Binge and Purge is a monthly column about binge-watching, that curiously American act of sitting down and devouring television shows not episode-by-episode, but season-by-season. Full seasons will be discussed. Spoilers, though generally avoided, may be divulged.
On Death Row – Created by Werner Herzog
Originally Aired on Investigation Discovery, 2012
Four Episodes – 172 Minutes
Clocking in at about the length of an ambitious arthouse film, it is perhaps generous to consider the act of watching the four episodes of Werner Herzog’s On Death Row “binge-watching,” but Herzog’s shortform meditation on the American justice system and its use of capital punishment is nevertheless an act of attrition. