Archive for May, 2013

‘Come On?!’: Thoughts Before the Return of Arrested Development

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2013 by drayfish

arrested-developement cast netflix

IMAGE: Arrested Development cast (Netflix)

It seems a tedious understatement to say that the return of Arrested Development (due to release its entire fourth series in Netflix streaming this very weekend) is creating something of a media frenzy.  Indeed, it’s such a predictable observation to make, it would be like beginning this article with the phrase, ‘Unless you’ve been living under a rock…’ – something I’ve sadly read far too often this past week.

So unless you are in a share-rent arrangement with some sedimentary or igneous housemates (or trying to pay down your mortgage to a scorpion – what do I know about your lifestyle?) you are no doubt well aware that a minor miracle has occurred in the world of television land, and – for better or worse – a spectacular show once cancelled before it’s time is about to lurch back to life, stagger out into the night, and growl ‘Michael!‘ one more time.

For those who are themselves not fans of the show – looking on nonplussed as everyone around them tweets about ‘blueing themselves’, shares awareness PSAs about ‘never-nudes’, references bags of dead doves and seemingly arbitrarily spouts the word ‘Her?‘ – it might appear that a certain slice of the human populace has suddenly been indoctrinated into a manic cult, all staring at a Netflix countdown as if it indicated the return of their Grand Leader, come to whisk them off to a promised land on a low-flying comet.  No doubt those mystified few look forward to the day they can scroll through websites without seeing references to a one armed man preaching ‘And that’s why you don’t [insert subject of internet meme here]…’

Personally, I’m with the crazies.

I too am simply rocking in place repeating the word, ‘Annyong’ to myself while I wait.  After all, watching Arrested Development get choked to death by Fox (who even went so far as to passive aggressively burn off their final episodes months late, scheduled against the opening of the Winter Olympics) was up there with the cancellation of Firefly (also Fox) in the pantheon of Pop-Culture-Outrages-That-Jerks-Like-Me-Drive-Their-Loved-Ones-Insane-Complaining-About.

…Although, if I’m honest, that’s a long list.

I’ve already spoken (did I say ‘spoken’, I meant ‘ranted gleefully’) of my enthusiasm for this upcoming season (here), but I’m by no means alone in my anticipation.

This past week, fans have counting down the hours, revisiting all of the old episodes, swarming promotional Frozen Banana stands the world over (here), trying to reason out how exactly they will watch the episodes given that all fifteen episodes will be available in one immediate glut, no longer restrained by the network schedule.

Forbes contributor Dorothy Pomerantz reasoned that rather than devour them all in one binge, she will restrain herself, watching them one at a time, week by week, reluctant to let the experience end (here).

I know precisely what she means – having lived through those early years of Arrested Development when the show was perpetually teetering on the edge of cancelation, wondering why no one else was watching something so sublime, I too would savour each episode, knowing every week that it could be the last…  However, while I know in theory that I want to follow her lead, and space out my viewing, I know I’m going to hear that little ukulele riff as the end credits roll, and not be able to stop myself firing up the next one…  Truly, I won’t be able to stop.  It’s an addiction.  It was the same sensation I had after each episode ended when they were played live to air: ‘Give me the next one! I just want to see one more, and then I’ll switch it off.  Really, I’ll definitely stop then.  Probably.’

After all, it was that very (slightly obsessive compulsive) moreish longing from fans that allowed the show to live on and resurrect itself so long after its unjust cancellation.  And thankfully Arrested is one of those spectacular shows that actually encourages and rewards multiple repeat viewings, revealing itself all the more hilariously dense and interconnected with each run through.  You can blast through it in one go, but that’s really only a skim-reading.  As the cliché goes, ‘There’s always money in the banana stand’, and if you don’t go back and look for it, you’re missing half the fun.

But just as predictable as all the excitement and frivolity, the return of Arrested Development has also resulted in some cynical critical blowback.  Before even a single episode of the show has been viewed some members of the media are already trying to leap to the front of the hipster naysayer wave and downplay the fun.

On the lower end of the scale, the A.V. Club, after spending literally years fanning the speculation and anticipation of Arrested’s return, recently ran a roundtable discussion with its contributors to somewhat ironically warn against hoping for too much, and opining the culture of hype and fandom that has been gleefully celebrating this event – a fandom that has arguably defined their own editorial ethos for the entire span of their publication (and I say that as a great fan of their site) (here).

On the higher end, one of the worst reactions to the return of the show has been from critics like Mary McNamara, television writer for The Los Angeles Times, who has gone on the offensive in an article titled ‘Arrested Development kicks critics in the teeth at its own peril’, openly decrying Netflix and the creators of the show for what she considers to be the arrogance of refusing to send out preview discs of the first couple of episodes to reviewers (here).

In one of the most extraordinary and petulant screeds I’ve seen published in a newspaper, a critic throwing a hissy fit because they feel that their role as bastion of critical discourse has been usurped by the lowly rabble, McNamara declared that she felt personally slighted to be left out of the traditional exchange of textual dispersal.  See, traditionally, the creators send the critics previews, they give their interpretations, and the audience take their cues from them, deciding whether or not to watch on the day of release based upon what they have written.

Netflix was violating this tradition, she felt, and so, in perhaps the most ineffectual of boycotts ever, McNamara declared that perhaps all critics should just start reviewing show ‘whenever the heck we get around to it.’

Sure, the show is a love note to the fans who brought it back to life, and so it was a stated priority that fans should see it first; sure, it is no longer dependent upon the advertising and timeslot constraints of its network brethren, so it does not actually require critics to applaud it and direct people to watch it; sure Mitch Hurwitz has already called this fourth ‘season’ a 700 minute movie, and slicing a couple of episodes out to put on a critic taster plate defeats the whole purpose of devising the show in that way…  McNamara wants to watch her free show early, and it is a moral issue that she has been denied.

I mean, I agree with her that history has not shown un-previewed material to have a great track record – there is a reason no one got a glimpse of The Adventures of Pluto Nash before it opened – but this is a uniquely, fundamentally ensemble work, that is said to truly require this all-encompassing format.  Asking it to bend to her will because she is a critic and must be satisfied is a little asinine.  And I acknowledge that, as she says, there is a purpose for critics and reviewers, that in some cases, their writing has helped keep shows like Arrested Development on air even in the face of low viewing numbers – but they are not gods.  It is not their responsibility to help audiences form into lines and nod or shake their heads in the way they dictate is appropriate.

Thinking such things – that it was solely critics who helped save this program, injured little bird that it was, from death; that it is critics who should sit at the adults table of analytical discourse while the regular folk squabble and fight for the scraps at the kiddies bench – is not only demeaning to the virtues of the program itself, but disrespectful of the program’s creators and their devoted audience, all of whom were actually responsible for keeping interest in this project alive.  As a critic who should be able to discern when their ego has clouded their vision, McNamara might well have failed at her duty this time around.

In any case, Arrested Development is once again upon us.  Perhaps not in its familiar form.  Perhaps not through familiar channels.  Perhaps not at the whim of critics who demand more devotion.  All I know is that on the brief teaser I let myself glimpse I saw GOB call himself a ‘gentleman honey farmer’, and watched his father get attacked by a swarm bees from a limo.  I have no context for any of it.  It all remains an exquisite mystery.  And yet I am all in.

I’m still rocking in place.  Still waiting.

Annyong.

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

EDIT:

It’s now only hours after the episodes went live, and already some of the knives are out.  The New York Times reviewer Mike Hale, despite admitting that he has not actually watched all of the episodes yet, has declared the new season a dud (here).  Plodding, interminable, an exercise in plot at the sacrifice of comedy, he went so far as to literally declare the show ‘dead’:

‘Chalk one up for the internet: It has killed Arrested Development.

Yikes.

The internet ‘killed’ Arrested Development?  Good thing the internet doesn’t encourage ludicrous hyperbole.

He pronounced the show dead, while admitting that he had only seen eight of the fifteen episodes, and had already written off the intricacies of an entirely new narrative style – specifically designed for this format – without even having seen how it all plays out.

Gee, I wonder why Netflix didn’t want to release screeners to reviewers ahead of the show’s launch?  With such level-headed and fair critique awaiting them as is on display here, I bet they feel like fools now.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to stay locked into the expectation of what once was.  Arrested is a show that has always been experimental, and ahead of its time.  If it wants to expand its potential in such a way, to take risks with the format and perhaps revolutionise the way television program and narrative is consumed, I look forward to taking the ride with them.

If it fails, so be it.  But – unlike the professional reviewers at The New York Times who are apparently paid to do this for a living – I’ll wait until I’ve seen all fifteen episodes before I call time of death.

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‘Love as War’: Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2013 by drayfish

Robert Capa 1940

IMAGE: Ernest Hemingway, Sun Valley Idaho, 1940, photo by Robert Capa

These past few weeks I have had the great fortune of reconnecting with my favourite book, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (or Fiesta)*.  It is a book that I have often seen referred to as little more than the playful account of an expansive tourist bender – a group of spoiled Europeans sashaying through Spain to soak up the cheap booze and carnival excesses of the annual fiesta.  And yes, while it does indeed present some of the most evocative descriptions of drinking and partying, and the anarchic swirl of an exuberant sexual bacchanal, ever committed to fiction (the scene in which Jake has trouble going to sleep because he is blind drunk and the room keeps spinning around him is particularly captivating) – it is precisely because there is more going on beneath the facade of this apparent abandon that the novel is infused with an unspeakable lament and trauma, and the novel consequentially succeeds in being so profoundly moving.

Ernest Hemmingway was a boxer (he famously wanted to box Ezra Pound to toughen him up), and many people mistake his work as being similarly hard, punchy, overly-masculine prose.  What’s easy to forget, though, is that boxing is also about the precise, measured footwork going on underneath, and that is what Hemingway mastered: the delicate, descriptive movements beneath the surface of his imagery.  And this is nowhere more evident than here, in his first published novel; because on closer inspection, The Sun Also Rises, like the characters it depicts, reveals itself to be a deep, resonant and mournful novel that is only pretending to be carefree and aloof.

Although the characters might appear to be frivolous, urban socialites, criss-crossing countries on an binging vacation – this is a war book.  Set in the immediate wake of the first world war, this is a book about the nature of war.  A tale of tortured and torturous love.  Of self-loathing and emotional instability.  Of broken people, unsure of how to go on.  Of the psychological scars that remained after the declaration of peace as a civilisation struggled to come to terms with living through – but perhaps not wholly surviving – the great conflict that would redefine humanity’s conception of itself at the dawning of the twentieth century.

Much, like the narrator protagonist Jake Barnes, the novel therefore goes to some lengths to talk around the physical and psychological wounds that humanity has sustained rather than address them directly.  Paris and Spain are shown being haunted by figures wandering around in a state of numb shock, wounded soldiers and old fighters relieved to be alive, but not really sure what that life means anymore.  Jake is a wounded war veteran; his lover Brett is a war nurse whose husband died of dysentery; there are matadors trying to stave off fear; servicemen with amputations; a Count who has too much of the frontline, and violent revolutions, and who thus anesthetises himself with pretty women and alcohol.  All the characters are therefore adrift, wandering, unable to lay down roots or commit to anything.  They drink and hook up and travel, desperately trying to distract themselves from the horror that they have all witnessed, and struggling to recoup what they have lost, in themselves and society.

At its heart, this novel is a story about two nouns that have become almost sickeningly cliché: love and war.  But just as he does with his every application of misleadingly simplistic language, Hemingway strips these words back to their grammatical core.  It is a story about love in a time of war.  Love in spite of war.  About love as a type of war.  At the centre of this mediation it is an account of the relationship between two characters, Jake and Brett, who seemingly despite themselves, are bound together through the history they have shared in war (Brett was Jake’s nurse as he recovered from an injury not dissimilar from Hemingway’s own), and a love for each other that they cannot successfully resolve.  Seeing it as a fractious love story, one can observe a great deal about their relationship, their history, and this fiction itself, in the way that Hemingway chooses to describe that most familiar romantic trope, two lovers staring into each other’s eyes:

‘Don’t you love me?’

‘Love you?  I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.’

‘Isn’t there anything we can do about it?’

She was sitting up now.  My arm was around her and she was leaning back against me, and we were quite calm.  She was looking into my eyes with that way she had of looking that made you wonder whether she really saw out of her own eyes.  They would look on and on after every one else’s in the world would have stopped looking.  She looked as though there were nothing on earth she would not look at like that, and really she was afraid of so many things.

‘And there’s not a damn thing we could do,’ I said.

‘I don’t know,’ she said.  ‘I don’t want to go through all that hell again.’

‘We’d better keep away from each other.’

‘But, darling, I have to see you.  It isn’t all that you know.’

‘No, but it always gets to be.’

‘That’s my fault.  Don’t we all pay for the things we do, though?’

She had been looking into my eyes the whole time.  Her eyes had different depths, sometimes they seemed perfectly flat.  Now you could see all the way into them. (p.23)

We see here a striking metaphorical encapsulation of Hemingway’s descriptive style: crisp, clear and declarative.  He doesn’t get poetical and syrupy.  He writes in lean, precise prose, even when articulating with the most loaded of emotional scar tissue.  Our narrator Jake – like his author Hemingway – is a journalist, who observes his world in nouns and verbs, honed with objective diligence, but it is what he isn’t saying, what he cannot bring himself to verbalise beneath the surface of this exchange (the ‘It’ of ‘it isn’t all that…’, ‘No, but it always gets to be…’), that is most revealing, and that motivates all else.

As is gradually revealed throughout the text, the ‘it‘ that Jake and Brett cannot bring themselves to verbalise is Jake’s impotence – his inability, after the horror of a devastating war injury (after which he was shipped home, where Brett nursed him back to health and they fell in love), to make love to her.  It is never made explicit whether his injury is physical or entirely psychosomatic, nonetheless, it has rendered him impotent, and this failing haunts him, (he believes) preventing him from being with the woman he loves.  To function – he comes to believe through his dislocated definition of masculinity – as a man.**

Consequentially, the book swells over with an almost obsessive meditation upon manhood and what it takes to remain ‘hard-boiled’ in the face of great emotional suffering.  Hence Jake’s obsession with those most masculine of men: bullfighters, and his preoccupation with boxing, and fishing, and fighting.  He is a character who has been rocked to his very core, and is trying to rebuild an image of himself that he thinks (wrongly) will restore him to himself.

Jake’s unwillingness to speak, to reveal his pain, is not bravado; in a world of survivors numbed by trauma, Jake is a state of post-traumatic anesthetization.  He cannot bring himself to verbalise his experience, so he shuts it out instead, blocking his pain and sorrow from consideration.  As the scene with Jake and Brett continues, the impediment that lies between them again rises to the surface:

‘Don’t talk like a fool,’ I said.  ‘Besides, what happened to me is supposed to be funny.  I never think about it.’

‘Oh, no.  I’ll lay you don’t.’

‘Well, let’s shut up about it.’

‘I laughed about it too, myself, once.’  She wasn’t looking at me.  ‘A friend of my brother’s came home that way from Mons.  It seemed like a hell of a joke.  Chaps never know anything, do they?’

