Saturday, March 16, 2013

I Can Chang-e, I Can Chang-e (but not necessarily for the better)

Chronicling my mostly disappointment with season 4 of Community...

Season 4 Episode 6
dir. Jay Chandrasekhar

Something's off with this season of Community. The gang is all back and each episode still features a gimmick to hold it together, so the show is still playing the same old tunes. But I don't seem to be getting as much pleasure as seasons 1-3.

The easy thing to blame is the departure of series creator and notable pain in the ass Dan Harmon. Without him at the helm, the show doesn't feel the same. But what is it? What's missing? In other words, what is Harmon's signature?

It's easy to pick out a Joss Whedon production. The dialogue is smart and snappy; the entire ensemble is full of strong and individual personalities (no 1D or 1 note characters); and there's always a strong female somewhere in the mix if she's not in fact the lead.[1] Whedon's first two attempts to translate this formula into silver screen gold were less than successful.[2] But he hit one of the world's biggest jackpots ever last summer with Marvel's The Avengers.[3]

After mulling Community's season 4 "lack" with a friend, he finally hit upon the right description: this season isn't as dense as seasons past.

Take last Thursday's episode, for example. The frame and gimmick of "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" is that Abed is shooting a documentary about Changnesia as part of a Greendale grant proposal to the MacGuffin Neurological Institute to study "Kevin's'" condition.[4] Everybody is on board with this plan except Jeff, who suspects Chang is faking and won't let go of the fact that at the end of season 3, a power-crazed Chang had tried to kill them all. Even the always fabulous but getting weird/stalker-creepy this season Dean Pelton is behind the grant proposal and he has perhaps the biggest axe to grind with Chang. After all, Chang kidnapped him, imprisoned him in the basement, and hired a Dean Pelton doppelgänger (a dean-pelganger) for much of last season.[5] But money and prestige for Greendale are always good as far as the dean is concerned, and anyway, "Kevin" is acting like a better person.

Jeff's plan is to pretend to go along with the grant proposal while secretly plotting to expose Chang. The side- slash meta-plot with Abed filming himself as director listening to Jeff's plan doesn't feel, well, meta enough in its comments on the whole documentary within a documentary within a sitcom setup. Britta remarks at the end of the episode that "the documentary" was actually a documentary about Abed making a documentary about being honest but this hits more like desperate hand-waving for acknowledgment ("yes, 4th wall, you are indeed broken," the writers seem to be saying through Britta) than a meta-joke. However, the scene where Abed is editing is one of the episode's biggest successes. Abed says he won't show us how Jeff's plot to expose Chang backfires and it works, both because Danny Pudi shines with his reaction shots and because he comments on the structure of editing itself when he tells the camera that the unseen scene isn't actually so bad but not showing it helps move the dramatic tension of his documentary along.[6] It has the elements of a fourfold joke, the hallmark of Community under Harmon (see below).

Britta's faux psychology chops, temporarily buoyed by last week's success with Jeff and his runaway father, is a one note joke.

The episode called back to Annie's interest in forensics as she and Troy team up to investigate more about where Chang was before showing up at the psychologist's office. The writers try to wring some laughs out of Troy doing the "buddy copy" routine (always contradict your partner) as Detective Houlihan's (Annie Edison) partner Partner, but they don't work as well as past season's comment-on-the-spoofed-homage dynamic like Abed doing Dinner with Andre, playing at Batman, or evil alternate universe Abed complete with cardboard "evil duplicate" goatee.

Shirley's role this week isn't even worth commenting on. It's a shame, too, because she was coming into her own with the previous week's Thanksgiving special.

The biggest blown opportunity this week was Pierce. Jeff tasks him with doing entertainment at the grant proposal presentation for the MacGuffin group. I expected full-on inanity with (accidentally) all the wit and force of "the play is the thing" in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Instead, we got an unfunny, racist bit that only related tangentially to the plot with reversed race roles of the principal players, Chang and his unremembered secret wife.[7] But beyond race, the episode doesn't even try to pull the trigger on this perfect moment to be brilliant and comedic commentary despite Pierce's awfulness. It feels like a moment pitched while Harmon was still with the show but one that couldn't come to fruition without a strong, single vision and overarching voice. In other words, I think Harmon would have hit it out of the park in the same way as last season's "Digital Estate Planning" or "Remedial Chaos Theory."

