Community, The Internet, Dan Harmon, and Me

In “Paradigms of Human Memory,” my favorite episode of Community, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) delivers one of his signature epic speeches. For once, the epic speech isn’t resolving any outstanding problems; as Annie Edison (Alison Brie) says, “We’re not breaking up, so we don’t have to get back together.” Even so, Jeff gives his speech, concluding with “So maybe we are caught in an endless cycle of screw-ups and hurt feelings. But I choose to believe it’s just the universe’s way of molding us into some kind of supergroup.” Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) pipes in with “Like the Traveling Wilburys.” “Yes, Troy,” says Jeff. “Like the Traveling Wilburys of pain, prepared for any insane adventure life throws our way. And I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to every one of them.”

For three seasons, Community ranked as my favorite show on television. Sure, Parks & Recreation made me laugh harder every now and then, and Game of Thrones had me as spellbound as some of the most highly regarded films in history. But both lack the magnetic quality of Community. Community is unlike any other situation comedy I’ve ever seen. It’s self referential without ever going too far. It’s about a community college that feels like another world yet somehow retains the realities of friendship and interpersonal conflict. And it’s absolutely sincere, with just as much heart as Avatar: The Last Airbender, Battlestar Galactica, The West Wing, and any other show I’d put on my favorites list.

And it wouldn’t be that way without Dan Harmon, the series creator and showrunner.

On Friday, Harmon and the world found out he was being let go as showrunner. I can’t claim to understand the situation the top brass at NBC is in the thick of. But I do know this: upwards of 1,000 people on my favorite entertainment source, the Onion A.V. Club, commented on the sadness of this situation. Todd VanderWerff, who reviewed the show each week for three years, had this to say: “I’ll reiterate what I said in my [finale] review: I think Port and Guarascio [the new co-showrunners] are very talented showrunners. I’d love to see them make a show with this cast, maybe even about this scenario. But without Harmon as showrunner, I don’t know if this show will ever be what it was again.”

In “Paradigms…,” when Annie says her line regarding breakups and getting back together, she’s referring to the study group’s tendency to rely on Jeff when any conflict arises. The show would be less successful without Jeff and the performances Joel McHale turns in each season, and you could call Jeff the protagonist. But that would be unfair to Troy, Annie, Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase). The cast and characters of Community are a well oiled machine; no matter whose character you enjoy most, you would be tempted to give up on the show if any of them left, because it just wouldn’t be the same.

Such is the case with Harmon’s departure.

This series is his creation, a reflection of his mad genius qualities, and no matter how good it is without him (and I can’t judge whether or not it will be), it’s not going to be the same show. Fortunately for all of us rabidly devoted fans, the season three finale felt like a perfect series finale. For Community, it’s the end of an era and most likely the beginning of one that will feel altogether different.

Though he probably won’t read this, I’ll say it anyway: thank you, Dan Harmon. Thank you, Community cast and crew, for making me laugh and cry and appreciate television as art as much as I ever have. To quote the Internet, “This is truly the darkest timeline”–but like the ever-optimistic Annie, I think everyone will eventually come out of this just fine and create something wonderful all over again.

It just might take a while.

Female Friendships That Work

Warning: this post contains mild spoilers for each series mentioned, however oblique. Apologies for not catching that sooner.

A while back, I wrote a post documenting my favorite fictional bromances. Then last night, I started thinking about female friendships on TV and how hard it was to find examples of really great ones. But I was able to make a list anyway, and aren’t you glad of that? (Note: the alternative would be me posting pictures of my cat’s surgery scar, and I really don’t think you want that.)

Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There’s a moment in the second season of Buffy that occurs shortly after vampire slayer Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) loses her virginity to Angel (David Boreanaz), the brooding vampire with a soul. Buffy’s not quite ready to tell anyone what happened, even her closest friends. But all it takes is a single meaningful glance for Willow (Alyson Hannigan) to know what occurred and know Buffy needs, more than anything else, a friend who understands why she did what she did and what the consequences might be. (As it turns out, they’re pretty dire, but that’s a story for another time.) That exchange of glances is emblematic of Buffy and Willow’s still young friendship. It establishes how well connected they are and how much they need each other’s companionship–and there’s no definition of friendship that’s purer than that. By the time season seven rolls around, Buffy and Willow have been through all kinds of hell together and they’re closer than ever, just as the best of friends should be.

Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins, Parks & Recreation

Though Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ann’s (Rashida Jones) relationship isn’t the most interesting or entertaining on Parks & Recreation, it feels the realest. They’re two relatively normal people living and thriving in Pawnee, Indiana, brought together more by circumstance than shared interests or common bonds. And yet, they end up having the most organic-feeling friendship, partnering over projects, supporting each other in the trials and tribulations of romantic relationships, and accepting each other’s occasional quirks and shortcomings.