‘No,’ I said.  ‘Nobody ever knows anything.’

I was pretty well through with the subject. (p.23)

Although Jake can never verbalise this in a straightforward manner – this is first-person, ‘I’ narration, and he is someone actively trying to avoid being too introspective, wary of the agony it brings – his trauma instead comes out in the imagery Hemingway uses to describe Jake’s experience of Paris and Spain.

In Paris we repeatedly see Jake erupt with rage and frustration, to become knotted up in self loathing by the men he repeatedly observes with Brett, and what, perhaps, he suspects these proxy relationships say about him, the lover she wants but cannot be with.  He prickles at the sight of the flighty, carefree young men with whom Brett dances at the club, obsessing over their clean, white, unblemished (presumably unmanly appearance), repeating the stunned observation ‘And Brett was with them’ as he struggles to block it out.  The men are in fact revealed to be gay, and one might well reason that subconsciously this is what infuriates him most: what they perhaps reflect about him if these are the kinds of men Brett is drawn too.

More revealing, however, in Spain Jake’s internal turmoil is made manifest in the echoes of war that play out in the chaotic, metaphorical eruption of the fiesta:

At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the fiesta exploded.  There is no other way to describe it.

….

The marble-topped tables and the white wicker chairs were gone.  They were replaced by cast-iron tables and severe folding chairs.  The cafe was like a battleship striped for action.

….

Before the waiter brought the sherry the rocket that announced the fiesta went up in the square.  It burst and there was a gray ball of smoke high above the Theatre Gayarre, across the other side of the plaza.   The ball of smoke hung in the air like a shrapnel burst, and as I watched, another rocket cane up to it, trickling smoke in the bright sunlight.  I saw the bright flash as it burst and another little cloud of smoke appeared. (p.132)

For Jake, the Fiesta exploded.  A cafe is described stripped down like a battleship.  The ball of smoke from a firework hangs in the air like a shrapnel burst.  People spew out everywhere, rockets are described  firing off on every other page.  It’s chaos and spectacle.  A mass of cheering and shouting and eruptions.

This is war.

Hemingway, through the expansive, imagistic allusion of our traumatised focal character, is sublimating the horrors of battle into this chaotic revelry.  Jake cannot discuss his post traumatic stress, nor how this pain has echoed out into his relationship with Brett, and so it is made manifest here, in this heady bacchanal.

Over the course of this frenzied vacation, Jake will lose himself amongst the festivities, coming to see his fears and longings and self-loathing literalised in this social upheaval.  Although seemingly keeping his cool, trying to remain ‘hard-boiled’, just like all of the other characters on this journey, he remains lonely and yearning and lost.  The end of the book therefore returns us to that same image of two broken people, pressing against each other to keep the sorrow at bay.  Jake and Brett sit close together, back in the exact position they began this journey: two mournful lovers in a taxi cab, staring into each other’s eyes, lamenting the wreckage they have left in their wake, and talking of their hopes for the future, if only they could repair themselves.

Although superficially each of the characters with which Hemingway populates his book look bright and cheery, calling each other ‘Chaps’ and collapsing into bed with each other, they are all revealed to be drifting, self-loathing people, all screaming beneath the masquerade.  And so, throughout The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway lets the shadow of that terror and revulsion pass beneath the revelry like a fish under the surface of the water, motivating them all, haunting their every waking thought, but, like their trauma itself, never able to be acknowledged and overcome.

brassai group in a dance hall 1932

IMAGE: Group in a Dance Hall, 1932, photo by Brassai

* Inasmuch as it is ever possible to do something so transitory and perfunctory as label something your ‘favourite’ anything …even though it is.

** Indeed, if you want to be really smutty about it (and let’s why not) The Sun Also Rises is also a bit of a crude double entendre: the other thing that ‘rises’ (or fails to rise) is the thing he’s been obsessing about the whole book: his ‘manhood’.

‘And you were there, and you were there…’: The Dream of Community Season Four

Posted in literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2013 by drayfish

community series 4

IMAGE: Community (Sony/NBC)

At the end of last year I wrote about the upcoming, as-yet unseen season four of Community with a kind of mournful hope (here).  The mystifying firing of creator, showrunner, and guiding auteur Dan Harmon was looming large over the production, and fractious behind the scenes conflict with the notoriously irascible Chevy Chase had put the production under a cloud.  However, while things seemed irredeemably grim, the series had developed a tradition of repeatedly proving itself capable of exceeding dire expectations  time and again.

It was a show that lived under the perpetual shadow of cancellation and reduced budgets, but each week fought on bravely, continuing to tackle daunting narrative conceits that have bewildered multimillion-dollar films.  It had, after all, managed to repeatedly legitimise seemingly impossible shifts in theme and genre and tone: from jumps into clay animation, to exploring alternate dimensions through the delivery of a pizza; from making a pitch-perfect  Ken Burns documentary around an intractable pillow-fort conflict, to building the gravity of a Law and Order murder case around a sabotaged yam.  A tenacious, ingenious mockingbird, Community had masterfully weathered countless storms, continuing to offer television’s most consistently rewarding and rich examination of a group of beautifully broken characters who realised they needed each other to survive.

