Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Community: The Forever Incomplete Embryo

I'm a pretty big fan of television. Not in the way where I'm almost always watching TV (though my former roommates may say so). I'm more of a fan of TV in the way that I will find a couple shows and latch on to them with unending passion. My latest item of worship is the show Community. Last week it was announced that, despite poor rating, the show would be rewarded with a fourth season. However, that news was quickly soured when it was announced late Friday that show creator, Dan Harmon, would no longer run the show and would have little or no role in the show going forward.

To properly understand how destructive this move will be to Community you need to know more about Harmon. He is the Mike Martz of writing. He needs absolute control over everything, and if a story doesn't fit his exact specifications, it's not worth doing. This fantastic bio of Harmon gives us a peek into his mind, specifically his writing "embryos" that outline every single story-line he creates.

(WARNING: This is the part where I futilely try to sell you on Community)

No matter how small the story, it had to fit this mold. His wild obsession with the process created some fascinating television. Community gained notoriety for its themed episodes. The show has perfectly parodied westerns, zombie films, claymation, anime, Glee, Law and Order, and, most recently, 8-bit video games. And when I say they parodied these genres, I don't mean a simple one-scene homage. Community devoted entire episodes to honoring these styles. 

This, alone, isn't new for television. Some of South Park's best episodes were centered around genre parody (see: "Good Times With Weapons" or the very underrated "Lice Capades"). Family Guy and The Cleveland Show have done entire episodes recreating movies starring their own characters. But genre parody is easy for cartoons. 2D characters can easily be placed into alternate realities without breaking continuity of the show, because we see the entire cartoon environment as an alternate reality. Community, however, is telling a story with "real" people in a "real" environment. Harmon takes on the challenge of taking a very plausible situation (seven misfits in a community college) and placing them into an absurd reality (leading the school mafia of chicken-finger smugglers). It's an incredibly difficult endeavor for a live-action show, especially one airing on network television, but Harmon continually nails it. The show has become endlessly malleable...as long as it fits the embryo. 

But much like Martz, Harmon's genius doesn't come without some collateral damage. Most public among Harmon's difficulties was his "feud" with Chevy Chase. Harmon allegedly let loose a profanity-laden lambasting of Chase on set in front of his family. This resulted in Chase leaving an angry voicemail for Harmon, which Harmon carelessly played publicly during a comedy show. 

But Harmon's workplace troubles are obvious beyond personal feuds. Take this excerpt from the previously linked Wired article:
The others in the room barely look up; they’re used to these outbursts. Harmon swears he’s not difficult to work for, but being in a room with him for 15 hours a day certainly isn’t easy. He’s dismissive of some of the show’s directors, has meltdowns in the editing bay, and drinks during the day, a fact he attributes to his unusual hours. (Despite having been around Harmon while he’s drinking—and drinking with him—I’ve never seen him actually drunk.) Even Harmon’s biggest supporters acknowledge his mercurial tendencies. “It’s hard, because he’s really passionate,” Community writer Megan Ganz says. “He cares about his work in a way that he doesn’t necessarily care about other people.”
In his tumblr response to getting "fired", Harmon admits that he can't create the show he wants unless he can threaten to quit "roughly 8 times a day". It's hardly the ideal workplace for sensitive writer.

Yet, upon his departure from the show, coworkers have come out of the woodwork to support Harmon and trash NBC/Sony for the decision; calling Harmon "irreplaceable", a "genius" and "an honor to work alongside". Of course, no one is going to come out and piss on Harmon's grave, but the huge outpouring of support and the buzz around Harmon's firing clearly displayed how integral he was to the show and how much people loved him. And that makes Sony's decision all-the-more frustrating.

Losing a show I love is nothing new. I watched shows earn every critical acclaim possible, only to never garner the viewership they deserved (Arrested Development). I've seen shows I obsessed about, slowly dissolve into a horrible shell of what it used to be (The Office, It's Always Sunny...). I've seen great shows come back from cancellation only to severely disappoint (Family Guy and to a much lesser extent Futurama). I've seen brilliant shows cancelled before they reached their full potential (Andy Richter Controls The Universe) or just after a tormenting cliff-hanger (Freaks and Geeks). But no cancellation has been as agonizing as Harmon's departure

The path of Community very much follows Harmon's embryo. The first season takes on the first two pieces of the embryo, establishing each character's zone of comfort and the future desires. We learn Jeff Winger is a shamed, disbarred lawyer looking to regain his confidence and his lawyer license. Troy Barnes is a former high school athlete looking to take in the college experience. Abed Nadir is a pop-culture fiend looking to turn his strange talents into a directing career. Towards the end of the first season and into the second, the charcters are placed in unfamiliar territory and attempt to adapt to it. Jeff suddenly has feelings for people he previously considered "losers". Abed enters a community where his antisocial behavior isn't acceptable and must try to generate true feelings towards his friends. Annie finds herself with interesting, idealistic people and tries to find the benefits beyond book-smarts. Then came the third season, by far the most polarizing. This season was all about darkness and loss ("paying a heavy price" in Harmon's embryo). Pierce finally confronts his father (through Jeff) but loses him to a heart-attack. Troy finally gets to live with his best friend Abed, but tensions rise and their relationship gets permanently scarred. Jeff finally passes biology, but loses his summer. Shirley develops a serious future business plan, but loses out to Subway.

