Saturday, November 5, 2011

Community 3-05: Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps

I'm not sure if there's ever been a show as aware of its own textuality as Community.  (Okay, maybe some reality shows, but certainly nothing fictional.)  Beyond all the pop-culture references and fourth-wall-breaking humour (usually courtesy of Abed), there's a willingness to fold, distort and mangle the traditional narrative methods of television.  It also relies on the audience's knowledge of TV conventions for humour.  Last season's clip show episode, for example, would just seem like a really weird narrative if you had never seen clip shows and didn't know that there wasn't supposed to be new content in them.  Like I mentioned in my 2 Broke Girls review, this is a kind of audience-hailing -- "you watch way too much TV, but that's cool, because you can get the jokes here!  We're your friends!"

"Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps" is far from the furthest down the rabbit hole Community has gone -- in some respects it's a fairly conventional sitcom episodes, riffing off the "Everyone Tells A Story" format that's been used many times on The Simpsons and a modified version of The Rashomon.  The basic joke is that each character tells a horror story that reflects his or her skewed worldview -- in Pierce's story he's a debonair playboy, Abed's is autistically dry, Shirley's is an excuse for moral condemnation, and so on and so forth.  The similarly-structured previous episode is a much more adventurous one.

And yet, even here, Community takes up the task with an execution that still manages to go beyond the norm.  The jokes here reference back to storytelling, mainly referring to the incongruity between the form of verbal storytelling and that of its televisual representation.  This is similar to "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" in that we can see only the fantasy and are left to infer the verbal telling of the story, although there are a few cutbacks to the telling at some points.  This is first established in Britta's formulaic slasher story, where her lack of effort or storytelling skill is reflected in the dialogue: "An escaped convict from the asylum has escaped and he's mental and on the loose and stuff.  He was last seen in the woods and has a thingy for a hand -- a hook thing where a hand should be, you know what I mean."

The episode is then about the transition from a raw story to the processed medium of television, and how something that seems normal if not ideal in the former becomes absurd in the latter.  This is somethign that has no doubt frustrated many aspiring screenwriters.  For example, Abed telling a story in his natural affect is normal, but Britta speaking in an unnatural monotone along with him?  Is funny.  And that's partly just because we get to see all of the established characters act so completely out of character.

And I think that leads into what makes this episode really tick: Community is writing fanfiction of itself.

I dabbled in the fanfic world as a teenager (it was a dark time in my life), and while there are many, many issues with the medium there's also a kind of anarchic energy, the pure joy of wish fulfillment and absurdity in equal measures.  In its more out-there episodes, Community has interpreted itself through a number of distinctly fannish lenses -- The gang is turning into zombies!  There's a dark alternate timeline!  Jeff and Britta are hot for each other... no, it's Jeff and Annie... no, Jeff and Britta is the OTP!  What prompted this particular revelation of mine was that the episode used the fantasy sequences as an excuse to feature simultaneously pairings of Jeff/Britta, Jeff/Annie, and the off-the-wall pair of Abed/Britta.  (There were a lot stranger, and mostly gayer, couples in the fanfic world.)

I talked about the perils of writing fannishly in an earlier review I did of Steins;Gate, but here I think this type of writing works.  In part this is just the change in genre.  A comedy offers a lot more room for play and free articulation of ideas without dramatic consequences -- which is a pretty important element of fandom.  The sitcom in particular wants to develop a fannish rapport with its audiences -- after all, there's a hair's breadth between water-cooler chatter about your favourite will-they-or-won't they couple[1] and obsessive shipping wars on the Internet.  But most of all what makes it work in Community is both the excellent execution and the show's well-established own voice of fellow hipness (or geekery, depending on how you look at it.)

"Horror Fiction" was written by series creator Dan Harmon, who is best described as an insane genius -- appropriate enough for an episode that ends up celebrating insanity.  Interestingly enough, Harmon has actually written fairly few scripts for Community -- a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals that he's only written the first two and last year's claymation Christmas special [2], only the latter of which can really be counted amongst the series best.  Harmon tends to indulge in play even more than the other writers of Community, and that kind of low-stakes fun definitely best appears in holiday episodes, which are almost invaribly fluff anyway.

