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Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: NBC’s Community

Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: NBC’s Community

July 5th, 2010

[This is part of a series of posts analyzing individual show’s chances at the Emmy Awards ahead of the nominations, which will be announced on July 8th. You can find all of my posts regarding the 2010 Emmy Awards here.]

Community is a great television show, and one that I enjoy a great deal, but I don’t necessarily know if this will equate to Emmy success.

Dan Harmon and company are likely hoping that the series ends up the new Arrested Development: the Russos directed both Pilots, both shows found limited ratings success, and both are self-referential to the point of alienating some viewers (hence the limited ratings success). It’s quite possible that Community could get noticed in the Writing (where they submitted the Pilot and the Pilot only) or the Directing categories (where both the Pilot and Justin Lin’s “Modern Warfare” are contenders), where Arrested Development saw some success, but breaking into the other categories may be considerably me challenging.

The problem for Community is that there are too many other narratives going on this year for this one to necessarily stand out from the crowd. Arrested Development was competing against shows which were nearing the end of their runs: Curb Your Enthusiasm was the closest thing to a hip show when FOX’s much beloved series won in 2004, and it was already four years old. There was no other big new series emerging, and no third year series turning into smash successes in the span of the year: in other words, there were no comparative Modern Family, Glee, or the Big Bang Theory. It also doesn’t help that Community is arriving at a time when two of the entrenched comedy nominees are also single-camera comedies on NBC, so it isn’t possible for Community to be that “one show” which Arrested Development became.

This is unfortunate, because the same sort of creative energy and narrative depth which existed on that show are present here: while the show can at times be silly, its cast represents such a deep bench that it can be silly in a different way every week without feeling repetitive. Its most high-concept episodes (“Contemporary American Poultry,” “Modern Warfare”) were grounded in characters, and the show’s improvement throughout the season was the result of better understanding who these characters are and what role they play within the community college environment. And so the show is filled with supporting players who may have seemed archetypal in the Pilot but who have become key parts of the series’ quality: Danny Pudi and Alison Brie’s work with Abed and Annie have created complex characters without abandoning the wonderful simplicity of their world views, which only makes them funnier as the show goes forward.

The challenge is that, for a show that is quite often criticized for being over-the-top with its cultural references, a lot of Community’s strengths are subtle. While Emmy voters could reward Chevy Chase due to his previous pedigree, they’re unlikely to notice unsung Pudi; while Joel McHale is announcing the nominations and has The Soup to increase his profile, chances are that Brie’s time as Trudy Campbell on Mad Men won’t measure up the same way. I have some faith, however, that the show won’t be ignored as a whole: while the low-profile supporting players are likely to be left off the nominations list on Thursday, there’s a better chance that McHale or Chase could sneak into their respective categories, or that the show could break into the Outstanding Comedy Series race. It may not be the new Arrested Development, but it captures many of the qualities that Emmy voters gravitated to with that show, and so it’s impossible to count it out.

Contender in:

  • Outstanding Comedy Series
  • Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (Joel McHale)
  • Writing for a Comedy Series (“Pilot”)
  • Direction for a Comedy Series (“Pilot” and “Modern Warfare”)

Dark Horse in:

  • Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series (Chevy Chase, Ken Jeong)
  • Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (Jack Black)

Should, but Won’t, Contend In:

  • Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series (Danny Pudi, Donald Glover)
  • Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (Alison Brie)

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Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: Comedy Acting

Handicapping the 2010 Emmys: Comedy Acting

June 2nd, 2010

In comedy this year, a lot depends on what shows make it big: we know that Glee and Modern Family are going to make a statement (as noted in my piece handicapping the Comedy Series race), but is it going to be a statement of “this is a great show” or a statement of “this is the greatest show since sliced bread?” The difference will largely be felt in the acting categories: both Modern Family and Glee have multiple Emmy contenders, but it’s unclear whether some of the less heralded performers will be able to rise along with the big “stars,” or whether the halo of series success won’t help them compete against some established names already entrenched in these categories.

Ultimately, I’m willing to say that there’s going to be some pretty big turnaround this year in some of these categories, but others feature quite a large number of former nominees who likely aren’t going anywhere, so it should be interesting to see how things shake out on July 8th. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the four major Comedy Acting Emmys and see where the chips lie.

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Community – “The Science of Illusion”

“The Science of Illusion”

March 25th, 2010

We all knew going into Community that Chevy Chase is both a gifted physical comedian and great at playing someone who’s a little nit aloof , and in the supporting role of Pierce there is plenty of room for the show to just sort of run with that. And so we get Pierce having falling down, and Pierce being the brunt of various jokes, and the show tends to default to that role for his character.

