July 31, 2011

Summer TV Countdown: #2 Parks and Recreation and #5 Community

This summer, the Onion's AV Club published 4-part interviews with the showrunners of Community and Parks And Recreation (you can find the final installments, and links to the previous ones, here and here). In my brain Michael Schur will always be Ken Tremendous, so I refer to him simply as KT below.

(Obviously, spoilers if you haven't watched the most recent season of these shows).

These are both shows that I quite enjoy, but I had very different reactions to the interviews. KT's Parks and Rec interview reminded me of everything that I love about Parks and Rec, while Dan Harmon's Community walkthrough magnified everything I'm worried about on Community.

Let's start with the Community one, since it was first anyway. It's a show that is (intentionally) tough to define beyond the fact that it's a comedy. It has a large ensemble cast, pretty much all of whom work well together. It enjoys doing, for lack of a better word, spoof episodes, where they riff on some particular genre of movies or tv. Most importantly, unlike most tv shows (especially sitcoms) it takes risks by challenging and changing its characters and their dynamics, which is always nice to see. These risks the show takes, both with individual episodes and the characters themselves is why it can crank out such great episodes, but they don't always work out.

I thought the biggest character misstep they had this season was with Chang, who was the breakout star of the first season and was largely pathetic and used to little effect this year. What made his character great was how drunk with power he was in the first season. The change they made to his character was interesting in a "let's see what happens" sense and was an organic change with respect to the internal logic of the show, but despite adding the extra wrinkle with Shirley's baby this year it largely went nowhere, and the show suffered without him. Having more John Oliver was nice, but didn't fill in that gap. I don't know what else they could have done - it would have been interesting if he somehow became the new dean, but the current dean is so awesome that you can't write him off the show.

I wasn't a huge fan of what they did with Pierce in the second half of the season either, but I'll give them more of the benefit of the doubt there. He turned into a (even huger) huge asshole and it was hard to figure out why everyone was still friends with him. They did address this in the finale though, and it makes a little more sense if he's being set up as the villain in the next season, which could be interesting.

My biggest issue with the show, which was only magnified by this interview, is how much the show loves patting itself on the back for some of the sitcom-subverting things they do. I'm not sure why it bothers me so much - in some sense it's not too different from doing, say, the zombie episode or the war movie spoof that was the first paintball episode. In particular, I'm thinking of the Documentary Filmmaking episode, where they spoof the mockumentary format, Paradigms of Human Memory, where they spoof clip shows, and Critical Film Studies, where they base the entire episode on an elaborately framed joke related to a lesser-known 1980s movie.

People like what they like - I also am apparently the only one who doesn't enjoy the Troy freakouts they used in the second half of the season - but when the showrunner says things along the lines of "we don't have to reinvent television every week", and you take him seriously in context, it could lead to trouble. I recognize that it takes some careful planning to craft a good comedy show, but this kind of overthinking can spoil things. I don't have a problem with serious episodes - one of my favorites this season was Troy's birthday party. I thought it was just a factor of seeing how the sausage was made - I made these points in the comments to one of the interview parts and the interviewer said that all showrunners were like this.

Fast forward to the Parks and Rec interview with Ken Tremendous. He also goes into great detail about their strategy of crafting their show, but instead of making me nervous it just reminded me of everything I love about Pawnee and those characters in general. P&R isn't afraid of a little change either - it cut Mark from the show after the second season and more or less replaced him with Ben, Chris joined the cast, April and Andy got married, Tom quit his job. The show still had a few issues: they still generally have a tough time with Ann storylines, the Leslie and Ben stuff dragged a bit, and they could be in danger of leaning too much on Ron stories (though not too much, as every plot involving Ron has been absolutely hilarious so far).

The best part of the interview is just that you have a bigger sense of what KT wants to do with the show. Both Community and P&R have established a greater universe (Greendale, Pawnee) to interact with, but I have a better sense of what kinds of stories P&R wants to tell with its characters. Much more so than Community, what keeps bringing me back to P&R is that you get to spend time essentially hanging out with characters you like. The same is somewhat true in Community, especially with regards to Abed and Troy, Annie, and to a greater extent (for me at least) with Britta. But Community thrives more in intra-group conflict than P&R, which has much more to do with the inherent conflicts of governing. One thing KT mentioned about his vision for the show is that he doesn't like that most sitcoms are basically driven by jokes where the characters are all mean to one another. This is definitely something that's bothered me about a lot of the big sitcoms of the last 10-15 years or so, especially shows like Seinfeld (which I like less and less as time goes on) and Everybody Loves Raymond, which we used to love but just got tired of eventually due to all the hate flying around. The same is also somewhat true of The Office, though that show has some heart behind all of it.

Some of my love for the show also stems from the fact that I can connect with Leslie's (and clearly from the interview KT's) view of government, especially the parks. I grew up going on vacation to dozens of National Parks (as my mother worked for NPS for 30+ years), and my wife and I both worked at Harpers Ferry National Park when we were in high school/early college, where we met and worked with many more people who loved their jobs and were very good at them. Leslie is a proxy for everyone we knew who are good at their jobs and enjoy public service. There are certainly plenty of other people on the show who aren't such great examples but they all work anyway because they all respect Leslie.

I could probably say a lot more about Parks and Rec, but the appeal of the show is nicely summed up with what I said above about hanging out with characters you like. I'm really glad to see the show and Amy Poehler getting some Emmy love this year. Apparently Community didn't win any friends by essentially basing their Emmy ad campaign in Hollywood by telling people who haven't seen the show that they're idiots, so it's not that surprising that they got zero Emmy nominations.

