Friday, January 4, 2013

A Brief Tribute to Megan Ganz

On Wednesday night, news hit that my favorite currently employed TV comedy writer, Megan Ganz, is departing Community for the infinitely greener ratings pastures of Modern Family.

Now, following the losses of Dan Harmon, Chris McKenna, Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Neil Goldman, Garrett Donovan, and most recently Chevy Chase, this definitely feels like yet another death knell for the already-bleeding series. And yes, like many Communists, my initial reaction was one of "NOOO!!" But honestly, there's no lack of doom and gloom out there, so I'd rather take the opposite approach and whip up a quick tribute to Megan's work on four of the finest sitcom episodes of the last decade.

Her first script, season 2 episode 8, "Cooperative Calligraphy," is a concept episode of both the simplest and arguably most horrifying kind for a TV writer (much less a brand new one): The bottle episode. The group is stuck in the study room looking for Annie's pen, and from that point forward the episode is driven by twenty minutes of nonstop dialogue, maybe the series' purest writer's showcase to date (save Harmon's script for the pilot having to set up all the characters).

And it's a masterpiece. For real. There's so much energy and emotion to it, it's so thunderously paced and exciting with so little outward action, it's so funny, and it does such an amazingly good job of balancing big jokes and moments and reveals for every one of the Greendale Seven. The reveal and explanation of Abed's menstrual calendar is as good of an uproarious "Oh shit!" moment as I've seen a sitcom pull off in years. Everything about the episode is fantastic, and it's all there on the page.

Abed: "Ok, if I could just take this time to share a few words of sarcasm with whoever it is that took this pen. I want to say thank you for doing this to me. For a while I thought I'd have to suffer through a puppy parade, but I much prefer being entombed alive in a mausoleum of feelings I can neither understand nor reciprocate. So whoever you are, can I get you anything? Ice cream? Best friend medal? Anything? Mm-mm? Ok, sarcasm over. You're last up, Shirley. Dump your comedically huge bag and end this."

Megan's next two episodes, season 2 episode 16, "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking," and season 3 episode 8, "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux," are notable not only for being among the best TV episodes of 2011 but also because they're two episodes that aired only seven months apart with what outwardly seems like the same gimmick, yet they feel so different.

The former, via Abed's painfully sharp skewering of the "explaining things to the camera" crutch, is mostly a sendup of The Office and Parks and Rec and, ironically, Modern Family (and is also, between Firefly and Reading Rainbow, an incredible episode for Troy, and Britta and Jeff's "dumb gay dad" exchange is an all-timer). Meanwhile, the escalating derangement of the Dean's film project in the latter makes it a clear Hearts of Darkness parody, with The Office barely coming to mind at all. This is smart, controlled, hyper-specific pop culture riffing of a caliber other series with their throwaway references just can't even dream of.

Both episodes are also alike in the way that they root all their goofiness and pop culture in meatier character deconstruction than any non-Community sitcom out there has any real interest in. "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" is the best episode of the "Evil Pierce" saga after "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," and actually surpasses that episode in the way it examines the why of Pierce's newfound evilness via his increasing isolation from the study group. And "Redux" is just a delicious examination of Dean Pelton's ambitions.

And finally, Megan's fourth and most recent episode, the Law & Order parody "Basic Lupine Urology" (which I recently put at #17 on my best TV episodes of 2012 list), is, along with the Glee parody "Regional Holiday Music," one of Community's two episodes that are just start-to-finish full-bore parodies of other TV shows, and it's terrific fun. In fact, I think it probably qualifies as my favorite Law & Order episode of all time.

Every second is flawless spoofing, from the initial discovery of the "crime" scene to the early onscreen planting of the real culprit to the good cop/bad cop routine to Leslie Hendrix as the medical examiner to a gratuitous chase scene to the lawyer's closing arguments to the final surprising "tragic" note the episode ends on. It's the shallowest of Megan's four episodes, but it's 22 minutes packed to the brim with pop culture perfection.

And in a way those four episodes show an arc of mastery of every facet of what Community is: Ganz started with a totally character and dialogue-centric episode that's as light on pop culture as post-season 1 Community gets. Then she moved on to two episodes that balance a roughly even mix of pop culture riffing and character analysis of Pierce and the Dean. Then finally she capped off her initial run with a colorful, straight-up, just-for-fun TV parody. And all four are perfect 'A' episodes. It's one of the highest quality averages for any TV writer I can think of in any genre, drama, sitcom, cartoon, whatever.

Now, I'm gonna level here: I have no intention of watching Modern Family, Ganz or no. It's awesome that she got a job on the second highest-rated comedy on television, but it's just not my thing. But thankfully, all of Community season 4 is already in the can and Megan worked on it start to finish (she wrote the season finale, in fact). I may be in a state of perpetual dread about what the show's post-Harmon year(s?) will look like, but I'm also really excited to see the final act of Ganz's Greendale career. Bring on October 19th February 7th!

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