Friday, 20 April 2012

Television - Community 'Virtual Systems Analysis' review / Parks And Recreation 'Live Ammo' review


It's difficult to know whether to commend or condemn Community for sometimes putting comedy to one side and focusing almost entirely on drama and character. 'Virtual Systems Analysis' in that respect had a great deal in common with last season's 'Critical Film Studies', with both episodes unsurprisingly centred around Abed. The character has always been the programme's presence within itself, in how he's the one capable of seeing this deranged world for what it is and unpicking and commenting on it.

Despite what Shirley might say, he's the closest thing the Greendale has to God, able to create and see things others cannot, to view the world from afar whilst at the centre of everything going on inside it. Other characters are acting out roles within a television programme: Abed is too, but also the only one aware of it. Where 'Critical Film Studies' examined the difficulties of Abed's life as a man, 'Virtual Systems Analysis' looked at Abed's challenges as representative of Community as a whole.
Abed, of course, exists like the others as words on a page, but his presence within Community has shaped the programme in a way other characters have not. Jeff, Annie, Britta, Shirley, Pierce and Troy all go and do as they are told. Perhaps chemistry between the actors might dictate certain pairings, or arguments might theoretically lead to an actor and his character taking their leave, but the characters themselves obey the law of the letter. Troy and Britta are hooking up because the writers finally decided to push ahead with a storyline toyed with for the better part of a year. Nothing in either of their characters suggested this had to happen, or was even a possibility. Troy is the jock-turned-nerd, Britta the worst everything ever: they are joined only because Dan Harmon decreed it so.

The creation of the Dreamatorium, on the other hand, was driven entirely by Abed. From the moment he first appeared, commenting on the nature of the sitcom into which he had been born, he has been a direct, enabling influence in a way the others have not. His way of observing the world led to a Claymation Christmas, and now a machine entirely existent within his own imagination, capable of creating an episode within its confines.

The Dreamatorium's worlds may not exist, but then neither does Greendale, so Abed is merely playing the writer. He was the dungeon master on Dungeons & Dragons because that's his role within the programme, only without the need for dice. Abed can to a great extent mould Community's world to his will, although that ability also means he operates at a disconnect from the other characters. A chess player would not get far in a game if they felt bad about sacrificing a pawn, for example. Abed is a merciful god, capable of acts of great magnanimity, but forever destined to be on the outside looking in.

This episode dealt with Abed's position of power in a way the programme never has before, with the Dreamatorium allowing him to literally inhabit every other character. Because he can see each character's 'type' within the show, he can predict storylines, such as Troy's future invention of 'dance pants' seven years from now. He shares in common with Annie that both are control freaks, although Annie's frustration comes from her inability to actually control anything, whereas Abed finds himself in the creator's quandry of being so in control that he is no more able to relate to those playing the game whose rules only he can see, than they are to him. They are fond of each other, but not at all alike.

In her brief insight into Abed's mind, Annie manages to link the challenges she has faced, as a former Miss Perfect forced to come to terms with her shortcomings, to his grander concerns, but in the end, he still screams upon discovering her having reorganised his and Troy's 'room'. She fails to understand why stability is important to him, as the gamesmaster, while he cannot understand why she would mess with something that is not her concern. Despite their limited expansion of each other's ability to understand one another's worries, nothing has changed.

As representative of Community's presence within itself, Abed's fears also represent those of the programme, operating as a knowing, self-conscious sitcom in a world where the majority of the audience are only interested in shows operating on their level, representing people and scenarios that never question the nature of their existence. Annie's small connection with Abed is much the same as Community's small viewership connecting with it on a deeper level, even if it will ultimately not be enough to get it the widespread love every series desires, or the prolonged lifespan of a formulaic Friends-type comedy.

