Bits and pieces

2009 September 30
  • Thanks to Sunday night’s premiere of Amazing Race, I now realize it’s not that easy to herd ducks.
It's also always better to book your flights ahead of time. On *ahem* Travelocity!

It's also always better to book your flights ahead of time. On *ahem* Travelocity!

  • Last week on Project Runway, I discovered that my fantasy of seeing Dune stillsuits walk down the runway might not be that far off. Sadly, this designer was eliminated, but hope lives on.
This is the sketch for his dress - Borg! Predator! Scifi!

This is the sketch for his dress - Borg! Scifi!

  • On the Jay Leno Show last night, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss dealt with the problematic embargo against cross-network primetime guest appearances by figuring out how to advertise for CBS while appearing on NBC.
She also had "The New Adventures of Old Christine" printed on the bottom of her shoe

She also had "The New Adventures of Old Christine" printed on the bottom of her shoe

The Doll's House

2009 September 29
tags:
by kvanaren

Sometimes bad television is more than just bad television. I think we can all agree that The Real Housewives of Atlanta, no matter how much you love it and want to listen to “(Don’t Be) Tardy to the Party” on repeat, does not constitute an epitome of human cultural production. The same can be said for America’s Next Top Model, which is effectively made, entertaining, terrible TV. (Especially this season, by the way. The whole short model premise has really allowed them to push their innate freak show tendencies.) But as in the case of a show like Sports Night, a show with problems can still be well worth watching.

That’s what Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is for me – a show with failings both external to its production and inherent in its concept, that I nevertheless find completely fascinating. I’ll back up a bit, because you probably haven’t seen Dollhouse. Nobody has. It airs at 9pm on Fridays, and opened its second season last Friday night to impressively low ratings. The premise of the show is that the Rossum Corporation has produced technology that enables them to imprint a human body with any identity they desire, and they use this technology as a form of prostitution. If you hire Rossum, they will imprint a human with any personality you choose and allow you to have that person for as long as you’re willing to pay. The idea is that the show can split two ways. On the one hand, you’ve got action star main character Echo, played by Eliza Dushku, who can be imprinted with awesome, sexy skills which allow her to hop straight off her motorcycle and into her hostage negotiator/bride/backup singer/art thief gig. On the other hand, you’ve got an incredibly creepy setup to allow you to explore morality and identity, the relationship between the body and the mind, immortality and the construction of avatars, and a new and disturbing technological apocalypse. Awesome, right?

Echo as doll, as eerie doll-bride, and as eerie doll-undercover-FBI-agent

Echo as doll, as eerie doll-bride, and as eerie doll-undercover-FBI-agent

Turns out, that show is not so easy to make. Whedon has been fairly close-lipped about the creative differences that led to making and remaking the first season of the show, but the emphasis ended up more with sexy prostitute ninjas than with creepy moral grey area. Who knows what actually happened, but my guess would be it was mostly a result of network exec input. Unlike the untimely death of Firefly, though, the blame cannot fall entirely on the network. The bigger problem is that for much of the first season, Dollhouse’s audience couldn’t piece apart the show’s intention. Does the show condone the Dollhouse? If so, that’s awful. Assuming the ultimate goal is to condemn the Dollhouse, then you’ve built a show where all the main characters are brain dead dolls or brilliant, sociopathic pimps. Sure, the thought experiment might be intriguing, but watching a show almost completely devoid of sympathetic characters is less than fun. It’s not impossible to build a show around an evil sociopath – case in point, The Sopranos. Where Tony Soprano is terrifying, funny, complicated, sympathetic and motivated, though, the Rossum Corporation is merely greedy and amoral.

And yet, occasionally you can catch glimpses of the show it should be between the bloody fight scenes and shots of dolls wandering around uselessly. In the second season premiere, the Dollhouse’s doctor (because, remember, they are prostitutes in both an unconventional as well a more traditional sense) copes with the discovery that she is also a doll. The Dollhouse still needs her, so instead of wiping her and starting over, she has to deal with the knowledge that she is an artificial construct of a person inhabiting someone else’s body. Dr. Saunders, living in the body of the doll Whiskey, confronts Topher, the brilliant evil nerd programmer who created her. Topher asks why she doesn’t try to restore her original identity, which is stored somewhere in the Dollhouse’s memory banks. “Because I don’t want to die,” she says. “I’m in someone else’s body and I’m afraid to give it up.”

