Community Archive

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TV Review: Community Season 6, Episodes 1-8

You know what’s funny (read: sad)? I spent an hour dicking around on the internet between writing this paragraph and opening Word to craft this review. How have I reached undergraduate levels of time wasting? Simply put, I don’t know that I have a lot of good things to say about the first two-thirds of Community’s sixth season.

Every Tuesday morning I wake up with the giddy anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. And every Tuesday night I find myself wondering why I the episode didn’t make me laugh. It would be unfair to invoke gas leak comparisons, at least for right now. I do, however, think the series is trending in that odious direction.

Everything seemed fine with the premiere episode. Even absent Donald Glover, Yvette Nicole Brown, Chevy Chase, and John Oliver, Ladders felt like classic Community. The episode was screwball, a little meta, and there were no shortage of one-off gags predicated on a mixture of timing and shtick. On the off-chance people were coming to season six without watching the first five seasons, Paget Brewster’s Frankie acted as good straight man to the insanity of Greendale Community College. It wasn’t the best thing ever, but it felt like a nice homecoming.

From that point on, something has consistently felt off about the little series that refused to go quietly into the night. At first, I thought it was me being overly sensitive. Then Britta pooped her pants.

It was the shart heard around the internet.

I understand there’s an inherent challenge to keeping characters fresh (no pun intended) on a long-running series. Since Community revels in shoving the head of pop culture up its own ass, it’s probably harder to write than the average episode of Two and a Half Men. At the same time, I don’t think I’m raising the bar too high to say I expect better than to bear witness to a character soiling herself. Let’s come at this from another angle, does anybody recall Hawkeye shitting himself during the eleven years of the Korean War?

AND JESUS WEPT, yelled Academy Award winner Jim Rash as he portrayed a VR addicted Craig Pelton. Does anybody else remember when the Dean’s tendency to fixate led to a homage of Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness? Now, to borrow a line from Frankie, he’s simply an idiot.

The shit list goes on…

Abed un-ironically yelled “Bazinga” before popping out of a pile of Frisbees.

Honda revisited the Subway gag by turning an entire episode of Community into a commercial.

Chang did a pretty spot-on impression of Pat Morita but reduced the most historically and emotionally resonant scene of The Karate Kid to a farce.

Annie shows up to pout and show cleavage.

I was inclined to let much of this laziness slide until I noticed something utterly damning in Intro to Recycled Cinema. See if you can spot the problem in this picture.

Doctor Who? DOCTOR WHO? DOCTOR WHO!

What in the name of Lucifer’s beard is Doctor Who doing in Community? There’s no such thing as Doctor Who in Community. There’s Inspector Spacetime. You know this. I know this. Hell, I had Travis Richey aka Inspector Spacetime on the podcast a couple years ago. We talked for an hour and a half. And I swear to Gozer I will drive to LA and give Dan Harmon such a telling off if it turns out this season was set in one of the other realities.

The common thread between episodes is no longer a love of pop culture commentary or a series of comically depressing voyages into human dysfunction. Now we’re dealing with sight gags that end up getting explained and conflicts that don’t even deserve a Winger speech. When all else fails, Chang acts like a head case. Whatever pop culture references do manage to make their way into the writing don’t have any purpose.

Remember when Danny Pudy’s Abed was playing space invaders and Paul F. Tompkins walked up to him and said he should slow down or else the Rylans would recruit him to fight the Ko’Dan armada? In about 20 seconds of dialogue the audience goes from Asteroids to The Last Starfighter to Farscape. While some people might write off the mile a minute references as inherently lazy, they do serve a purpose. Both Starfighter and Farscape are about characters who don’t fit in where they are. Alex Rogan and John Crichton have to confront becoming someone else to fit in at the place they really want to be. These twenty seconds of pop culture references serve to reinforce the overarching theme of Mixology Certification: alienation.

I know a few people are reading this and thinking I’ve gone way too deep down the rabbit hole. Should a person have to get this critical to be able to enjoy a TV show? Generally, no. However, this example speaks to the quality of the writing in older seasons of Community. Though deep readings weren’t necessary, they could be done. Granted, people might think me a weirdo for devoting my time to such an exercise, but those looks don’t invalidate my analysis. That is to say, I might be crazy, but I’m not wrong.

Now ask yourself what the current season is doing to facilitate voyages down the rabbit hole? I submit, very little. Try as I might, I can’t even find the rabbit hole in most episodes. So either the metaphors have become so dense even I can’t figure them out – possible, but not likely – or the writing is as remarkably dull and uninspired as it seems.

Perhaps being on the internet has denied Dan Harmon a much needed machine to rage against. Absent the time constraints of network television, he can preside over a thirty-minute episode with impunity. My suspicion is the ability to say everything has come at the cost of showing what’s clever. For a series like Community, the additional creative freedom of the internet might be at odds with the je ne c’est quoi that makes Greeendale tick.

Tl;dr, this is shaping up to be the second-to-worst season of Community.


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Movie Review: Knights of Badassdom

There is something to be said for a movie where all involved parties seem to know that what they’re working on won’t achieve any great narrative heights. I think this self-knowledge is important. Without a carefully measured effort to be a good B-movie, a production is likely to end up with Adam Sandler dressed in drag, making like a less funny Eddie Murphy. This is where the Knights of Badassdom excels. It knows that it is a solid brick of aged cheese, but it makes no pretension at being anything more than that, and for that reason, the movie works – albeit with a few caveats.

