Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rewatching the "Community" pilot

Like many shows in their first season, "Community" took a while to find its footing. It was a tonally unique show that was more dramedy than comedy and it was capable of surprising the viewer with emotional depth. At the same time, it could be clumsy and rush us through its character beats too fast. The ratio of one-line jokes per episode was also unusually low. 

I fell off "Community" somewhere around Season 2 but I remember watching the pilot and thinking "Hmmm, what comes next?" Not only did I want to see more of the characters but I also was engaged in curiosity over what the format would be.

I just rewatched the pilot and definitely noticed a few awkward notes:
-Extremely inappropriate and moderately offensive way that "Aesperger's" is used as a casual insult. I have no idea how the show got away with that. That's like saying "Hey, Abed, you have leukemia! You suck!" Get it? Me either
-The "charisma" of Jeff doesn't realy translate as well as it should. I don't buy that the group would quit their squabbling in the 3rd act with a speech like that. The shark week and Ben Affleck references are a little too specific to be timeless.
-The 3rd act is way too melodramatic. Chill out everyone
, it's just a study group, you just have to learn to conjugate a few verbs with each other, not live together in a commune for the next six years.
-It's the first week of school and they're already having a Spanish exam?
-Why is Jeff admitting he made the whole study group up and why is he naive enough to think that deserves redemption from a girl who flat-out says the only thing that turns her off is lying?
-Some of the profound and deep conversations that they have at the staircase a the end are jarring. Troy suddenly asking him about why he wears a jacket and Pierce confiding to him on his divorces like he's established himself as some wise sage are a little ridiculous.

On the plus side, I'd say about 5/7ths of the characters have some genuine depth which is pretty impressive for a pilot episode. I appreciate that Pierce has been established as a bit out there so these kinds of out there emotionally raw interactions the show is going fits in well with Pierce's character. Troy in that last moment shows he's pretty vulnerable. Britta is extremely fleshed-out (it helps that her life story is explicitly stated) but she's smart, sexy, playful, and can go toe-to-toe with Jeff. Annie already gets a nickname that says a lot about her ("Annie Aderrol") and in a relatively short amount of screentime, she earns that moniker. Jeff thinks he's the shit and it's only annoying if his in-universe charisma isn't matching with what we're seeing on screen, but he still has depth. I would have hoped they'd tone him down but if memory serves, I don't think that wish was ever granted. Of the other two characters, Shirley is a stereotype (more so in the next few episodes) and Abed is just bizarre, but at least Abed can inject humor into the situations (looking at you Shirley). Plus, John Oliver (playing himself) is always a pleasant surprise.

The story is clumsily told but has an arc that shows some of that emotional depth that sets the show apart. It's also pretty intriguing that we're going to see a school-type drama transplanted to an extremely unique setting. At a community college, you can do "The Breakfast Club" with all walks of life: People who need school more than school needs them, and the show teases at that pretty well.

Lastly, let's talk about the elephant in the room: How much of the dialogue is flat-out funny? The show has always treaded in a low laughs-per-minute ratio. I think that could have prevented some viewers early on if it stuck a few more jokes. The screwball comedy dialogue between Britta and Jeff is where most of the humor lies in the episode in addition to John Oliver whose role on screen is synchronous  with his comic persona. 

A typical example of one of the jokes not relating to the Britta-Jeff dynamic (which unfortuantely would be overshadowed by a high amount of age-inappropriate shipping in later seasons) is Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, now an Oscar-winning writer) forgetting one of his cue cards in the middle of a public announcement so that his speech reads awkwardly. It's a character-based joke because that is SOOO Dean Pelton. It works mildly well but it would have really hit once people got to know the character. The humor on "Community" was always character based, but the show makes an odd choice to put the cart before the horse in that instance. 

With time, the show would go on to merge character-based humor and story better and pick up quite a few fans.


Friday, September 11, 2015

Narcos Season 1 Review

Being a sucker for South American politics (yes, it's a strangely specific interest but trust me, it's fascinating) I was drawn to Netflix's Narcos but even then I didn't expect such a fascinating show.

Narcos is the classic study of power corrupting that's been told many times by De Palma, Scorsese and Coppola but it feels fresh when this tale is transplanted to the leadership vacuum of Colombia.

Pablo Escobar isn't a Ray Liotta character who fell under the allure of crime and turned cold. Instead, Escobar was a man who grew up in an environment where evil was the norm and he just exploited it better than anyone else. Narcos makes the case that Columbia's drug empire was born out of a dog-eat-dog world.

Chance is also a key thru-line that runs through the series: It was through mere chance that a Chilean character known as "The Cockroach" survived a Chilean death squad and picked Pablo Escobar for his goldilocks qualities (not too murdery, not too soft) out of the three cartel chiefs in Medellin. It's through mere chance that neither Pablo nor Cali drug lord Pacho Herrerra escape bullet fire during various assassination attempts. It initially appears to be through foolishness that Justice Minister Lara gets assassinated (due to him opting against a bullet proof vest) but it appears the bullet would have hit him anyway. Power is obtained through smart maneuvering in this universe but also through luck of the draw.

Although Escobar fashions himself an anti-hero that seeks to help the poor, there's good reason to think the show doesn't expect us to buy that. Escobar is a destructive man and we're invested in stopping him. It's not a subversive commentary on the war on drugs here: There are characters in this story engaged in drug smuggling (the Cali cartel, the Ochoa brothers) who are not responsible for keeping an entire nation under terror with a constant threat of bombs, corruption, and mass murder.

With an evil mastermind front and center, the show packs in suspense as we await the catharsis of seeing the good guy win.

The show has gotten criticism for the blandness of its heroes but that's OK, because Kevin Murphy is simply an observer to a setting that is anything but bland. The characters that we have the most investment in are the series of government officials who are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to negotiating their way through terrorism tactics. That they're secondary and often tertiary in terms of screen time is inconsequential.

The show has gotten criticism for its narration but the critics should keep in mind that most prestige dramas have a slow burn. It generally takes a while to get into the action when the plots are so complex that they require two or three episodes of exposition. The socio-political scene in Narcos is no exception. While I agree that it's slightly cheap to tell rather than show, that's a small price to pay to get hooked immediately. Narcos is gripping from the first episode and not a lot of shows can lay that claim.