Topher and Whiskey/Dr. Saunders discuss the implications of personhood

Topher and Whiskey/Dr. Saunders discuss the implications of personhood

See? Disturbing, fascinating, tragic, sympathetic, appealing, frustrating. What should we want, Dr. Saunders to “die” by being erased, or whoever the poor woman really was to continue to be “dead” while someone else uses her body? And then there’s the amazing, unaired thirteenth episode of the first season, which takes place ten years in the post-apocalyptic future where Dollhouse technology has spread and no identity is safe. That’s the Dollhouse worth watching. The show almost certainly won’t be around for very long – no one thought it’d come back for a second season – so who knows if it will ever find its stride. As a symptom of its many failings, I have no emotional attachment to the show, and will not be crushed when it inevitably dies. In the mean time, while it’s still around, the intellectual exercise of piecing together its scattered, excellent fragments turns out to be enough for me to stay interested.

Mad Men – Seven Twenty Three

2009 September 28
by kvanaren

In many ways, last night’s Mad Men was a return to the issues and themes of the first two seasons. Unlike the more recent episodes where the outside world has begun to intrude into the atmosphere, the primary focus of “Seven Twenty Three” was looking inward.* Politics inside Sterling Cooper clashed with Don’s complicated selfhood, Peggy’s fumbling attempts at sexual and professional development led her into bed with someone from her work environment, and Betty once again found herself prone on a couch. (Remember the first season, when Betty used to be in therapy, and would lie down and talk out her feelings while an unsympathetic psychiatrist diagnosed her with mother issues?) Happily, the episode did much more than rehash previous content – if anything, “Seven Twenty Three” gave us a culmination of one of the central concerns of the first two seasons. Don gives up his professional freedom in favor of long-term stability, and in doing so, as Alan Sepinwall points out, essentially kills Dick Whitman in favor of Don Draper.

Wake up Dick Whitman, wake up Don Draper

Wake up Dick Whitman, wake up Don Draper

The episode was also different from many of the previous installments in that it was far more overtly formal (by which I mean, in a lit. crit.-y way, that it had a noticeable and purposeful form). “Seven Twenty Three” worked with a method of storytelling Mad Men has rarely experimented with, a classic procedural technique. We see our main characters engaged in some startling activity or located in an unexpected place, and then we flash back to an earlier point in time to discover how they get there. CSI does it constantly, Alias used to do it practically every other week, and it even happens occasionally on shows like Grey’s Anatomy or House. The tool creates a built-in sense of expectation and suspense, but its rigid form can also backfire and allow the audience to easily predict the rest of the episode. The “twenty-four hours earlier” technique can also force a frequently unstructured show like Mad Men into a somewhat unnatural but nevertheless appealing symmetry.

Solar eclipse

Solar eclipse

First, Mad Men instantly classed up the form by denying the audience the standard “twenty-four hours earlier” title card and instead creating the jump in time with a nice visual leap from Don rubbing his bruised neck to Don nattily fixing his tie the previous morning. Next, the episode highlighted and, I think, justified the inorganic symmetry of the convention by centering the mirror images (opening and closing with the same moment in time) around an unusual, unnatural event, a solar eclipse. The unexpected specialness of a full eclipse makes the inverted storytelling feel appropriate, or at least less out of place. It also gave the episode a still moment in time, where Don and Betty could pause and be anchored to the same event, which made the whole experience more contemplative and less like the typical headlong rush toward the opening scene.

Daddy Whitman

Daddy Whitman

The best thing about the flash back storytelling is that Mad Men created enough meaning around its use that the form and content were matched. We watch Don wake up with his face destroyed in a motel room, fully regressed to his Dick Whitman identity. Then we watch Don wake up the morning before as Don Draper, complete with pressed suit and polished shoes. Over the course of the day, the conflict with Conrad Hilton and Don’s need to actually sign a contract as Don Draper bring his identity anxiety to the forefront until he reaches a point where he loses control entirely. Dick’s father appears in a vision to scold him for producing nothing of substance, and then he allows himself to be snookered by two fresh-faced con artists. The return of the Dick Whitman wake up then gives us a conclusion to the process – he may have woken up as his previous self, but he immediately heads to the office to seal Dick Whitman’s coffin and walk out, permanently, as Don Draper.

