“Advanced Criminal Law”/”Football, Feminism and You”

Gentlemen, my client is insane.
“…do we really want to make it a crime to be crazy at Greendale?”

“Advanced Criminal Law”

During the course of the average human existence, we will all find ourselves drifting in and out of the lives of those around us at any given time. Of course, those other people are experiencing the same phenomenon, the differences being where we come from, and where we are now. Though millions of these overlaps can occur in a lifetime, it’s the ones where lives truly intersect that are the most interesting. What happens when two (or more) lives intersect is the basis of our relationships, and our actions within these intersections form not just who we are, but also how we are perceived. Personality and perception are inherently linked, and the right kind of person, say, the Jeff Wingers of the world, capitalize on that link, manipulating perceptions to boost their personality, then using that personality to manipulate perceptions, and so on in an endless cycle. So what is it about Britta Perry that causes Jeff’s cycle to, if not crash entirely, at least falter?

This is an interesting question, and one Community is only barely diving into. It’s just such a shame that the episode where the real digging begins is so lackluster. “Advanced Criminal Law,” much like this week’s other episode, is finishing the job of setting up our characters. The main plot, where Britta admits to cheating on a Spanish test, pairs up Jeff and Britta once again. The problem is that it’s unclear what more needs to be established between the two. Jeff continues his attempts to seduce Britta, who continues to deftly avoid his seduction. After she admits to cheating, Jeff offers his skills to Britta, one of his most blatant attempts at manipulating and gaining leverage. That Britta accepts his offer makes sense; Britta sees Jeff as a friend, and understands that his experience as a lawyer could help her during her tribunal. Jeff lobs around barbed sarcasm, Britta opens up to him, and he drives the story home with a Winger Speech. Case closed. It doesn’t add much, but it’s inoffensive, and the tribunal’s location (Greendale’s Olympic-sized pool) makes for some great gags. (Who doesn’t laugh at Leonard skinny-dipping? At the very least, his “Busted!” is one of Leonard’s best moments.)

Things become more problematic in the subplots. I’ll be blunt: Troy and Abed make a great team, but Abed pretending to be an alien to try and “mess” with Troy (because get it, Asperger’s!) is just too silly. Troy and Abed’s stories work best when the absurdity is gentle. The alien plot is too broad, and while Danny Pudi gets in some great physical humor, it doesn’t amount to much (until, mild spoilers, much, much later in the series). It’s nice to see their deepening friendship, but even the tag of the episode (see below) does it much more effectively. There are similar problems with “Pierce writes Greendale’s new school song.” The show would do much better with Pierce’s attempts to manipulate the way the study group sees him, but this plot does give us our first real instance of Annie getting tough, a secret weapon that will become one of the character’s greatest strengths in the future. Plus, the payoff, with Pierce performing “Greendale’s the Way It Goes,” an oblivious rip-off of Bruce Hornsby’s “That’s Just the Way It Is,” is remarkably triumphant. It’s a moment where cynicism gives way to tenderness, which is Community‘s stock and trade, but it works all the same, and serves as a nice cap to an otherwise subpar episode.

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“Say hello to our ethnically neutral mascot, the Greendale Human Being!”

“Football, Feminism and You”

“Football, Feminism and You” deals not only with perceptions, but what causes these perceptions. Troy and Britta have both set up walls, based in past experiences, in order to protect their images. A stranger or casual acquaintance would have no reason to ever tear down the walls, but in order for relationships to deepen, walls must come down, and perceptions must change. It’s work for all involved, but it’s also necessary in order to establish truthful, meaningful relationships.