And so, having now watched season four (in which new showrunners David Guarascio and Moses Port faced the program’s most daunting prospect: continuing on without the voice that has defined and guided every moment of its brief span) I’d like to look back upon this final, truncated season and explore how these episodes fit into the larger structure of a show that I have spent the last few years dearly, deeply, and almost irrationally, loving.

And sadly, the most revealing way to start is by flashing forward to the end…

A dream.

We ended on a dream.  With the prospect of the show never returning for a season five, the show decided to end on an episode that took place primarily in the confines of dream, localised in the mind of the central protagonist.

Wow.

Frequently considered one of the laziest, most undercooked scriptwriting conventions in television, ‘It was all a dream…’ has become a cliché for hackneyed narrative twists.  From the writers of Dallas retroactively abolishing a year’s worth of sticky narrative, to MacGyver travelling to King Arthur’s court, to Rosanne throwing the whole reality of her show under the metatextual bus for a trite farewell, while there are, of course, exceptions*, too often ‘It was all a dream…’ exists as a rote means of granting writers free license to indulge their fancies with the logistical and consequential conventions of narrative abandoned.  Romances can suddenly blossom between characters without the sacrifice of their sexual chemistry back in the ‘real’ world; central players can die while being free to over-emote again once the dreamer awakes; irrational tales can be played out with no need to clean up the resulting mess; the dream episode asks its viewers to detach themselves from their investment in the logic of the fiction, and to follow the writer on an excursion into the inconsequential vagaries of ‘What if…’

Which in this instance, given the significance of the day and episode in question – central protagonist Jeff Winger’s graduation from the community college around which the show is centred, and the potential finale of the series – is asking rather a lot.  This is the last time that these characters will be depicted relating to each other on an interpersonal level, and we are asked to spend that time lost in the transom of fantasy.

Even more unfortunately, Community’s finale not only relied heavily upon the whimsy of its absurd premise – alternate versions of the Greendale gang are imagined crossing over into the real world to prevent Jeff from abandoning his original dickish, self-involvement – it is also designed to be a half hour of uninterrupted pandering fan-service, with every second line operating as obscure call-back to gags and subplots and asides from the first three years of the show.  From Abed’s obsession with The Cape, to the fake-Dean, to the Starburns memorial,  to paintball, to the words ‘Six Seasons and a Movie’ scrawled on a background blackboard.  The show was so busy recalling all that it was, literally losing itself down a fantasy of recollection, that  it forgot to ground itself in the interactions of these characters – the glue that has defined the show from the beginning.

In the first episode of this last season, ‘History 101’, the writers made a big point of how the show was going to ‘change’.  It was the primary thesis of the episode, and voiced to be the guiding principle of the season – a mission statement that literally declared the show was going to grow and evolve in new and exciting ways.   Abed even leaned into the show’s fourth wall until the supports groaned and gave a speech about it:

‘I was trying to hang on to this moment because I was so afraid of the future.  Then I realised: all of this was once the future.  And it was completely different from all I’d known before.  And it was all happening so fast.  But in the end – or in the now, I guess – it turned out great.’

The show promised – both to characters and audience – that even though the past was great, even though the show would necessarily be different without Dan Harmon at the helm, good things can come from change, and emotionally, ideologically and textually, the show had to move on to new great things and find its own fresh groove.

And yet how did they use the season to build up this promise of a new bold vision for the show?  By spending every episode referencing what once was: the darkest timeline; the air conditioner school; a Dr. Spacetime convention; the Dean’s wardrobe obsessions…  on and on and on.

And seemingly every time they tried to expand upon the fertile but unexplored ground Harmon left tilled they underplayed the possibilities there, too…  We met Jeff’s dad – in a plot that felt like a B-story afterthought.  We had Britta and Troy get together – and proceeded to forget about their relationship for the whole season, until it was expedient to try and milk the breakup as a profound, emotional trial.  We actually remembered that Pierce now has a half-brother with whom he might cultivate a newfound familial relationship – and had him appear for only ten seconds one time, never to be spoken of again.  And we’ll still have Leonard.  And ‘Pop-Pop’ Magnitude.  And Other Annie.  And Fat Neil.  They won’t do much, or contribute anything.  But they’ll be there because…  well, whatever.  Why not, right?

Indeed, looking back on this season, the only new, ongoing concept I can point to that these episodes contributed to the canon was ‘Changnesia’, a concept and execution that has made me long to erase the whole character of Chang from the show.  …That’s right.  They turned me against the sublime lunacy of Ken Jeong because the way his arc was handled was riddled with inconsistency and wasted potential.  Beyond immediately blowing the reveal that he was faking his memory loss the whole time, truly: where did his entire storyline go?  His scheme to help the villainous Dean of City College just cut off midway through, no mention at all of how it apparently resolved, or where it was supposed to be going.