For me, the episode worked. It was thoughtful, taut, eventful and self-aware. But this was your one cliché episode opportunity, Mad Men. You used it well, but that means you probably shouldn’t do it again.

*This is not to say that there weren’t occasional blips of historical reference – Henry Francis’ political ambitions could become quite pointed after November. More importantly, Pete’s excitement about an aviation contract and the impending need for jets to fight in Vietnam continues to nudge Sterling Cooper toward a wartime marketplace.


I Love The Office

2009 September 25
by kvanaren

With the sudden deluge of Thursday night programming it’s easy to get distracted by all the new shows and the returning schmaltz-laden behemoths like Grey’s Anatomy and overlook the consistently excellent, veteran gems. (Really, Grey’s Anatomy? Two whole hours of weeping?) For television that is funny, well written and well acted, thoughtful, often silly and occasionally sincere, awkward and honest in the same breath, it’s hard to get better than what The Office can be at its best.

For a show that started as an intensely derivative reworking of a British show, The Office has managed to move so far out of the initial emotional and situational territory that it has far and away surpassed its original. As the head manager of the Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch, Michael Scott has developed from an unthinking, heartless buffoon into something much more complex and interesting. It’s not that he’s unthinking, we now realize, he’s childlike and eager to be liked but lacking in any rudimentary understanding of tact or social norms. Michael Scott’s childishness is also an emotional state, leading him to feel jealousy and love with equal intensity and making him incapable of dealing with either. He is also an excellent salesman, an ambitious but well-meaning boss, and occasionally a selfish bastard.

The many faces of Michael Scott

The many faces of Michael Scott

This is why television that lives for a long time can be a really amazing thing – there is no way that Michael Scott could be what he fully is today in just twelve half-hour episodes. Most of the credit for his development goes to the show’s willingness to change. Unlike so many other sitcoms or even hour-long dramas (I turn once again to you, Grey’s Anatomy), The Office has never been afraid to change. Things actually happen on The Office – Jim moved to the Stamford branch, Pam and Roy split, Michael left to create his own paper company, Michael fell in love with Holly and then had to break up with her when she was transferred. Perhaps most admirably, the writers completely refuse to limit the show to boring unresolved Pam and Jim tension and are fully able to write a funny, tense show with their two main love interests in a happy, committed relationship. Sure, like most shows, the situational status quo usually returns. Main characters who leave will come back. Mergers and takeovers happen, but end up reinstating the norm. The show has to come back to the standard arrangement, because it’s The Office, and we want to see all of our favorite characters working together. When characters come back from wherever they went, though, or they break up with each other, or get back together, they also come back as different, more interesting people. That’s how you start with one-note jerk Michael Scott and slowly arrive at the far more complicated Michael Scott of today.

Pam and Jim, defying sitcom standards

Jim and Pam, defying sitcom standards

It would be unfair to finish off this paean to The Office without mentioning the rest of the cast. After all, it is an office full of people, and each character is fully formed, and funny, and capable of carrying entire plots and subplots by themselves. I loved Phyllis’s wedding to Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. I loved Kelly’s relationship with Ron from the loading dock. And maybe I love Andy Bernard most of all. (Any episode where he sings or deals at all with his college acapella group Here Comes Treble is an instant classic for me.)

Your heads may be turned by the shiny new programs, the sexy vampires and sexy doctors and sexy lawyers, the biggest losers and real housewives and people who think they can dance. You may be distracted for a while, but every week, The Office gives us another example of How To Make Good Television. We could do a lot worse than to pay some attention.

FlashBack

2009 September 24
by kvanaren

Among the overwhelming mass of new television on tonight, one of the more anticipated shows is ABC’s new Lost-esque drama FlashForward. Much like the blurry visions of the future that establish the show’s premise, I have already seen the pilot. (In appropriately blurry, too-pixilated form).

Nothing jumpstarts the action like a mega-disaster

Nothing jump starts the action like a mega-disaster

Joseph Fiennes as...actually, I don't remember his name

Joseph Fiennes as...actually, I don't remember his name. That bodes well.

