Saturday, February 23, 2013

Parks and Recreation forces sugar and Jamm down our throats, demands we like it

Season 5 Episode 14 - "Leslie and Ben"

If the show realizing it didn't need to write Leslie Knope as a female Michael Scott was the thing that salvaged Parks and Recreation in season 2 then propelled it to greatness in season 3, its writers falling completely, desperately, pathetically in love with her and making her into a flawless living saint is the thing that caused things to get a little stale in season 4 and now actively rotten throughout much of season 5. It's the difference between loving someone and building a shrine to them. One's nice. One's weird.

But it's done, and a show that was once about likable bureaucratic underdogs scraping by in life has somehow become the chronicle of Leslie Knope fighting evil and saving the goddamn world. And in that spirit, "Leslie and Ben" felt like the logical climax to a show that has completely bought into its own hype, which is no more apparent than in what this episode does with perpetually awful villain Councilman Jamm.

Now, Jamm ain't Parks' first antagonist. Leslie has tangled with the likes of Joan Callamezzo and Bobby Newport before, but the show always made it clear these people had lives and careers and goals that existed entirely separate from her and the Parks department. (In fact, with Kathryn Hahn's great season 4 antagonist Jennifer Barkley, Parks gave the impression she didn't think about Leslie much at all, which may have ultimately cost her the election.) Even perpetually nasty right-wing social advocate Marcia Langman was at least theoretically driven by her interpretation of Christian values.

But now we have Councilman Jamm, a character who exists entirely to try and thwart Leslie Knope's unfathomable, heaven-sent goodness. Trying to stop her every benevolent act and bring evil to Pawnee seems to be his only meaning, only goal, only purpose in life (and of course we know everything he supports is evil on account of it not matching the perfect Leslie's agenda). It feels like Parks and Rec has manifested a critic of itself and put him in Pawnee to be defeated every couple weeks, sorta like what M. Night Shyamalan did in Lady in the Water.

And never was this clearer than at Leslie and Ben's wedding when Jamm – who, by the way, entered the episode declaring through a megaphone that "PARKS ARE STUPID!" – ruined the wedding bellowing at Leslie that he would've gotten away with his evil plan to make lots of money if it weren't for her meddling, then literally started throwing stink bombs until Ron Swanson punched him out.

I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. Honestly, they took it this far – they really should have just taken the last couple steps and had Jamm actually shout "PARKS AND RECREATION SUCKS!", then had the wedding crowd burst into spontaneous applause upon Ron decking him. You're 90% of the way there, Parks, just take it home.

But it's fine: Evil is defeated, Leslie and Ben make it back to the Parks office and recite their very generically "TV emotional" vows to each other (set to a cheesy montage of black and white flashbacks of their relationship that had me cringing), and now they're married. I wasn't just blown away by Monica and Chandler's wedding in Friends season 7, but I definitely think it was a more accomplished episode of television than this.

What's weird is that this isn't the first surprise wedding Parks and Rec has done. In fact, the show's all-time best episode, season 3's brilliant "Andy and April's Fancy Party," was centered around more or less the same damn premise. But "Leslie and Ben" is very much the Spider-Man 3 to that episode's Spider-Man 2; not as funny, more cloying than sweet and smugly convinced of its own greatness where "Fancy Party" was warm and inviting. Mandatory and smelling of television where that episode felt surprising and vital.

It's worth capping this off by noting that the next episode, "Correspondents' Lunch," which immediately followed, got back to the business of being funny and actually did a pretty good job at it. But as NBC clearly regarded the wedding as the piece de resistance of Thursday evening, it's the one that goes under the microscope. Let's just hope Parks got the treacle out of its system and the show is more "Correspondents' Lunch" and less "Leslie and Ben" going forward.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Community settles into its new groove in a mostly enjoyable half hour

Season 4 Episode 3 - "Conventions of Space and Time"

Three episodes in and I feel I've essentially locked into nuCommunity's wavelength. And no, it's not a wavelength that grabs me nearly the same way the first three seasons did – but Dan Harmon's Community was, save Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights and the early seasons of Lost (shudder), probably the most fanatically, religiously obsessed I've ever been with a TV show, so holding it to that standard was a lost cause from the beginning.

Dan Harmon's Community thrummed with greatness and felt electric and alive and exciting like few other shows in history, expanding the canvas of TV comedy and walking a dangerous experimental tightrope with a cocky smile plastered across its face. David Guarascio and Moses Port's Community is a solid little sitcom. It's not the same. But it's not bad.