Which brings us to the final two pieces of Harmon's embryo: Returning to their familiar situation but having changed. This is why I was really pulling for a fourth, final season of Community, and why I was so excited when it was picked up (albeit for a shortened season). Harmon would be able to clean up shop, finish the story he wanted to tell and move on. But with Harmon out, there's no telling what his replacements (who haven't been involved with the show previously) will do. Harmon spent three dedicated years painting his masterpiece and now two strangers are left to interpret it. It's criminal to continue the show without Harmon; to take something that he created, nurtured and went through Hell to protect, and just hand it off to a couple of random guys to conduct Community's swan song.

But, again, I have to give Harmon credit. He did all he could to complete his embryo. The final scene of "Introduction to Finality" does it's best to fill in the missing pieces. Jeff struts confidently down the halls of Greendale having bested his former co-worker. He has gained enough self-esteem to finally seek out his missing father (whose absence had tormented him through the series). Abed gets to remain his quirky-self, but has become aware enough to admit he needs therapy and give up his "Dreamatorium" (sort of). Troy gets his friends back, but accepts his destiny of being an air-conditioning repair man. Shirley gets her sandwich shop, having learned to co-exist with not-so-subtly-racist Pierce. And perhaps the most important story-line: Starburns is alive again but sans pony-tail and top hat. 

Battleship. Doing its best to ruin everything sentimental in my life.
It makes for a very satisfying and impressive finale, but one can't help but be frustrated for the way in which Harmon left us. After building three-quarters of his embryo throughout three wonderful seasons, the last quarter is left for a 30 second montage. For that, NBC and Sony, you will never be forgiven. 

All 71 episodes of Community are available on Hulu Plus. Do yourself a favor and watch from the start.

*For all the silliness involved in Community, they often tackled very serious issues, and did so with impressive heart and sincerity.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jay Cutler: Angry Dog-Walker

I'm not entirely sure where this photo came from. Someone named Greg Brown tweeted it, and Every Day Should Be Saturday's twitter account retweeted it. But, look at it. Keep looking at it. Every time you look at it, you will see something new. Let's break it down.

Middle finger. Common sense would tell you that Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler is likely greeting a pesky paparazzi with his middle digit. However, that explanation is both too logical and too mundane. Rather, I like to believe that some Lions fan just witnessed Cutler stumble on a crack in the sidewalk and asked if Cutler was going to be okay or if he needed to sit out the entire season because of his boo-boo. Or maybe a Packers fan asked him if he got a breed of dog that fits his toughness.

Dog Breed. Cutler's dog appears to be a Norwich Terrier, a dog bred to hunt small vermin (a bit ironic). They say dog owners tend to have dogs that match their personality. So what can we expect of this Norwich Terrier? Taken directly from wikipedia:
"They are eager to please but have definite minds of their own. They are sensitive to scolding."
 Sound familiar, Jay?
"If introduced to other household pets as a puppy they generally co-habit peacefully, though caution should be observed around rodent pets as they may be mistaken for prey."
In other words, look out, shrew-relative Josh McCown.

Sweatpants. Ohhhhhh, yes, the sweatpants. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy myself a nice pair of sweatpants, and I would even walk my theoretical dog around my theoretical nice neighborhood sporting a comfy pair of sweatpants. But Cutler's sweatpants are in stark contrast to his perfectly coiffed hair, crew-neck tee, and "fashionable" Bears-orange Nike shoes. Sweatpants are rightfully reserved for the sloppy-haired, pit-stained men of America (or the theoretical women who stay the night at my place). How dare you try and infringe on our culture, Mr. Cutler.

The Creeper. Looking a little closer, you may notice that Mr. Cutler is not alone. Sure there is wandering student in the background who appears to be looking for the nearest Jimmy John's. But there is also a bracelet-equipped lady (presumably), standing DIRECTLY BEHIND YOU, JAY! LOOK OUT! Is this lady hiding from the cameraman? Maybe. Is she secretly going to shank Mr. Cutler with whatever she is holding in her right hand which may be an ordinary phone (or purse/lady wallet?) but very well could be a "spy-phone" that morphs into a combat knife when activated by a code word like "viceroy" or something bad-ass like that? My God, I hope so. Either way, I must know more about the creepahhhh

Hidden object. I nearly passed over the final minutiae of this photograph even after my first 20 viewings. But if you look closely, Cutler is holding two objects in his left hand: the dog leash and an unidentified polka-dotted object. For your convenience, I zoomed in on the object using high-tech, police image enhancing equipment they call "paint".

I sent this picture over to my friends at the force, and they have their highest investigators working on a possible ID of the object, but I've yet to hear word. So I will give you my best theories:

1) A case for his crack pipe. I know for a fact that Cutler has luggage that directly matches this design, so it only makes sense that this, too, is meant for holding an object. I ask that Commissioner Goodell look into the matter and call for an immediate drug test of Cutler. We must save the sanctity of the league and protect scum like Cutler from our children. The sweatpants corroborate this theory.

2) Lipstick tube. This is for when Jay goes out at night as his alter ego: Jayme Cutleress. In this scenario, he frequenting attends drag bars prepping for his upcoming audition for Ru Paul's Drag Race (which may or may not be a guilty, guilty pleasure of mine). This theory would also explain the hair.

3) Sex toy. I mean, look at the shape...it's gotta be, right?

If you have any information, evidence, or theories pertaining to this photograph, please provide them below and I will do my best to pass it along to the authorities. Let's crack this thing wide open.