It’s one of those weeks where Friday rolls around and I find that I’m writing my fifth post of the week. Granted, two of themwere reviews and one of them I co-wrote, but it’s still a lot. One of my favourite things to do to shake up the ol’ grey matter is watch a little TV, so of course I ended up finding myself unable to blog about anything else but the finale to Season 5 of Community.
GORDON: Let the record show that I have long been of the opinion that after Community‘s inexplicable tanking shortly after its first season, I became an ardent advocate for the cancellation of the show. While the trailer is intriguing…
Meet Mark Dacascos. As of this writing he is 49 years old, and a reasonably successful actor/martial artist. He has also portrayed more ethnicities than you can find in the average neighbourhood in small-town Western New York.
Last night The Big Bang Theory aired its 122nd episode, entitled “The Santa Simulation.” News that its premise hit the internet and avid television watchers everywhere began to cry what may one day become a familiar saying, “Community did it first!” Every single one of them was wrong.
A full year before “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” [one of the best episodes of Community‘s second season, in my opinion] there was “Jen the Fredo,” the first episode of British sitcom The IT Crowd‘s fourth season. Both of these episodes were some of the best of their respective shows, so I was pretty excited for what TBBT had to offer.
The thing about the D&D-centric episode is how it’s been used as a plot device. As a role-playing game the players are able to reveal aspects about themselves that might not otherwise come out, and you can see this being done with various degrees of effectiveness in each episode. Spoilers for all three episodes past this point.
The IT Crowd [S4E1]
“Jen the Fredo”
I realize that most of you have not seen, or maybe even heard of, The IT Crowd. Let me sum in up in that it is, in my ways, what The Big Bang Theory could be. It’s a show about two, well, nerds that work in the IT department of a large company and their boss, who knows nearly nothing about computers. One of the best aspects of the show is that it brings you into the nerdiness of Moss and Roy, and in watching you begin to feel like you really relate to them, becoming equally frustrated when people ask them for help with their computers.
“Jen the Fredo” is, if you’ve seen The Godfather films [which I haven’t], a clear reference to the character Fredo, whose job it was to take out of town businessman and “show them a good time.” Jen takes on the role of helping to entertain a few business partners, but ultimately fails when she takes them to see “The Vagina Monologues.”
Enter Dungeons and Dragons. Moss has been preparing to DM [Dungeon Master, can be used as a verb] and convinces Jen that it’s exactly what these gentlemen are looking for. The best part is, he succeeds [I had a great YouTube clip here but someone decided to make it private].
While the idea of entertaining [and riveting] a few rowdy businessmen with a little D&D is hilarious in and of itself, but there’s more to it than that. Moss uses the game to confront Roy about the latter’s painful breakup, something he’d been avoiding talking about for a while. The conclusion is tear-filled and, more importantly, immensely funny. You can catch it on Netflix, or here, though you didn’t hear that from me.
Community [S2E14] “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”
This episode has easily the most actual gameplay of the three, since essentially the entire episode consists of the Greendale Seven playing D&D in the library. It also treats the source material the most lovingly, complete with a voice over and fantastically appropriate score.
The game is set up due to Jeff wanting to help out “Fat Neil,” a young man planning to end his life [understated by the narration] due to his new nickname. Once everything is set up, with Abed as the DM, things really get going.
Each member of the study group essentially plays a version of themselves, with the voice over near the beginning describing them as “Troy the Obtuse,” and “Britta the Needlessly Defiant.” They react to the situations within the game as they normally would, with Jeff impatient and unwilling to put up with nonsense as usual. The best parts, however, are when you discover a little something about the character you thought you knew, well-illustrated in the following scene with Annie:
In this episode Pierce owns his most [as far as I’m concerned] unpopular role: The Villain. Incensed at being excluded from the game he steals Fat Neil’s magical sword and runs away, later using D&D manuals to cheat and garner immense power to himself.
Everything ends, as usual, with a fairly warm and fuzzy conclusion. Pierce is defeated, mostly through his friends forgiving him for his dickishness [hence his title, “Pierce the Dickish]. Neil’s spirits are lifted and he finds the motivation to keep on living.