The idea, in case you haven’t been subjected to the blanket of teasers ABC has laid over the entire network, is that for two minutes and seventeen seconds one lovely fall day, everyone falls over and sees two minutes of their future. Because the entire population has lost consciousness, they all wake up in a world where every plane in the sky crashed and every car on the road crashed and every James-Bond-chase-scene-esque fruit cart crashed with another brightly colored fruit cart and now there are oranges and dead bodies everywhere. Cue our heightening collective paranoia about the apocalypse. The main character, an FBI agent played by Joseph Fiennes, sees clues about the flash forward, and presumably will spend at least the next season investigating them. There are also doctors, nervous men sitting around polished conference tables, gruff AA members, a cute freaky/prophetic child, and at least one gratuitously hot babysitter.

Also like Lost, wacky animals make an appearance

Also like Lost, wacky animals make an appearance

Having only seen the first episode, I can’t quite decide whether the show has promise. My gut is no, largely because the parallels with Lost are overpowering. The all-encompassing disaster that sets off the entire show, the over-dramatic lines that take twice too long to utter and always end the scene, the tortured male authority figure/leader/main character… it all feels so familiar. And it’s not just a strong sense of TV nostalgia – ABC is pushing the connection in all sorts of “find the hidden message” ways. Like the breadcrumbs ABC often leaves behind between Lost seasons, FlashForward already has ample cross-media content, including one website set up to help people connect their images of the future with others from around the world. If you feel moved enough to watch tonight for yourself, keep an eye out for the direct, unspoken Lost shoutout that happens early in the episode and makes you wonder if ABC wishes it were more like a comic-book empire.

My biggest concern is that FlashForward is too essentially derivative to escape the myriad problems that Lost continues to suffer from. The collision of many individual stories seems to be the storytelling cliché of this decade (see Love Actually, Crash, Syriana, and Lost among others), but network television has yet to demonstrate its capacity for escaping the inherent flaws of the form. On Lost, that weakness was initially the show’s strength – with so many stories to tell, the revelation that each story was actually a part of someone else’s background felt exciting and unexpected, and made it easy to build suspense and cliffhangers into each episode. Over the long term, as so many people have begun to complain, the formula became too rigid, and the absurdity of constant answerless-questions grew immensely frustrating and then almost boring. As promising as the interlaced plot (or as FlashForward itself has termed it, the mosaic) may be, its sustainability over the long term has not proven successful.

I will keep watching, because I am nothing if not a plot junkie. But I worry that FlashForward has copied from the success of Lost without also learning from its failures.

The State of the Sitcom

2009 September 23
by kvanaren

Tonight ABC is airing the premiere of the new half-hour comedy Modern Family. The premise of the show is the examination of several families, all of them in some way removed from the 1950s nuclear family. There are Jay and Gloria with at least a decade’s age difference between them and Gloria’s child from a previous marriage, the gay couple Mitchell and Cameron who have just adopted a baby, and the most conventional of the bunch, Phil and Claire. Although Phil and Claire have been married sixteen years and have three children, their household looks nothing like the Draper residence – Phil struggles to be the cool dad, Claire strives to be the all-powerful super mom, and they both carefully study their daily calendar to find time to discipline their son.

Phil and Claire, Jay and Gloria, Cameron and Mitchell

Phil and Claire, Jay and Gloria, Cameron and Mitchell

Modern Family does not revolutionize the classic sitcom subject matter. Sitcoms are built around family units (often actually relatives but roommates will do just fine), and undoubtedly the most common sitcom premise is the unusual family. Full House was about two bachelors moving into a house with a widower to help him raise his three daughters. Friends was about a group of young New Yorkers who were also occasionally lovers, siblings, roommates, and ex-spouses. On Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire there was awkward relative Will Smith, on Family Matters there was awkward neighbor Urkel, and on The Cosby Show the audience marveled at the daily life of a normal, comfortable, well-educated, African-American family.

Weird families are funny. But recently, the sitcom has been a dying genre because it has failed to keep pace with the increasing weirdness of the American family unit. The funniest half-hour comedies of recent years have had to either turn the genre on its head and joke about the whole premise (see, How I Met Your Mother) or scrap the sitcom altogether and reinvent the form (awesomely, The Office).

It's the ciiiiiircle of life...

It's the ciiiiiircle of life...

