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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (3/28/11) 11:33pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Oog.  Missed sooo many weeks.  Ow ow ow.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Community [1x01-1x07], Community [1x08-1x13]
Books:  Building Great Sentences, The Man in the High Castle [spoilers]

Community [1x01-1x07]
This is Dan Harmon's series about a hodgepodge bunch of rejects who form a study group at a Colorado community college.

Yes, I'm late to the party with Community.  Yes, it's hilarious.  Yes, there are aspects of it that make me wonder if I absently wandered into their writers' room sometime in 2009.  Abed makes me wince with recognition, and Señor Chang reminds me of every bit of comical advice I've given my sister about how to teach college classes.

The odd thing is, I'm *so* late to the party here that I'd already read extensively about the show, even without seeing a single frame of it.  Face it, when Dan Harmon talks about being a showrunner, it makes for fascinating reading whether you know the show or not.

So, going into this, I already knew that Harmon is all about constant triangulation.  He doesn't walk in knowing exactly what he wants, like (say) Matthew Weiner or David Milch.  Instead, you see the pilot set up a very solid, workable foundation ("They're at a community college!  They're all really different people!  Wacky things can happen!") and then... he explores.

He tries out different combinations of characters to see what's going to catch and what won't.  He tries out different takes on the Jeff/Britta "will they or won't they?" dynamic.  He tries out different levels of meta from episode to episode.[1]  He sees Donald Glover and Danny Pudi rap during a red-carpet interview, and then creates a legendary fake-Spanish-rap tag.

Luckily for Mr. Harmon, Zucker had sent NBC's general ratings so far into the crapper that the network was willing to give him some time to sort out what he wanted.

I was also pleasantly surprised -- maybe even a little relieved -- that I really enjoyed a sitcom that was, in many ways, so traditional.  It feels like they're using something like Cheers as the template -- big cast, strong characters, no real specific overarching objectives beyond the leading man trying to bed the leading lady -- and added just these light touches of what these recent, ambitious comedies (I'm thinking Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, stuff like that) have been doing.

It's serialized, but only just barely.  You could watch the episodes out of order and, while the character/relationship arcs would feel wonky[2], the "overarching plot" wouldn't suffer.

It has *some* of the density of Arrested Development, but it's scaled down to the level of an occasional callback and a steady stream of background/freeze-frame jokes from the art department.  If Arrested Development was polyphony, Community is much more a single melody:  one conversation occupies the story at a time, and it proceeds through its jokes in order.

Of course, it gets through those jokes a bit faster than other shows because it's a 'modern' sitcom:  single-camera without a laugh track.  So instead of pausing and waiting for the laugh, it thunders ahead to the next one and the next one and the next one.  But it's not leaning too heavily on being 'film-like'.  Sure, there are some flourishes that you could only do single-camera (say, Pierce's Spanish-class performance-art montage set to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up"), but by and large, Community tells stories that you could tell on a few three-walled standing sets.

Basically, you could build a time machine and remake Community back in the 80s.  The show would lose some things --  the camera-work, the pacing, the manic self-awareness, the attention to relationship arcs -- but the guts of the show would still be there.  It's not like, say, My Name Is Earl, where the myriad of location shots would make 1980s-Earl impossible, or How I Met Your Mother, where the structural game-playing would bewilder its 1980s-era, be-stubbled and Members-Only-jacketed audience.

And to be clear:  this is not a bad thing at all.  It draws slightly from all these newer influences, it uses them well, and it makes for a good show.  And what's more, it's clear that Dan Harmon is restlessly exploring, most of all, relationships.  He wants to let these people get to know each other, give them strong feelings for each other (romantic or otherwise), and then find ways to make the episodes impact those relationships.

That, in the end, might be the way this show differs most sharply from its Cheers-like antecedents, even if it's a difference that's not on the surface.  Each story is self-contained, but what it does to the characters is not.  When Troy and Abed form a bond, the bond sticks.  When Annie realizes she can't make Troy love her, the realization sticks (though she doesn't get over him, does she?).  When Britta and Jeff move past their initial "I'm a random guy tryin' to get in your pants"/"Ooh I don't trust you exchanges" -- well, the dynamic stays largely the same, but the added nuances stick.

That's what more recent shows have leaned on more heavily than older ones, and that, for me, is most of what makes television worth watching:  to see relationships grow and change over time in a way that they can't in, say, films.  The 1980s version of Community would lose its history.  And in the end, that absence would gnaw away at you every time they hit the figurative 'reset' button at the end of the credits.