Perhaps the only real highlight of the season was the episode penned by Jim Rash (Dean Pelton), ‘Basic Human Anatomy’, a riff on Freaky Friday, in which Abed and Troy pretended to switch bodies so that Troy could avoid the uncomfortable duty of telling Britta that their relationship was over.  On the plus side (unlike every other episode this season) Community superficially sounded like itself again – the characters (with the rather unnerving exception of Britta) felt reinvigorated, and had dialogue that snapped and crackled with energy; there was a lovely absurdism rumbling away in the background of Greendale once more (the Dean channelling Jeff’s personality; the conclave of murder-mystery janitors; even the return of the anti-Die Hard waiter (damn that guy!); and there was a depth and intelligence in the spine of this script.

Having Jeff and Britta tandem unlocking the code of Troy and Abed’s regressive fantasy, talking to one character while actually tapping into the fears of the other – was admirably ingenious, and went a long way to justifying the leap asked of the premise.  Jeff’s final advice to Troy – that trying and failing is still an act of bravery – was a welcome nod to the emotional gravitas that this show once made look so effortless.  It was an episode the was worthy to stand beside those written under the guidance of Harmon (and I can offer no higher praise, given the context).

However, this welcome return to a more polished script and dialogue could not disguise the extreme logical and thematic jumps that the narrative asked of its characters and audience in order to try and achieve its intended emotional denouement.  Trying to manufacture strain in a peripheral romance Z-plot (even to the point of bending space-time: they were dating for a year?), and leaving Britta to be resignedly cypher-dumped by Abed were jumps that completely disrupted the suspension of disbelief, and rather undermined her character.

Rash’s script did try to paper over this rift in Britta’s behaviour by having her firstly, numb with surprise, and secondly, coming to understand that she had ‘always’ been aware that what drew her to Troy – his innocence and immaturity – was what would ultimately doom their relationship (and to her immense credit I feel Gillian Jacobs tried to sell it that way in her delivery).  But ultimately this is meeting the show way more than half way, because the framework for such a realisation was not established at all, merely regurgitated in a glut of exposition.  Simply put: the rest of the season didn’t support this premise enough for it to work.  It was a lively, imaginative script, but the story it tried to tell had not been nurtured, or really even established enough by the season-running plot to land as it should.

Ultimately, though, the episode that I found really weirdly irked me the most was the penultimate episode, ‘Heroic Origins’.  Effectively ‘part one’ of the season finale’s ‘Greatest-Hits’-remember-when-athon, the audience was invited to explore how each of the characters unknowingly influenced one anothers’ lives before they had even met, once again using this as a thin pretext to call-back on all the gags that couldn’t be crammed into the finale…

Remember Troy’s keg-flip?  Remember how Annie freaked out and ran through a glass door?  Remember how the Dean once said ‘I hope this doesn’t awaken something in me…’  Yes?  You remember it all clearly and don’t need to be reminded in such a shameless way?  Well too bad, because here you get to see it all.  Even to the inanity of discovering where Magnitude got his catchphrase, or where Annie’s Boobs the monkey originally came from.

The episode was, as it declared itself to be, an ‘Origins’ story, an excuse to flash back on everyone in the year before they decided to come to Greendale – comical dental-gear, letter jackets, Obama t-shirts and all.  And wouldn’t you know it, the story reveals that each of these characters all unknowingly influenced each others’ existence in profound, life-altering ways: Jeff’s life choices impacted upon Britta; Shirley was an influence on Abed; Annie made a difference to Troy; Pierce was… apparently already being written out of the show.  Round and round in a neat ouroboros.

Indeed, the episode eventually declares that their friendship was inevitable, that they were all bound together by some unknowable causal web, an interdependence from which they could not disentangle themselves, even if they tried…

Except you know what?  To hell with that.

To hell with suggesting that these seven misfits were always bound to be thrust together no matter what – that they have no free will, and that the universe knew what was best for them, bringing them together no matter how hard they fought against it.

For its first three years of life, the most precious, spectacular thing about Community (for me, anyway) was the revelation that no, these people did not, and do not, have to be friends.  Nothing is forcing them.  The universe isn’t holding a gun to their heads.  At any moment, any one of them could get up from that table, walk out the door, and never come back.  Indeed, that premise – that realisation that what they have is transitory; that it needs to be cherished and protected – has been the driving force of a good number of episodes in which it truly did seem that the group might implode: that Pierce was leaving; that Jeff had screwed them all over; that Abed might just be too alien to be accepted…

And what was always most important about that concept, what was reiterated again and again in every narrative that mattered, was that their friendship was based upon a choice: a profound, beautiful, messy, and scary choice.

They agree to try.

They choose to fight for something impossible and special; to believe that there is something worthwhile in struggling to remain friends, even in spite of all their disparate life experiences, even in the face of all their internal squabbles, their fears of exposure and rejection.  They agree to do the difficult, complicated thing, and keep coming back to that table; to keep sitting down in that shared space and allowing themselves to be open with each other.

To become a community.

…But no.  ‘Too bad; it was fate’ works too, right?  Really captures the poetry of it all.

And now, after fighting so impossibly long to stay on the air, it’s over.  (Probably.)  And we got a season that by any other program’s standard would be solid, but by this one’s heritage was anodyne.  There was one standout episode (I would have loved to see a Rash script in an earlier season), but the rest of the season, despite spruiking change, regressed into trading on nostalgia with nothing new to say.