All of which is to say, Modern Family is actually quite entertaining. And it’s because the show reclaims classic sitcom territory, the contemporary American family, with an entirely new central idea – sure, these people don’t look like The Donna Reed Show, but their families are not unusual. They are quirky, self-involved, misguided, defensive, distracted individuals, but they don’t need to rely on their unconventional family arrangements for humor. For them (and, of course, for us) nothing here is startling. We can laugh at the challenges of two gay men raising a daughter without feeling forced into sociological discovery, but we still get the thrill of recognizing truth in the comedy. Like the best sitcoms, we crack up because a gay man is holding his new daughter aloft as music plays “The Circle of Life,” both because it’s ridiculous and because it’s actually the circle of life.

Between Modern Family, Community, and the new seasons of How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory, the sitcom is in a surprisingly healthy place. I am surprised. I am pleased.

Big, glossy, shiny, gloss-covered entertainment

2009 September 22

It’s an odd thing to celebrate excellence in the medium of telegrams just at the moment the phone takes over, and this weekend’s 61st Emmy Award ceremony was well aware of the strangeness. Julia Louis Dreyfuss deadpanned that she was honored to be presenting an award on this, the last year of broadcast television. In his acceptance speech for Mad Men, Matthew Weiner mentioned that he looks forward to the Emmys joining him on cable television for next year. Before presenting an award to The Daily Show, Ricky Gervais’ joke about the relative unattractiveness of television actors morphed into a more indirect comment on the state of the medium. After noting that Rainn Wilson looks weird in any crowd, Gervais amended, “I can have a go at The Office because I’m executive producer…[which means] I sit at home and wait for the checks to come through, oh yeah. Syndication.” The Office, which airs new episodes on NBC, also airs reruns every weeknight on cable, a small but welcome percentage of which must end up with Mr. Gervais.

emmys 1

The very nature of its existence has always led the Emmys to self-reflection, a weirdness often encapsulated in the bizarre Escher-like twists when another awards show wins an Emmy for live variety television production. This year, though, felt like the turning point, the moment at which the entire crowd of people felt the necessity of questioning the whole premise of their presence. The Emmys have yet to reach the point of the MTV Music Video Awards, which have long since coped with their complete irrelevance by transforming into the most absurd spectacle possible. Still comfortably consequential, the Emmys nevertheless found plenty of opportunity to comment on the state of TV.

Neil Patrick Harris

Neil Patrick Harris

Nowhere was the commentary more apparent than in host Neil Patrick Harris, who did an admirable job thanks to his skill and suaveness but also his willingness to point to the new media elephants in the room. The show opened with vintage footage of television broadcast towers transmitting the nations’ vital news to each other, accompanied by an olde timey narrator. “Television. Useful science of the electronic age…Your instant connection to the most sophisticated entertainment the world has ever known.” As though the internet weren’t enough of a reason for that line to be funny, the video then cut to a shot from that sophisticated classic, Wipeout.

The best joke of the night took the point even further. Interrupting a presentation by the accountants responsible for tabulating Emmy results, a video feed from Dr. Horrible appeared on-screen, announcing to the audience he had hijacked the ceremony. The jokes went as follows: first, Dr. Horrible is a character from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, played by Neil Patrick Harris, the Emmys’ host. Next, Dr. Horrible touts the internet as the superior medium for entertainment (from the comfort of his video blog), only to be interrupted himself by hilariously inevitable buffering icons. Finally, the entrance of his nemesis Captain Hammer allows Dr. Horrible to mention that his sing-along blog actually won an Emmy. The biggest joke of all, of course, is that Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog actually did win an Emmy, despite its having been independently produced, made on a shoe-string budget, and never aired on either broadcast or cable television.

Dr. Horrible, foiled by buffering

Dr. Horrible, foiled by buffering

Speaking of which, if you’ve never seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog… I know I told you to watch The Soup last week, but even The Soup can’t hold a candle to the awesomeness of this.

Despite Dr. Horrible’s pronouncement, television is not dead. But it seems as though within the last year, the machinery of fancy television awards have realized that the landscape is shifting. As Captain Hammer comments while holding Dr. Horrible in a headlock, “people will always need big, glossy, shiny, gloss-covered entertainment, and Hollywood will be there to provide it. Like the Ottoman Empire, the music industry, and Zima, we’re here to stay.” Of course it’s an exaggeration, and one need only point to the continued existence of Mad Men, now a two-time winner for best drama, to argue that television is still a vibrant, meaningful medium for storytelling. Nevertheless it was pleasant, even reassuring, to see television’s usual self-recognition shape itself into if not acceptance, at least acknowledgement of the changing paradigm. Maybe by next year we’ll be a step closer to acceptance.