Community [1x08-1x13]
On this next disc, it feels like they all sort of settle into the show.  They know who the characters are, they know which relationships really pop, and they have a strong sense of how far they can go into crazyland without breaking the show.

With that, they go into episodes that feel a lot more self-contained.  The character arcs are less attended to -- most characters remain static, and they make a joke of Jeff's decision to be less of a jerk in "Comparative Religion" (apparently "make Jeff more chill" had been a network note).  They introduce pretty significant story elements -- say, Jeff's new job as the editor of the college paper -- that dissipate before the next episode, the way things do in sitcoms.

This leaves the show without a strong through-line, so it lives and dies on how funny it is.  Fortunately, it has more hits than misses.  I feel like the show knows its strengths, and that makes it bold.  That's how you can have the show gleefully wade into nonstop religious jokes (with "Comparative Religion"[3]) or bring out a team of thugs led by Anthony Michael Hall that seems to occasionally bust into gymnastic dance (oddly, the same episode).

A few episodes, such as the guest spot from Jack Black, fall flat.  It's entertaining enough to watch Jack Black do some more of his schtick, but it doesn't quite fit the show's vibe, and the meta riffs that poke fun at guest casting don't really make up for that.

Thematically, these episodes tends not to hold together as the first bunch.  Or honestly, that's a guess on my part.  Often these episodes *felt* like they had A-, B-, and C- stories that were arbitrarily collated together into an episode.  "Oh.  Okay, we're switching over to this story now.  Um... sure."  It could be a "they aren't thematically connected" thing.  It could be that there were just some dud stories this time around.

*Something* made the structure more visible this time, although when all the strands came together in the musical sequence at the end of "Environmental Science", who can complain?

I suspect that the rest of the season will feel like this batch of episodes:  they've got this strong (if static) platform, and they'll leverage this to do crazy comedy, and that there will be some episodes where it pays off, and some episodes where they waste a good platform on a bad concept.  But I doubt I'll have a strong emotional response to most of it, beyond the usual laughter.

Building Great Sentences:  Exploring the Writer's Craft by Brooks Landon
This is the Teaching Company audiocourse about how to write better sentences.

If there's one thing to take away from this course, it's how to write a cumulative sentence.  I'm going to write out the Cliff's Notes version of the concept, just so I myself remember it:  a "cumulative sentence" is one with lots of free modifiers.  A "free modifier" is a modifying clause that could move anywhere in the sentence.  Often, a free modifier starts with a participle.

Here, I'll write a really bad example for you:  "Dripping with sweat, gulping down loud gasps of air, staggering on unsteady feet, the runner collapsed at the finish line."  Ignore the crappy prose.  The point here is that those -ing phrases could move anywhere in the sentence.  You could switch up their order.  You could put them before or after the main clause, or even in the middle of it.  You could add more -ing clauses, or leave one out.

Cumulative sentences give you a lot of syntactic freedom, they let you pack a lot of information into your sentences, and they really aren't used that much, so they give you an opportunity to add variety to your sentence structure.

You can also use these free modifiers in a coordinate or subordinate structure.  "Coordinate" modifiers all relate to the same base clause:  "Dripping with sweat, gulping down loud gasps of air, staggering on unsteady feet, the runner collapsed at the finish line."  "Subordinate" modifiers instead relate to some single element of the previous clause:  "The runner collapsed at the finish line, bulping down loud gasps of air, air that was stagnant with the July heat, a relentless heat that brutalized even the strongest runner."[4]

Again:  ignore the crappy prose, look at the structure, and see the options you have available.  You can build whole sentence-mansions out of these little free-modifier Legos.

As the lectures veer away from this cumulative-sentence concept, they get less useful.  He goes on to talk about the concept of 'suspensiveness', which basically means "making the audience wonder what the heck your sentence is really about".  Apparently this was all the rage back in the 18th century -- the best prose stylists would construct massive sentences that would all hinge on the nature of that last word.  The technique survives today, in less absolute form:  "The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries." -- Winston Churchill.  The sentence doesn't really 'click' until that last 'miseries' drops into place.

This was far less novel than the 'cumulative sentence' idea.  I spent my childhood watching stand-up comics on basic cable, and I got a basic notion that it really really mattered that you put the important bit at the end of the sentence.[5]

Then towards the end, the lecturer discusses prose style in general.  This was pretty much useless in terms of 'providing simple cheats for improving your writing', but it was interesting in philosophical terms.

Mainly, it explained neatly why I usually hate reading modern fiction.