First things first, literally, with "Conventions of Space and Time": Loved the cold open. I don't have any profound investment in Troy and Britta as a couple, but everything about Britta's acrobatic escape from Troy's bedroom and looping back around to the apartment with ceiling-stashed donuts felt lively and fun in a way few sitcoms often do.

And everything after that with Abed and Troy and Britta and villain-of-the-week Toby was pretty amusing (though I understand how it could've been a nightmare for those sick of Inspector Spacetime). I especially enjoyed Abed's Winger speech impression, as Danny Pudi has always done hilarious imitations of his fellow cast members ("I like football, but also, I don't?"). And Britta's loving-yet-firm "I don't care about Inspector Spacetime" to Troy was a pretty good way for Community to wink at the show-within-the-show's obvious inanity while continuing to use it as its go-to geek franchise.

Now, as I mentioned when discussing "History 101" a couple weeks back, the replacement of Dan Harmon makes it very, very hard for me to emotionally invest in these characters the way I used to. (Which, mind you, is not the same thing as being unable to narratively or comedically invest in them.) Some might argue that's me letting behind-the-scenes drama color my perception of what's actually on the screen in front of me, and, hell, they may not be entirely wrong. But it is what it is, and what's this blog for if not being upfront about how I feel?

And this may be why Annie and Jeff's story, which seemed reverse-engineered around getting them together on the couch having a warm heart-to-heart at episode's end, was largely a miss for me, and may be the weakest non-Hunger Deans plot of the season thus far. It had a couple funny gags, but ultimately relied on touching a place in my heart that blackened and died the moment Dan Harmon was fired.

On the other hand, Pierce and Shirley's story, which I initially felt uncertain of, ended up proving worthwhile setup for the tag punchline with Abed's reaction to the American Inspector and his blonde, racket-wielding Constable. (And by the way, Community, if you ever do a "Save Our Bluths"-type episode satirizing the show's sagging ratings and don't have Quendra appear carrying a tennis racket, you done fucked up.)

So what we're left with is a sitcom that is no longer my favorite on television – that would now be Bob's Burgers – but still makes the top two or three and I wouldn't call any worse than, say, new Futurama, or Parks and Rec season 4, or some of the middle seasons of 30 Rock. It's no longer a work of auteur-driven brilliance. But it's got a great cast and a fun tone and a lot of color and still maybe my favorite sitcom musical score of all time from Ludwig Goransson. And that's that, so, barring anything else I just have to talk about right then, this will probably be the last time I check in on Community for a couple months. E Pluribus Anus.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Walking Dead Indulges Its Worst (And a Few of Its Best) Instincts

Season 3 Episode 10 - "Home"

The Walking Dead might be the most maddeningly inconsistent show in television history.

I've gone over the bizarre up-and-down relationship I've had with this show in the past, but just to recap: The pilot was really quite excellent, arguably the best TV pilot of 2010 (give or take a Boardwalk Empire). The rest of the first season ranged from ok to good until an unimpressive and anticlimactic season finale. The second season was, outside of its premiere and final two episodes, largely a dreadful bore that made me feel like a sucker for having ever said or thought anything good about the show. The episode where they pull the fat zombie from the well is a very real contender for a list of the worst hours of television I sat through in 2011. Like, after it was over, I was holding my head, going "This is flat-out fucking terrible. How could I have ever deemed this show good?"

Then season three somewhat shockingly reclaimed a level of no-qualifications-needed watchability, most notably in its exciting premiere and especially its blood-pumping, blood-gushing, tragic and awesome fourth hour, "Killer Within," an episode I went so far as designating one of my favorite of 2012.

And now, just six episodes later, I'm once again finding the bulk of the hour occupied by rolling my eyes, sighing, and checking my phone... until those final ten minutes, that is.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Community Is Community, But Also, It's Not?

Season 4 Episode 1 - "History 101"

I need help reacting to something.

I find myself dizzyingly mixed on Community's fourth season premiere, "History 101." It's not that I didn't laugh a number of times. It's not that I didn't find the episode's final act clever, especially the "Aha!" moment where it becomes clear that we're watching an Inception parody. It's not that I didn't find it far more memorable than the blandly pleasant oatmeal Parks and Recreation has decomposed into. Hell, if any other live-action sitcom mixed styles and mediums and genres like "History 101" in a single episode, I'd be damn impressed.