When broken down into component parts, Knights of Badassdom is both a celebration of a particular brand of low budget 70s and 80s horror and a knowing wink to nerd sub-culture. It’s not the first movie to explore young people abusing the occult with terrible consequences, nor is it the first to have a poke at the culture of Dungeons and Dragons or LARPing (Live action role play). Unlike 1982’s Mazes and Monsters, which convinced a generation of parents that tabletop role-play would lead to Chthonian insanity and murder-suicide (my parents included so fuck you very much, Rona Jaffe) KoB is mostly laughing with the audience rather offering up any sort of tut-tutting editorial. Indeed, half the fun of this movie is watching its cast of A and B listers goof around in armour and fight choreographed battles with foam weapons.

Without the likes of Peter Dinklage, Ryan Kwanten, Danny Pudi, and Summer Glau, all of whom play characters who are intentionally reminiscent of the characters who made each of these actors a household name, I don’t think the movie would work. Dinklage’s character spends most of the movie tripping balls. Kwanten plays a goof ball with a heart of gold. Pudi’s character fusses over the details of how many experience points his in-movie character will get for completing various quests. And, of course, Glau’s character is mysterious and all manner of kick ass.

In so many words, I now know what would happen if Tyrion Lannister, Jason Stackhouse, Abed Nadir, and River Tam got together for a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Once again, Knights of Badassdom doesn’t score a lot of points for originality, but it’s certainly not without some innate charms. Charms that, in fairness, are both a strength and a weakness as they only extend so far as an audience’s affection for nerd culture in general.

I don’t want to say that Knights of Badassdom requires a foreknowledge of D&D or role-playing games, but it certainly goes a long way to helping the jokes land. Even then, much of the comedy isn’t laugh out loud. Most of the gags revolve around the audience’s ability to look at a particular scene and go, “Yeah, I know that guy.” It’s not inclusive comedy in any sense of the word, but it knows its audience, and there’s something to say for a movie whose reach doesn’t exceed its grasp.

In the final calculation, Knights of Badassdom delivers exactly what it promises: a bunch of fan-favourite actors playing variations on their fan-favourite characters. It’s goofy, it has plot holes big enough to accommodate an elder dragon, and isn’t nearly as meta as it could be. It also has Ryan Kwanten and Peter Dinglage getting high as Keith Richards, and that has to be worth something. It won’t win any Oscars, but I don’t think that’s what it set out to do.  Like any ripe old cheese, some people will devour it with much avarice, while others will take one whiff and wonder why anybody would even bother.

 

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NBC Cancels Community: Welcome to the #DarkestTimeline

Well, here we are again. It seems like every year I end up eulogizing Community, only to have it defy death and come back again – such as it was during the gas leak year. Alas, this year saw the final nail driven into the coffin of Greendale Community College. NBC has sent Community off to the remedial Spanish class in the sky. Instead of #SixSeasonsandaMovie, we got ninety-seven episodes, and most of them were good. And I think that’s okay.

That said, if you asked me how I felt about this on Friday, then you would have been treated to all the righteous indignation that I could muster.

How dare NBC cancel the smartest comedy on television?

Fuck the tasteless, classless, Republican rabble of middle America for their dominion over focus groups, test audiences, and a broken ratings system.

Why do we live in a world where the nerdspolitation of Big Bang Theory gets picked up for three seasons and Community gets cancelled in favour of America’s Fattest Fatties (aka The Biggest Loser)?

Sufficed to say, I was angry.

I know things end. I know nothing lasts forever (except Days of our Lives), and I know that ninety-seven episodes is about seventy-two more episodes than some NBC executives wanted to give Community after its first season. Be that as it may, until this morning I had a version of this post ready to go that was all fire and vitriol. Then I chanced upon Dan Harmon’s blog. Though his whole post on Community’s cancellation and potential future is worth reading, here are the two paragraphs that have Harmon speaking to fans about what they can do to help keep Greendale alive in the interim.

I honestly think you can totally sit back and relax for this chapter. I know you don’t feel relaxed but I mean you don’t have to worry that someone on this planet isn’t aware of this show’s value to its audience. There are actually astronauts on a space station right now saying “we get it, you love Community” in Chinese. You have done your thing.

If you want to know the God’s honest truth, part of my “eh” was coming from the unsettling thought of your passion for campaigns being once again exploited by this rather unfair, somewhat backward system, one that now treats you like it’s your responsibility to keep a show alive, like a corporation is doing you a favor by feeding you low grade opiate through a regulated tube. Like you owe them an apology when they can’t measure or monetize you to their satisfaction. You deserve better. I love you guys, and at its best, Community is me saying that over and over again, saying let’s get less mad at ourselves and each other and more mad at the inhuman systems that keep us down and divided. “Maybe it should have said less of that and more jokes.” Shut up, voice of my grade school principal that also coached and umpired softball because shrieking “steeeeeeerike” at children was his sole recourse to virility.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dan Harmon just gave us the Winger Speech to end all Winger Speeches.