While the episode is ostensibly about Troy, the main conflict is between Jeff and Annie: both want to use Troy for their own (mostly) selfish reasons. Annie is nursing a high school crush, and has finally found a way to situate herself close to Troy, and become someone he can (and must) depend on for academic success. Jeff needs Troy to join the football team and appease Dean Pelton, who blackmails Jeff with posters and mailers featuring Jeff’s picture. (It should be noted that aside from the blackmail, Dean Pelton has stakes in Troy’s decision to join the football team or not. His attempts at legitimizing Greendale are a persistent runner of the season.) Annie and Jeff become the angel and devil on Troy’s shoulders, pulling him between academia and football. But our past informs our present, and it’s no surprise that Classic Winger Coercion brings Troy right back into his high school jock persona. But while both Jeff and Annie consider Troy’s decision as their own personal tug-of-war, neither realizes that Troy’s experiences are his own. It’s a relief when, at the end of the episode, Troy gives Jeff his own take on the Winger Speech, telling the truth about his accident, and explaining that he’s comfortable where he is. After the initial, douche-y jolt of adrenaline from the idea of playing football again wears off, he sees the situation much more clearly than Jeff or Annie, both consumed by their attempts to manipulate another in order to alter the way they’re perceived, could.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Britta struggles with the idea of women going to the bathroom together. Let’s all be honest: the premise is as sitcom-y as they come. But instead of silly hijinks, Shirley forces Britta is explore her own femininity (and vice versa). Britta, so far in the series, is a woman defined by her isolation. Her refusal to let anyone close is not limited Jeff, and at least in the case of her relationship to other women, was created by a long history of being ostracized for not conforming to the same ideas of femininity as other girls. Shirley, much more traditionally feminine, initially ostracizes Britta herself, not out of meanness, but only because she interprets Britta’s coldness as a lack of feminine camaraderie. It’s only after the truth about the past comes out that both Britta and Shirley can see what the other is offering. It’s a wonderful moment, then, when a crying Annie (caused by Jeff over in the A-plot) asks Shirley to accompany her to the restroom, only for Shirley to encourage Britta to go instead. Britta’s rebellious nature and stand-offish approach to soapy drama makes her prickly towards Shirley’s restroom banter, but after learning the true nature of the lady’s room, she turns those qualities around and uses them to help Annie. Britta believes in female empowerment, and is herself a strong woman, but because of her history, was averse to the shared feminine experience. Her ultimate revelation is that, while restroom banter may seem childish to her, it’s a pure, visceral form of female empowerment. It’s a way for Britta to share her strength, as well as forge the deeply personal connections with other women she had been denied throughout her life.

It’s the idea of whether or not a person needs help with the way they’re perceived that drives “Football, Feminism and You.” Jeff, Annie and Shirley make assumptions about Troy and Britta, about what they are and what they need, and those assumptions are incorrect. Troy and Britta may have both carefully groomed the way they’re seen by others, but those perceptions were built on fallacies. While our pasts may inform our present, it’s the truth about the past that makes us into the people we want, and need, to be.

Advanced Criminal Law: B-
Football, Feminism and You: B+

Stray Observations:

  • One good thing “Advanced Criminal Law” gives us is a greater sense of place. Not only do we get appearances from Starburns(!), Leonard(!!) and Garrett(CRISIS ALERT!!!), but also Dean Pelton, Señor Chang, and Professor Duncan. And Luis Guzman! (Okay, it’s just a statue, but still!)

  • Jeff: “Cheers.”
    Abed: “M*A*S*H.”
    Duncan: “Fawlty Towers. Game over. Have a nice day.”

  • “The only difference between Señor Chang and Stalin is that I know who Chang is.”

  • Pierce playing Annie out of the room might be a cliche (especially in the post-Keyboard Cat world), but it’s still funny.

  • “Dean Pelton, I move that this case be thrown out of… the pool area!”

  • “I’m sorry, do you mind if we have this conversation in a room with slightly less balls?”

  • “Pierce and Troy didn’t get along at first, but now they’re bonding over mutual adolescence.”

  • “Football, Feminism and You” gives us a truly fantastic C-plot where the dean and Pierce work together to create Greendale’s new mascot. The result is the truly horrific Human Being, one of Greendale’s most enduring, and hilarious, quirks.

  • Jim Rash does some great work in both of these episodes. His insistence on receiving a high-five from Jeff near the beginning of “Football, Feminism and You” is such a perfect piece of physical humor, played terrifically by both.

  • Troy: “How did you know my nickname was T-Bone?”
    Jeff: “Because you’re a football player and your name begins with ‘T.’ Your name… begins with ‘T.'”

  • “Troy, why are you doing our politically conservative high school’s shamefully outdated fight rap?”

  • “I think not being racist is the new racism.”