But without Dan Harmon, I'm still not sure it's Community.

Let me back up: Community was the best sitcom and one of the overall best shows of the last half-decade for two key reasons. The first, sexiest, most discussed reason was Harmon's willingness to experiment, commit to weirdness for whole episodes at a time, play with presentation and format and dive head-first into full-bore parodies of genres or of specific films or TV shows. And this yielded brilliance. If you know Community, you know the episodes. Action movies, Westerns, claymation, Glee, GoodfellasLaw & Order, My Dinner With Andre, classic video games, documentaries, Ken Burns, heists, zombies, multiple timelines, and bottle episodes were all subject to the Greendale treatment. Community had big brass balls and never played it safe.

But the second, less sexy, less discussed but equally important reason was its heart. I don't mean that in any cheesy, manufactured way – no one ever sang "Seasons of Love" in a nauseating attempt to make the audience cry (hear that, The Office?) – but it had rock-solid fundamentals in terms of characterization, relationships amidst the cast, and character development. Jeff, Britta, Troy, Abed, Annie, Shirley and Pierce were all funny, but they were never reduced to joke machines. (Chang sometimes was, admittedly.) Dan Harmon really, truly cared about the study group, and thus so did I. Jeff, Britta, and Abed in particular were largely sliced from his own personality.

(And the third reason, or what I'll call the second-and-a-half reason, is that oftentimes these two elements were mixed, with many of the biggest character developments occurring in the flashiest, most parodic episodes – Jeff and Britta consummating their relationship in "Modern Warfare," Troy becoming a man in "Epidemiology," Pierce's reckoning in "A Fistful of Paintballs," etc, though that's not immediately relevant to the rest of my point here.)

Community, at its best, managed to combine the ambition of Arrested Development and the committed weirdness of 30 Rock with the character development of The Office's prime years and the bighearted warmth of Parks and Recreation, all drenched in an extra coating of pop culture and seen through the eyes of a cocky prick protagonist with a heart of gold. Put simply, Community had great jokes, but it wasn't a show about jokes, or about references. It was about people.

And I'm not quite sure that's the case in "History 101."

Now, don't get me wrong, it's not like the episode just launches into Family Guy-style "Hey, you know this pop culture thing?" Its parodies of multi-camera sitcoms, Muppet Babies, and Inception are all rooted in Abed's fear of graduation and capped off with a Winger speech. But something does feel undeniably off without Dan Harmon's voice guiding it. The character Danny Pudi is playing looks like Abed, sounds like Abed, and walks and talks roughly like Abed, but I'm not quite sure it's Abed, just as I wasn't sure Lorelai was still Lorelai after Amy Sherman-Palladino left Gilmore Girls. Abed was so singularly driven by Harmon's own quirks and weirdnesses and obsessions that what's left is inevitably mimicry; cover artists doing their best to imitate the original.

But that isn't to say the journey through Abed's mind wasn't fairly clever and admirably weird. If anything I think that I would have liked to see this overstuffed episode – which in addition to Jeff and Abed's main stories also contained Troy and Britta's fountain date and Annie and Shirley's pranks, plus final scenes of the Dean moving next door to Jeff, a Chang cliffhanger and a tag – shed a couple minutes from its subplots and maybe insert another layer in between Abed's Happy Community College Show and Greendale Babies, to further reflect the many layers of Inception.

But on Jeff's side of things, there's no getting around the fact that every single Hunger Games reference made me cringe. Unlike Abed's stuff, those really were just references for the sake of references, the show gesticulating in the direction of the hot new thing going "This is what the kids like, right?!"

Now, if you ignore all that, Jeff's quest for seven red balls was mostly enjoyable, even if Jeff had the same disquieting not-quite-Jeffness about him as Abed's not-quite-Abedness. We got most of the show's recurring players in that half of the story, including some great Leonard gags and the welcome return of Annie Kim, who wants ice cream. But I would've vastly, vastly preferred the athletic competition sans Hunger Games references. (Granted, that's at least partially because I thought The Hunger Games was a pretty shitty movie and I'd rather not think about it when I don't have to, but still, I think less pop culture on Jeff's side of the narrative would have caused the pop culture-drenched Abed plot to pop more colorfully.)

I'm relieved that Community is still willing to be weird and do things that no other sitcom would even consider. Dan Harmon expanded the canvass, and the new showrunners have no plans to shrink it back down. "History 101" announced that assertively, and, as someone who likes my comedy clever and risky and doesn't watch most sitcoms because I find them bland as white rice, this pleases me.