The Big Bang Theory [S6E11]
“The Santa Situation”
A “guys’ night” is happening and the activity of choice is Dungeons and Dragons, which is territory you’d have expected these characters to have explored in-depth quite a few seasons back. Heck, as far as I can recall they spent more time playing Settlers of Catan than throwing around a 12-sided dice.
The game begins and Leonard, the DM, lets it drop that their quest is to rescue Santa Claus. Queue Sheldon’s disappointed face due to the fact that he a) loves D&D and b) hates Christmas. Also Raj gets shot in the face with a cannon in the first few minutes of the game, highlighting the fragility of life in a world that values perception checks.
Oh, and they ditch their respective girlfriends to play, which led to this scene, the last line of which was delivered excellently:
Using the structure of the game Leonard gets Sheldon to sing [all five verses of] “Good King Wenceslas” and all three remaining players to play “Jingle Bells” using, the obvious instrument of choice, bells.
Upon finding Jolly Old St. Nick in chains they move forward to rescue him, only to have Sheldon cast a paralyzing spell on his companions. He then confronts Santa [or Leonard, in this case] and tells the heartbreaking story of how he asked Father Christmas for only one thing as a child, to have his grandfather back. He then walks out, leaving the old many to die.
As far as really exploring well-established characters, Community probably succeeds the most, by virtue that it only has the one central plot that revolves around a single game of D&D. While it does feature Pierce continuing on his course to become more cartoonishly evil, Britta’s response to the beleaguered gnomes is a perfect example of how her character will react both in and out of the real world.
The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory tread the very similar ground. Moss uses the game to force Roy to come to terms with the love he lost, something that would have been impossible otherwise. Sheldon’s childhood experience with Santa Claus never would have come about without Leonard guiding him to that place where he could talk to the man who disappointed him.
My hope is that there will be a continuation of this trend, with there having being one D&D episode per year from 2010-2012. As the current DM of an ongoing gothic horror campaign I am well-aware of the storytelling capabilities of the game as well as how enjoyable it is to know people you know well deal when presented with fantastical situations. Although 2/3 of the above shows do feature “nerds” I’m sure that this could still appear in the more bizarre sitcoms, such as New Girl and Happy Endings.
EVAN: Today’s topic is something that I hold very near and dear to my heart. Years of research on the topic has made me witness to all of the arguments that can be used against needing to have racially accurate casting, and because of this I’m going to propose something a little different
EVAN: That I switch sides for this conversation, and speak out against it.
GORDON: Intriguing. Mind starting us off with the first salvo?
EVAN: Statement: Racially accurate casting is not important. The most talented actor should be the one who gets the role.
GORDON: Doesn’t appearance play a key role in what makes an actor good? Peter Dinklage is good, but you wouldn’t really find him believable playing Abraham Lincoln or Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
EVAN: In this case his stature, not his race, is what would keep him from playing either role in a convincing manner.
GORDON: But isn’t that essentially the same issue? Imagine the great Denzel Washington playing Lincoln- you’d be sitting there the entire time, no matter how much of a powerhouse Washington would be, taken out of the film because you have to deal with a black guy playing a white guy during the height of the civil war.
In any piece of film where you’re expecting realism, you’re going to expect the actors to conform to the styles and facts of the time. If you portray Georgia in the 1960s, you’re obviously not going to have a largely black cast portraying the upper class or if you were to set the scene in early 1900s Ghana you wouldn’t have a cast comprised of Caucasians. It wouldn’t make sense, no matter how good they are.
EVAN: If anything, Cloud Atlas at least proves that a talented actor can portray whoever they like, given an adequate amount of makeup. Halle Berry plays a Korean Man in the film, and does so in a convincing fashion that doesn’t at all take viewers out of the film in the least.
GORDON: I haven’t seen that film, so I can’t speak to the use of the actors for the parts they play. From my understanding that was a work of fantasy (or science fiction, I’m only going off what I can gather from the trailers). And in one or two movies, it’s probably not a big deal. After all, Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan.
But imagine this applied to each and every movie, it simply wouldn’t work. Realism would deteriorate- and this would be especially detrimental in a film trying to deal directly with race relations.
