Friday, 6 April 2012

Television - Community 'Pillows And Blankets' review

At this year's highly entertaining Community PaleyFest panel, Dan Harmon briefly touched on the challenge of creating episodes in the hiatus vacuum, with no fan feedback to inform where they were going right or wrong. What was widely taken as a throwaway remark now seems uncomfortably conscious of the difficulty these early episodes have had in re-establishing the show's natural flow since its return last month. It's still Community and still funny, but the balance seems ever so slightly thrown. This manifested itself a few episodes back in the shape of CG thought bubbles and apples, visual flourishes ill-fitting for the show's essentially reality-based absurdism.

Those gimmicks seem to have been exorcised, let's hope forever, but 'Pillows And Blankets' (a weirdly blunt title) took the problem to the opposite extreme. Instead of introducing something new which didn't work, this episode fell back hard on some of the programme's most overused storytelling beats, prefigured in 'Digital Exploration Of Interior Design' last week. It wasn't a bad episode overall, but one which shows the series struggling to find the right line between pushing its own boundaries and over-reliance on past successes.
In last week's otherwise entertaining episode, the major bum note was Jeff's C-plot with Annie, where he struggled to remember a girl (or so he thought) who had placed a vitriolic message in his recently-discovered locker. Aside from the character's exaggerated narcissism, it failed to make an impact because we've seen too many stories where Jeff learns a lesson in humility, only to have conveniently forgotten it by the following week. A joke calling out the trend was aggravating rather than funny: referencing lazy writing only makes the problem worse, showing an awareness of a problem without taking steps to resolve it.

Worse was how the writers immediately returned to that cycle this week. In the midst of a Greendale civil war between the populaces of Abed's New Pillowtown and Troy's Blanketsburg, Jeff was egging both sides on in order to delay the next day's classes and avoid having to do any homework. Annie discovered his scheme and called him out on it, to which he reacted indifferently until learning that Troy and Abed's friendship really was at stake, wherein he resolved to make everything right again, to learn his lesson about appreciating his friends, blah blah blah.

The entire climax revolved around Jeff's oft-repeated reversal and it reeked of insincerity. Going all the way back to the office to collect the imaginary friendship hats was played as a major breakthrough in his willingness to recognise the importance of Troy and Abed's fantasies, but felt forced in the extreme. (Not to mention the tiresome 'Jeff is learning!' music playing in the background). While this was stretching character credibility for the sake of making a point, seeing him 'dust off' the invisible hats outright broke it. He doesn't have to become Troy and Abed in order to respect them: all he had to do was understand how the values of people different from him are no less important. Bringing him into Troy and Abed's fantasies, in however small a manner, undermined that point by forcing Jeff to compromise who he is, misinterpreting the notion of becoming better as becoming someone else entirely. Being a sarcastic, workshy cynic does not prevent him from helping his friends.

The misfiring ending sucked most of the emotional stakes out of Troy and Abed's personal war, powerfully set up last week as the splintering of two soulmates over a tiny but significant difference in which neither could back down, but concluded this week by both getting over it without much of a second thought. (Even the two of them putting the boot into each other's weaknesses felt strangely isolated and meaningless). Their truce seems to be on shaky ground and will hopefully be picked up again in the future, because all it took here was for the two friends to remember that they liked each other before all was forgiven. The two are so tight that a minor disagreement would create severe ructions, but one of the strengths of last week's set-up was the authenticity to Troy's grievance. It's not unrealistic for an argument to make two people act irrationally and overlook both a feud's pettiness and worsening consequences, but the offered resolution felt more like denial of an escalating problem than a realisation of ridiculous behaviour.

Much of the episode seemed designed to gloss over the nuances of the argument, using it as an excuse to go for a Ken Burns-inspired documentary format. It played reasonably well, with amusing, if mostly unconnected, gags like the Changlorious Bastards' battle with Pierce's Stay Puft suit, or Britta's hitherto undiscovered, and unlikely to ever return, interest in photography. The problem is that such a format is designed to relay information from a clinical, external perspective. When writers emphasize the importance of seeing rather than telling, it's because the act of interpretation allows an audience to connect with what they are watching a way they rarely can if everything is conveyed vocally. The extensive use of a narrator, still photos and graphics to tell the story was more watchable than it had any right to be, but made it almost impossible to get a grip on the personal stakes involved. There was greater concern with the strategy of the battlefield than the humanity of its generals, communicating events through impersonal vignettes rather than unifying them through specific character perspectives.

'Pillows and Blankets' was an enjoyable enough episode thanks to individual jokes, but failed to find a satisfactory resolution to the personal stakes behind the conflict, thanks to an aesthetic choice designed around the emotionally disconnected narration of facts rather than feelings and yet another instance of Jeff saving the day thanks to an overfamiliar personal revelation. Since returning from hiatus, Community has been as funny as ever, but sometimes seemed uncertain of the type of show it is behind the experimentation and self-awareness. With ratings seemingly better than ever and fans in full voice, let's hope it won't be long before Harmon and his team are able to work through these inconsistencies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I agree with you that something has seemed a little off about the show since it returned from the hiatus, I have to disagree regarding “Pillows And Blankets”. I don’t think Jeff sacrificed or changed who he was just for the sake of repairing the rift between Troy and Abed, I thought they hit that note perfectly. To me it felt like one of the most genuine moments in the show. I actually missed the show last night but was able to catch it at with one of my coworkers here at DISH, and we both agreed that while overall the conflict seemed to have been resolved a little too easily, Jeff’s role in it was handled well. Also, there’s nothing wrong with him learning the same lesson over and over, especially when it involves him trying to become a better person…I’ve done the same thing in the past.