But in the end, I really fucking wanted to see Harmon's vision for how these people's journeys turn out, and to hear them (especially Jeff and Abed, coincidentally this episode's two focal characters) speak Harmon's words. I suspect I'll still enjoy Community a lot on an episode-by-episode basis, but there's no getting around the fact that my ability to emotionally invest has been irreparably damaged by Harmon's dismissal, and even if Community runs six seasons and a movie, I don't think I'll ever get it back.

And so what we're left with is perhaps half the delicious vanilla-fudge swirl that was Community's mix of formal ambition and Dan Harmon's character work. And I am of course more than happy to eat that vanilla ice cream left behind (especially when 90-95% of other sitcoms on the air don't even reach the level of vanilla, most tasting a bit more of refuse and sewage), but after three seasons and 71 episodes of eating that vanilla-fudge, I do find something inescapably lacking.

I'm still looking forward to watching the study group's senior year. With 30 Rock ended, Louie off the air for 2013 and Parks and Rec not as good as it used to be, Community is still alpha dog of the sitcom pack, give or take a Bob's Burgers (and New Girl's last few episodes have been awfully good, though I'm still not sure I'd call them Community good.) But Community was my absolute #1 favorite show of 2012, and, were it not for Friday Night Lights, probably would've earned that distinction in 2011 and 2010 as well. And I don't think it can rise up to those heights again sans Harmon. That makes me quite sad.

Or, as Troy put it: "MY EMOTIONS! MY EMOTIONS!"

Friday, February 1, 2013

Best TV Episodes, January 2013

10. Banshee, Season 1 Episode 3 – "Meet the New Boss"

Here's the first of three early 2013 TV surprises: Cinemax's new show, Banshee, a small-town sheriff drama with a little extra-violent zest, is pretty good! I call this surprising because Cinemax's first two attempts at real, non-porn series, Strike Back and Hunted, sucked (I know some TV critics are bafflingly trying to pretend Strike Back is some kind of awesome guilty pleasure, but no, it's just a crappy action procedural with boobs), but Banshee is both smarter and way more fun than either. I could have picked any of its three January episodes for this slot, but ultimately went with "Meet the New Boss" on account of one of the most kick-ass onscreen fights I've seen in some time.

9. Supernatural, Season 8 Episode 11 – "LARP and the Real Girl"

2013 TV surprise #2: While I've previously found Supernatural's cases of the week to be mere appetizers to the main course of its arc episodes, in season 8, that's been soundly reversed, with my favorite hours of the season so far – "Bitten," "Hunteri Heroici," and now "LARP and the Real Girl" – all being standalones. (Filler, even.) This episode brought back Felicia Day's Charlie Bradbury, maybe Supernatural's best still-living recurring character save Castiel, and found a spin on live-action fantasy roleplaying that was funny and silly without ever being mean or hurtful about it. Just a damn entertaining episode. Forty-two minutes of top-to-bottom enjoyment.

8. Switched at Birth, Season 2 Episode 4 – "Dressing for the Charade"

And finally, 2013 TV surprise #3: I'm pretty sure Switched at Birth has supplanted Bunheads as my favorite ABC Family show. I put Bunheads way higher on my best of 2012 list, and Switched at Birth's fall arc kind of sucked, so I didn't think that would ever happen. But here we are: Bunheads has settled into a fun but disposable groove, while Switched is continually bettering itself and deepening its exploration of clashing cultures and the odd, compelling family at its center. But don't let me make it sound too serious – this episode, involving a series of escalating farcical mishaps at an ill-advised dinner party, is some of the most purely fun TV of the year so far.

7. Bob's Burgers, Season 3 Episode 11 – "Nude Beach"

One of the million things that makes Bob's Burgers the best animated sitcom on TV right now (and, at least for my money, in years) is its unusually long memory for that genre. It isn't "serialized," per se, but a number seemingly one-off characters have popped up again, weeks or even months later, picking up their stories where they left off. And in that spirit, "Nude Beach" acted as a de facto part two to the very first episode of the entire series, "Human Flesh," with health inspector Hugo Habercore coming into conflict with Bob once again, only this time in the nude. It was both a hysterically funny half-hour and also surprisingly made Hugo, previously a fairly one-dimensional villain, into a rounded, sympathetic character. When it comes to having heart without ever getting treacly or misplacing the funny, Bob's Burgers reigns supreme.