One of the things that is most alienating about fandom is the fact that it so often seems like people screaming into the void. Business almost always trumps fan sentiment, yet fans yell in the hope that if they can harmonize all of their voices, things will change their way; as if there is some magic brown noise where audience outrage will trump lackluster ratings. I suppose the worst part is that every once in a while the screaming works, which then gives us all a sense of false hope for the next time something goes wrong. Sure, fan outrage brought Jericho back for a final season, but how did that work out for Stargates Atlantis and Universe? Fans still scream about Firefly, but a second season of that is probably never going to happen.

We scream because if the suits know just how much we love something, we can appeal to their humanity, and they’ll give us more of the thing that we built a community around. Except maybe there is no humanity in the entertainment industry, save for what Dan Harmon gave us on his blog: a few words to let us know that we have been heard.

Harmon’s words are validation to all of Community’s fans for the blog posts and rants to friends who are tired of hearing about the weird meta show that is television shoved up its own ass. As someone who did more than his fair share of crowing about Community’s genius, there is peace to be found in knowing that as part of the larger voice of Community fans, who from time to time took over Twitter with our hashtags and in-jokes, I was heard.

Community might be gone, but so long as there is Hulu, Netflix, and DVDs, its subversion of the entertainment industry and its commentary on the simplistic tropes of film and television – a commentary which, without trying to sell us anything, tells the audience that they deserve better than what is out there – will go on.

And I can live with that.


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Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality – A Study into Mediocrity

Community’s fifth season has been an about face to the televised impressionism of the series’ second and third seasons. That is to say, unlike the fourth season, which could have been helmed by any appendage of the Hollywood institution, season five shows us the hand of the artist, Dan Harmon, in almost every scene. Thus, when I watched Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality my first reaction was that Harmon must be writing his way through feelings about Donald Glover leaving the show. One need only look at the brilliant camera work that captures Abed Nadir’s essential loneliness as he Robocop Kickpuncher-walks his way down the empty corridors of Greendale Community College to see this. Yet such an interpretation seemed too easy. Perhaps the gas leak season would resort to such an obvious tactic, but Harmon’s style is almost always more complicated than that.

Puzzling through the issue put me in mind of Harmon’s writing process. This, for example, is Harmon’s story circle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With that in mind, I began to look for the episode’s common thread. What do all the characters want? In terms of Britta, Abed, Buzz, they want what they have always wanted: to be the person of stature that they imagine themselves to be. The episode then presents these three characters with the kryptonite of all those who aspire to greatness: confirmed mediocrity.

Consider that Britta has always wanted to make the world a better place. Through “selling out,” Britta’s old friends have done just that. Britta, however, is a bartender and perpetual college student. What good can she accomplish in that? Indeed, what does that say about her potential to ever do anything measurably good?

Abed learnt everything there is to know about popular culture as a means of compensating for his Asperger Syndrome. Though he uses media to connect with people, his ultimate goal is to produce something of his own that will let people connect with him. Except his work is soulless and bereft of humanity. Abed can’t even come up with a character name that is endearing. Remember Hector the Well Endowed?

 

Through his creation of Jim the Duck, Buzz wants to be more than a failed cop-turned teacher at a third rate school. He wants the world to see how frustrated he is with the way the mundanities of life can grind a person down; hence we witness Jim the Duck’s perpetual catch phrase, “What the hell?” What a shame Buzz’s work is crude, shallow, and dependent upon a single gimmick.

Despite their lofty goals, all three of these characters run face first into the revelation that they are nothing more than average. Is there a more terrifying revelation for a person who defines themselves as a certain thing, either publically or privately, than to be told that they are mediocre at said thing? As Britta, Abed, and Buzz face this uncomfortable truth so too do their story arcs descend into the chaos side of the wheel.

Their return to the light side sees the episode revisiting the series’ most common and also most heartening motif: the study group/save Greendale committee – and by extension the audience – is better together than they/we are on our own. Duncan, a perpetual joke of a therapist, encourages Britta to deal with her existential crisis on her own, thus shattering her cycle of  perpetual codependence, which often prevents the character from accomplishing anything for herself. Meanwhile, Abed and Buzz find writing partners in each other, such that they might rise out of their mutually exclusive creative mediocrity.

Perhaps that’s why this episode seemed so out of place with the rest of the season to date. Everything else so far, especially the sublime Basic Intergluteal Numismatics, overflowed with confidence. Invoking Futurama’s Bender, Community and Dan Harmon proudly proclaimed, “We’re back, baby.” Yet this episode turned its eye inward and used a cheap shot against the new RoboCop movie, literally spooging over the work of others i.e. Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, to touch upon the first fear of lofty goals. Namely, that a person’s best individual effort might only amount to being average in the eyes of the world. Who is that person then? Who is the writer that spends 10,000 hours at practice only to be esteemed as passable? Who is the revolutionary that can’t inspire grass roots social change? Who is the everyman that tries and fails at being unique?

Thankfully, the moral of this episode doesn’t demand an answer to that question. Instead, it reaffirms the series’ core message that an individual as an island unto themselves will never be capable of reaching the heights of those who are part of something larger. From the nascent relationship between Buzz and Abed to the reaffirmed friendship between Jeff and Duncan (which was largely an attempt to find a new foil, comedic or otherwise, for Jeff now that Pierce is dead), this episode tells us that nobody gets to the top on their own. For that message, Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality demonstrates that Community, despite re-piloting, is still concerned with the same themes as it was five years ago. This won’t be the best episode of the season, but it still rings true as classic Harmon, nonetheless.


