August 1, 2019 · 8:10 am
It’s always nice to rewatch something you used to love and say “hey, this is still real good”. I had that experience recently with Community, the meta-humour-heavy sitcom about a bunch of misfits attending community college and becoming unlikely friends, with plenty of shenanigans along the way. This premise would be enough to carry a perfectly fine comedy on its own, but Community always stood out for its ability to get a little bit abstract and absurd, often referencing or parodying some other genre works in the process. Season three is my favourite by far, and features some of the show’s best-written, most creative, and dare I say iconic episodes. The combination musical-horror-story-Glee-parody? The Halloween shorts? The documentary about the pillow war? The one that mostly takes place inside a retro 2D platform game? The Law and Order-style investigation into a smashed yam? The timeline-hopping “what if?”-exploring “Remedial Chaos Theory”??
But why did season three get so good, and why are the ones that take aim at a genre, show, style, or collection of tropes so good in particular? What’s the gold nugget at the heart of these wild, convention-skewing episodes? After some thought, I think I’ve figured it out, and it ultimately comes down to a deep amount of care for these creations… even while laughing at them. Continue reading →
December 3, 2015 · 12:31 am
Community and Brooklyn Nine-Nine form two points of a kind of holy trinity of quirky, well-meaning American sitcom (the other being Parks and Recreation of course) and I noticed something they have in common that in retrospect I particularly enjoy: although they both first appear to be props and motivating forces for the series’ respective male heroes to bounce off and aspire to, both shows’ leading ladies soon come into their own not only as heroines but as ridiculous, hilarious goofballs. And that, it turns out, is something of a rarity. Continue reading →
April 9, 2015 · 12:38 am
“This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little and broken, but still good.
Yeah, still good.
–Lilo and Stitch, making us all cry over an explosive dog-like alien since 2002
Orphan Black is coming back real soon, and I realise this means all the debates over what in the world is happening with Sarah’s love life are going to flare back up. Will she stay with Cal and make a complete nuclear family with their daughter? Or does she still harbour feelings for Paul despite their weird on-again-off-again-secret-military-clone-experiment relationship? Frankly, I’m just going to zone out, because what I’m really and actually invested in is her relationship with her foster brother, her daughter, her estranged reformed murderess of a twin sister, and all the closely-knit friends she’s made along the way. The family plotline, that is. Some of it blood related, most of it forged on her own terms.
“I already have a family,” she said to Helena in the finale of season one, refusing to be tied down by all the weirdness of her genetic family tree and referring instead to the bonds she’d forged by affection, and you know, the people who had actually taken care of her for her whole life and not started that life in an attempt to use her as a scientific experiment (an attempt they then mercilessly continue). Granted, she lets Helena into her life later on and they begin to form a messy but devoted sibling relationship, but that was still her choice. Sometimes, your family is a crappy place to be, whether it contains evil scientists or not, and it’s important for fiction to emphasise that it’s not only okay but sometimes better to make your own choice about who you call home.
Especially in kids’ literature, I think—there’s a trend towards unhappily adopted orphan heroes, as we’ll all know, who are lifted from the abuse/poverty/hilariously wonky living conditions they’re in by discovering that their parents were secretly wizards, or royalty, or holders of some great destiny that Our Hero is now tasked to take up. The truth of their bloodline saves the day, and you can dream of a giant busting through your door declaring “Yer a wizard” and scooping you off into the adventure you were destined for, away from your mundane and terrible home life. Continue reading →
November 13, 2014 · 12:10 am
[Spoilers ahead for Marvel comics and Being Human]
A series’ heart is its characters—whether it’s comedy, tragedy, fantasy, what have you, generally speaking, if you’re going to really capture the audience what you want is a good cast. You could have the most banal or wacky concept in the world, but if you have good characters people like and are interested in, people will watch it. Similarly, you could have the coolest and most fascinating backdrop ever, but without good characters to form that human connection, nothing’s going to glue. So, once you’ve got this band of characters that forms the bridge of audience attachment, you’d be silly to change them, right? Well, not always. Not every series revolves around the same set of fictional people for its entirety, and sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s bad.
Some series cling to their characters for decades, some change them every few seasons as a matter of course (like Skins), some bring back beloved concepts with new faces (Star Trek: Next Gen perhaps). Every long-running series has a kind of conceptual mould at its heart (e.g. Madoka Magica’s mould is “young girls fight monsters and discover the evil in the system they’re fighting for”) and a set of main characters (Madoka, Homura, Sayaka and co.). Sometimes, if they run long enough, these can get a little tired, so you have to change things up, unless you’ve got something truly episodic with no excessive continuity like old sitcoms. Generally, you can either change the characters (for example, bring in a new group of Magical Girls to follow) or break the mould (now instead of this being a story about fighting monsters it’s about fighting each other and their various dubious motivations).
Comics often keep their moulds, but get new characters within it. The new Thor comics star a woman (to the ecstatic cries of one half of the internet and the groans of the other, of course) not because Thor as we know him has been warped into a sex change, but because a new character has picked up the hammer and gained the powers therein, thus becoming the person to carry the title. So you can still have all your adventures that play with the universe and themes that suit that story, but to keep things fresh there’s a new lead to follow, get attached to, come to understand. It keeps the flavour and formula the same, but changes up the human connection to make things interesting and fresh. Thor was also a frog at one point, I’m pretty sure, so it’s not as if this is something new. Continue reading →
October 9, 2014 · 12:05 am
Every story comes with its own bargeful of “what if”s, whether they’re minor points of interest or catastrophic differences that could change the entire course and outcome of the plot. After all, string theory states that there’s an alternate universe out there where every outcome and variable is true (which means there’s a universe out there where string theory isn’t true even if it is, but that’s a headache for another day). These things are always fun for the creative-minded to play with in fandoms, but what’s interesting to me is works that actually ask and answer a lot of those “what if”s as part of their storytelling process.