6. Parenthood, Season 4 Episode 15 – "Because You're My Sister"

Many critics commented that Parenthood's fourth season finale almost stumbled over itself in a rush to wrap up every single loose plot thread into an excessively happy ending, just on the off chance this ends up being the series finale (though the ratings are high enough that probably won't happen, thank god). And they aren't wrong. But god damn if I didn't have the biggest, dopiest grin of pure joy on my face during the episode/season-ending montage all the same. This show. It makes me feel, man! It makes me feel!

5. 30 Rock, Season 7 Episodes 12 & 13 – "Hogcock!" & "Last Lunch"

I won't go too in-depth on 30 Rock's series finale, not because I don't have stuff to say but because approximately two million other online essays have already covered every facet imaginable. But I will say that from my live viewing of its October 11th, 2006 series premiere to Thursday's two-part series finale – which, by the way, makes this by some margin the longest-running series that I've followed in real time from its very beginning to its very end (shamefully, I think the runner-up on that account may be the four-season run of Heroes) – 30 Rock has never stopped being an immensely enjoyable sitcom, and this finale wrapped it up very nicely. But it's actually not my favorite 30 Rock episode(s) of the month!

4. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 1 – "Enemies of Rome"

Already discussed this in sufficient depth. Spartacus is this high because it kicks unbelievable amounts of ass. End of story.

3. 30 Rock, Season 7 Episode 9 – "Game Over"

"Game Over" isn't just my favorite 30 Rock of the month, but my favorite of season 7 and a very real contender for my top ten of the series. In uniting Jack Donaghy's long-term nemeses Devon Banks and Kaylie Hooper in one final effort to have his job, this episode brought satisfying closure to stories that 30 Rock has been slow-cooking for nearly its entire run. The series of climactic reveals detailing how Jack actually played and outsmarted Devon and Kaylie all along was both hilarious and damn impressive plotting. Beyond all that, that's a series wrap on Leo Spaceman, suckers! Lenny Wosniak returns and embraces his true identity as Jan Foster! Megan Mullally cameo! An explosively great 22 minutes of comedy.

2. Parenthood, Season 4 Episode 13 – "Small Victories"

I wrote about this in some detail as well, but "Small Victories" was a fantastic, achingly emotional hour of Parenthood that took on the abortion issue by refusing to "take it on" at all, instead depicting something overly politicized as the deeply personal choice it is. And the heaviness of that story was balanced by a comedic B-plot about body odor and pubic hair that had me laughing embarrassingly loud. This show is great. Season 5, NBC? Please?

1. Fringe, Season 5 Episodes 12 & 13 – "Liberty" & "An Enemy of Fate"

The two-hour finale of one of the best sci-fi series ever, while tense, twisty and exciting, didn't miraculously leverage its modest budget into something resembling a summer blockbuster spectacular. The final, climactic action scene of the entire series ultimately boiled down to a shootout in a parking lot (with numerous sci-fi twists on its edges, of course, including but not limited to teleportation, telekinesis, and time travel).

But there are three important ways that the two-parter of "Liberty" and "An Enemy of Fate" nailed the landing. One, timing. This finale went down at exactly the right moment, after five fast-paced seasons of continually shifting status quos, character dynamics, parallel universes and alternate timelines. Fringe didn't die so fast as to be tragic ala Firefly, but it also never grew stale and didn't outstay its welcome for a second. Granted, this is more a comment on the entire series than these specific episodes, but still, it's going to be a big part of why I recommend Fringe in years to come.

Two, mythology. I don't want to go too into this right now, but needless to say Fringe is not Lost. Every plot thread was wrapped up coherently and satisfyingly, there aren't any egregious unanswered questions, and absolutely nothing was brushed aside as being magic. (I mean, obviously time travel is magic, but they explain it as science fiction with science fiction terminology. It's a subtle but really, really important distinction.)

And three and most importantly, emotion. The action in this episode may have been relatively TV modest, but on the emotional level it was an explosive, devastating, intensely moving two hours. The true climactic moment of Fringe was not an action beat but a single, four-word line of dialogue from Peter Bishop that completed a five-year character arc with stunning beauty that sent goosebumps up my arm.

And, as an added bonus, we now have a great series finale to point to when Lost fanboys still defending that show's abortion of an ending cough up the ludicrous argument that there was no satisfying way to wrap up a long-running genre serial with a complex mythology. (Angel and Avatar: The Last Airbender already soundly disproved this, but one more example is always welcome).