“A Fistful of Paintballs”
May 5th, 2011
“That was a game. This is paintball.”
“A Fistful of Paintballs” is unquestionably a sequel to “Modern Warfare,” but I’d argue that it’s a fundamentally different episode on some level.
It follows the same basic principle from a story perspective: the school’s descent into paintball-related madness brings out some of the pre-existing relationships between the characters, specifically focused on Britta and Jeff’s consummation of their ongoing sexual tension. However, in terms of the actual methodology of the episode, it was a fairly extensive collection of pop culture references which only occasionally connected with the show’s overall mythology.
Now that the show is ending its second season, “A Fistful of Paintballs” is much more interconnected with ongoing storylines, building much of its structure around the season’s central conflict. While I have had my issues with how Pierce has been portrayed this season, believing that the character’s unpleasantness has not been funny enough to justify its omnipresent nature, this episode is much stronger in its use of the power structures within the latest paintball-based warzone to draw out ongoing character relationships.
With a more straightforward pop culture reference point paired with a more complex serialized component, “A Fistful of Paintballs” is the logical maturation of the “Modern Warfare”-template and a strong first half of what feels like a suitably strong finale.
“Early 21st Century Romanticism”
February 10th, 2011
Because of my busy Thursdays, Community has fallen out of the review rotation without falling out of the viewing rotation.
This is, in many ways, unfortunate. I still enjoy the show, and I think the show is doing things that demand critical analysis, but I’ve had to leave it to Todd, Alan, and everyone else taking a look at the show week by week.
This week, though, I had the benefit of a screener, which is why I was sad to see that “Early 21st Century Romanticism” was…well, it was a little on the straightforward side. This is not to say the episode is bad, but rather it is very blatant about what it is trying to accomplish, and I don’t know if that simplicity necessarily worked in all instances. It does, however, raise questions about to what degree this series can claim to feature consistent character development, and whether or not we buy the various character beats which punctuate this Valentine’s Day-themed episode.
“I’ll Fly Away”
June 20th, 2010
“I’m just a player.”
I’ve fallen into an unfortunate trap over the past month or so with Treme, and it’s quite a common one: with a show this dense and devoid of traditional plot development, and where the professional critics are receiving screeners and I am, well, not, I haven’t been able to work up the drive to write about the episodes when I’ve been seeing them a few days late every week (as a result of the conflict with Breaking Bad, which was so great this season). I’d hate for this to be read as a slight on the series as a whole, but I do think that I’ve avoided writing about it because I’ve felt uncomfortable offering a verdict on how the series has progressed.
I think what I’ve discovered is that Treme is constantly defined by fallout, both in terms of the overarching impact of Hurricane Katrina and the individual tragedies and events which define each character’s journey. When something happens on Treme, like the conclusion of last week’s penultimate episode, the real interest for David Simon and Eric Overmeyer seems to be the consequences. The Wire’s finales were always denouements, but Treme has been one long denouement from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, and living within that space has taken these characters to some dangerous places and created consequences that will not end with tonight’s season finale. While The Wire was interested in how one small decision or one bureaucratic inefficiency could snowball into tragedy, Treme captures the spirit of a city fighting to overcome inescapable tragedy, and the result has been some great television.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a powerful and riveting finale, one which emphasizes the central notion of how these individuals fit into the world around them. Treme is filled with characters who either struggle against the script they’re given (the creators) or who simply play the sheet music placed before them (the players), and after Katrina hit New Orleans everyone was forced to ask how far they would follow their desire to take control of their own future, and at what point they would simply let themselves be washed away by the storm’s aftermath towards a new path in life. At the conclusion of Treme’s first season, we see numerous characters reach the point where they’re forced to make a choice, and yet it is never presented as a judgment (either positive or negative) on New Orleans culture.