In screenwriting jargon, there's a thing called a 'bump'.  A 'bump' is any part of a screenplay that makes you consciously aware that you are reading and processing text.  Any typo, any odd phrasing, any long sentence that draws attention to itself:  those are all 'bumps'.  Since a screenplay is really a blueprint for a movie, you want to *remove* all the bumps.  You want the conscious awareness of the text to fall away, so that readers fly through the pages, seeing that movie in their head, understanding the story you're trying to get across, and ignoring the syntax you employ to do it.[6]

Professor Landon made the point -- fascinating to me, but no doubt old hat to every other English major I know -- that in most modern literature, the 'bumps' are pretty much the point.  Quite often, literary fiction isn't even *about* the story -- it's about how the prose is used to get the story across.  The *content* of the book is in the way the sentences are constructed, the bizarre similies that turn the familiar into the strange[7], or the idiosyncratic collection of unusual words.

*That's* where the meaning is.  *That's* where you learn about how the writer views the world.  Beyond a certain point, it shares more in common with poetry than with screenplays.

And at least at this point in my life, I'm just not on board with that.  This is why I read an entire collection of David Foster Wallace essays wondering why he was so often making such simple concepts so damn hard to puzzle out.  Philistine that I am, I just don't derive much pleasure out of unpacking the meaning from a sentence.

So, I'll probably continue to 'not get it' when it comes to, well, most of the great novelists of our time -- but at least now I have a better sense of what it is I'm not 'getting'.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick [spoilers]
This is Philip K. Dick's alternate-history novel which shows an alternate 1962 in which Germany won World War II.

I tried writing writing that summary in the usual logline form:  "in which <character> tries to achieve <goal>," but that would be both impossible and disingenuous.  This book is entirely about its world, and you sense that it's only following characters so that we get a window into this world, and those characters only have objectives so that we don't get entirely bored with them.

I managed to completely miss the point of the end of the novel:  the answer to "Why did the I Ching write The Grasshopper Lies Heavy?" is "Inner Truth", which (according to Wikipedia, but this makes a head-smacking sort of sense) indicates that the character's world is the false one, and the Grasshopper world (or perhaps our world) is the real one.  It makes perfect sense that the book would end on a revelation about the world, because really, that's the only 'character' we readers care about.

Wikipedia points out that the main thing this novel does is to hammer on that "true versus false reality" theme.  Which is the "real" historical artifact?  Which is the "real" Frank Frink?  Which is the "real" Joe?

It's not really *about* its story.  It's about this alternate reality, and about the whole *concept* of alternate realities.

I have very little intuitive grasp of a novel that's not about people going after goals, so of course I read the book wrong.  Instead of getting a treatise about the nature of reality, I got a slipshod, meandering book about a bunch of vaguely-related characters doing a bunch of unrelated (but interesting) stuff.

Ah well.

For next time:  more noir!  I'm now re-watching The Third Man.  I'm off of audiobooks for the moment, catching up instead on podcasts.  (Hmm.  Need to pick my next audiobook.)  Book-wise, they finally have the deluxe editions of Y:  The Last Man at the library, so I've started in on that.

[1] Though, to be fair, Dan Harmon doesn't always see his show as 'meta'.  To some extent, he sees all these other shows where the characters are in this bizarre mirror-world where nobody watches or refers to television.  Honestly, most of us drop just as many media references as Abed does, and what appears meta is often just a touch of unexpected realism.

[2] ... which one might not consciously notice -- it might be more of a uneasy feeling that the characters are too vague (because they're jarringly inconsistent over time).

[3] The paperwad that gets thrown at Jeff every time he says he's an agnostic might be my favorite runner in the series so far.

[4] Hey, now we've subordinated our way back around to the runner.  We could start all over again!

[5] IIRC, Dr. Huston at Rice asked me with some admiration where I learned to write.  I told him quite honestly I learned most of what I knew about writing from stand-up comedy.[5b]

[5b] But good god, I had a lot to learn about writing when I showed up at Rice.  The essays I wrote when I was a freshman are intolerable dreck.  Too damn precious, every damn one of them.

[6] Cumluative sentence!  Huzzah!

[7] ... instead of vice versa, as god intended.

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (3/28/11) 10:54pm
Man in the High Castle is really one of my least favorite Dick novels. It just feels like a lot of nothing padding out ... I don't even know what.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (3/29/11) 7:47am
I wish I could be Peter, and not have seen the Community paintball episode yet. :(
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (3/29/11) 7:49am
I've heard *so much* about that paintball episode (I note that it's the only ep to get its own wikipedia entry).  I hope fans aren't building it up to a level it can't live up to.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (3/29/11) 7:55am
Well if it gets built up too much, you've still got the D&D episode and claymation episode to look forward to.
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