Top three episodes for each show this season:
1. Flu Season
2. Fancy Party
3. Jerry's Painting

1. Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas
2. Collaborative Calligraphy
3. Consipiracy Theories and Interior Design

July 09, 2011

Summer TV Countdown #14: Dexter

I probably have Dexter rated too low - blame it on how long it has been since I watched it. I got into the show a year or so ago thanks to all the Dexter fans over at Obstructed View. I enjoyed season five but have a reservation or two about the show. If I had to rank the Dexter seasons right now, I would probably go


Spoilers below, obviously.

The good things about this season:

Anything involving Dexter's main storyline. The I remember liking the first episode or two after Rita's death, and I love pretty much any interaction between Dexter and Astor. They eventually leave to live with their grandparents (while Harrison stays with Dexter), and there's a great episode later in the season when Astor returns. Michael C. Hall really carries the weight on this show.

On a similar note, Lumen was great. Julia Stiles really nailed her guest role - John Lithgow was probably the only major guest star that has been better over the course of the show. Despite how relatively formulaic the show has become in the past three seasons (Major Guest Star is introduced, gets Too Close To Dexter, leaves one way or another at the end of the season), one thing that speaks for the quality of the show and its guest stars is that they're compelling enough to share the load with Michael C. Hall in carrying the show. Jimmy Smits was not so good (hence the rankings above), but Lithgow and Stiles brought a lot to the table in their stints on the show.
At first when I looked back on the season I thought that it would have been better if the Lumen story arc occurred in season three, since this season did a far better job with the "Dexter teams up with someone" plot, but it works better this season in the context of Dexter getting over Rita's death.

The not so good things about this season:

While Lumen was a great character and I enjoyed the broader arc of her story, there was one weak link - Johnny Lee Miller (of Hackers fame!) as Jordan Chase, this season's big bad. What he and his crew did to Lumen and their other victims was terrible and I quite enjoyed seeing Lumen and Dexter hunt them down, Jordan himself was kind of meh. I mean, he was evil and deserved to die, but he didn't feel EVIL the way that the likes of Arthur Miller or even the ruthless Miguel Prado. Jordan was just more of an asshole. It feels weird to say that, since I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that sexual assault is bad and I have no sympathy for abusers like Jordan's group anymore than I do with criminals like Miguel or Arthur. But it was a different kind of season - killing him felt much more about closure for Lumen (and indirectly, Dexter) than about some epic confrontation to remove Evil from the world as we've seen in other seasons. Overall I liked the idea of her arc (and Stiles and Dexter did a great job), but it didn't feel executed well on the side of the villains. I'm not sure if it was acting, or writing, or both.

Everything not involving Dexter or Lumen. I'm generally pretty meh on all the sideplots on this show in general. I quite enjoy Deb, but any b-plot that involves anyone else in Miami Metro Homicide that does not involve Dexter is extremely blah. I like Batista's character but I'm not a fan with what the writers have given him to work with, especially his marriage to LaGuerta and all of the internal police department wrangling that those two deal with. Quinn had more to do this season and we got the bonus wrinkle that he knows Dexter is up to something, but every time I look at him I wonder if he's going to die in the next episode from anorexia and/or heroin addiction. I swear you can see his ribs through his back. The other big plot line this season was the hunt for the so-called Santa Muerte killer, which weirdly fizzled out midway through. I don't even remember if they caught the perps. I think there was a shootout at a public location at some point and LaGuerta rightly got in a lot of hot water over it. Overall my memory of it was that it felt poorly tacked on.

Going forward:

One of the biggest complaints about this show from the critics is that it hits the reset button too often and that the broad arc of the season is fairly predictable (as mentioned above, Major Guest Star is introduced, gets Too Close To Dexter, leaves one way or another at the end of the season). Except for season 5, for obvious reasons, pretty much every season has started with promos along the lines of "The old Dexter is back!!!!11!". But, given the premise of the show, I don't see how many ways there are for them to not hit the reset button without destroying the premise of the show, since once someone finds out about Dexter's secret he either has to kill them or get caught, and then it's show over. One way they could have changed things would have been to keep Lumen around past the season break. They might have even been able to keep her around even if she decided to stop with the killing. Maybe I'm just too optimistic about how that would work though.

I don't remember the guest stars that have been cast for season six, except for the always awesome Edward James Olmos. I don't really have the vibe that anyone is supposed to be the big bad that gets Too Close To Dexter. I expect we'll be getting a lot more of Dexter worrying if Harrison is evil, which is kind of meh. Dexter does have a sword hanging over him in Quinn, though Quinn does owe him one for fudging the blood work that fingered him for Liddy's murder. Still, just a few hints to Deb can ruin everything for Dexter. I don't know/remember if Dexter kept an insurance policy against Quinn.

One thing I am hoping for next season is that the plot action will be a little more spread out. The past few seasons have had a dud episode or two in the middle of the season that felt like filler to push us to the big plot points in the last few episodes. Dexter loves to set up all the pieces in the first 7 episodes or so before knocking them all down in spectacular fashion. Those last few episodes are great, but it pulls a lot out of energy out of the earlier episodes. Contrast it with Breaking Bad, where shit can Go Down at pretty much any moment, which does a better job of keeping its viewers on their toes.