Regardless of whether these characters choose to fly away or stay in New Orleans until the bitter end, they will always love this city, and that infectious love is so apparent in the production of this series that no amount of tragedy can outweigh the strength of spirit shown in these opening episodes. While the series’ highly recognizable subject matter could have overwhelmed the individual characters that Simon and Overmeyer have created to populate their historical fiction, these characters have instead become a powerful way in which we as an audience come to understand the life of New Orleans, and the sheer weight that they were forced to carry once Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke.
And Treme is that much more accomplished for carrying that weight with such confidence.
“Pascal’s Triangle Revisited”
May 20th, 2010
Last week felt like a finale, or at least how I had anticipated a Community finale to feel like. It felt like it solidified the group dynamics, offering evidence that the show has grown a great deal over the past season. It was a confident statement on which to head into a second season, emphasizing the dynamics that we’ve enjoyed thus far and would continue to enjoy into the future.
“Pascal’s Triangle Revisited” also feels like a finale, but I’m not entirely convinced it felt like what I anticipated a Community finale to feel like, or even what I want a Community finale to feel like. Throwing the group dynamics out the window, and focusing a lot of its time on supporting characters who aren’t part of the core group, the episode places the group’s future in chaos and delivers a traditional “shake up the status quo” finale that doesn’t feel like it reaches any of the series heights.
Instead, it feels like Dan Harmon and company have taken a small network note and delivered a slightly exaggerated, but never quite subverted, take on what you would traditionally expect from a sitcom finale. I don’t necessarily think that the events which transpire are bad, and I had a few good laughs in the episode, but the show I love was purposefully placed into peril, and I don’t really think that it resulted in a particularly great half-hour of comedy even if I respect the show for some of the choices it eventually made.
“English as a Second Language”
May 13th, 2010
A week after Community’s most “epic” episode yet, it’s a bit jarring to return to a low-key episode about Spanish class and study groups. However, after a bit of a re-entry period, “English as a Second Language” nicely falls into a rhythm that fits with the show at the end of its first season. The central premise of the show means that they might not be in Spanish class next year, which raises some logical questions about how the show will work if they’re not all in the same class with an excuse to see one another every day.
Frankly, I think Community could have gotten away with keeping them in Spanish class forever and just not caring, but the show isn’t going to settle for that sort of laziness. Instead, they throw the entire group into chaos over the pending changes, and eventually come to a conclusion which speaks to the ways in which the group dynamic is changing and (more importantly) a glimpse at what the show will look like in the future.
May 6th, 2010
This episode is a triumph, so let me first make a note regarding its tremendous (or, if you prefer for me to actually complete the reference completely, huge) success – the various action movie parodies which run throughout “Modern Warfare” are expertly designed, tremendously directed by Justin Lin, and result in a really funny and successful episode.
However, I am sort of at a loss about what to really say about it, if only because I haven’t seen a lot of the action movies that the show parodied, and the brekaway narrative used by the episode (and most action movies) meant that the number of characters onscreen diminished as the episode went on. While the episode embodied the show’s propensity for pop culture references and for its meta-subversion of sitcom stereotypes, it also disrupted (as we saw in “Contempoary American Poultry”) the show’s traditional character dynamics. With only twenty minutes, the show rushed head first into the central dynamic between Jeff and Britta while largely “writing off” the other characters, which helped get to the various cliches the episode wanted to address but which kept me (who, as with the Goodfellas parody, was sort of left on the outside here) at arm’s length.
It still really freaking cool from my vantage point, but it wasn’t so much a high water mark for the show so much as it was an important test for the series’ future that it passed with flying colours.
Which were, you know, paint balls.
“The Art of Discourse”
April 29th, 2010
Episodes of Community have been airing out of order for a while, so once I heard a moment in “The Art of Discourse” where Vaughn was mentioned I presumed that it wasn’t in chronological order. Turns out, contrary to the original review written under this false assumption (it was Annie and not Britta that it made mention of, it was in fact in order: however, my confusion still makes me wonder about whether it really matters where this episode was placed
Regardless of whether it was out of order, the episode works: there were some funny moments, and while the episode seemed like it gave into the show’s gimmicks a bit more heavily than others there remained a clear sense of purpose and character within the story. My confusion was likely the result of some strange “early group dynamic” material about why precisely characters like Shirley and Pierce are part of this group; placed at this late point in the season, it seemed a little bit unnecessary, and while the episode ends up being funny enough to survive it doesn’t quite feel as evolved as some of the more recent material.