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Counterpoint: Adventure Time

Why hello there. My name is Mark Kowgier, and Adam has graciously given me the green light to write the occasional post for everyone’s favourite review site. I will try my best to write up to the standards he has set, hopefully adding to this site’s focus on gaming and internet culture, while at the same time giving my own take on music, television, literature that fit within that framework. If you like what you read and want more, check out my other work at markk.ca and/or follow me on Twitter @upinmytree.

Thanks and enjoy…

And the more Adventure Time I took in, the more confused I became. Even now, with perhaps a dozen episodes under my belt, I still don’t have a sense of the meta-story, assuming there is one to be found.” -Adam

It is on this assumption, that there exists some overarching story that will tie together the endless loose ends that make up Adventure Time, that I humbly take issue with my good friend Adam.

This bewildered feeling he expresses, the sense that surely he has to be missing something, is reminiscent of many of the conversations I had with friends around the time that Napoleon Dynamite became a cultural phenomenon. A small subset of these conversation contained a common gripe: what was the joke?

These people were angry. Everyone else, it seemed to them, was in love with this movie that made little to no sense. They just didn’t get it, and no one enjoys being left out of the joke.

These complaints were and are completely valid. From a rational viewpoint, creations like Napoleon Dynamite and Adventure Time don’t really add up. They are strange self-contained worlds, complete with their own internal logic that seem to be just beyond explanation. And if your goal is to figure them out, you’re in for a frustrating experience because there is nothing to get. Their joke is that there is no joke, no explanation. These are not rational creations, they completely, and utterly irrational.

And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.There is an argument to be made for the necessity of the irrational. This is where my inner-mathematician starts poking at my innards, trying to get me to go on a tangent about irrational numbers, but we can save that for another (adventure) time. What’s more important here, is recognizing the type of animal we are dealing with, and matching our expectations accordingly.

So if the rational is out the window, then how in the world can possibly approach the wild, irrational, post-post-modern beast that is Adventure Time?

Here is where you have to get cozy with some paradoxes. The irrational is, by definition, undefinable; pi carries on in its randomness further than our imaginations can strech. But that does not keep us from understanding pi’s effect’s on our ordered rational world. And so in the same way that pi allows for the magic of curved lines, Adventure Time leads to it’s own loopy magic .

To help us on this new Adventure, I summon forth 2006 Nobel Laureate Professor Edmund Phelps who, when writing about the spirit of personal adventure, concludes that

not a heck of a lot can be done until we realize that we’ve had the wrong attitudes and we have to correct them…

Of course he’s speaking about the role of government and innovation in a modern society, but his thoughts can easily apply to the wild tales of Finn and Jake. Take one idea from the professor’s new book Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change. In Prof. Phelps’s telling,

the drive toward modernity began in the 1820s… During this period of enormous creativity, which stretched until about 1960 in the United States, the forces of change were not a handful of brilliant scientists or industrial visionaries like Henry Ford but millions of people who found themselves with the freedom and incentive to create and market a wave of new products and processes. He colourfully depicts these industrializing economies as “a vast imaginarium” brimming with new ideas.

Anytime I see the word imaginarium I get excited.

Adventure Time is nothing more than a vast imaginarium brimming with new ideas. It’s like the kid brother to Troy and Abed’s Dreamatorium. Where Community is a reflection of Troy and Abed’s post-adolescent pop-cultural space-quests, Adventure Time is decidedly grade-school with it’s fascination with Candy, Princesses, and super powers. But despite their age difference, both shows have little fear to tread into new waters, and to try bold quirky ideas.

It’s all in the title. Adventure is defined by quests into the unknown. Where Star Treks explore the dark corners of our universe, Adventure Time explores the wild edges of imagination itself.

Because wasn’t that the best part of childhood? Making up your own tall tales that followed rules that you alone understood, exploring how far your own imagination could take you.

Why?

Because it was fun. Sure, the adults may not have understood what in their world you were talking about, but it didn’t matter then. And it doesn’t now.

All that matters is that, right now, there are kids (and adults) watching Adventure Time and feeling that thrill of being caught off guard in some strange land, seeing stories where risk taking and strange thinking can lead great times with pals but also great (and equally strange) danger.

So let the kids have their Imaginarium, I say, even if it never fully makes sense to us rational old folk.

Because, in the least, we will get amazing gems like this:

 

Which, in turn, will lead to even more amazing gems like this:

 

Does it make sense?

Hells no.

Is it fun?

That, my fellow adventurer, is up to you.

And your imagination.