Games and visual novels, obviously, are a perfect medium for this—they’re less concrete than movies or books, for example, whether their plot itself is linear or open world. Either way, generally with a lot of games half the point of interest is an interactive and fluid audience experience, where the audience is well, less of an audience, and more an active participant in the events. In open world games like Skyrim this can mean choosing your what political or rebellious factions you get involved with and thus swaying the outcome of the history of the land, or, it could just mean wandering the wilds of your own accord, deciding whether to be a good knight or a pickpocketing ass, or whether or not to fill your house with cabbages.
In more plot-based games like the Mass Effects (or interactive-movie-esque, decision-based ones like Beyond Two Souls), every decision fits together to be vital (at least a little) to the final result of the story of the trilogy, going so far as to have your choices from the first instalment affecting the gameplay in the third. This gives the player an epic sense of immersion in the story, and a feeling of responsibility for the fate of the universe, throwing them into a strong analysis of the morals of war that they as a person in the real world are directly involved in… or, you could just play around and focus on picking which crew member to romance. Which is another genre that this multiple-plot-string storytelling goes hand in hand with. Continue reading →
July 24, 2014 · 12:33 am
What are sitcoms? I don’t even know, to be honest. I don’t watch a lot of them, for whatever reason—perhaps I’m more inclined to marathon things than loyally tune in once a week and thus I miss a lot of them, perhaps the canned laughter or humour itself gets me in the back teeth. Sitcoms are a mystery unto themselves. What makes them good? What makes them bad? What makes them last forever? What are they even about? Seinfeld has been famously called a show about nothing, and a lot of sitcoms essentially follow suit. Sitcoms aren’t necessarily shows about nothing though, but shows about people.
They’re where we see our own mainstream values reflected back to us, heightened and wacky-fied enough to make it interesting. But I don’t think anyone sits down and says “I’m going to watch this comedy about a group of twenty-something-year-old friends living in the city!” They sit down to see what the individual characters and relationships within that generic framework are up to.
Parks and Recreation, for example, is about the parks and recreation department of a fictional small town in America. Bureaucracy and government are things most viewers would have to be strapped into a chair with their eyes taped to actually watch, but in essence Parks and Rec isn’t about that so much as the characters that deal with it, and that is what drives the show. It’s why you watch any show, really—sure, premise alone might keep some people interested, but for the most part we watch sitcoms (and dramas, on the flipside of the coin) for people. Continue reading →
January 9, 2014 · 12:05 am
‘Geek chorus’ being like a ‘Greek chorus’ in that it’s a character or set of characters that is there for aside glances to the audience. I kinda like that phrasing. Can I patent it?
Everyone wants to see themselves in the fiction they consume, and people get a buzz when they do. Relating strongly to a character warms a certain little compartment of the heart and can make a reader or viewer feel at home, which is why wide representation is so important and also why we often end up with these weird and cringe-worthy cut-out ‘geek’ or ‘book loving’ heroes that fans are meant to empathise with.
Because writers/showrunners/creators of fictional things for mass consumption are acutely aware of the cockles-warming nature of relatable heroes it’s understandable they jump on this and try to create one that will connect with their audience, who they think they also acutely know. This can go one of two ways and, I’m afraid to say, does not always end well. The internet has given rise to a new generation of TV writer, for example, that is able to have much more contact with and a better look at the people consuming their shows, whether it’s through chatting with them on Twitter or delving into the fandom circles of journals and blog sites or even, dare they, the world of fan works like art and writing. This exposure can give them an idea of the kind of people that are fans of their series, and that can spark inspiration for a character, be they a cameo or the hero of a new venture, that the audience is sure to see themselves in.
Here’s the thing: while this is ultimately well-meaning (most of the time?), representation of geek culture in media is a world of hits and misses. One only needs to look at the horror that is The Big Bang theory to know that this is how the enthusiastic and nerdy are best perceived on TV. To be fair, they have their fun with pop culture references and there are probably elements of the characters that viewers can see themselves in or be sympathetic with, but for the most part the show stars a pile of stereotypical caricatures with story driven by making fun of fans while masquerading as being relatable to them. Do you see why that’s a problem? Continue reading →
March 14, 2013 · 2:39 am
Community is my kind of humour, laden with pop culture references and parodies that are not so intricate that they’re not funny if you don’t get them—at the same time, not entirely relying on them and the attached stigmas of the people who get them to be entertaining (cough).
For the as yet unawares to the inner workings of this show, it follows the antics of a group of students at the fictitious Greendale Community College, the audience walked into the midst of it by Jeff Winger, a suave and stylish lawyer who not only eerily reminds me of someone I went to school with but has been debarred recently upon the discovery that his degree was forged. So tasked with getting a legitimate American university diploma, he seeks out the laziest route and enrols at Greendale planning to breeze through four years of his life with just enough credits to escape and be cool again, and possibly get laid along the way.
Things change for him, however, when in an attempt to follow his latter plan by using his impeccable charms on high-school-drop-out activist-of-everything sometime-hipster-photographer Britta Perry, Jeff finds himself in a study group with six other misplaced misfits who, without his intention, become a tight-knit group of friends. And the adventure begins, as Abed would say. Continue reading →