Sunday, March 18, 2012

24 Hour Weird Down: Community and Writing

Community returned to NBC last Thursday, and it was very funny as always.  Britta even had an observation that some writers might appreciate: 'An analogy is like a thought with another thought's hat on.'  Ah, I have missed this show.  In all the celebration across the internet (this is where this show lives), there was an interesting and thougtful objection over at the A.V. Club about the show.

Writers  Steven Hyden and Todd VanDerWerff debated the merits of the show, and ultimately it's worth.  I found the conversation fascinating as I have had some of the same thoughts recently.   No doubt the show is an exercise in form.  As I said in my post a while back, I think the characters are secondary, and one of the reasons to show struggles to expand its audience is that it presents itself as a riddle.  In general, most people don't want to think too much when it comes to comedy.  They want to laugh.  Intelluctual comedy is not a genre you hear discussed much.  Community isn't an intellectual show in the sense they make jokes about geo-political matters - this is a show with a monkey living in the air vents named Annie's Boobs - but it trades on, invests in, and seeks dividends on a certain level of audience knowledge and interaction that I think frankly some people decline to give to this medium.  It's not that they won't make this commitment at all - as the writers state in the article, Mad Men and other shows are perfect examples (Game of Thrones being another, which I just finished (WOW) and will discuss later this week) of viewers making long term, deep investments in intellectual, involved television. 

The show is insular, as both writers agree, but some of its audience issues stem I think to some degree from a lack of likeability in the characters.  The main character Jeff is not likeable really at all; that any of us root for a relationship with Annie is beyond me as she is one of the more likeable characters and to some extent he demeans her.  The show regularly points this out.  One of the most telling exchanges in the show's history - it speaks to its meta acrobatics and its own failings - is this one between Jeff and Abed (Season 2, Episode 1) at one of the group's many breaking points:

Abed: I can tell life from TV, Jeff.  TV makes sense.  It has structure, logic, rules, and likeable leading men.  In life we have this.  We have you.

I don't think it's necessary to have completely likeable characters.  You do have to give your reader or viewer something.  The show frequently hits the same note - this is a group of people who do not like each other, or anyone else - and we wonder why they hang out with each other, or why we hang out with them.  Why do we then?  Why does the show spark any affection at all?  Is it because of the in jokes and through the rabbit hole genre winks and nods?

I don't think so.  The show does have characters - and I would say all of them - that we care about.  Where it struggles is advancing those relationships, meaningfully, though I sense that is actually changing.  Last week's episode presented fairly significant advancements in Pierce and Shirley, as well as confronted the show's own weridness and inability to properly deal with it through a hilarious bit where Troy and Abed, the heart of this show, detox hard core in a '24 hour weird down' to get normal for Shirley's wedding.  They over do it, as they always do.

Troy and Abed can't stop being weird.  Neither can the show.  It has to be itself, and people will like it or they won't.  This is a great lesson is writing; to thine ownself be true.  You can hit all the easy points and be popular.  Make your characters fluffy and harmless, the jokes simple and true.  People will like it, a lot.  I like a good joke.  Or you can you write the kind of story you want, and ask more of your reader than is perhaps expected; the rewards in popularity or recognition or fame or what have you may be less, but for the reader, they will be uncalcuable.

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