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Book Review: iD – The Second Machine Dynasty

It may be out of place for me to include rough notes in a finished review. However, I’m willing to risk the critical faux-pas in sharing the first words I wrote about Madeline Ashby’s iD, the sequel to her debut novel vN: “Meta as hell.” And truth be told I’m cleaning that up a little bit as somebody once informed me that it’s not classy to drop F-Bombs in the first paragraph of a review. At any rate, should Dan Harmon find himself in need of an additional writer for Community’s fifth season he would do well to consider Ashby. She possesses an impeccable talent for weaving originality out of layers of referential nods, all cumulating in subtexts so deep a single review could not do all of them justice.

iD begins a little after the concluding events of vN. Amy and Javier, the eponymous von Neumann androids of the first novel, are living on the semi-sentient island Amy fashioned as a refuge for vN who wish to live far removed from human influences. Things turn ugly when a human shows up and rapes Javier through a manipulation of the Asimov-style failsafe built into he and every other vN. Skip ahead two beats and the island implodes, the vN are scattered, the digital essence of Amy’s homicidal grandmother Portia – who has always reminded me of Shodan from System Shockescapes, and Javier, written as a protagonist with almost no personal agency, begins a quest to find Amy.

Changing perspective from Amy in vN to Javier in iD reveals something of a more brutally honest speculation on how humans might use sentient machines designed by a Millenarian doomsday church. Amy grew up in the safety of suburbia and her entry into womanhood, as well as the world at large, was that of a stranger in a strange land. The vN who iterated Javier abandoned his son to a South American prison. From there Javier’s back story parallels that of a migrant worker, only with an additional layer of debasement because he’s not human. Worse still, though a testament to the strength of the book, is how Javier always seems to be on the edge of consciousness with respect to the way he is treated. The failsafe programmed into the vN not only keeps them Three Law compliant but adds a measure of Stockholm Syndrome to their daily existence.

As a stand alone feature, this commentary and narrative voice is quite apropos. It’s also a structural safety net in case a would-be reader has been living on Mars for the last fifty years and has no framework for understanding the novel’s in-jokes, references, and allusions. For readers who can engage with Ashby’s meta-storytelling, the conflict and fine details alike strike with all the more force.

Another benefit of this metatextual writing is that it creates an instant rapport between the audience and the author, further facilitating some incredibly efficient world building when both reader and writer are on the same semiotic page. More important, however, is the ability of the referential writing to stress the underlying notion that the world of iD could be our world. When the culture, both popular and esoteric, is shared between reality and fiction it leads the reader to a place where they are hard pressed not to think about machine rights as an emerging issue if technological growth continues along its current trajectory.

At the same time, it’s not all nods and prods at the dystopian/technocratic worlds of Akira, Brazil, Portal, and Blade Runner. About half way through the novel I came across a chapter called, “The Man of Constant Sorrow.” For those who don’t know, this is the song George Clooney et al sang in Oh Brother Where Art Thou, a Coen Brothers adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. With one single chapter title it seemed like Ashby was daring me to re-read the novel through the lens of Javier as South American android Odysseus. Is the vN populated city of Mecha his Ithaca? Is Amy the story’s Penelope? I got about as far as framing the Baccarat hustler Javier meets as Cerce before I realized I was pushing even my own broad tolerance for tangents within a review. Meta as hell, indeed.

 

On a point of style, the novel’s ending felt like something of a game of chicken between Ashby and her readers. iD’s plot continues to build right up until the final pages. Only when I reached a point of “Dear god, how can she possibly finish this with so little left to the book?” did the prose adroitly call back to near-forgotten details from the opening act as a way of eloquently tying everything together. Now only one question remains: is the subtitle of The Second Machine Dynasty the island that Amy built, or the grander future she envisions for her kind at the end of iD? If the latter, does that mean we get another book?

iD is the very rare sort of sequel wherein knowledge of the first book isn’t a prerequisite. Ashby goes deeper into a future populated by humans and sentient robots without reinventing the wheel she built in vN. Though the structure of the story could be viewed through a classical lens, Javier is so far from the tropes of a Greek hero (or modern hero since they’re basically the same thing now) that he emerges as a commentary on conservative character writing. Meanwhile, the novel offers more layers than the offspring of Community and Inception, each of which says something different about design, surveillance, genetics, parenting, and other topics that I probably missed along the way. With these themes bound up in an ongoing discussion on human-machine relationships, iD proves approachable to all, but quick to reward the intelligent reader well versed ingenre storytelling.

iD – The Second Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

Published by: Angry Robot Books


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Mending Community: An Open Letter to Dan Harmon

Dear Dan Harmon,

Welcome back. No, I mean it. You are Napoleon returning from Elba. Except I’m sure this will work out much better for you than that did for him. I mean, you’d never invade Russia in winter, right?

I know that among my social circles your return to Community will be a hailed as the restoration of the status quo – the status quo being alternate dimensions, 16 bit video games episodes, and the culture on culture commentary that came to define the series in the first three seasons.

Yet I suspect you’ll also be returning to a different place than the one you left a couple of years ago. A thirteen episode season puts more pressure on the writers, cast, and crew to be on top of their game, all the time. Chevy Chase quitting the series paired with recent news that Donald Glover is only available for five episodes creates some considerable gaps in the study group. Say nothing for the fact that your predecessors pulled a West Wing, leaving the narrative in a really ugly place. How do you keep writing Jeff Winger into the series when he’s graduated and working at a local law firm? Do you know what I call a middle aged (Sorry, McHale) man who keeps hanging out at a community college despite having graduated? Chang. Or a professor.

Please don’t make Jeff a professor. Just bring back John Oliver.

In that light, I would, with great humility aforethought, like to offer a suggestion on one possible way to quickly and effectively undo the mess of season four while simultaneously stamping “Property of Dan Harmon” on season five.