EVAN: I personally feel that allowing any race to play any other speaks much more in terms of race relations. That’s a world where colour is a non-issue because it shouldn’t be.
EVAN:I’m dying, Gordon. My life force is seeping out of me.
GORDON: Try to stick with it…
GORDON: And while it’s true that race ought to be a non-issue, that’s simply not how things are or have been in the past. Using black actors to play black characters and white actors to play white characters is fundamental to demonstrating past inequity and injustice with American racism and segregation. And that’s just one element.
Let’s talk about Indians playing Arabs. It happened in Lost and it happened in Community (with multiple actors), but Arabs look nothing like Indians. Indian actors are used simply because they fit the stereotype of what most people think an Arab looks like. It perpetuates an inaccuracy.
EVAN: Isn’t the fact that the role is an Arab important a large enough step? This is a minority with a major role on a TV show, and an opportunity for minority actors to step up, which they have in both cases.
GORDON: Barring Monk and Arrested Development, when’s the last time you saw an Arab actor? I’m not trying to argue against Indian actors, or actors of Indian heritage getting roles, but for the purpose of portraying the world as it is (or at least with some realism) we should have actors with some vague resemblance to the people they’re portraying on film.
After all, would you not be thrown off by guys with German accents playing French resistance fighters during WWII?
EVAN: If they had German accents then they simply wouldn’t be right for the role, which brings me back to my first point.
GORDON: Which, by proxy, brings us back to my first response. Ethnicity (depending on the situation) is just as valid an element of a guy’s candidacy for a role dealing directly with ethnicity as accents, or height, or any other factor (actual talent, of course, being the most important).
Vincent Cassel should probably not play Malcolm X. Adrien Brody should probably not play the Queen of England, though that would be pretty funny.
EVAN: If we’re going to stick with believability, than why is it so important that Indians not play Arabs? No one has ever made a big deal out of this, so clearly people believe that they are what their role calls them to be-
Likewise a Korean can to play a Chinese person can play a Japanese person. Audiences can’t tell the difference and believe that they are whatever the role is, and that’s okay.
GORDON: But Koreans do not look Chinese, Chinese people don’t look Japanese, and Arabs and Indians certainly don’t look like each other. The only reason this happens is because most people either don’t know (partly due to this inaccurate casting) or don’t care (in other words, all non-whites are basically one homogenous mass.
If all your life, you had seen black men and been told “these are Uzbekistanis,” then you’d go your whole life simply assuming that Uzbekistanis are, in fact, indiscernible from guys from Benin.
Your ignorance should not dictate which actors get which parts. Further, no Uzbekistan could really ever get a chance to play and Uzbekistani because of the years of misinformation.
EVAN: But there is a huge difference between a black person and an Uzbekistani. The examples I made have similarities that the example you used clearly does not.
To be such a stickler for accuracy is the other extreme, and just as wrong. You wouldn’t get someone with mental problems to accurately portray a character with mental problems, that just doesn’t make sense. Race should matter if it is noticeable, and like I said in the case of shows like Lost it is not.
EVAN: The logic above was used against me by someone in a thread on Reddit You can check out our exchange here.
GORDON: Granted, my example was extreme, but that doesn’t change the point. Even though a Thai guy and a Japanese guy share more similarities than a Beninese guy and an Uzbekistani guy, there are still distinct differences between people from Thailand and people from Japan.
With regards to being a stickler- I admit, as I have previously, that you don’t have to have an exact replica of the character you’re trying to portray. Jet Li, I imagine, is doing pretty well for himself, and I still wouldn’t doubt his ability to portray a poor man very well. However, while you don’t need to be point for point, you do need to have some general similarity. That’s why we don’t have Emma Stone portraying Fidel Castro.
EVAN: I feel like the extremeness of your examples is damaging your point. If we’re sticking with race we should do that, and not bring in gender.
GORDON: It’s to demonstrate the underlying point in all of this: Verisimilitude. Realism. Accuracy.
EVAN: And since you said “you don’t have to have an exact replica of the character you’re trying to portray” why isn’t it okay to have Naveen Andrews play Sayid Jarrah on Lost?