Maybe by next year, someone will have figured out how to monetize a live stream of the Emmys online so people on the West coast don’t have to wait three hours. Not that I’m bitter about that.

Mad Men – Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency

2009 September 21
by kvanaren

Well, that was pretty awesome.

As long as I seem to be writing this paper on Mad Men and its historical moment one week at a time, I might as well continue. This episode actually seemed to have quite a bit less to do with cultural or political context, as the events inside Sterling Cooper were without question sufficient to distract from anything going on in the world outside. Who has time to watch the evening news when a young upstart has shown up to demote everyone and you’re being relocated to India and your loser sexually abusive husband can’t even stay on his career path?

Happy 4th of July!

Happy 4th of July!

But what Mad Men may have neglected in the way of subtle cultural hints, it traded for full-blown historical allegory. This episode was potently American in a way the show has often played with but seldom taken on with full force. What could be more suggestive of an old world/new world divide than rehashing a question of leadership between Britain and America? As represented by St. John, Lane Pryce and the doomed Guy McFerland, Britain means class, sophistication and privilege, and Betty glows at the possibility of living in London with a pram and a real nanny. Britain is also unmistakably the old way of life, stuffy and staid, and thanks to its British overlords, Sterling Cooper seems to be sinking further into the past while Don Draper courts new American royalty in the form of Conrad Hilton. How appropriate that the British invade on the 4th of July, forcing the Sterling Cooper secretaries to ironically reverse the significance of the holiday with tiny British flags on their desks. Watch the episode again, and just keep an eye out for how many times there’s a tiny British flag in the foreground. Even the uncharacteristic (and thus, impressively shocking) bloodiness was carefully woven back into the allegorical fabric, with Roger commenting that the office looked like Iwo Jima and young copywriters musing about Vietnam. And then to have a John Deere tractor, symbol of hardworking American agriculture, literally mow over poor Guy McFerland, the young, posh, well-educated Briton’s Briton?

mad men 306 3

An episode like this could have been completely absurd. The allegory, so markedly drawn, could have been unsubtle, thoughtless and simplistic. Instead, “Guy Walks Into an Advertising

And really, what's funnier than a guy squeegee-ing blood off the window?

And really, what's funnier than a guy squeegee-ing blood off the window?

Agency” was saved from obvious metaphor and transformed into an absolutely gorgeous piece of television by the funny, tragic, sick, uncertain, contemplative mess that surrounded it. Roger Sterling learns he’s not even part of the old guard, he’s actually been written out of the company flowcharts, and he does not find the discovery reassuring. Pete Campbell, so desperate to be respected and viewed as an older authority figure, slides down the ladder a bit and ends the episode with the same thwarted ambition he’s always felt. What most saved the allegory from over-determined silliness, though, was the persistent sick humor of the aftermath. Guy loses his foot, jokes Roger, “right when he got it in the door.” Of course, he can never be an accounts man now because the doctors say he’ll never golf again. And finally, the underlying joke of the whole episode, its title – “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” but he does not walk out. The sick humor keeps us laughing uneasily, probing our reactions and preventing us from tying it all up in a neat little bow.

mad men 306 4

The last word about this episode should belong to Joan. It is a testament to Christina Hendricks’ portrayal of her as well as the amazing writing of this show that in an episode where a guy’s foot gets mangled by a tractor and blood literally spews across the office, the real tragedy and humanity of the night came from Joan Holloway Harris on her last day at work. I was horrified and moved when she actually wept in the office, I was impressed but not surprised when she ably administered a tourniquet on Guy’s bleeding leg, and I was both thrilled and saddened by the final moment of mutual appreciation between Joan and Don. I don’t know what will happen to Joan, now that she’s left Sterling Cooper and is stuck with her awful, incompetent, sexually abusive husband. The best hope for Sterling Cooper is that she’ll be coming back soon, because a day on which Guy McFerland walks into an advertising agency and Joan Holloway walks out does not spell a happy tomorrow.

Community: I see your value now

2009 September 18
by kvanaren

Ha ha, Thursday nights! A new episode of The Office! And Bones, and Fringe, and Parks and Recreation! And by next week Thursday, there’ll also be new episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Flash Forward, and then in October new episodes of 30 Rock will be on! In other words, ha ha, Thursday, the night that totally overwhelms my meager resources as a grad student/spare-time television blogger!