Season five’s first episode begins with a flashback to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. In the story’s most crucial moment the camera pans back to the Remedial Chaos Theory multiverse graphic only to emerge in a reality where Abed rolls a natural twenty. I know, this may be one too many returns to the realm of alternate timelines. Considering the hit or miss way season four ended, I don’t think the fans will hold a meaningful application of parallel universes against you.

Anyway, Abed’s natural twenty ripples through the rest of season two in subtle, unexpected, and long-shot ways. Leonard becomes student body president. Chang gets charged with kidnapping despite Jeff and Shirley’s best intentions, but gets off on a technicality. A relatively short time spent in county lockup makes Chang more unstable but just vulnerable enough that he is actually welcomed into the study group. And maybe, just maybe, Annie pulls the trigger on Pierce during the Mexican stand-off. Pierce still has his hissy fit at the end of season two but this time he actually leaves the group. Fast forward to season three opening with a Hawthorne funeral. Only instead of Cornelius being dead, it’s Pierce who died in an airplane bathroom after banging Lee Meriwether. Jeff quips, “He died doing what he loved.”

Abed responds with, “This seems oddly familiar.”

The group retires to Troy and Abed’s new apartment. The camera pans across the room revealing a strategically placed box of Yathzee in the background. Abed suggests that Pierce’s death will foreshadow a dark year. In a callback to the S1 Halloween episode, Jeff will remind the group that Pierce, for all his flaws, knew how to live. By the power of a Winger speech, they vow to spend their year channelling Pierce’s love of living, only without the racism and early onset dementia. Thus does the fifth season become the third season in an alternate timeline.

Why would I suggest a course that some might see as a lazy copout? First and foremost, starting again in season three actually puts Community in a place to end with six seasons and a movie. Otherwise, the series will drift farther away from the study room and into the terrifying and unfunny realm of having to find a job after college or failing that Graduate School.

Additionally, I’ve always seen the third season of Community as the one where the hand of the artist, yourself, was most visible. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Mr. Harmon. But even season three’s opening musical number can be read as a giant raspberry to the powers that be at NBC and Sony, who wanted Community to be something more mainstream. The remainder of the season hardly pulls any punches on that note. And please believe me when I say, I wouldn’t see season three changed. It is what it is and I enjoy and admire it on those grounds. I do, however, wonder how season three and four might have naturally evolved were the Sword of Damocles not always swinging a hair’s breadth above your head.

Therefore, Mr. Harmon, I suggest, knowing that you will likely never read this letter – but it was fun to write it anyway – that you take a page from George Martin’s vast book: to go forward, you must go back.

Sincerely,

Adam Shaftoe, would-be Greendale Human Being


3

The Britta-ing of Commuinty’s Fourth Season

NB: This piece was first drafted weeks ago, well before there were even rumours that Dan Harmon would return as Community’s show runner. Naturally, a fifth season of Community no longer constitutes the Darkest Timeline. Harmon at his worst produced better television than Moses Port and David Guarascio did at their best. Prove me wrong people, I triple Dean-dare you.

For posterity’s sake, I’ll present this post as I originally wrote it if only to bookend my critical discussions about the most recent season.

*****

With its weak fourth season behind us it’s hard to process the news of NBC renewing Community for a fifth go-round. I guess it pays to be the best of the worst on America’s last place network. On the up side, Whitney and its overdone girl-Seinfeld gimmicks managed to land a spot on the chopping block. Whitney, can’t stand ya, mean it.

Make no mistake, though, Community’s renewal should not lend any credence to the notion that this was a good season. In thirteen episodes there was maybe, MAYBE a single grade “A” episode: Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations. For each “B” episode there were twice as many “C” or “D” episodes.

Rather than drilling down on each episode individually, I’ve put together a few thoughts on the broad strokes which ultimately served to diminish the season’s potential.

Wasted opportunities with Malcolm McDowell

Malcolm McDowell may not have John Oliver’s comedy chops, but the man can chew the scenery with the best of them. Forget about A Clockwork Orange for a moment; McDowell is one of the few actors to portray the mad Roman emperor Caligula. He twice played the role of the notorious/villainous Admiral Tolwyn in Wing Commander 3 and 4. And the only reason I watched the first season of Lexx was for the ten minutes McDowell appeared.

 

This is a man who can act anywhere on the evil/crazy spectrum. What was he reduced to for Commuinty? A jabbering Englishman, sneering at the American education system while hiding his deep seated self-loathing. Isn’t that every Englishman?

Sony will have to pardon my expectations that a genre actor whose career spans six decades might be good for something other than playing an older more-sober Ian Duncan.

Storytelling that eschewed ensemble acting

I’m going to use this point to also cover the “Remember when this used to be a show set at a college” argument as the two are closely related.

Greendale, and more specifically the study room, was the backbone of the series. Moving the story of the Greendale Seven out of Greendale necessitates breaking up the cast into smaller units. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the way it was handled this season was too lazy. Troy and Abed are together more often than Britta and Troy not because the former are funny together, but because the writers clearly could not think of anything to do with Troy and Britta as a couple. Jeff spent way too much time with Annie, seemingly because they make a cute (if creepy) couple, despite Britta being Jeff’s natural foil in the series. Shirley ended up a neglected middle child, and Pearce, either through intention or accident, was almost a null factor.

