Friday, 13 April 2012

Television - Community 'Origins Of Vampire Mythology' review

In the Community-verse, Britta Perry may be the worst, but as a television viewer, everything she touches turns to greatness. Though they haven't been particularly consistent, the episodes since Community's hiatus have been especially Britta-licious, Brittastic, Brittacular, and many other portmanteaus I could devise as an excuse for using the word 'portmanteau'. Whatever those episodes' other shortcomings, Gillian Jacobs has delivered greatness time and time again.

'Origins Of Vampire Mythology' was another memorable showcase for Britta. It's the second time in three episodes the character has been thrown into an unwanted romantic entanglement, with her anti-establishment credentials previously conflicted over a blossoming love for the human embodiment of the Subway corporation, and it's to Jacobs' credit that her turmoil this week felt as fresh as it was funny. The other plots didn't hit the same standards, but it's difficult to moan when comedy's best character is at the top of her game.
To be fair, everyone who eventually ended up at the flat, trying to restrain Britta's desperate need for validation from an indifferent carnie named Blade (that sentence alone should tell you how much fun the writers were having with the character), had a strong episode. Donald Glover has that Leslie Nielsen quality where he can deliver a line in a manner both completely straight but with just enough off-centre timing and tone to make it come across as wonderfully absurd: his 'oops' upon accidentally revealing the location of Britta's phone merited a couple of rewinds from me. Danny Pudi, meanwhile, has become ridiculously capable at getting big laughs from Abed not reacting to the lunacy unfolding around him, to the extent where him looking at something with an expressionless face, trying to process what is going on without really acknowledging it, has become funny. When he acknowledges this, as when asking for help in reacting to the Dean turning up at his door in hideous pyjamas (Tessa from the increasingly brilliant Suburgatory took the pyjama prize this week), the pay-off is immense.

Let's not forget Alison Brie, though, whose excellence in every facet of her performance is often overshadowed by her, let's politely say, other pleasurable endowments, even though she's game for trying just about anything and has yet to find a challenge she couldn't match. Her addition to the Troy/Abed dynamic has been particularly inspired because where they play their characters relatively straight, Annie is bubbling over with neuroses and desires, which burst through her thin veneer of self-control at the faintest provocation. Her hungry look at seeing Jeff take off his shirt was wonderfully guilt-ridden, and her skill at rapidfire emotional reactions demonstrated in her anger towards another woman calling Jeff out, then self-justification when Britta arrived. In the flat, she bounced between pride (at Britta saying she considered her a 'sister', even though both characters knew it was an obvious manipulation), terror (those strange, wonderful noises she made answering the phone to prevent Britta reaching her voicemail) and silly impersonation. Brie is at her best when asked to go to a lot of extremes in a short space of time - think chloroforming the janitor - and, once again, she hit it out of the park last night.

Britta was the character at the centre of the episode's main plot, though, and with good reason. Jacobs' gift for physical comedy (her attempts to fight off Troy and Abed as they carried her back in Annie's room, along with a callback to the now-legendary 'opposite of Batman' jibe), heightened emotion (her shame at initially revealing Blade's name and occupation in the opening scene) and line delivery (pick one) make the character enormously entertaining as a presence, but she's just as much fun as a concept, an instigator to make these increasingly barmy situations make completely sense within the framework of this damaged, unjustifiably optimistic doofus of a woman, whose attempts at moral righteousness and dignity are undermined at every possible opportunity. Where the other characters are strongly defined by their performers, the writers are equally as vital in Britta's success as Jacobs, which is to take no credit away from either.

The other characters, unfortunately, didn't fare quite so well. Dean Pelton was hilarious because he's Dean Pelton, and I love how there's no longer any attempt made to justify his ludicrous costumes or hobbies (he's in a conductor's costume and pyjamas this week, because why not?), but what a waste to use Vice-Dean Laybourne in one brief scene as justification for getting Pelton to the flat. He's such a powerful figure that the character's gravitas is diminished by his turning up in such disposable scenes. He wasn't in Digital Exploration much, but his scheming drove the plot and Goodman's larger-than-life presence emphasized how serious the implications were. Here, he just instructed Pelton to help him recruit Troy into the air conditioning program, then was gone. Goodman was as fantastic as ever, but while Community needs to make better use of what little time it has with him onboard.

Meanwhile, Jeff paired up with Shirley to investigate Blade's hidden appeal, and Pierce tried to become BFFs with Chang to discover what real friendship felt like. Neither plot had much in the way of laughs or anything to say, mostly serving as a break for viewers to catch their breath before Britta came back, and Jeff is once again being too heavily defined by his faults. A smug, ridiculously handsome ex-lawyer is fun to watch because his image of self-assuredness is one of his key comedic traits, and watching someone talented at work is always pleasurable, especially if in a devious way but for the right reasons. In previous years, his revelations were low-key (I like these people / Maybe I don't have to be flawless all the time) and sweet, able to shift the character's perspective without altering who he is. Recently, though, he's been driven exclusively by insecurities, and watching someone in a permanent state of self-doubt gets old pretty quickly. His pairing with Shirley has yielded strong results before, but she had nothing to do except stand by his side, looking bored.

Pierce and Chang, meanwhile, were so insubstantial as to barely be worth mentioning. They paired up, laughed at Jeff and Shirley, before Chang's insanity caused them to split and Pierce reminisced about their time together, almost entirely involving a very brief stroll holding candy floss. No matter what he says, the programme gives Chevy Chase many more opportunities to demonstrate his talents than poor Yvette Nicole Brown, but there was no reason for him to be a part of this episode, when the short and meaningless time in his and Chang's company would have been better spent giving Jeff and Shirley more material to play with, or just another few minutes with Britta.

It's nice that Community aims to give its ensemble a little breathing space in every episode, but 'Origins Of Vampire Mythology' would have felt a lot tighter had the writers employed a little ruthlessness in identifying and giving as much time possible to the material that really mattered. Nevertheless, where previous episodes since the hiatus have sometimes felt like they were doing a decent Community imitation, this one was more effortlessly attuned to the spirit and comic sensibilities which make the programme such a joy at its best. In this case, being Britta'd couldn't be more of a compliment.


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