Friday, 4 May 2012

Television - Community 'Course Listing Unavailable' review / Parks And Recreation 'Bus Tour' review


Community has been on a good run of form for the past two weeks, but 'Course Listing Unavailable' unfortunately proved the weakest episode of the season so far. There are still four episodes to go - with three of them weirdly airing on the same night, May 17th - and everything here seemed to be laying groundwork for the finale without having much substance to call its own. The subplot about Chang developing an army of children has been building for a while, but his move to take over the school felt like it came out of nowhere, a move to force through a plot development rather than an organic transition from one state of affairs to another.

The same is true of the riots which gave Chang his opportunity. Starburns' death in the previous episode turns out not to have been a throwaway joke as first assumed, and with Michael K. Williams' contract up, Professor Kane has resigned at the news of the student's death. Kane never really seemed the type to bail because of a tragedy - what happened to that code of honour he was talking about last week? - and little else in the plot succeeded in being any more plausible. Would a school really force students, who had just lost a 'friend', to complete their course over the summer because of a teacher's resignation? Would Jeff really turn against Greendale, the school he has been busy calling his home pretty much since arriving, because of a lost summer, with no attempt to rectify the situation with his usual lawyerly cool, or ability to manipulate Dean Pelton? This version of Greendale seemed even less real than the one dreamed up by Abed in Virtual Systems Analysis.
Most importantly, the episode had next to no laughs, with only the pre and post-credits sequences managing to draw so much as a chuckle: Troy's awe at trying to discover the one-armedness of the one-armed man was Danny Glover at his reactive best, while the Starburns memorial video was delightfully silly, albeit less fun for having been previewed by NBC beforehand. It's difficult to remember many other gags than those, and the ones that do come to mind had either been done before, and better (Dean feeling Jeff's abs for comfort), or were callbacks without any real purpose or point: the scene around the table referencing Remedial Chaos Theory was pure, meaningless fanbait.

The plot itself moved too quickly to give its key developments time to bed in, making Jeff's reaction to having to take classes over the summer ridiculously over-the-top. I assumed he was putting a plan into action, but it seemed the emotion was supposed to be genuine. That it turned into an incitement to riot a scene later left the feeling that a middle ground had been skipped over somewhere: this might have been deliberate, echoed in Britta forgetting the middle three stages of grief, but didn't make the transition - had one existed - go any more elegantly.

Even more absurd was how quickly the rest of the study group got on board: Annie is quick to flip her lid over anything involving personal or scholastic failure, but she's also obsessed with rules and order. Jumping behind the destruction of a school, especially one she loves as much as Greendale, seemed wildly out of character, although not nearly as much as Shirley, whose disappointment at having her snack stand overlooked in favour of Subway seems to have been far greater than ever previously suggested before. (Pierce, on the other hand, leapt on the bandwagon because that's what he always does). As we've seen from the paintball episodes, the Greendale student body are hardly reticent in causing destruction, but there didn't seem anywhere near enough at stake to justify it this time, and even less plausible motivation for the 'Greendale Seven' to start it.

These contrivances only existed to get Pelton to issue greater powers to Chang's security force, which, in a display of convenient timing, seemed to have only been refused earlier that morning. Community usually restricts its thematic commentary to itself and the televisual form, but there was a potentially powerful theme about police forces abusing their powers - we've all seen that video of the security officer pepper-spraying the students at the University Of California - and how the powers that be will always side with the police regardless of their outrageous behaviour in the episode's subtext. All of this was lost, however, due to the study group being entirely to blame for the violence, and their expulsion completely justified.

There was no need for Chang to replace Dean Pelton - although having the double come out of the closet was a nice touch - or bribe the board: the actions of his young army might have been excessive, but doesn't excuse the riot being started in the first place. We're expected to let Jeff, Annie, Shirley and co. off the hook because they're the protagonists, even though they had no-one to blame but themselves. Bringing in talk of alternate timelines seemed a cynical way of reminding us of entertaining times previously spent with them, pleading for sympathy the episode never tried to earn on its own. Hopefully all the groundwork laid in 'Course Listing Unavailable' (wouldn't 'Introduction To Anarchism', or something along those lines, have been a more appropriate title?) will find a satisfactory pay-off, because the build-up was an unfortunate reminder of how post-hiatus Community has struggled to keep a grip on the rules of its own world.


