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…
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.
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.
Cue gasps of disbelief, wide-eyed incredulity, readers swooning in their seats. You read that right, this is a post that has the audacity to imply that there are aspects of the show Community that could be improved.
Before I begin, I sincerely hope that there are at least a few die-hard fans reading this. I realize that the show not being slotted for next year definitely has you in more sensitive a state than you normally would be, especially when shows of lesser quality (we’re all looking at you, Big Bang Theory) continue to stay on the air. I believe, however, that just because Community is a good show does not mean that it couldn’t be better (Dan Harmon forgive me).
A friend and I have been discussing the present season (which we are enjoying), and the news that NBC has announced about the show’s future has gotten us talking about what could make a good show even better. The list is as follows:
1)Bring Them Back to School
Let me be the first to say that I loved “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the episode with the seven alternate timelines. That being said, it also served as the third season’s segue to bring the study group out of Greendale.
Since then the episodes have been, at most, only loosely set at the college. “Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps” had them telling tales à la The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror, the episode taking place more in their stories than in the study room they were actually in. “Advanced Gay” did a better job with Troy in the cafeteria and later in the bathroom with Jerry, the plumber, as well as having Pierce’s “Gay Bash” take place in the auditorium. “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” is the Dean’s story, so while it took place in the college, it wasn’t ultimately about the group.
Of the nine episodes I’ve seen so far (being posted this morning, I haven’t yet seen tonight’s) a third of them take place largely outside of Greendale. Of the other six, there’s surprisingly little time devoted to actual schoolwork, which leads me to my next point:
2) Have a Little Class
As a college student I may have a slight bias towards the show to begin with. The show taking place in a college, and having its cast deal with assignments and projects and so on creates a lot of relatability which I’ve really appreciated in the past. “Remedial Chaos Theory” may have been my favourite episode, but by taking the study group out of the college it lost of of that familiarity I had with their lives.
Season 1 of Community is notable for Spanish 101, and the mystery and inscrutability of its Chinese professor, Señor Chang. Season 2 brought in Betty White as the Anthropology 101 professor (name on the show not included since no one remembers/cares). Both seasons had the characters being active within their respective classes well the halfway mark.
Season 3 didn’t beat around the bush and got right to it with “Biology 101,” introducing Michael K. Williams as Professor Marshall Kane. His being an ex-convict makes him a teacher who don’t take none, and it means Biology is a big contrast to classes the group has taken in the past.
Also, he’s really, really funny.
Ever since “Competitive Ecology,” the second episode of the season, we haven’t seen him, or his class again. If Community wants to introduce a new character (and one that has so much potential) it would be great to see them appear past the first two episodes.
3) Have Mercy on Ben Chang
For the majority of season 2 Community floundered with what exactly to do with Ben, no longer “señor,” Chang. He had sex with Shirley, squatted at Jeff’s apartment for a little while, and eventually began living at the college. Oh, and he was trying so, so hard to join the study group.
This season has him acting as a college security guard and, well, that’s about it. “Geography of Global Conflict” and “Competitive Ecology” are where we see him own his role as security enforcer, but after the second and third seasons he’s been making courtesy appearances at most.
I don’t know whether the show has gotten to the point where they can’t afford Ken Jeong any more, since he was in a few movies this year and maybe his pay rate rose a little. The fact is that he went from “What’s the show doing with him?” to “Where is he?” this season, and I think most Community members think back and miss the time when he was in a position of power above the group, and the ways he abused that power.
4) Where Are We Going?
Season 1 was about Jeff. He was the ex-lawyer and the tenuous glue of the group and we all knew him and Britta were going to shack up eventually. Season 2 had a pregnant Shirley and a strangely Bond-villainous Pierce.
Season 3, thus far, is about them moving out (and, consequently, on). Troy and Abed’s apartment has taken up two solid episodes (and a half) of this season, and while we all knew that if Community passed Season 4 that would be it for Greendale, I personally didn’t think this transition period would be so quick in coming. Dan Harmon has plans for the show post-college, but he’s moving his characters out a little too quickly. It would be nice if they could slow down a little, and explore the dark recesses of their campus before escaping into the real world.
Beyond that, I’m not really sure what this season is going for. There hasn’t really been a focus on any one character (though Troy’s plot between the forces of plumbing and air conditioner repair is riveting, to say the least). I love that the study group spends time together both in and out of campus, but we’re lacking that conflict that seemed pretty apparent in the past couple of seasons.
5) We Should See Other People
There’s a bit of overlap here with my first and second points, but here goes. The show has given us characters like Fat Neil, Vicky, Quendra, Leonard, Britta’s boyfriend with the tiny nipples, and, of course, Starburns. While they’ve been relegated to the backseat of the show for the most part, they’re a familiar cast in their own right and always a treat when given a bit of screentime.
The study group is what’s endeared us to Community, but their supporting cast is what’s added that extra dose of absurdity to their world, adding that surrealism that’s so characteristic of the show.
Community is a fantastic show, and easily one of my favourites on TV, NBC or otherwise. My worry is that the show is moving too quickly out of the college when there’s so much, still, that could be done. I’m as afraid of it not getting to its fourth season as anyone, but I don’t think that means it should be treating this season like its last.
Keep calm and carry on, is what I’d tell the writers. We’re all in it for the long haul, even if most of America isn’t. Give us the Season 3 you’d planned and live in the moment. I’d rather the perfect third season than one that steps around awkwardly, unsure if and when it’s getting pulled off the air.