The characters, and perhaps even the actors, work best when they can play off of each other. Meta moments are lost, and tight storytelling is all but impossible when four or five sets of independent dialogue have to get crammed into a twenty-two minute episode.

The writers laughed at us instead of with us. Screw you, writers.

The episode with the Inspector Spacetime Convention. Do I really need to elaborate on this point?

The enduring charm of Community is that it uses its name with maximum effect and affect. Harmon’s blogging and monthly comic shop throw downs crafted a sense of community and dialogue with the audience. Externally, Community has become an all encompassing cultural touchstone for its viewers. Not in any hipster sort of way, mind you. More as an “Okay, you got reference A, which is in itself a reference to B, which is further a satire of high culture artifact C. Therefore, you will likely get everything else that I have to say.” To offer up an episode that looks at a genre community only to point its finger and scream, “NERDDDDDDD!” is to visibly piss in the pool and invite the audience in for a swim.

A lack of consistency in character development

Perhaps the writers were taking a mulligan on the events of season three, but season four seemed to ignore some major elements of characters growth while accentuating the ensemble’s personality flaws. . .because it’s a sitcom, that’s how things are done. Now shut up and watch Annie and Shirley dump popcorn in a car.

I thought Annie had made peace with her girlish crush on Jeff by the end of season three. Yet three episodes into season four and she is playing house with Jeff as if she were inside the Dreamatorium.

Herstory of Dance casts both Jeff and Dean Pelton as abject assholes. Weren’t we past Jeff being a dick to his surrogate family? And is the Dean really that bitchy? Considering how Britta helped Jeff deal with his paternal reunion, you think he might have moved past being needlessly capricious. Of course this is what happens when you neuter Chang from chaotic evil to lawful Kevin. All of a sudden there’s no bad guy to rain on everybody’s parade. Great foresight on that point.

I could continue this vivisection at length, but the point here is that it’s hard to laugh at a joke when I’m continually noting actions and dialogue that don’t quite fit with what I’ve come to expect of the characters. Perhaps these changes open the show up to newcomers, but it certainly has the result of putting off established fans who want nothing more than a little consistency from one story to the next.

The manic need to make every joke work

If there is one take away lesson from Dan Harmon’s tenure as Community’s showrunner it’s that not every joke needs to land with everybody. It doesn’t break the show if something goes over a person’s head. The fact that this season began and ended with an Inception homage screams of the writers attempting to turn Community into something aimed at a much broader audience. Note this season’s other pop culture references: The Hunger Games, The Shawshank Redemption, Scooby-Doo, Freaky Friday. There’s nothing particularly esoteric about these choices, certainly not along the lines of Abed’s The Last Starfighter moment while playing Asteroids. In broad strokes, this makes the writing look desperate for the audience’s appeal.

The Bottom Line

There’s a verb used in gaming which perfectly applies to this season of Community: “nerfing.” To nerf something is to make it less powerful or less advantageous in certain situations. Nerfing comes as something of a double edged sword. Those being nerfed almost always find the act an injustice foisted upon them from on-high. Meanwhile, those who are witnessing the nerf are usually satisfied to be on a more level playing field.

There’s no doubt in my mind that NBC and Sony nerfed the crap out of Community’s fourth season. They made it safer, more sitcom-y, and more accessible while trying to maintain the illusion of meta story telling. Ratings, though steady, did not improve for the effort. Perhaps the powers that be need to accept that Community will never be The Big Bang Theory. The series lives on the margins and from there it will draw its limited audience. Since the decision has been made to invest in the series for a fifth season, I hope that Moses Port and David Guarascio, and anybody else involved, will let the series be what it was meant to be, rather than trying to frame it within a functional business model.


3

Podcast Episode 27: The Page of Reviews/Limited Release Handsome-cast live at Ad Astra 2013

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and Nick Montgomery

There’s a certain safety net to the way I record my podcasts. Even when I have a guest with me, we both know that if somebody says something stupid (usually me) there’s a chance to say it again and leave the gaffe on the floor of the digital cutting room. Last Sunday, Nick Montgomery and I tossed caution to the wind and recorded a podcast in front of a live audience, which actually grew by about 28% from start to finish.

The results were pretty good.

Granted, the fact that I had about 33 seconds to balance the audio levels shows up in the podcast, but I’ll call that a lesson learned for the next time I do something like this.

Upon review I also noticed that I didn’t really tell the important part of the Ben Bova story. Sufficed to say, Ben Bova was not the Asimov doppelganger. Dr. Bova, however, did inform me that the Asimov look was the natural appearance for the gentleman in question.

So on that note, I present you with the first ever live before an audience Page of Reviews / Limited Release cross over podcast.

Topics under discussion include:

-   Gamers 3

-   Versus Valerie

-   Community

-   Deadwood

-   The history of swearing

-   Kickstarter

-   Veronica Mars

-   The fine art of Directing

-   Shameless plugs for current projects

Huge thanks to Nick Montgomery for coming out to record this experiment. Make sure to head over to the Limited Release Podcast to check out all of Nick and Candice’s fine work.

As well, thanks to everybody who came out on a Sunday to listen to our prattle, and to Ad Astra for letting us put on our show.