Hate to be a Negative Nancy, but Parks was also back in the doldrums after a couple of episodes that hinted at a late-season revival for a overall disappointing year. There wasn't anything especially wrong with 'Bus Tour', at least compared to the messiness of this week's Community, but felt as though it was spinning its wheels (pun intended, sort of) in sticking to a formula that has been worn down with repetition: Leslie starts the episode on a high, discovering she is only two points behind Bobby Newport in the polls, and seems to be coasting to a win before tripping up, sending the campaign into havoc, before getting everything back on track in the final moments. How many times have we seen that sequence of events played out this season and, more importantly, how many times has it worked? Not as many as it should.

Even Burt Macklin's return was disappointingly subdued, although Jerry's slow-motion cream-pieing was a terrific sight gag, as was the sigh that followed when Jerry was told to clean himself up before starting all over again. For the most part, though, this was one-joke stuff, with Andy/Burt staring at a board, staring at a screen, and occasionally interrogating Jerry. Burt Macklin works best when carried on a wave of growing lunacy, whether leaping over desks or trying to get one over on his femme fatale nemesis, Janet Snakehole, who was disappointingly absent despite seemingly being set up with April's appearance - and delighted face - in the video of the pie being thrown. Setting Burt Macklin against a straight man like Jerry grounds the comedy when it needs to be getting sillier and sillier, and while the pie gag was great (as were his nicknames for the team), it was one highlight in the middle of a big opportunity missed, especially given how none of it had anything to do with the main plot.

Burt Macklin's (usually) chaotic presence might have added the spark so desperately needed in Leslie's attempt to amend her insulting the recently deceased Nick Newport. Because this type of story has played out so often, its comedic beats were too predictable to earn any serious laughs. The appearance of the Knope campaign bus at the memorial was amusing, a trapped planned by Jennifer Barkley and leading to a terrific Admiral Akbar from Ben, but it was obvious from the start what was going to happen to the Newport portrait, conveniently waiting on the driveway for a bus to accidentally back into it. The small details were fun, like Leslie's book 'Groffle The Angry Waffle', but diffused going with the expected outcome of her being asked ridiculously incriminating questions by the assembled press.

Last season, Parks regularly sprung surprises that seemed to come out of the blue, but felt completely organic and justified by the characters: think April and Andy's wedding, the best episode of anything last year. This year, the series has seemed to be stuck in a rut with its campaign storyline, forced to keep returning to the same ideas and losing any sense of progression. A political campaign would seem to offer plenty of storyline opportunities, but few have been forthcoming and most have put an uncomfortable amount of focus on Leslie, leaving the other characters scrabbling for secondary storylines. Only April has come out of her shell this year through her extra responsibility, but even her short encouragement to Chris was a half-hearted reprisal of the caring side that was endearingly honest and sweet at first, but seemed on auto-pilot this time around. Turning the sarcastic, cynical assistant into the heart of the show has been a clever and welcome development, but is tiresome when deployed every week, especially this carelessly.

The C-plot with Donna, Tom and Ron trying to convince a van rental owner (apparently played by an actor who once auditioned for the Ron Swanson role) to honour his contract with the Knope campaign team felt similarly like filler. Tom fell back on his usual schtick, which has become increasingly annoying since it is so rarely allied to his most positive character trait (ambition) these days, and Ron made yet another big gesture, offering to pay $10k to get the vans back, which like April's speech felt perfunctory at best. That it failed to work was a nice twist on Ron usually being able to make any situation twist to his will, so it took Donna's wiles, and readiness to sacrifice her beloved car, to force the rental man into sticking to his original agreement.

Obstacle storylines work best when the outcome seems uncertain or something vitally important is at stake, but none of the plots in 'Bus Tour' achieved either of those aims. With Leslie predictably redeemed in the final minutes, everything seems to have been reset for next week's finale. Fingers crossed for something more inventive next time around than Jennifer manipulating Chris into revealing campaign secrets, or some other low hurdle for Leslie and her team to overcome, and Parks can end its troublesome foray into politics on a more satisfactory note than it has managed for most of its season-long campaign.


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