You could probably try to claim that the rest of the show’s characters could fit into similar categories, but part of what make Community so great, and what makes “The Science of Illusion” so enjoyable, is that these are rigid structures. Characters are able to become something different in the context of other stories, and more importantly characters want to try to be something different, which makes for the kind of episode that says as much about the show as it does the show’s characters.

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Community – “Interpretive Dance”

“Interpretive Dance”

January 21st, 2010

After a particularly noteworthy return last week, where the show played with some very dangerous material with Jack Black and came out of it funnier than ever, there’s no question that “Interpretive Dance” is a step backwards. This isn’t to suggest that the episode is unfunny, and if we’re judging purely on the level of character development there’s some nice stuff going on here.

It seems like a bit of a sudden turn for the show, however, especially since a lot of the issues it is working with here haven’t popped up in a while. I like to see shows like Community engaging with more long-term character arcs and development, but the show has to avoid seeming like it is just going to stop in on occasion: there’s some subtle stuff here which indicates that this is not necessarily the show’s strategy, however at the same time they stayed away from these stories long enough that it felt like the show had to take some time to rediscover the rhythms of those interactions, leading to a weaker episode if one that could prove beneficial in the long term.

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Community – “Investigative Journalism”

“Investigative Journalism”

January 14th, 2010

There was a lot of talk early in 30 Rock’s third season about the proliferation of guest stars into the series, which was met with a lot of negative response from critics and viewers alike. The show felt as if it was being dominated by those guest stars, and that the stories were not so much about their presence in the show’s universe than they were about the characters themselves (which, in most instances, were indistinct enough to effectively become the actors playing themselves). It’s not that the show couldn’t write compelling guest stars (Dean Winters’ Dennis Duffy kills every time), but rather that something about the way they were integrating them into the show’s dynamic was off-putting.

Tonight, Community performed an experiment through the use of Jack Black, purposefully testing the show’s characters dynamics in order to see if adding another character to the mix would upend their rhythms. However, like many experiments where the facilitators are controlling every variable, the results are exactly what they want them to be, and Black’s character Buddy is a fundamental distraction who feels distinctly out of place. But by actually tapping into our expectations that the presence of a big star with a penchant for overacting would disrupt the flow of the series, and by allowing Black to essentially play an amalgam of his most annoying qualities without any context, the episode says something about how we react to interlopers on shows which focus on tight-knit groups.

In the process, the show gets quite a funny episode, and reinforces how much we like this study group as it is.

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Community – “Debate 109″

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“Debate 109″

November 12th, 2009

Community, effectively, operates on two levels. One of them is a broader investigation of the community college lifestyle, this week in the form of a debate competition. The other is a character-driven model where archetypes are either challenged or substantiated in an effort to create comic interest. The show doesn’t necessarily need for both to work in the same fashion, but it depends on both to be present in order for the show to seem moderately balanced.

“Debate 109″ is intriguing because of how it brings to the surface the question of how unique these characters really are, and as Jeff and Annie debate about human nature everyone else discovers that in the eyes of Abed they are as predictable as they are quirky. The former storyline offers some fun interactions and more opportunities for Alison Brie to outright steal this show out from under the rest of the cast, while the latter manages to give the episode the sort of manic connectivity that made the show’s Halloween episode so effective.

It was just a really well balanced half hour, something that I’m not sure the show had a handle on during early episodes.

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Community – “Home Economics”

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“Home Economics”

November 5th, 2009

One of the greatest qualities a comedy have is being both indulgent and nuanced at the same time, a task that Community has taken on with varied degrees of success in its first season. There are times when something like Abed’s love of pop culture references feels forced, but then there is something as hilarious as BatAbed (which is nuanced in the sense that it is both unquestionably funny and is worked into the plot of the episode) and it’s largely forgiven. That’s an important quality for a successful comedy, and what’s interesting with Community is how it seems like nearly every character is on that tightrope between becoming insular and one-minded before eventually breaking free and showing a more complex side.

“Home Economics” has nearly every character approaching the precipice of one-dimensionality, but the twists and turns within each story either perfectly service the nuances of their characters or, just as effectively, stick to what they’re best with. While Jeff went through a transformation in the episode that smartly humbled the character, Annie had a chance to experience a similar transformation and was unable to walk over the edge (of self-actualization – the edge of crazy was easily overcome). In both instances, elements of the storylines seemed like indulgences (of Joel McHale playing a complete slob, of Alison Brie playing a crazy person), and the supporting characters largely operated in their most base modes, but yet it managed to shed light on their characters even with that sense that this was more fun than it was functional.

While I’m not quite sure if Pierce has been getting the same treatment, even his subplot seemed to hit just as hard when it needed to, demonstrating that the show is definitely back in the pocket, so to speak.

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