Saturday, March 31, 2012

Community 3-11: Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts

In the three-month interval between the previous episode of Community and this one, the show had gathered up such a massive, Katamari-esque ball of cultural associations that the actual text of Community had been more or less occluded from view.  Rather than being a low-key, dorky show that was only ostensibly about community college students it became the latest in a long line of TV martyrs.  Community became a stand-in for every show that was too smart or too good for TV: it was Arrested Development, it was Firefly, it was Freaks and Geeks and Deadwood and My So-Called Life.  The Internet, never much motivated by anything other than having its entertainment taken away, raged against the soulless and inept NBC machine.  People who never watched the show were suddenly passionate about its possible cancellation (we can call this "the Conan effect".)

(I'm a huge fan of the show and think it's one of the best comedies on TV, but I got sick very quickly of all this sturm und drang.  In general I find ratings discussion about the least interesting way of considering TV aside from pure recap, and I wish we could just talk about the show without it always turning into a discussion of demographics and timeslots and how the network is screwing Community again but, well, here we are.  And in retrospect, by not having it on the winter schedule NBC only pushed its return back like a month, which doesn't seem worth all the drama in the end.)

Given that, it's hard to read "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" in any context except that of the return of Community, even though this was probably not considered at all in its production.  Texts acquire cultural baggage which can overwhelm their literal meaning and existence -- just try to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and give it a fair shake.  Curiously, this episode contains a pretty significant plot point -- Shirley's wedding -- that was all but ignored in the discussion over it.  The meta-drama around Community has, I think, become much more interesting to many people than the drama and gags within the show.  But I think the show still has some power and merit of its own that raises it above merely an object of obsession.

"Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" starts out with a big table scene, one of the staples of Community.  These scenes are usually some of the most purely enjoyable because they allow the characters to bounce off each other and trade some of the show's rapid-fire jokes and free association without the burden of having to push forward a plot.  I would kill for an entire episode of this, as unpalatable as it probably is to the networks ("Cooperative Calligraphy" comes close, but is still based on a central plot).  In this case there's a bit of a shift-up, as the scene takes place around a cafeteria table instead of the usual big study room table, but the basic beats remain the same.

Of course, the scene isn't completely plotless, as it lays the groundwork for the overarching storylines of the episode, but these elements are introduced in a way that feels spontaneous and distinctly non-storyboarded.  A lot of times the more sitcommy scenarios in Community can feel too schematic, but these scenes always have the air of improv, with a new character coming in with a hook and everyone reacting to them, but not being afraid to go off on a tangent.  Pierce coming in with his "entrepreneur" look -- a great piece of costuming -- and a handful of dumb gadgets is the perfect kind of addition to this scene.

(The over-the-shoulder shot is interesting here, and highlights one of the advantages of a single-camera comedy.  Instead of observing the characters performing as though we were a stage audience, the camera places us amongst the characters themselves, as though we were actually a part of this circle of friends.)

This freeform scene is interrupted by the arrival of Andre, Shirley's ex-husband, who is back to propose marriage to her.  Andre is an interesting kind of disruption to the group.  He doesn't have a real comedic character hook, and with him comes the reminder of Shirley's past and her family.  Their children rarely appear, but there's a tension that their existence creates: unlike the rest of the group[1], Shirley isn't an unburdened twenty-something who can go off on whimsical adventures without having to worry about responsibilities.  Community chooses to elide this sometime in favour of involving her to the whimsy, but "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" very consciously deploys this.  Even before they start fighting about whether Shirley should be more or less involved in Greendale, Andre's presence suggests an uncomfortable reintroduction of the real world to the surreal setting of Greendale.

That dynamic -- the surreal being threatened by the real -- is what fuels most of the subplots in this episode.  As much for its characters as for its audience, Community is a safe and welcoming bubble where imagination can be unleashed without a real fear of consequences.  As much as these characters fight, they still make up a fairly warm group of oddballs that mutually support each others' fantasies -- a community, if you will.  From a more negative perspective, this is a state of arrested development and a bit of a cult, something the show isn't afraid to recognize.  "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" is a part in a coming of age story, in which our sheltered characters realize that they have to face the real world through a ritual experience, the wedding (which is really an "okay-now-you're-really-an-adult-party-time-is-over" ritual), but also isn't afraid to recognize that coming of age kind of sucks.  (This can also be seen in "Mixology Certification".)

