Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Community:" You're Only Dreaming You're Reading This

"Community," a comedy on NBC that notionally chronicles the adventures of seven diverse members of a study group attending a mediocre 2-year college, is a rare beast: a half-hour comedy that serves up laughs while actively de-constructing itself and the entire idea of commercial televised entertainment. There's far, far too much great stuff about this series to encapsulate in one article ("Law and Order" episode; "Elementary Chaos Theory"). I'm more interested in examining the May 10th episode "Curriculum Unavailable," and it's unusual pedigree.

Community's third season is wrapping up on a rather apocalyptic arc: SeƱor Chang (Ken Jeong), former Spanish teacher and now head of security, has engineered a coup, installing himself as the despotic head of Greendale Community College, with an army of junior-high-age minions to do his bidding. He has replaced the spectacularly quirky dean (Jim Rash) with a doppleganger and, to eliminate any challenge to his hegemony, has expelled the study group. "Curriculum Unavailable" begins two months after their expulsion: Abed (Danny Pudi) has been picked up by the police for dumpster-diving (for evidence) at Greendale, and has been compelled to visit a shrink. Being a sitcom, all seven study group members attend the therapy session, with John Hodgman guest-starring as the psychiatrist.

The Study Group, in Greendale Asylum,
imagining themselves as community college students.
By the end of the third act Hodgman makes his stunning-- and strangely convincing-- diagnosis: The entire study group was, at one time and for various reasons, all institutionalized, and Greendale College is entirely imaginary: he contends the group collectively invented a ”fantastical community college where everything that happens is unbelievably ridiculous-- and it all revolves around you.” The study group all freeze in the realization that he just may be right...

This idea-- that the premise of an entire fictitious universe may be the construct of a character in the same universe-- has been trotted out over and over again, especially in movies: Shutter Island, Inception, Total Recall, etc.

Easy to do in a movie-- but not so much in TV: that's because commercial TV series, due to the needs of breaking up story flow for advertising breaks, are dominated by structure and precedent and genre. A sitcom, for example, has a very specific structure: one-camera, three-camera, serial or episodic, every comedy consists of unique elements built upon a solid framework of familiarity. If the "acts" (the spaces between commercials) don't end on satisfying climaxes, the viewer will change the channel: this requires even more structure. It all results in a strange interpretation of reality, where for the sake of storytelling everything revolves around the leads, there are four important revelations per episode, and everything returns to status quo by the tag.

So when an "all this is a dream" idea is put into a TV series, the novelty of it and the structural requirements of serial TV grind against each other, and things get really memorable (and from this point on it's non-stop ••• spoilers••• if you ain't watched too much TV):

Jack, in his final moments.
• ABC's "Lost" (2004-2010) was always tinkering with it's own premise. Characters would die, resurrect, assume different personas, and in the final season the entire cast was duplicated in two separate timelines. In the end, the very very end, the island the show was centered on turned out to be the mental projection of a dying character, a fugue in his final moment of life that lasted and lasted and lasted. BBC's  "Life On Mars" and "Ashes to Ashes" worked the exact same idea.

They even got the bedspread right.
• This dream idea, when first applied to a sitcom, resulted in what was probably the finest show finale ever: "The Last Newhart," the last episode of "Newhart" (1982-1990). Bob Newhart's character, a beleaguered owner of a Vermont inn, is struck in the head by a golf ball: he awakens in bed as his character in "The Bob Newhart Show" (1972-1978) next to Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from that earlier show. The entirety of "Newhart" was apparently a dream brought on by bad sushi.

• Let's not forget the season 8 cliffhanger of "Dallas" in 1986, where Bobby Ewing turns up in a shower and the entire preceding season was revealed to be the dream of another character. But this was not an organic part of the show: rather, a way to paper over some cast changes. The general reaction was either annoyance or amazement at the show's audacity.

Buffy Summers, awake and "lucid" and wanting
nothing more than being able to leave Sunnydale.
• "Curriculum Unavailable" has a direct and unlikely precedent: It refers to "Normal Again," an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" which aired almost exactly ten years ago.  Protagonist/super-powered Slayer Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is enmeshed in the typical events in this show's enchanted Sunnydale universe (fighting demons, vampire lovers, using witchcraft, etc.) when she begins to experience hallucinations induced by a demonic toxin. In these hallucinations, she's a mental patient in an asylum in Los Angeles, and has been for six years. Her mother and father, dead and gone in Sunnydale, are there: Buffy's sister Dawn, who magically appeared in season five, never existed. In "reality," Buffy has retreated into an elaborate invented world of magic and monsters and can no longer distinguish her fantasy from reality. But the kicker is: when she describes her situation to her friends in Sunnydale, they exchange nervous looks-- and are unable to refute her assertion that they and the world around them are nothing more than a farfetched illusion. At the end she breaks from "reality," and fully enters her Sunnydale existence: The last shot is Buffy's parents being told by a psychiatrist that she is now hopelessly "gone." It was-- and remains-- one of the most amazing hours of television I have ever seen. It was Joss Whedon acknowledging the intrinsically fantastic premise of his own show: in "Normal Again" he completely shredded it, to let us know how fragile and artificial it-- and any television universe in general-- is. (This idea was so good it was lifted almost note-for note in a 2007 episode of "Smallville.")

The perfectly cast John Hodgman.
But of course "Community" is far too clever for that: Seconds after walking out stunned from the psychologist's office after being told their college is imaginary, study group leader Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) stops and says, "hey, wait! That makes no sense!" Abed, indeed, has hundreds of pictures of campus on his phone and Annie (Alison Brie) has a backpack with the school's logo on it. Hodgman was an impostor, hired by Chang to keep the Study Group from discovering his machinations. In other words, the implausible sitcom premise is correct and the explanation that makes sense in our universe is entirely wrong.

Which is how we like it.

No comments:

Post a Comment