I love The Office so much it’s almost physically painful, and I’ll also admit to a soft spot for Bones and a love-hate relationship with Fringe, so I’m sure I’ll get to them all eventually. But last night definitely belonged to Community, the brand-new sitcom starring Joel McHale, my snarky TV commentator muse. Wait, stop. Stop right now. If you have ever laughed at some terrible reality show but never seen The Soup, go watch clips on hulu. On hearing McHale’s new pilot had been picked up by NBC, I had a brief nightmare that he’d stop filming The Soup, but apparently he’s able to do both, so I’m able to watch Community without feeling resentful.

Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Joel McHale as Jeff and Chevy Chase as Pierce Hawthorne on Community

Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Joel McHale as Jeff and Chevy Chase as Pierce Hawthorne on Community

Community has gotten some great buzz, including this NYTimes piece and some love from Televisionary and slate.com. The setting is a community college, where the main character Jeff Winger has enrolled to keep from being disbarred as a lawyer (he had previously been practicing with a fake degree). There are so many great things about this pilot episode. As the NYTimes article points out, the humor is largely based on allusion, so the script is peppered with Breakfast Club jokes, shout-outs to Bill Murray and Michael Douglas, and at least one super-meta-reference to The Soup. The acting is good, particularly Chevy Chase and John Oliver, who alas appears to not be a series regular, and the premise feels both fresh and relatable. There are also countless opportunities to mock a community college, but for the most part Community goes for the funny and avoids the low-hanging fruit. (In the pilot’s opening, the dean addresses the students after playing a tape recording of a collegiate-sounding clock tower.) I should probably also mention that I have been whistling the show’s absurdly catchy score for about twenty minutes now.

Danny Pudi as well-meaning but social inept Abed

Danny Pudi as well-meaning but social inept Abed

Without those things, the show would be mediocre at best, but the true gem of the show is the main character Jeff. Although an entirely different personality, Jeff is built on the same ambiguity of The Office’s Michael Scott, slipping easily between ego-obsessed scholastic ennui and brief moments of sympathetic self-realization. Because he already has a successful law career, Jeff’s entire motivation is to get a degree as quickly and easily as possible, which includes regularly deriding the school and bribing a professor for test answers. “Why do people keep trying to teach me stuff in this school-shaped toilet?” he wonders. In the pilot, Jeff starts a Spanish study group just to hook up with his attractive classmate and then capitalizes on the study groups’ insecurities to escape his study-leader responsibilities. Jeff is a jerk.

Except, in a really lovely little piece of emotional development, Jeff ends the episode with just the slightest twinge of conscience. Abed, a classmate who registers on the autism-spectrum and has an unhealthy obsession with pop culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s, offers Jeff some useful information on Britta, the girl Jeff’s trying to attract. “Abed,” Jeff says in mock wonder, “I see your value now.” As Jeff walks away, Abed thinks for a moment and awkwardly raises his finger before replying, “that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” By the episode’s conclusion, Jeff has realized he can’t get the test scores he needs and admits he never learned how to study because he’s always gotten by without actually working. The study group admits that even though he manipulated them, Jeff was a helpful member of their group. “I’m sorry I called you Michael Douglas and I see your value now,” Abed says. Rueful and only half-joking, Jeff ends the episode by muttering, “well, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.

That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.

I have a lot of hope for Community – like Glee and The Office, it’s an incredibly tricky balancing act between sincerity and mockery, but shows that successfully navigate that maze can be rewarding television. If Community lives up to its promise, I might even forgive Joel McHale for shifting his focus away from The Soup. (Please don’t do it, Joel! The void left in my heart where Chat Stew used to be could never be filled.)

Vampire Diaries; or, In Appreciation of the Fog Machine

2009 September 17
by kvanaren

A new show premiered last week that I chose not to write about, and then a million bazillion people watched it and swooned. There will be another new episode of it tonight, and if you’re one of the twelve people who have not already seen Vampire Diaries, allow me to give you a guided tour of the pilot so that you can make an informed choice about watching tonight. To protect anyone who wishes to guard themselves against teenaged vampires, there are images after the jump.

Also, a note: I’ve been looking over the past few weeks’ worth of blog posts, and other than the weekly Mad Men post, I feel it’s necessary to reassure you. I promise, next week I’m going to write about really good television and not let myself get angry about Jay Leno.

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