GORDON: But the distinction is great enough. The accent is Indian, not Iraqi. Naveen does not look Iraqi. When an actor neither looks nor sounds like the character he is meant to portray, we have a problem.
EVAN: So if Jarrah had managed to sound Iraqi, would that have helped?
GORDON: It would’ve added to the realism and accuracy, yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s very clearly Indian, not Arab.
EVAN: Clear to a very select few. As mentioned, people didn’t seem to notice for the most part.
GORDON: Clear to a very select few. As mentioned, people didn’t seem to notice for the most part.
Most people don’t know what an Arab looks like. Do they know that Monk is Lebanese? That Cousin Maeby is Iraqi? Most do not. Ignorance is not an excuse for inaccurate casting.
EVAN: And that brings our exhausting exchange to an end. Trying to argue for something I so strongly disagree was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done. I hope that in reading this you were able to see the holes in my argument and the truth in Gordon’s.
The past few paragraphs alone have had the same effect on Evan as that life-sucking device in the Princess Bride. Commend him for biting the bullet.
And as for our discussion next time, your options are: What do we make of the upcoming Star Wars sequel?
EVAN: And. . . how about . . . How much artistic merit is there in a show like Adventure Time?
GORDON: I like it.
And to our beloved and devoted followers (who would organize into a vicious and unholy army of darkness if we ever were to ask it of ’em), feel free to suggest your own topic down in the comments section.
1) Bring Them Back to School 2) Have a Little Class 3) Have Mercy on Ben Chang 4) Where Are We Going? 5) We Should See Other People
If you want to elaborate on them ever so slightly-
GORDON: Alright. While Evan and I do differ slightly on what we’d like to see the show bring back, these ARE the fundamentals here.
The whole reason we first started watching was because we, like the target demographic, were either in college, about to go to college, or just graduated from college and were looking back with fond memories- forgetting the ulcers that Statistics classes gave you.
EVAN: I loathed Stats.
GORDON: Point is- it’s all about the college- put the characters back in classes, and back on campus.
Chang, of course, was one of the most mesmerizing characters in there; mysterious, inscrutable. The fact that he’s been reduced to a punching-bag who makes cameos every once in a while is just wrong. It’s like using the Venus de Milo as a door-stopper.
And of course, if we could actually see the characters progress, that’d be nice.
Troy, if I recall correctly, was dealing with the loss of his jock status.
EVAN: Way back in Season 1, though. They haven’t touched on his and Annie’s high school statuses in ages.
GORDON: Not at all.
And last but not least, it’d be cool to see some other characters. There’re only so many Starburns jokes out there. Remember that one teacher that Jeff was into?
That gal actually added to the show- she wasn’t some prop to set up jokes.
EVAN: As we talked about, way back, the show requires direction. What happened in Season 3, exactly?
EVAN: All the characters started moving out of their dorms and such, and there was this big outward push. Something which, I think it’s fair to say, we didn’t expect to see until Season 4. They started to remove themselves from Greendale, which again we mentioned weakened the show.
GORDON: Exactly what year are these people, anyways? They finished freshman year, but after that I don’t think I ever saw ’em in class again.
EVAN: Heh. Seriously, though, this final thirteen-episode season is their final year. They’re going to be graduating, finally on that thirteenth episode.
GORDON: Really? Dang. It’s a shame so much was just… wasted.
EVAN: How about this: Let’s talk about what they did right in Season 3, and what we hope to see in Season 4. Just because, well, there were some solid episodes in there somewhere.
GORDON: Such as?
EVAN: “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Third episode of the season.
GORDON: I’m gonna have to disagree with you on that one. Solid writing- but not good writing for the show.
EVAN: “Studies in Modern Movement,” seventh, and “Regional Holiday Music,” the episode right before their hiatus.
GORDON: I hated the musical one- but that’s no surprise. And what was “Modern Movement,” again?
EVAN: The one where Annie moves in with Abed and Troy. It ends with a weird medley of Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” as it pans between every character.
GORDON: I think you’re forgetting what a scatter-brained episode that was. Great individual jokes- but really poorly stitched together.
