself to Abed's fantasy life. It wasn't a mutual creation, and Troy has had very little visible input into how it has played out. I like the idea of Laybourne watching from the sidelines, picking a weakness and exploiting it to achieve his goal. The manner in which he approached Troy was delightfully reminiscent of a grandfather desperately trying to seem hip, throwing around cultural references to try and ingratiate and show himself worthy of the younger generation's attention, only to twist it into a manipulative plot to tear best friends apart.

His approach to Abed was less effective, despite his excellent - if slightly mentally scarring - red romper suit. Abed sacrifices a lot without question to make his friends happy, because he's self-assured enough to understand that the group's ongoing happiness is worth the temporary destruction of short-term projects. It isn't as though the group haven't gone out of their way on many occasions to do right by him, either: think back to last year's Critical Film Studies, or Season One's Introduction To Film. He may not be able to feel the same way others do, but the logic of making people happy adds up.

In that respect, it seemed slightly out of character that he would be swayed by Laybourne claiming Abed's intricate pillow fort should take priority over the 'mediocrity' of Troy's blanket fort. Arguably Abed's defining feature is his lack of ego (he's the mirror to Jeff): he does things because he enjoys them, helps people because he can, rather than for any want of status. He didn't want Troy's blanket fort to overlap with his pillow fort because otherwise they cease to be what they were designed as. He wanted to build a pillow fort because it is more challenging, so constructing half of it with blankets taints the project's sanctity. It's not a personal thing when he asks Troy to build the blanket fort elsewhere. Laybourne's appeal to Abed on the basis of his work being the superior of the two thus shouldn't have worked, not to mention that while Abed's fort was the more difficult construction, Troy was setting out to achieve something - a world record - which would logically make his project the more prestigious, if considered through Abed's mathematical logic.

The best plot undeniably belonged (once again) to Britta, because Gillian Jacobs can seemingly do no wrong, no matter what material is thrown at her. This time she was given a budding love story with the human embodiment of the Subway corporation - I love how Subway are earning so much blatant, and funny, product placement through sponsoring niche geek programmes, having previously supported Chuck throughout its extended run - appalling her every humanist, anti-establishment instinct, while she fell for the man underneath the promotional puppet. Him being such a perfect match for Britta was a great joke, right down to his ambition to open a sanctuary for crippled animals, even if a one-eyed cat (love the never-ending joke of Britta being a crazy cat lady) wasn't top of his list of priorities. It also touched on the shallowness of her beliefs that someone so similar to her would completely sell out.

The romance was played so deliberately over-the-top that the obviousness of falling back on George Orwell's 1984 became part of the fun, rather than a distracting cliché. It's obviously the book Britta would choose, given how her values tend to operate on the most superficial and uninventive levels. (For the record, I love 1984, but it has become the most predictable go-to reference in any debate over civil liberties or freedom). Jacobs wore a massively overwrought expression throughout and the fact she kept having to call him 'Subway' escalated the lunacy further. The hearing where their decidedly un-mainstream 'relations' were exposed relied on old jokes about weird sex and an 'I can't stand up' routine, but were wonderfully pitched, as was the conclusion where the previous Subway is replaced by a similar-looking, but different man. A nod, I assume, to Winston's fate at the end of Orwell's novel.

(As an aside, Britta's inability to recognise the joke of her old column being called 'Britta Unfiltered' was wonderful).

Shirley and Pierce's manipulation from the sidelines only existed to give the characters something to do, but Yvette Nicole Brown's wonderfully delicate line delivery continues to pay dividends, as does Chevy Chase's willingness to do anything for a laugh, including swigging ink. The idea of the two as business partners has a lot of potential, as they're the closest in age (therefore likely to gravitate together) whilst diametrically opposed in attitude, so fingers crossed it is a storyline which will develop into something bigger for both of them. Shirley, in particular, is one of the programme's most underused but consistently funny characters, so it can only be a good thing if she gets more time on-screen.

Altogether less successful was Jeff's C-plot with Annie, continuing his recent trend for being supernaturally self-obsessed, rather than suffering heightened, but essentially human, vanities and insecurities. Alison Brie's Annie was, as ever, a joy to watch, whether delivering another sensational scream (the biggest laugh of the episode, for me) or thinking herself thoroughly devious in sneaking a second teddy into her sleep study class. Jeff, though, has veered into cartoon territory in the previous two episodes, with his narcissism now apparently extending to severe short-term memory loss and total obliviousness to those around him.

The plot might have been a joke on how Jeff hasn't actually changed all that much since the series' beginning, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating when the series keeps going back to the 'Jeff realises what an uncaring sod he is being' well, even if played for a horrible line at the end about the lesson he'd supposedly learnt already being forgotten. (The worst example of character logic being put aside to accommodate a gag). Despite the enjoyable moments thanks to Garrett's squawk at the water fountain and Alison Brie being Alison Brie ('Put it in a letter, Jane Austen!'), the plot not only used, but emphasized, one of Community's ongoing frustrations: constant talk of growth, even when none is really happening. Same goes for Annie getting involved out of frustration at Jeff not acknowledging her: it was neat not to have this stated outright, but as an idea, it's another that has come up way too often over the series' run. Make your mind up about them, Community.

Acknowledging the series' refusal to change weakens the tension from the Troy and Abed conflict, suggesting they will return to where they started once the blanket fort argument is over, and makes these characters a little less inviting than usual. Their flaws are what make them fun, but their attempts to overcome them make them likeable. Trying and failing is one thing, because everyone loves an underdog; learning a lesson and immediately ignoring it is obnoxious. Community's detractors have accused the series of being detached and taking a calculated, cynical approach to sincere emotion. Usually, it's an argument based on biased preconceptions rather than reality, but Jeff's exaggerated characterisation in recent episodes is running the risk of proving them right.

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