Tristam Shapeero directs this episode.  He seems to have become the go-to guy for film parodies, which Community indulges in a lot.  What Shapeero understands about parody, and so many fail to grasp, is that it works better in general than the specific -- making fun of scary movies is great, making fun of Saw is done to death.  Genres have a cultural lifeblood that make them a much richer vein (blood and vein?  See what I did there?) for comedy than individual works do.  So Shapeero's episodes -- "Contemporary American Poultry", "Messianic Myths and Ancient People", and "Paradigms of Human Memory", two of the show's best episodes and one solid one, don't focus on one particular gangster movie or postmodern headtrip or clip show, but in the totality of the genre.  And when they work at their best, parodies always end up as being great examples of the genre -- for example, you can probably learn more about Gothic fiction from Northanger Abbey than from any particular Gothic project.  Parody also takes a great amount of school, requiring mastery and not just mockery of the genre on display -- just look at the note-perfect costumes in Annie's fantasy-horror.

This episode, while funny, doesn't really join the ranks of great parodies.  In part, its stabs at the horror genre only graze -- the main focus is the characters telling the story, and drifts away from it starting some point during Annie's story.  (No, I don't count the "sexy vampire" genre as horror.)  Of course, this is the point, in a move that hearkens towards the basis of criticisms: stories exist not by themselves but as a tool utilized by the storyteller, whether to act out fantasies (Annie, Troy & Pierce), provoke a reaction (Britta), offer moral condemnation (Shirley) or counter another storyteller (Abed).  The obvious next step is to point towards how the episode itself, as a story, is no less complicit in this.  But there's never any gesture towards the episode as text, and I'm not sure what to make of that.  Whereas "Remedial Chaos Theory" pointed directly towards its own constructedness, "Horror Fiction" never makes the self-reflexive move.  Don't get me wrong, there are some great lines in here -- "We now interrupt your death metal for heavy news", "I hope you're as fertile as I am tonight" -- and on the whole it's a really enjoyable episode, but it doesn't go to the level that truly great Community episodes do.

Before I finish I realize I should probably mention the actual framing device for all these stories -- Britta receives a psych evaluation that reveals that one of the group members is dangerously psychotic, and wants to evaluate their sanity by making them tell scary stories.  Of course, in the end it turns out she input the papers backwards, so in reality only one of them is sane -- which is, in a slightly intrusive final shot, revealed to be Abed.  This is a kind of obvious joke on one level, the "aren't we crazy hahaha" lampshading tha Community is occasionally guilty of.  But it also speaks to the show's embracing of its own outsider status -- it realizes that it's abnormal and so are we, and thinks that rather than pathologize that it should be celebrated.  After all, to be normal would to be like Abed -- obsessed with surface and data, a virtual robot.  (This raises the possibility that this is a skewed perspective that only makes the rest of the group's histrionics look normal, with Abed actually being objectively sane and only seeming dry in comparison.)

This celebration of difference or insanity obviously works best in a show with a small but dedicated fanbase, like this one -- being a fan of the show is an emotional experience beyond the mere experience of a text.  But ultimately this feeling of insider-ness doesn't stem solely or even primarily from circumstance.  In the end, Community could go from a show on the verge of cancellation to a universally beloved hit, and it would still give the impression that you and it are part of a secret, dorky but ultimately awesome club.  And that's probably why I love it.

Next week: I alienate my audience even more with semi-obscure anime.

[1]Community plays with this trope mercilessly.  This can be seen most prominently in the clip show episode where it's revealed that Jeff and Britta have been casually hooking up for the past season, with the implication that these characters' romantic entanglements don't really matter anyway.  It's also evident in the show's willingness to spend an episode teasing a certain pairing and then ignore it afterwards.  To be honest, I'm perfectly fine with fucking with these types of people.

[2]Of course, American sitcoms are more collectively written than anything else, so this attribution probably doesn't mean too much.

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