  • “I’m not having a conversation with someone who just emerged from a bush.”

  • This week’s tags: Troy and Abed take turns trying to fit as many (unsharpened) pencils as possible into each other’s mouths, and break into the main office to make their own morning zoo announcements over the PA.

A Short Toast to Cory Monteith

I bailed on Glee after the Rocky Horror episode. The show was beginning to tumble into a direction that I wasn’t as attached to, and my television habits/interest hadn’t fully formed yet, and so the show and I drifted apart. And though I’ve never really looked back on that decision heavily, I still keep myself tangentially aware of the show’s going-ons. I’m not sure what it is about Glee that causes me to read the occasional review of a much-talked about episode, but I’ll never be able to forget what got me in: the pilot episode, and in particular, its closing rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” a song I despise on a very deep level, despite knowing all of the words (and having performed a bizarre dance routine to, involving standing on a chair and exiting the stage with a long series of faux-periouettes). The performance is obviously a triumphant one, but it—and the song itself—always struck me as one that speaks to the Finn Hudson character on a very base level, capturing his complicated emotional journey throughout the series, or at least the episodes I’ve seen.

Now, obviously, it’s unfair to conflate the character of Finn Hudson and the actor Cory Monteith. From all appearances, Monteith was a straight-forward, down to earth guy, one who enjoyed life and struggled to live as best he could (despite whatever personal issues and setbacks he faced, none of which I will get into here). His twitter feed was a constant source of entertainment, and long after I had abandoned Glee, I would still find myself chuckling at a joke or looking over links and pictures he sent out into the digital ether. But his work within Finn Hudson was my first introduction to Monteith, and even when I found the show floundering, I could always count on him to hold it together.

One of the last examples of Moneith’s talent I can remember before quitting is the wonderful “Grilled Cheesus,” a highly emotional episode that dealt with religion and the ways spirituality exists in all our lives. While the A-story, about Kurt’s father having a heart attack and the glee club rallying around him in support, is heavy and emotionally difficult, Finn’s story, while carrying a small bit of the same gravitas as Kurt’s, takes a lighter approach, and lends the episode some much-needed levity, and it’s Finn’s plot (and Monteith’s performance) that keeps that episode fresh in my memory, even to this day. (Even an incredibly hokey song choice couldn’t stop his performance of “Losing My Religion” from delivering on every single level.)

As I said before, it’s been quite a while since I sat down and actually watched an episode of Glee. If and when the show does its tribute to Monteith, no matter what form it takes, I’ll most likely break that abstinence. I have little interest in anything the show is actually doing at this point, but a sense of responsibility, and of genuine sadness, draws me toward any form of remembrance. I may not have much to say about Monteith, but I am saddened that we’ll never get to see where his talent may have taken him. I might even need to bust out the Glee pilot once more, for old times’ sake, and even more so than usual, I know the tears will come when the first a capella notes of “Don’t Stop Believing” blast through the speakers.

So here’s to Cory Monteith, the decade-too-old high school student who brought me to tears with a capella, and whose talent and work, I hope, can live on for years to come.

Is it time to mourn the half-hour dramedy?

Brie Larson, Toni Collette (United States of Tara)

I recently watched United States of Tara, a Showtime original starring Toni Collette as a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder. I’d heard quite a bit about the show, especially a growing well of praise that’s sprung since the show’s cancellation in 2011. While I was fascinated with the characters (Collette’s performance of Tara and her multiple “alters” is comparable to the work Tatiana Maslany is currently doing on Orphan Black) and storytelling, since finishing the series, I’ve been more stricken not only by how gloriously it succeeded as a half-hour dramedy, but also by how dead the genre feels in today’s television landscape. Has it reached the end of its road?

Though the dramedy has a long history (ostensibly beginning with M*A*S*H), it evolved tremendously in the early 2000s. Freaks & Geeks, Paul Feig’s seminal high-school dramedy, finished its single-season run in 2000, while 2001 saw the arrival of Scrubs, Bill Lawrence’s high-energy hospital sitcom. The term “dramedy” had been redefined to focus on thematic, not structural, elements. Both of the aforementioned programs would lay the groundwork for network dramedies (hour and half-hour, respectively) for the forseeable future. From Freaks & Geeks would come sharp, quirky, yet poignant hour-longs: Ugly Betty; Pushing Daisies; Desperate Housewives; and on the cable side, Huff. Scrubs set the stage for more manic, zany half-hours that would be increasingly serialized and infuse a certain amount of emotion into their stories: How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, Community.