Caroline Forbes and Elena Gilbert, The Vampire Diaries

Though Elena (Nina Dobrev) doesn’t often describe Caroline (Candice Accola) as her best friend, Caroline is unquestionably the most reliable person in her life. No matter how terrible circumstances get for Caroline–and sometimes, they’re terrible by any measure–she’s still up for doing whatever it takes to protect, comfort, and support Elena. This is a tall order, one Elena’s best friend Bonnie (Kat Graham) and vampire loves Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder) can’t consistently live up to. But Caroline can, making her scenes, with Elena and otherwise, some of the most emotionally resonant and convincing the show produces.

Annie Edison, Britta Perry, and Shirley Bennett, Community

Annie (Alison Brie), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) have next to nothing in common. Annie’s a young, overachieving eternal optimist, Britta’s a hardened 20-something causehead, and Shirley’s a mother of three with a strong moral compass and a tendency to nurture everyone in sight. Somehow, though, their differing viewpoints make their friendships work wonderfully as they help each other to understand the struggles presented by enrolling in community college when there’s so much more for them beyond the Greendale campus. Plus, few things are funnier than seeing Shirley help Annie back to the on-campus med center in only her flimsy hospital gown or Annie handing Britta a banana reading “You are a lying junkie.”

Lily Aldrin and Robin Scherbatsky, How I Met Your Mother

No matter how unsatisfying it can sometimes be, I’ll always love one thing about How I Met Your Mother: the friendships feel real. When the gang meets Robin (Cobie Smulders) in the series premiere, it shifts their group dynamic in such a way that Lily (Alyson Hannigan–hi again!) finally has a female friend, one with whom she can chat about the things she’d never tell hopeless romantic Ted (Josh Radnor), philandering suit-wearer Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), or even her husband Marshall (Jason Segel). Sure, they argue about things both trivial and serious, but what real life friends don’t? No matter how tough or personal their conflicts become, they always end up finding ways to resolve them and get back together at McLaren’s Pub for the umpteenth time.

Favorite Characters, Part I: The Smaller Screen

As you may have noticed, I enjoy making lists. Here, I specifically enjoy making lists of characters. Televised crushes. Prospective best friends. Favorite bromances. Favorite couples. So I want to do that again, but I think I’ll go a bit broader this time. I think it’s time to share my favorite characters. Because there are many of them, this’ll be a three-post series, starting with TV, then moving to books and concluding with film. Now, this could get tedious quickly, so I’ll limit myself to more than five but less than ten. Fair? Fair. Here we go.

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There are countless standout characters in this particular corner of the Whedonverse. From Adam Baldwin’s cruel, calculating, and undeniably cool Marcus to Charisma Carpenter’s surprisingly multifaceted Cordelia, Angel’s characters are a consistently interesting and attention-grabbing bunch. And more so than anyone else, there’s Wesley (Alexis Denisof). Denisof takes a feeble minor character from Buffy and, over the course of five seasons, develops him into one of the richest, most complex parts of an altogether great show. Wesley goes from startled scientifically minded geek to roguishly handsome ass kicker to some balance thereof and does so seamlessly. It’s always a joy to watch Wesley’s story unfold.

Spike, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Spike (James Marsters), a rebellious bleached blond vampire with a wicked sense of humor and a nicotine addiction, wasn’t meant to stay around for very long on Buffy. But he ended up as one of the series’ most enduring characters, staying strong even through the uneven final seasons. Not quite a villain, but never a hero, Spike’s complicated, tenuous relationship with Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the entire Scooby Gang led to endless gags, surprises, and even the occasional tender moment. By the time both Buffy and Angel come to a close, Spike is much more than a womanizing vamp with a sarcastic streak and a killer pout.

Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Battlestar Galactica

This was hard.

I can’t think of a single member of the BSG cast I don’t absolutely adore in their role. But I keep coming back to Kara (Katee Sackhoff). At first blush, Starbuck’s just a wiseass pilot with some unresolved issues. Look again, though, and you see a deeply flawed, beautifully complex character. She doesn’t always make the right decisions, and she knows that. But she embraces her flaws and does what she can to pursue whatever destiny she might have, even if it might kill her.

Abed Nadir, Community

If Abed (Danny Pudi) were a real person, I think we’d be friends. We’re both socially uncomfortable, so we could be uncomfortable together. He actually knows more about pop culture than I do, which is alternately attractive and intimidating. And his ability to read people is nothing short of stunning. Though his personality and quirks are solidly set in place at this point, it’s true that there is hidden depth to his character. He’s layered, and he’s peeled back slowly, such that, even if a pop culture reference is inevitable, Abed’s sure to do something surprising every now and then.

Ben Linus, Lost

(Caution: any conversation of Lost inevitably includes a spoiler or two. You have been warned.)