Or maybe I’m just bitter at myself for writing the review under false assumptions and now having to rewrite it to look like less of an idiot – sorry, “the Art of Discourse,” if you bear the brunt of my frustration.
“Right Place, Wrong Time”
April 25th, 2010
One of the challenges of watching television while engaged with (but not wholly part of) the critical community is that you can’t help but have certain expectations from others critics having already seen future episodes of a series. The end of “Right Place, Wrong Time” is something I’ve known about for a few weeks now, so I spent the episode expecting it, knowing that things would eventually get to the point when the tourists would happen upon the funeral service in the 9th Ward and in the process turn ritual into spectacle. In the end, of course, the (problematic, which I’ll get to) scene isn’t ruined by this expectation, but some of the intended effect is lost in the process.
What I think the well-made and compelling Treme is struggling with right now is that we have certain expectations: history has already written its own story of what happened in the months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and to some degree Treme is in the process of checking off a list of things that they “have to” cover rather than revealing new stories that head in unexpected directions. With the weight of this expectation, the show feels like certain stories are moving towards inevitability, designed to get to a particular point about post-Katrina New Orleans rather than unfolding in a way which speaks to that particular concern.
It’s as if the show is always in the right place at the right time, a situation which makes “Right Place, Wrong Time” struggle to feel quite as organic as we may want the show to feel at this stage of its development. The drama remains extremely compelling, and many of the individual scenes within these stories are as evocative and worthwhile as we expect from Simon, but there is something about the way things are unfolding which fails to embrace, even while capturing, the uncertainty of reality.
“Contemporary American Poultry”
April 22nd, 2010
Pop culture references are something that Community tends to lean towards on a regular basis, especially when you consider that one of the show’s characters (Abed) is largely built around them. It’s a part of the show which usually flies by at its breakneck space, references dropping in to make us laugh for a moment and then moving onto whatever storyline the show is investigating.
“Contemporary American Poultry” is the first time the show has done an extended homage to popular culture, and I feel like I’m trapped between objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, I have never seen the movie that the episode extensively pays homage to, which means that I can offer my opinion of how the episode worked independent of Goodfellas and the connections therein; however, on the other hand, I really like chicken fingers, and so I spent the entire episode salivating.
However, I ended up salivating through laughter, so I think that’s a good sign.
“Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront”
April 18th, 2010
There’s a scene in this week’s episode of Treme where John Goodman’s Creighton Bernette sits in his office going over a list of programs being cut from what we soon learn is his own university. He lists off a lot of practical degrees, many of them in engineering, noting the irony that the programs are being cut just after a disaster which he believes could have been prevented or at the very least mitigated through proper engineers (electrical, mechnical, and otherwise) working on the levees, power grids, and everything else. That’s ultimately consistent with his character, or what we’ve seen of the character so far, but his subsequent rant about the courses being maintained (women’s studies, Caribbean studies, Portuguese, etc.) seems a little bit “off.”
It’s not that we can say that this character wouldn’t make that argument: while we could argue that his own position as a professor of English makes him a little bit disingenuous to be bashing the liberal arts in such a fashion, we don’t know enough about the characters to say that this is out of character. However, it’s one of the moments when you realize that not everybody is on the same page when it comes to the future of New Orleans, as “Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront” identifies at nearly every turn. It is an episode filled with moments where structural integrity or personal safety or the letter of the law are placed in opposition to both the cultural past and the storm-addled future of New Orleans, and while some stress the importance of identity others emphasize the importance of survival.
While there are temptations to read characters like Creighton, who rallies against authority and emphasizes the failures of bureaucracy, as representations of the creative impulse of David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, this speech and this episode are a reminder that they’re trying to capture the complexity of this city rather than a singular image of its rehabilitation.