So, instead of celebrating what was most unique and central to the show, the showrunners this year chose to overload the episodes with rehashed reminiscence.  We sure were great once, they seem to be saying.  Remember that joke we said that one time?  Remember how we laughed?  But in spending all that time looking in the rear view mirror they forgot where and why they were driving the car in the first place.

How such a majestic, quirky, loveable show could be turned into something so conventional (not bad, I should add, just bland), has, as this rant no doubt makes clear, made me quite sad.  Despite the exceptional work of its extraordinary actors (with the possible exception of Chase, who really did seem to be phoning it in this year) and the devotion of its talented staff, I guess ultimately I will have to accept that, for me at least, Community ended in season three.

While there were moments that fleetingly reignited the spark of its greatness, by abandoning its most precious truth for a needless self-referential illusion, this final season revealed itself to be just well-produced fan-fiction that has perhaps overstayed its welcome; the metatexual fever dream of a dying series watching its own life flash before its eyes.

Community cast

IMAGE: Community (Sony/NBC)

* As a random aside, I would gladly offer Batman The Animated Series’ ‘Over the Edge’, and Angel’s  ‘Awakening’ as fine examples of how one can use a dream to great effect.

‘Get Off My Lawn!’: From Dust, and an Old God’s Lament

Posted in literature, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2013 by drayfish

From Dust screen

IMAGE: From Dust (Ubisoft)

For my birthday they made me a god.

I had the power the reshape the world in my image.  I could conjure floods; could mould grasslands and vegetation like putty; could scoop lava into the air and remake the landscape on a whim.  I could speed across the face of the world like an unseen wisp, and rain down bounty or pestilence as I desired.  My resplendent, verdant landscape boiled with potentiality and promise as I cast my omniscient eye upon it and set myself to work.

And so, my people worshipped me.  Sang praises to me.  Adorned themselves in trinkets to win my favour.  They sought out teachings that would strengthen me with their belief.  They trusted in my grace and my mercy, and had faith that I could lead them to salvation…

They were devoted.

They were loyal.

They were…

Mistaken.

I was a terrible god.  I’m awful at it.

In fact, playing through designer Eric Chahi’s sumptuous From Dust (developed by Ubisoft Montpellier) has reconfirmed my every failing as a gamer and a deity.  I’m haphazard.  Ill prepared.  More often than not I find myself fiddling around with a puddle of water that has no effect on anything while my people stand idle on a rock, waiting to starve and be picked off by vultures.  And no one goes where I tell them too!  And there’s gravity and stuff.  And time!  Why is there a timer ticking down?!  I’m a god, aren’t I?  What’s with the whole being-beholden-to-linear-progression thing all about?  If I was a real god that would be the first thing to go.

No, it’s not like back in the good old days where being a god was about little more than raising and lowering the landscape on which my worshipers built their homes.  I still remember the giddy power of tediously indenting swaths of land in Populous just to uproot a handful of homesteads so that they would move sideways enough to reform into a castle…

Ah… the mighty omnipotence – when being an all-powerful deity was akin to bashing out the dents on a used Honda.

But nowadays it’s all crisis and peril!  My little nomadic From Dust-ians are being ravaged by a hostile landmass that wants to burn them off its surface like an unsightly wart, and nothing that I try seems to work.  Suddenly the universe keeps throwing freaking tsunamis at me!  I mean, what the hell is that?!  And enough with the volcanos!  We get it!  You’re a portal to the Earth’s molten crust.  You don’t need to go on about it all day.  And you have got to be kidding me with the wildfires!  Come on, guys!  Help me out.  Don’t walk straight into the flames…

When I think about it, this is the same reason I was always so terrible at Sim City.  I lack that godly methodical foresight.*  It’s why my cities would always fall into poverty, illness, and ruin.  Why I would watch the elegance of a neatly drawn road grid on grass gradually descend into unruly chaos, every decision I made somehow compounding the disaster of the one before it.

What – you need indoor plumbing, now?  And power?  Geez.  Greedy.  And stop being so sick!  …No.  No, I’m not going to build you a university if you’re just going to burn it down like you did the hospital.  …Actually, that’s probably a good time to bring this up: why can’t you idiots do anything without setting yourselves on fire?!  What’s wrong with eating some food raw occasionally?  Haven’t you heard of sushi?

Even when playing Caesar or Age of Empire – games set before the advent of gas stovetops – I would somehow always be brought to cultural collapse by a lack of forethought and planning.  All my effort in building a portentous armada of soldiers, squadron after squadron of fully trained archers with the finest gear, an army that was the envy of all other leaders, warriors that would rain down terror upon their enemies who – wait!  Who let that foreign cavalry in there?!  Come on, shoot!  Shoot the horses!  Stop dying!  You’re embarrassing me!

And here in my latest foray into omnipresence, with the requirements of a precarious social structure stripped away, again I somehow still continue to prove myself a discordant, shambling mess of a divinity.  Sure, the tribes people of From Dust don’t ask me for paved roads, or threaten to move to a better terraformed primordial rock because I’ve taxed them too high, but they nonetheless choose to selfishly die simply because my grotesque incompetence repeatedly inflicts unholy natural disasters upon them.  …What a bunch of jerks.