 But it’s on cable that the new half-hour dramedy came into its own. In 2005, HBO and Showtime each debuted a half-hour dramedy of their own. For HBO, it was The Comeback, a truly fascinating, though incredibly painful to watch, faux-reality series starring Lisa Kudrow as a failed actress trying to reclaim her fame. The series never found popularity, its inaccessible nature not helped by the fact that the entire series was presented as raw footage, full of long awkward pauses between characters and with all the “bad takes” and incidents that would normally be edited out still presented to the viewer. It was canceled three months after its debut, and today remains more a fascinating failure than essential viewing. Showtime, on the other hand, premiered Weeds.

 Weeds is the story of a suburban housewife (Mary-Louise Parker) who, after her husband’s death, turns to marijuana dealing in order to support her family. Its first season had elements of suburban satire, but as time passed, those fell away in favor of the character-driven stories. Weeds ran for eight long seasons, seasons which saw its quality diminish intensely. (So intensely that, by the time of the finale, few publications or critics even cared enough to weigh in.) Even the finale, an episode that jumps a decade into the future and brings back characters who left the series years before, was divisive among fans. (I mean, it’s no Lost finale, but I digress.)

 What is undeniable about Weeds, though, is the impact it had on the cable television landscape. This new breed of half-hour dramedy, featuring extreme serialization and an emphasis on dark comedy, was a huge hit. From Weeds came a bevy of shows that followed these new guidelines. Showtime would follow them closely, perhaps a little too much so, in producing The Big C and United States of Tara, becoming notorious for their “respected actress behaving badly” series. Other programs used the guidelines and created new variations: Hung, in which a high-school teacher becomes a male prostitute; Californication, starring David Duchovny as a struggling novelist; Bored to Death, which would incorporate noir storytelling elements; Party Down, which eschewed traditional structure, each episode revolving solely around an event the titular crew is catering, forcing a subtler type of serialization. While not huge ratings hits or massive phenomena, this new slew of series nonetheless remain an important part of television’s history, having both occurred during the Golden Age of TV Drama and also repurposed a genre that had worked in the past, and was still working well on the network channels.

 But where are we now? United States of Tara, considered by many to be the crown jewel of this new kind of dramedy, ended in 2011, while Weeds, the origin of the species, finished its reign in 2012. The drawn-out end of the Golden Age is fading into a new Silver Age, an era for drama and comedy defined by an increased feminine presence and an embrace of the emotional core many Golden Age dramas avoided. Single-camera and animated sitcoms have grown in popularity and prestige. Experimentation is becoming more and more encouraged, both by new outlets like Netflix and established programmers like HBO. Networks not known for original scripted content have stepped up and provided fascinating and exciting new programs, like Sundance and IFC. The television landscape is made of Play-Doh, ripe for playing around, trying new things, and starting from scratch if an idea doesn’t work out.

 And so the dramedy finds itself diminished. HBO recently struck critical and cultural gold with Girls, Lena Dunham’s examination of the female twenty-something life in New York City, as well as a bonafide television masterpiece with Enlightened, Mike White’s quiet rumination on the pursuit of happiness. Showtime brought on Don Cheadle for House of Lies, an entertaining, if contentious, story about a team of management consultants. And… that’s about it, as far as the new dramedy model goes. But is it the end? Is it time to mourn this complicated beast?

 Maybe not. Fuse is setting to premiere their first scripted program, The Hustle, a dramedy set in the hip-hop world, and HBO has picked up an untitled Dwayne Johnson/Mark Wahlberg project about retired athletes, Michael Lannan’s untitled series about young gay men living in San Francisco, and Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, featuring a who’s who of young indie-comic talent. Each of these has at least the faintest promise, and combined with the programs still on-air, it could keep the genre alive for a few more seasons. This might be the slow death of the half-hour dramedy, but you can keep your black suits and veils in the closet for now.