The most obvious expression of this is in the plotline where Abed and Troy attempt to act normal for Shirley's wedding, excising their weirdness through an all-day Dreamatorium session.  When the two arrive they're so dry and normal that they're abnormal, ending up seeming halfway between sarcastic and door-to-door missionary.

It's a testimony to the comic skill of Donald Glover and Danny Pudi that they manage to make the most intentionally dull lines hilarious.  But in the end the two manage to re-whimsify themselves with only a hint of struggle against the temptations of the normal world.  Although Abed and Troy will eventually have to face the real world, for now they can put it off.  (The temporary-ness of this resolution is acknowledged in the very next episode, "Contemporary Impressionists".)

Jeff and Britta are also forced to confront adulthood in this episode, mainly through the fear that they'll become their parents.  This is another one of the nightmarish aspects of growing up -- the increasing suspicion that you're slowly sliding into a life that you spent your entire teenaged years disparaging.  If Abed and Troy live in a continued childhood, Jeff and Britta are in a continued adolescence, constantly rebelling against what's expected of them -- but the wedding presents the onset of terrifying adulthood, so terrifying for these two because they have no model for adulthood other than one they see (with some justification) as a kind of doom.

Once again, the show doesn't resolve this fatalism entirely.  Jeff and Britta believe that they are doomed to unhappy marriages, despite their antipathy towards marriage in general, and almost marry each other in a hilarious drunken shout-fest.  Shirley and Andre talk them down, by arguing that marriage can be happy with hard work and open communication [2], but it still leaves marriage as an inevitable future -- one that Jeff and Britta are free to make the best of, but one that they can't avoid.  (The Jeff/Britta pairing has a similar air of inevitability, something that Community frequently plays around with.)

This dynamic is reinterpreted most interestingly when it comes to Shirley's plotline.  In "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" she's torn between her impending marriage and her career ambitions, which involve opening up a sandwich shop with Pierce.  The choice between romance and career is a very typical one, the foundation of a thousand romantic comedies, but it exists in an interesting dynamic with the plotlines discussed above.  If we use the model of these other stories, that would position Shirley's wedding as the inevitable sign of adulthood that she has to confront.  But that doesn't quite work.  Rather, it seems like advancing her career is a form of growth for Shirley, converting her from a housewife constrained to the domestic to a full human being [3].

In other words, while for the other characters Greendale is a retreat into a childish world, for Shirley it creates the possibility of her own coming of age.  And unlike the other characters being dragged helplessly towards an inevitable adulthood, Shirley is actively pursuing it.  Through her Community is possibly suggesting a resolution towards the dilemma it presents in this episode.

Despite this, however, the issues she faces still aren't settled.  She doesn't get the restaurant with Pierce, and Andre still isn't fully accepting of her ambitions -- he just loves her enough to put up with them for now.  As with the other plotlines, the conflict is deferred, but not resolved.  This is a really smart approach to serialization, which uses both the episode and the series as distinct narrative units.  Problems can be addressed within the framework of an individual episode, but this is always temporarily pushing back the inevitable reality that these characters don't want to face.  It's like a comedy version of The Shield, but perhaps more formally deft.

Oh yeah, and this episode was really funny.  Sometimes that gets lost.

Next week: "Is it true that when they told you of your wife's death you said 'Oh no, now I'll need a fourth for bridge"?"

[1]Pierce isn't a twenty-something, but he doesn't have any dependents or real responsibilities, so in many ways he's closer to the younger characters than Shirley.

[2]Honestly, I'm with Jeff and Britta (and Laura Kipnis) on this one.  "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" more or less repeats the societal refrain on romantic relationships, which is that they "take work" but are life-defining and necessary, making marriage an institution that never fails, but only is failed.  To be fair, Community also offers alternate models of living contently (Troy and Abed never seem desperate for love), but the big moment of sincerity at this episode's climax does seem very orthodox.

[3]The idea of business as being liberating from the patriarchal domestic sphere was a tenet of Freidan-esque liberal second-wave feminism, and has been beat up by smarter people than me.  It still gets reproduced unabashedly by capitalist media, and this episode of Community falls into line with that.  I know it's unreasonable to expect my favourite shows to be models of radical leftism, but suffice to say that in the fight between patriarchy and entrepreneurship I'm stepping out of the way.

1 comment:

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