0

Zero Dark Harmon – My Review of Community’s Season 4 Premiere History 101

This is not a review I’ve been looking forward to writing. To say that I was disappointed with Community’s first post-Harmon outing would be an exercise in understatement. If Community is, as Andy Greenwald says in his recent editorial, a demolition derby, then last night’s History 101 was a NASCAR race with the odd explosion of comedy. Without Harmon at the helm, the essential je ne sais qua of Community has vanished into the ether. After twenty-two minutes, I don’t know what has replaced it. Let’s start with Abed (Danny Pudi) and his happy place.

I fully expected a foray into three camera sitcom land as a cold opening gag. Addressing the biggest concern of Community fans in a throw away joke would have been the best way to manage half a year’s worth of speculation and oh-god-they’re-going-to-ruin-it anxiety. Turning the one-off into a recurring gimmick was as unexpected as it was unpleasant.

If Dan Harmon demonstrated anything in the first three seasons of Community it’s that meta ends where repetition begins. In the mad scientist’s formula that is Harmonesque introspection a fast catalyst is the key to a comedic reaction. Drop a reference to The Last Starfighter and move on. Who cares if Starfighter doesn’t land because thirty seconds later you hit the audience with a Farscape reference. It’s not winking at the audience as much as it is drawing them into the scenario through common knowledge. When Abed was in his happy place, History 101 was winking at me so much I wondered if show was having a stroke.

The happy place itself is also problematic in the way it handles Abed’s psychological regression. While Community is rarely subtle in its delivery, it is always gradual in terms of character growth. It took Abed all of season three, a season which included a holodeck malfunction episode, to go from Abed to Evil Abed. If the idea of graduation is enough to make Abed Inception himself, where does the character go from there? It’s too far, too fast, leaving nothing believable for tomorrow. I’ll invoke Tropic Thunder when I say the writers have gone full retard with Abed.

Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has described Abed as both a Shaman and a God. Abed knows himself in a way few people do. His aloofness is not a weakness but an absolute confidence which doesn’t mesh into social interactions driven by shame and insecurity. Where did that Abed go? Who is this new neurotic mess? Perhaps Britta’s (Gillian Jacobs) meddling is to blame. The theory is plasuable but doubtful given Abed’s proven ability to use Sherlockian observation to get into anybody’s head. I don’t think Britta, now a student of Ian Duncan (John Oliver), has the analytical tools to break Abed in such a way.

Oh, and Leonard gets the Inception joke? Leonard? Not Troy (Donald Glover), but Leonard. Fine, whatever, what do I know?

 

Let’s talk about Chevy. Pierce Hawthorne spent the entire episode saying balls as if it was the “Meow” game from Super Troopers. Meanwhile, incepted Abed recasts Pierce as Fred Willard in his fantasy sequence. Does this reflect Chevy Chase’s phoning it in on a show he would quit mid-season, or were the writers’ marginalizing Pierce from the outset? Were I in Chase’s place and found out that famed public masturbator Fred Willard was upstaging me on my own show, I too might get a little sour and acrimonious.

Say nothing for the dishonesty to established character we saw from Chevy-Pierce and his balls. Pierce Hawthorne’s racism and sexism engenders endless tension within the study group. How then does it come to pass that he is silent on Britta and Troy’s relationship? Jeff and Troy now have carnal knowledge of the same woman; there’s a gold mine of Pierce material in that.

“Hey, it looks like Britta finally discovered affirmative action.”

“Back in my day sharing the same woman was a stone’s throw from having gay sex with each other.”

“Does the ‘Banged Britta Club’ come with secret decoder rings?”

“Why does Britta keep having sex with men if she’s a lesbian?”

How are the writers not ringing that bell?

Then there’s Annie (Alison Bree). Did Annie do anything other than wallow in self-loathing and regress about fifteen IQ points? What happened to the Annie from the end of last season? We’ve seen Annie doubt the course she’s set for herself, but never in such a vapid and incipit way. Were the writers trying to be meta with Annie’s lines in the Dean’s office; wherein Annie commented on the spooky feeling of knowing somebody has been intruding in your personal space. Are the writers throwing in the towel and admitting they are intruders into our world? And is popcorning the Dean’s car supposed to be an apology for said intrusion? Pair this with Jim Rash’s not-so-subtle line about change being good, and the arcing meta story starts to feel a little condescending.

Don’t tell me things are going to be okay, Community. This show has always been a dialogue with its fans; a turn toward the didactic is most unwelcome. We are not Greendale Babies, do not presume to speak to your audience as such.

In the episode’s defence, Jim Rash as Dean Craig Pelton was on his game. If only the writing was doing something more than putting him in a dress and double timing Dean puns to make up for the absence of Chang puns. But hey, what do I know, Community netted 4 million viewers last night, 35% more from where it ended in season 3.

So here I am, post-Harmon plus one episode with a foul taste in my mouth. Characters with 72 episodes of back story appear to be watered down into simpler tropes. Machine gun referential humour has been replaced with fodder more suitable for the non-pop culture obsessed. Tempting as it is to write the whole show off and embark on a Quixotic “Bring back Dan” campaign, I’ll give David Guarasico and Moses Port a few more episodes to win me over. I’m not expecting them to replace Harmon. Rather, I want this creative team to show me, as both a fan and a critic, that they understand the study group as well as Community’s audience does.