Introduced as an unassuming balloonist who stumbled on the island by chance, no viewer could expect what Henry Gale–soon to be revealed to be Ben Linus (Michael Emerson)–would become, and what bearing he would have on the show. Perhaps the most morally complex and confusing character of the whole Lost gang, Ben’s motives are often unclear; on occasion, the man seems downright evil. But someone so wise surely can’t be completely corrupt, as we are reminded in his rare moments of mercy and kindness. Those moments become more common as the series progresses, and over time, Ben Linus is shown to be so much more than a turncloak or an antihero or whatever word comes to mind.

Leslie Knope, Parks & Recreation

It’s a tired complaint and I’ll turn it into a compliment here: you don’t see a ton of funny women in the limelight on TV, but on NBC every Thursday night, they’re unavoidable. Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Tina Fey, and the lovely and amazing Amy Poehler do their damnedest on every episode of their respective shows, and the result is consistently hilarious. While her comedy may be a touch more restrained than what is seen on Community or 30 Rock, Poehler shows the most chops of anyone in the bunch. Her Leslie Knope is a genuinely inspiring character, a champion for an otherwise unremarkable small Midwestern town. She plays well off any other comedic force, whether it’s a familiar foil like the incomparable Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) or any number of guest stars (Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Parker Posey, and beyond). She’s simply brilliant and yet another reason to love P&R.

Henry Pollard, Party Down

Not since Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth (Arrested Development) have we seen such a great straight man as Henry (Adam Scott), a former commercial actor who goes into the L.A. catering business as a last resort. No matter where he’s serving, from orgies to high school reunions and everything in between, craziness abounds, but Harry stays centered through it all. Throughout the show, though, Henry’s fighting back the urge to get into the acting game. Watching him struggle through mixing drinks and serving appetizers while knowing what he could be if he only tried never gets old till the very last frame.

TV Shows and the Episodes That Made Me Love Them

Someday I’ll probably run out of TV-related lists to write. Today is not that day, as I was just thinking about episodes of my favorite series that moved me from mere enjoyment to all out love. To pare down the list, I’m avoiding shows that commanded my undying affection within their first hour. That’d be the pilot of Lost, the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, and the first five minutes of The West Wing.

That being said, here are some thoughts on the episodes that convinced me I was watching something brilliant. Warning: As always, there are spoilers ahead.

Angel: Episode 1.8, “Hero”

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to determine whether I prefer Angel or Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the Great Whedonverse Race. That said, I think Angel’s dramatic high points are often more affecting than Buffy’s, and that’s true from an early point. The earliest instance occurs in “Hero,” in which one of the three central characters, Doyle (the late Glenn Quinn), passes his visionary power on to Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) with a wrenchingly sincere kiss before dying. Doyle, you see, is half-demon, something Cordelia does not know. The monsters of the week have created a Beacon that kills all half-breeds in a certain distance. To save those others like him, Doyle takes the fall, creating a truly dramatic moment and therefore solidifying Angel as one quality show.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Episode 1.7, “Angel”

Ah, the birth of Angel’s rich mythology. Viewers are clued in to so much about Angel in this single episode that it could’ve easily felt like an overly expositional info dump. But no, instead, it flows as seamlessly as the best episodes of Buffy. Bits and pieces of Angel’s past are revealed, Angel shows himself to be far from your run of the mill bloodthirsty vamp, and Angel and Buffy share their first kiss. The moment in which the cross around Buffy’s neck burns a temporary scar into Angel’s chest, though not so subtle, is a well executed narrative move forward–though their relationship has the potential to be beautiful, it’s not going to come without pain.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Episode 1.12, “The Storm”

I love origin stories. And from the first episode, it seemed pretty clear to me that Avatar was on its way to a pretty good one with the character of Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen). “The Storm” delivers in a way few origin stories do; it gives Aang the kind of depth that normally goes unseen on an animated show (just further proof that Avatar is so much more than a children’s program). We learn that Aang is far from perfect, and that he’s still struggling with the flatly irresponsible moves he made in the past. And we learn that Katara (Mae Whitman) and Sokka (Jack DeSena) are willing to accept what he did in the past, knowing that going forward, he’ll be working to fix any grave mistake he made. The heart of Avatar is revealed, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Community: Episode 1.9, “Debate 109″

This episode gets at what’s unique about Community: its willingness to feel oddly surreal in a relatively normal setting. While the A plot–Jeff (Joel McHale) and Annie (Alison Brie) team up for a debate competition against the evil geniuses of City College–is great, even better is the absurdity of the B plot, in which Abed (Danny Pudi) begins making films about his study group that accurately depict their future actions. This culminates in some eerie coincidences, one of which involves a werewolf attack that closely follows a kiss between Jeff and Annie that Abed unbelievably predicted. It’s Community’s subversion of the typical half-hour comedy that makes it so original and consistently funny, and this was the first grand example of that idea at work.

