Friday, 11 May 2012

Television - Community 'Curriculum Unavailable' review / Parks And Recreation 'Win, Lose Or Draw' review


If you've somehow missed the loud, mostly typed cheer that went up over the internet last night, Community has been renewed for a thirteen-episode fourth season, so the programme's many fans can put their fears to rest in time to enjoy the season finale next week, as part of of a three-episode burn-off that NBC has inexplicably lined up next Thursday. Over an hour of Community is no bad thing, but it's no surprise fans were concerned: such scheduling quirks usually occur only for programmes the network is preparing to axe, and given how jittery fans are about Greendale's survival in general, it seemed to be sending out all the wrong messages - although, given some of NBC's marketing decisions in the past few years, that can't have come as much of a surprise.

Although he's been fairly positive when questioned about the odds on Community's survival, episodes like 'Curriculum Unavailable' seem to have the show reflecting on fears over a falling axe. In episodes like Virtual Systems Analysis, the series has been deeply self-reflexive this year, concerning itself with the cost of artistic integrity against always living on the outside, or last week's disappointing outing, in which a death led to anarchy, and the entire study group being expelled.
'Curriculum Unavailable' hints at being a straight continuation of last week's episode, although is really a self-contained story set in the fallout of Chang's putsch. (That sounds ruder than I meant it to). The biggest surprise is the two-month leap forward in time, which raised an unanswered question about what has happened to the real Dean Pelton in that time? As though he weren't loopy enough already, being kept prisoner for that length of time by Chang is sure to tip him over the edge. Meanwhile, the study group are still hanging out together, but unable to enjoy each other's company without Greendale's warm familiarity. Abed isn't taking the expulsion lying down and is escorted back to his flat by the police officer - there only seems to be one - after he's caught rummaging through the school's bins.

The police officer's reaction is interesting: he respects Abed's dedication to a fictional universe, but admits that he can't led it slide when that dedication causes trouble in the real world. Community fans are more vocal than most about expression their love of all things Greendale, be it protesting NBC in 'darkest timeline' beards or starting tumblrs dedicated to the history of fictional-show-within-a-fictional-show Inspector Spacetime, and there seemed to be a warning in the officer's short speech: it's great you like this stuff, but don't let it get out of hand. If fans are organising protests during a temporary hiatus, what's to say how they'd react to a full-blown cancellation?

Of course, that wasn't the real message: Harmon is too adoring of his fan support for that. The officer's words instead reflected where the study group were at that moment, with their expulsion effectively placing them in a position of 'cancellation'. By the end, once they've realised that hope remains for them to get back into Greendale - albeit presumably with two months or more of work to catch up on, but let's ignore that - cancellation has turned into a hiatus. If anything, the episode stands as a rebuke to all those criticising the fans for being too obsessive in their love: it's that obsession, and refusal to accept it as just another fictional location, which is keeping Greendale standing. Outsiders may call them crazy, but the fans are fighting to save something they love and, as was revealed last night, succeeding.

On its own terms, the episode was a mixed success. I'm one of the few people not wildly enamoured with 'Paradigms Of Human Memory', to which this was a spiritual sequel, and 'Curriculum Unavailable' suffered many of the same shortcomings. Individual segments were very funny, especially the one set in the asylum where the group played out their old adventures and Garrett revealed an unexpectedly sexy voice, but the lack of a strong story kept it from gelling as a satisfying whole.

Everything that happened was a lead-up to a minor revelation that we already knew, and the obviousness of the ploy annulled any sense of tension or purpose. Jeff's realisation of the sheer idiocy of the doctor's story was a nice touch, but was still a flimsy excuse on which to hang a series of isolated sequences, none as inventive as those in 'Paradigms'. Do we really need a montage of Dean Pelton being nice to the group in a variety of disguises when that's what he does every episode anyway? There were enough laughs in isolation to keep things enjoyable - Troy's instinctive worry at being parked by a meter upon hearing that Greendale didn't exist was great - and though the message was a sweet homage to the people who have supporting this strange little show and the people living within it, the absence of a substantial story left this clip show ironically anything but likely to live long in the memory.


While I've been pretty critical of Parks & Recreation's fourth season, it's a relief to be able to say it went out with a cheer, combining all the elements which make the series such a joy at its best. I'm not sure long-term story arcs are the best direction for this programme to go, because it constrains the various crises Leslie has to face: in previous seasons, she battled against the library, an unexpected wedding, an inappropriate painting, and numerous others. This season, though, virtually ever obstacle has arisen out of the Knope campaign's struggles to work as an effective unit, leading to what has felt like quite a bit of repetition. Leslie should be hyper-competent, and it does her no favours to constantly be facing similar problems over and over again and treating each as though it signals the end of her ambitions forever.