Whatever happened to the "darkest timeline" anyway? Is Chang's Changnesia part of that storyline? Did it survive Harmon's purge?

In an unsurprising but mildly amusing twist, Jeff's unmasking backfires and he ends up a pariah at Greendale, "accidentally becoming more Chang than Chang at his Changiest." Naive "Kevin" forgives him and Jeff finally seems to have joined (the duped side with) the rest of the Greendale community in believing Chang's Changnesia is real.

The last scene features Chang talking to some unseen person on his cell phone. He confirms that he is indeed faking Changnesia and his plot to infiltrate Greendale is successful, even gaining the confidence of alpha and skeptic Jeff Winger. In an homage to the classic espionage trope, he then ditches his phone in the trash and walks away, laughing maniacally. Then he comes back to retrieve it, asking why he did that.

Despite "Digital Estate Planning," I don't know if Harmon ever played video games (or at least those past the 8bit era), but I can't help feeling that under his control, Chang's big "reveal" would have felt more like revealing the hero to actually be the galactic villain Darth Revan in Knights of the Old Republic. Here the reveal is merely the setup to a single, barely amusing gag about (master spies failing at) covering your tracks while going undercover.

That's the big problem with this season: layering. Or, more accurately, a lack thereof. Under Harmon, Community was more than shout outs, callbacks, foreshadowing, and pop culture references. It was a densely layered show in which a perfectly executed Harmon gag would simultaneously be (1) funny in its own right, (2) an allusion to something previous in the show or setup a later joke [internal reference], (3) some kind of reference to pop culture or for the show's faithful [external reference], AND (4) some kind of meta-commentary on those references or the conceit of a episodic-with-serial-bits sitcom itself. This fourfold structure of a joke is what made Community unique. Each and every joke per 23 minute episode felt worked on and rarefied through rewriting alchemy until, by Harmon's Midas touch, it became pure comedy gold. Over the course of 3 seasons.

Another failed moment: Chang being named after his "rescuer's" dog leading to Troy realizing he is also named after his family's pets. But Jeff's comment about finding evidence to support a human trafficking claim usually being a good thing did elicit a chuckle.

Now Community feels more like you're average sitcom. Sure, the one-off episode gimmicks and nod and wink towards pop culture references are still there. But they don't feel unified in the same way as before, each molecule reoriented towards something bigger, some meta-comment about the current state of sitcoms and pop culture. Community, like your run of the mill sitcom, now drops jokes then moves on without any lingering thought about how and why they function as they do (a) during prime time (b) on a major network (c) in 2013.

This episode overall is a mixed bag. Dan Harmon still had scribe duties (his last credited one) and Broken Lizard alum Jay Chandrasekhar (who had his turn in the chair while Harmon was still with the show) directed. But this episode is the first crediting Hunter Covington as co-writer. His previous work? 100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd; Still Standing; Yes, Dear; My Name is Earl; 100 Questions; Other People's Kids. His twitter account also says he writes for It's Always Sunday in Philadelphia but IMDB doesn't credit him. Did NBC bring him in to "polish" a script Harmon left behind to broaden the show's appeal? Looking ahead as of today, IMDB doesn't include Harmon in the writing credits for any future episodes.

The comparison to pre-Avengers Joss Whedon may be most apt here. Despite the seeming cornerstone place of Buffy (and to a lesser extent Angel) in the collective pop (mono)culture,[8] before The Avengers, Whedon's projects failed to garner much enthusiasm beyond a small, vocal, diehard cadre. Even Buffy at its height never rivaled Lost in terms of viewers. Firefly didn't make it through a full season while Dollhouse lurched on longer than its viewership in this competitive business market probably deserved. Community, too, was a show with seeming little appeal beyond a small niche market who nonetheless supported it devoutly. Despite rumors of cancellation and then a delayed start to an abbreviated season 4,[9] Community continues to live on, at least for another half season. But now it feels like its is being retooled and dumbed down to appeal to a broader demographic.[10]

Community used to be a show about an autopsy. Now it's starting to shuffle like just another prime time zombie.