The X-Files: Episode 1.11, “Eve”

Despite its complete nosedive somewhere around the time Cary Elwes shows up in the season 9 pilot, The X-Files was, for a time, everything good TV should be–dramatic, consistently interesting, full of heart, humorous, and completely worth watching. The first time the show truly struck every single chord on that list was with “Eve,” which explored the idea of human clothing in a thoroughly non-hokey way. The idea that human cloning could begin successfully and end with a throng of completely insane, intimidatingly smart, extra-chromosomed (that’s a word now!) women is a harrowing one–and perversely entertaining at that.

Stunt Casting Triumphs and Mishaps

First, for those of you who are new here (i.e. just about everyone), thanks for stopping by. Sadly, not all my entries are written as letters to Damon Lindelof. Most are about television, though, and hopefully with a touch of humor here and there. And that’s exactly what you’re about to read. Or ignore. Your choice.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts at work yesterday, NPR/Monkey See’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. I highly recommend this particular podcast to anyone who cares about pop culture analysis and/or enjoys laughing. One of this week’s topics was stunt casting, defined by tvtropes.org as “hiring of a big-name actor to play a supporting role.” In my mind, this can only go one of two ways: very, very well or very, very poorly. I don’t have the sunniest view of stunt casting in general. I think it has the potential to distract from whatever else is going on in the episode, and pretty cheaply at that. However, there are times that it works beautifully. Here are some examples of both.

The Triumphs

Jon Hamm as Andrew Baird, 30 Rock

Jon Hamm’s rise to prominence in the entertainment world is a fairly recent development, thanks entirely to his role as the irresistibly charismatic ad executive Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men. Because of this, it can be difficult to see him outside that persona. But Hamm proved his comic chops with his turn as the ridiculously handsome but semi-idiotic Andrew Baird on 30 Rock. A great comic foil for love interest and lead Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Hamm showed that he can be funny and has a sense of humor about his role in pop culture.

Jack Black as Buddy, Community

It’s close to impossible to think of Jack Black as anyone but Jack Black. But in Community, he was able to perfectly embody a role: Buddy, a Greendale student desperate to join the stars of the Spanish study group. This leads to an excellent cold opening, a well-crafted B-plot, and a bit of even crazier stunt casting with Owen Wilson as the leader of a cooler study group. Community’s stunt casting is generally quite good, with Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Shirley’s (Yvette Nicole Brown) ex-husband in a Cosby sweater and LeVar Burton as himself and Troy’s (Donald Glover) greatest hero. But this one was the first, and may well have been the funniest.

Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni as themselves, The X-Files

As with Community, The X-Files does well with stunt casting, whether it’s Michael McKean as a swarthy secret organization’s operative or Luke Wilson as a charming Texas ranger and vampire. But the best example comes with what might be referred to as one 42-minute stunt, the delightfully goofy “Hollywood A.D.” There’s a movie being made about FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni, playing slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, have been cast as the leads. Shandling’s eccentricity and Leoni’s crush on her real life husband Duchovny make for yet another entertaining set piece in a great bit of X-Files history.

The Mishaps

John Hodgman as Dr. Gerard, Battlestar Galactica

Make no mistake: I really appreciate John Hodgman and his contributions to geek/pseudo-intellectual culture. But I think it was a misstep on the part of BSG’s producers to recruit him for a one-off role as a neurosurgeon in “No Exit,” what is otherwise a pretty somber episode. Sam Anders (Michael Trucco) is almost completely brain dead, Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) explains that one of the Cylon models is forever extinct, and then there’s Hodgman, yukking it up in the corner. His presence is distracting, and the people behind BSG were wise to never try something like this before or again.

Jennifer Lopez as Anita, How I Met Your Mother

HIMYM loves stunt casting. It loves it too much. And this was never more obvious than when Jennifer Lopez came around to play a relationship expert and potentially have sex with Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). “Of Course” was an episode that generally fell flat, with a bizarre song break for Ted’s (Josh Radnor) “Super Date” and the strangeness of Robin (Cobie Smulders) showing what might have been misplaced emotional vulnerability. But Lopez was the weakest part. There was nothing about her performance that didn’t shout, “Look, it’s Jennifer Lopez!” And that’s the biggest mistake a stunt casting choice can make.

Stephen Tobolowsky as Professor Sheffield, Community

What, you thought I didn’t have it in me to critique Community? I don’t think it was Tobolowsky’s fault that his appearance as a Who’s The Boss? scholar fell flat. Tobolowsky is a brilliant character actor, but in “Competitive Wine Tasting,” he was wasted (no pun intended). His was relegated to a C plot and got approximately 5 minutes on screen to be wacky and move along. Between this and Katharine McPhee, Community isn’t perfect at casting recognizable celebrities in random roles.