'Win, Lose Or Draw' took place almost entirely within the day leading up to the announcement of the election results, though, so there was little time for serious problems to unfold. The people of Pawnee were voting and Leslie and her team were huddled around a television, waiting for the results to come in. This shifted the focus entirely onto the characters, which is where Parks is at its most comfortable. Situation-driven episodes have had a tendency to make the cast to behave in unnatural ways to keep the narrative moving, and with all the pressure taken away, it was a relief to be given an opportunity to relax in these people's company before heading into the summer break. Parks hasn't officially been renewed yet, but most outlets seem reasonably positive about its chances.

Situations developed naturally out of where the characters found themselves and what their hopes and dreams are for the future. Having so expertly guided the Knope campaign, Ben finds himself offered a prestigious, six-month position in Washington. Leslie, in the midst of stressing out about letting down her friends' hard work in case of the election swinging the wrong way, remembers* it was never ambition or glory that drove her team on, but their appreciation of her as a friend. Chris is still lonely, but he and Jennifer Barkley just so happen to both have frustrations that need to be exorcised through anatomically astonishing sex. April thinks she has caused an accident, and her horror is born from her growth into someone who cares about taking responsibility. Even Andy realises his secret longing to join law enforcement, although his delightfully derpy face at the moment of enlightening hints he's still got some way to go before matching his wife's evolution into adulthood. Ann got back together with Tom, although let's leave that one for now.

(*I choose to see Leslie as having remembered her friends were doing it for her all along, rather than discover it, because she's far too empathetic to have not realised by now)

The episode's narrative beats were predictable from the start, but since they only existed as an excuse to let viewers hang out with the characters  for the last time before summer, the effect was negligible. Did anyone ever seriously doubt that Leslie would emerge victorious, though? Creator Mike Shur has said he and his writing team were debating the outcome for a long time, but a show as sweet as Parks could never have let the Newport campaign win, let alone the consequences of that theoretical victory for the various members of the Knope team. That said, having Leslie arrested for being on the losing side would have been an amazing cliffhanger to end on, albeit probably not so easy to write around should (no tempting fate here) the show return later in the year.

What the episode lacked in credible suspense was made up in seeing Leslie being reassured by Ben, Ann and Ron when she thought her ambitions were about to be crushed. The small moments were where 'Win, Lose Or Draw' really shone: Leslie momentarily breaking into tears in the voting booth; Ben's show of faith in never writing a concession speech; Ron - who got the biggest laugh of the night when reeling off a list of random facts about himself to Ben ('I get my milk delivered by horse') - telling Leslie that her friends would be proud of her no matter the result; Leslie giving Ben her blessing to pursue his dreams in Washington. This is a programme whose strength is built on its sweetness and sincerity, two qualities in abundance last night. The silliness, exemplified by a cameo from the long-missed Jean-Ralphio, is just the cherry on top of the waffle.

Parks' fourth season has been imperfect, but at least got a perfect end. Should the series be renewed, the fifth season will hopefully see a return to looser story arcs and greater number of stand-alone episodes that formed the structure of that immaculate third year. While many will point out the logistical and legal flaws between Leslie being both head of the Parks Department and city council, that broadening of the show's scope should allow for a fresh range of storylines without the constrictive requirements that this season's campaign arc demanded. All of that is to say nothing, of course, of the huge potential in following Ben's adventures in Washington, or Andy getting his Guttenberg on at the Pawnee Police Academy. Meanwhile, Ron will still be sitting behind his desk, Jerry bearing the brunt of everyone's irritation, and Leslie working tirelessly for her beloved hometown. This year's changes might not have gone to plan at times, but as long as those core comforts are around, Pawnee will be always be worth returning to.

EDIT: Parks & Rec's renewal has since been confirmed. The order is for a full season of twenty-two episodes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, Xander, buddy! Usually you have one the best reviews and recaps on the Internet! You really tied together all the stuff going on off-screen but as for the episode, you didn’t seem to think much of it. I have several coworkers who work with me at Dish that are huge Community fans and all of them, even the most casual fan in our group, loved this episode! It showed a little more insight into the characters, got TONS of laughs, and set up what’s sure to be a cracker of a finale next week! My friends and I just finished re-watching last night’s episode on my iPad at and my initial impression still holds; second to maybe “Remedial Chaos Theory” this is one of my favorites of the season!