EVAN: I’m going to have to disagree with you. I’ve rewatched it a few times, and it holds up. It’s pretty good throughout.
GORDON: Well, we’ll have to settle on that.
But even if those all were as good as you recall- that is one freaking shoddy record. Plus, they barely even touched on Greendale Community College. That’s like… “Hey, that’s a great story about food- but this is a murder mystery show.” It just doesn’t fit.
EVAN: And for those who might argue that-
GORDON: Let’s not do this, dude. The Community fans, they’re rabid, “ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD” kind of people.
EVAN: Looking forward to that gif.
GORDON: I don’t think I’ve seen this much undeserved adoration since Taylor Swift started her campaign to destroy feminism.
EVAN: Whoa, I love “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
GORDON: Every time you play that song, a feminist gets cancer.
EVAN: It’ll be your turn eventually.
Anyway. In terms of Community, there’s no better place to gauge the show’s popularity than my favourite [heh- Canadians spell weird, -G] place for TV reviews, the AV Club. The lowest grade the show got last season was a B.
GORDON: Which shows what lousy reviewers they have for that show (that’s right, come get me). Look- the show’s bad. It’s been bad for a while now, and the occasional bit of unrelated humor isn’t enough to redeem it. Back when the show supposedly got axed, I was happy. For once- just once- I saw it happen to a series that (I thought) deserved it.
Ok, we’ll do this- what would you want to see in the upcoming season?
EVAN: I would like to see . . . huh. That’s a good question.
I’d like to see a kickin’ [that’s what the cool kids are saying thse days] prof for History 101, their final class together. I want to see closure as they graduate and are forced to move on with their lives. I mean, man, we graduated like what, four months ago? People have to move on. Even if it does suck.
GORDON: With the debacle of the past couple seasons, simple truth of the matter is that what made the characters compelling in the first place can’t be resurrected- if the show’s gonna go out with a bang, new motives need to be brought in.
Specifically- I want Chang to get his job back. And I want Tina Fey as the history prof.
EVAN: Ooh. Impossible, but good.
GORDON: Well- perfect world, here.
EVAN: I think Troy actually working towards a career is good. I mean, his whole air con repairman thing from last season; he knows where he could be headed. Jeff wants to become a lawyer again. What about everyone else?
GORDON: Shirley and her financial independence.
EVAN: There’s a lot of potential here as far as what they want, where they want to go.
GORDON: I was actually surprised that her story was the only one that really lasted.
Abed? Poor guy doesn’t have much left in him.
EVAN: Abed could- I don’t know. Write for TV?
GORDON: Become a film prof?
EVAN: It’s hard to tell, considering the manchildren him and Troy have been reduced to.
GORDON: And as we like ending on high notes that’ll be it for us here at the CWR.
EVAN: We talked a little about what we liked about Community in the past, and what we hope to see in the future, and in spite of anything we said we’ll be watching “History 101” alongside all of you in two more days.
GORDON: As usual, be sure to vote for next week’s discussion topic below.
EVAN: And thanks for reading.
EDIT: We were way off with this, and apparently the first episode lands Friday, October 19th. Our bad.
Over the past couple days, actors Donald Faison and Zach Braff have been campaigning for Obama here in Vegas. While I’m not a fan of their political stance, I freaking love Scrubs and have been re-watching the show for what must now be about the ninety-billionth time.
It got me thinking about a discussion Evan and I had a while back, in which we concluded after some debate that Scrubs is the best show of all time.
Ok, that’s not going to mean anything to you if you haven’t actually seen Scrubs. If you haven’t, go watch it now.
Now think about it- has there been a bad episode of Scrubs? Has there ever been an even sub-par episode of Scrubs?
There really hasn’t. Not every episode is fun to watch (it’s a hospital- you can’t expect them not to deal with mortality and whatnot)- some episodes are downright depressing and tragic. Even so, there show never fails to have some substance to it and (and this is the big thing) never really diminishes in quality despite having been on air for eight seasons (nobody counts the ninth as cannon).