[1] Two of Whedon's four big tv shows were led by female characters: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse. Of the other two, Angel was a spinoff of Buffy; only Firefly nominally cast a male in the lead, Capt. Malcolm Reynolds. But Mal was surrounded by strong women, including his second-in-command and all-around badass warrior Zoe, hyper-competent engineer Kaylee, and the companion Inara.
[2] I was a huge fan of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. I loved it so much, in fact, that when I went to see it in the theater for the first time with my friend and his mother, I somehow managed to convince them to stay and watch it a second time through. The movie was nowhere as big a smash as the story re-worked for television was. Whedon had the opposite problem with his next feature film. Firefly, beloved on tv by rabid fans, didn't do well when transported to the big screen as Serenity.
[3] As of 16 March 2013, The Avengers had made over US $1.5 billion in worldwide box office. Only Avatar, boosted by its 3D only ticket sales (US $2.78 billion) and Titanic (US $2.18 billion) are ahead of it. [source]
[4] Following the framing device of season 2 episode 16 "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" and season 3 episode 8 "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux." The faux documentary or mockumentary format is also spoofed in last season's 2 part Pillow War documentary (episodes 13 and 14). Also, haha, MacGuffin.
[5] When season 4's first episode featured Fred Willard as Pierce in Abed's (re)imagining of Community as a tv show, I actually thought that was a clever allusion to the obvious impostor replacement Dean Pelton running visual gag in season 3 as well as timely winks at Chevy Chase's known departure from the show in the middle of filming and Fred Willard's recent exposure problems.
[6] It's not quite the perfect Harmon joke. To reach 100% completion, some allusion to Nicholas Cage's infamous reaction shot acting would have needed to be made somewhere in the episode. This much maligned scene from Nicholas Cage's much maligned 8mm illustrates his reaction shot prowess at its best.
[7] Pierce plans to do a puppet show by painting and dressing his hands similar to the South Park episode in which Cartman's hand puppet Jennifer Lopez gets more famous than the real thing. Pierce has a Hispanic male puppet and a Chinese female puppet, the inverse of Chang's secret marriage.
[8] You can take college courses for credit on Buffy at, for example, DePaul University, Portland State University, and Brunel University in London. The latter offered its course in "Buffy studies" as part of the Masters curriculum.
[9] See the brilliant October 19th slash "Community Season 4 Premieres... Someday" video. Was Chang's attempted beard-as-disguise an allusion to season 4's Changnesia plot and evil Abed's role in the darkest timeline? And what about the timely reference to the salaciously titled news story about Crystal the Monkey, aka Annie's Boobs, being the 5th highest paid actor per episode of a sitcom [Annie's Boobs Make More Money Than You] that's also a not so subtle jab at NBC for greenlighting the abysmal new (now failed) sitcom Animal Practice, starring Crystal the Monkey, and slotting it to premiere in the fall in Community's place.
[10] Ever since its return to Fox, Family Guy has been trending this way, too. The family used to be a flimsy conceit holding together from week to week the pop culture schizophrenia of the cutaways. Now there are A and B plots about Griffins and other major Quahog folk, just like The Simpsons. This charge has been brilliantly leveled against series creator, song writer, and voice actor extraordinaire several times in the Comedy Central Celebrity Roasts he hosts. The problem for Family Guy "evolving" into a familiar sitcom structure in order to garner more viewers is that the characters, everybody down to a one of them, were created to be utterly and thoroughly unlikeable. It's hard to care what happens to them when you don't like them in the first place. When they were just paste to hold the cutaways together, that they were unpalatable wasn't a problem. And hey, if you liked them, congratulations, you were the paste-eating kid everybody made fun of in elementary school. Now that they're the white stuff holding the two cookies of the Oreo together, it doesn't work so much. Even Seth MacFarlane acknowledges this when he warns the viewers through Peter or Stewie that it's a "Meg episode" and everybody hates Meg so you might as well not watch. And oh, hey, yet another example of the creator of a fiercely loved niche product with a loyal fanbase who became uber-successful.

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