It is a show destined to always live on the brink of cancellation, because that is the price it pays for knowing what it shouldn't, driving away those unable to make sense of anyone - or anything - which has that knowledge. The inability of Troy (as Abed's disciple) to understand Inception was a neat parallel to this idea: the Dreamatorium gives Abed the opportunity to write for us (Community's disciples) inside the programme we are watching, commenting on itself and allowing us an insight into the thought processes behind its creation. Given his position, 'Virtual Systems' was an episode within an episode of a show within a show. Though it may never get the mass-market audience its small audience hopes for - ratings were down again this week - Community has never been afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


Parks returned from hiatus with one of its best episodes of the season, which was not necessarily as bowel-movingly hysterical as the series can be when firing on all cylinders, but did get all the things right which this season has too often got wrong. Leslie, for one, was back to the obsessive, sometimes irrational but always caring and hyper-competent woman we know, devoted enough to her community and confident enough in herself to commit 'political suicide' and cede good headlines to her opponent for a week in order to save her friend and an animal shelter.

Though her campaign for city council was an important part of the episode, it was the consequences for the Parks Department which ultimately provided the stakes and the bulk of the comedy. Even Tom and Ann's on-off romance provided strong material for the pre-credits, where Ann and Leslie rolled and snoozed through every one of their metrosexual co-worker's implausibly soft blankets. Who knows how they found the time, but I'm glad they did.

If one unquestionably positive thing can be drawn from this disappointing season, it is April's evolution from anti-social, lazy and sarcastic assistant to a confident, talented and still sarcastic young woman, able - if not quite willing - to take on responsibility for herself and appreciate the small rewards that even come through failure. It has been a slow evolution, aided by her finding a mentor in Ron Effin' Swanson and doting husband in Andy, but all the stronger for the writers allowing her the rare dignity in entertainment of moving in baby steps rather than changing everything about herself on the back of a single implausible revelation.

Her personality is much the same as it always was - her desire to reward the animals for 'not being people, because I hate people' was the perfect note from which her first serious project could play out - but tweaked enough for her to see the satisfaction in putting herself out into the world, and rationalising the project's failure as worthwhile in the face of one puppy (or 'purrrrrrrrrrrpy', as Tom would have it) finding a loving home. Her face at seeing the little girl hugging her fuzzy new best friend was lovely, with Plaza getting just the right expression of 'I shouldn't be as touched by this as I am', and any trace of the character getting soft mitigated by her chasing out of the park a lady who had abandoned two adorable cats at the stall.

April's story was created from a rare instance of Leslie lacking forward thinking and demanding a councilman find room for the Parks budget not to be slashed, only for the money to condemn the local animal shelter to imminent closure. Parks hasn't always allowed its plots to interlink in this way and it makes for a more satisfying, full-rounded episode at the end, as well as the sight of Ben waking up to find his house populated with adorable animals.

Even Chris and Ron's meditation session eventually played, albeit loosely, into Leslie's season-arc campaign: if she doesn't win, Chris will be out of a job and Ron won't have the chance to cut government spending by 85% by 'abolishing departments'. (He probably wouldn't get the chance anyway, but would be able to try, which is motivation enough). The Ron subplot was strictly tertiary, but gave plenty of opportunities for Nick Offerman to steal a couple of scenes: I know I felt like eating a spinning cone of meat by the episode's end. The two characters bonding was a typically Parks reflection of how, in Pawnee, even the most disparate characters can become friends, despite Ron being less than enthused at the later suggestion of board games. Surely he'd be more of a Monopoly man?

'Live Ammo' might not have had any major laugh-out-loud moments, but was consistently enjoyable and put down a solid foundation for the season to pick up for its remaining episodes. Perhaps it was the brief hiatus making everything seem fresh, but this felt more like the Parks of its magical third season, with consistent characterisation driving the writing, no sign of Leslie reduced or compromised for the sake of the campaign storyline as she has been in the past, and both the Parks Department and its employees given important roles to play. The titles of the final three episodes - 'The Debate', 'Bus Tour' and 'Election Day' - suggest Leslie's campaign will be back at the forefront until the season's end, but episodes like this one show Parks hasn't forgotten what made Pawnee a place worth returning to.


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