I wish that I could turn away – just switch off the game and let these sorry, wayward travellers find their own way (or in actuality, die of their own accord) – but that power is just too enticing; and there is a genuine sense of responsibility to protecting these figures.

Firstly, the expanse of this geological Petri dish is unutterably majestic and beautiful.  The crystalline blues of the ocean, seething with whitewashed peril as it hurls itself against charred rock.  The sizzling hiss of molten earth writhing against the sea.  The delicate bounty of flora and fauna blossoming momentarily amidst the elemental chaos.  The game designers have done an exquisite job giving this landscape a grandeur that belies its relative brevity as a DLC title.

Secondly, like all of the best god-games, From Dust is masterful at drawing the player into a collaborative web of responsibility.  It offers the illusion of freedom while actually necessitating a symbiotic relationship of obligation and compromise.  Even as you shape the very fabric of this world, the game is shaping you, teaching you patterns and systems and consequence.

And this interdependence is even built into the conceit of the game-mechanics, cultivated by the lovely metaphor of these villager’s prayerful songs giving the player agency.  When the game begins, the player effectively is brought to life by their dance (literally given ‘breath’ with which to manipulate the world), and it is their cheers and cries and melodies that guide the action, warning of oncoming danger, holding back incoming tidewater, acting as indicators in this elegant absence of a HUD on the screen.

From Dust trains you – through failure; through your increasing familiarity with the game’s structural DNA – to be a god.  To be the god of this pocket universe, alert to the myriad reactive pathways your actions have in this space; to know its balance and boundaries.  It teaches you methodological thought to respond to an amorphous, self-regulating system hostile to life.

…At least that’s how it works for everyone else.

As for me, devoted to the cause as I remain, I maintain that nature is too unwieldy, to irrational, to be shackled by gods who still think like humans.  Gods like me who get impatient and snotty, who yell at a homeless wandering villager because he somehow can’t spot the heat-blasted trench I constructed for him half a mile away that almost certainly isn’t accessible anyway.

This, I am supposing, must be why the pantheon of Greek Gods were always so touchy.  Why they snapped at their heroes and egged them into battle and got so pissy when people insulted their temples, or failed to give them the most suckling cuts of food in their prayerful tributes.

It’s like at the beginning of The Odyssey, when the Olympian gods meet for their periodic staff meeting, poised to hurl snarky insults at one another and make requests for their favoured heroes.  Poseidon has sent his apologies for his absence (he’s off on a business trip to check in on his Ethiopian worshipers), so Athena gets to table a proposal to let Odysseus finally be freed from the punishment Poseidon has inflicted upon him.  The motion is carried, and no doubt someone records it in the minutes.  But it’s in the ‘Other Business’ portion of the meeting’s agenda that Zeus points out a fundamental hypocrisy in human beings blaming their gods for the suffering they bring upon themselves:

‘Ah, how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.

From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,

but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,

compound their pains beyond their proper share.’ (1:37-40)

…Sure, he’s talking about Aegisthus, a guy who is whining because conspiring with a wife to murder her husband didn’t work out as perfectly as he would have liked; in contrast, my people are complaining because the incompetence I have inflicted upon them has meant that they now have a plural word for ‘Armageddon’ in their vocabulary.**

But Zeus is right: it’s hard being a god.

Everyone is always at you, crying out for help, wanting to be saved from themselves.  And no matter how many times you swoop in to rescue them – douse the lava flow before it decimates their village; redirect the waterfall that threatens to sweep them away – they keep just wandering back into danger, wailing about it all over again when it all, inevitably, goes pear-shaped…

All right, fine Odysseus, I’ll help you out.  But you know you brought this upon yourself when you started mouthing off to that Cyclops, right?

Wait, really?!  You villagers are just going to build your houses beneath that suspicious dried magma while the ground beneath you rumbles ominously again, are you?  You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?

Sure Achilles, I’ll do what you want – but you could maybe stop being such a petulant cry-baby and not just sulk on a beach all day…

Aw, come on…  I built you a whole railway system and a hydroelectric dam, and you still hate me, just because of all the rampant, unchecked crime?  Cowards.

No wonder Zeus was always so quick to throw a plague at you fools.

Nope.  That’s fine.  Be that way.  I’ll just be over here pushing the ground up and down, doing my omniscient best to ignore the way that games such as these provide striking reflections of our own psychological makeup; trying desperately to forget all those idioms about ‘playing god’, or god ‘being in the details’, and what that must inevitably says about me…

IMAGE: From Dust (Ubisoft)

* Although, given the new Sim City’s tragicomic debacle of a launch it looks like the developers themselves were also suffering from a rather unhealthy dose of misplaced godly hubris…

** Of course, right now I am a god, complaining that my humanity makes me too human to be a god…  So I’m not sure what Zeus would make of that.  Probably he would ignore the contradiction.  After all, he is, ironically, fairly comfortable overlooking the trouble that his all-too-human libido has brought upon himself throughout the years…

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