But more on that in a minute…
See, what makes Scrubs so consistently good isn’t that it’s funny- it is funny, but not every episode, and not every joke in the funny episodes will have you on the floor.
Though most will…
It’s that it’s consistent all the way through. The characters develop, certainly, but they never really shift dramatically or break away from who they were a season ago. JD is always JD, Turk is always Turk, and so on. The wacky, exaggerated universe of the show never strays too much into total realism or too far off into surrealism. In short, and episode seen in the last season of Scrubs is about the same (extremely high) quality that the initial episodes are.
Now I know you’re all saying, “But Gordon, you ruggedly handsome bastion of logic and truth, surely consistency isn’t all there is to it!”, and yes, it’s not just consistency that makes a show good. Comedies need to be funny, dramas need to be agonizing, and so on- nevertheless, these things are dwarfed when it comes to consistency- let me give you an example of this done wrong.
Community. I remember seeing ads for it in my first year of college and thinking “Neat- a show about college. Something I and my demographic can all relate to and get a kick out of. This looks like it’s gonna be good”.
And it was.
(Barring that they had an Indian guy playing an Arab kid because apparently all brown people are the same…)
Really good. In fact, the first season of Community is probably one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in the couple decades I’ve been alive. But what proceeded the glorious first season was one of the fastest and ugliest burnouts in television history.
You remember how Abed was socially-challenged but ultimately human in his attempts to relate to people and make is father (also played by an Indian actor) proud? Remember how Jeff wanted to get his degree and regain control over his life? Remember how Troy was trying to deal with the loss of his status? How Annie was trying to reinvent herself?
Yeah, all of that went down the toilet in the subsequent season. The motivations that gave the episodes conflict and helped progress the characters and the story as a whole were more or less dropped, and the little quirks that made the characters funny and interested got so blown up that they became the only aspect of the characters. Abed went from movie-geek to schizoid mess, Jeff became charming (and nothing else), Troy became just Abed’s buddy, and Annie was just the sweet naive straight-man (more or less) to the rest of the group. On top of becoming gross caricatures of their former selves, the show stopped dealing with college (which you might recall as being the reason so many people started watching the first place) and became centered entirely on the clownish escapades of the group. Granted, every once in a while you got good episodes, but never on the same level as the first season. Every time I sat down to watch Community the smile faded from my face and I could react in no other way but this:
“But Gordon, you roguish fountain of delight, isn’t this more a warning against being madcap than straying from the characters and story?”
I’d have to concede that, if it weren’t for such shows asSouth Park and American Dad. Both of these shows have been from their inception pretty surreal, nonsensical, and all-around crazy. Yet both shows have maintained that same level of craziness and remain (more or less) as popular now as when they started.
I admit, these shows are not for everyone…
Again, an excellent example of how shows drifting away from their original material kills them would perhaps the most iconic animated show of all time: The Simpsons.
My old roommate never saw the early Simpsons, and is to this day convinced that the show is side-splitting in its hilarity. And he’s probably right- I stopped watching the Simpsons after my first year of college- I got tired of having my heart broken.
Perhaps it’s best encapsulated in this quote by Lisa Simpson back in Season 2:
I heard you last night, Bart. You prayed for this. Now your prayers have been answered. I’m no theologian. I don’t know who or what God is exactly. All I know is he’s a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together and you owe him big.
Would you ever hear that from Lisa in one of the later seasons? You would not. Why? Because Lisa has moved from being a brilliantly smart little girl to a pointy-haired midget channeling the whiny liberal indignation of Bill Maher.
Is there anything wrong with Lisa as she is today? Not really, no. If that’s who her character is, then that’s who her character is- only the hitch here is that’s not who Lisa started off as. Had Lisa started off as the yellow counterpart of Brian Griffin, then I wouldn’t have any problem. Had Homer started off as a food-crazed buffoon or Marge as a simple housewife, I’d probably still watch the show. Again, it’s the gradual change from one thing to another that’s responsible for people drifting away from the series. It’s not that shows go stale (not that staleness can’t be a problem- just look at the Gilligan’s Island episode where they’re almost rescued), it’s that they change too much.
And hey, with our ever-shortening attention spans and our rapidly changing culture, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.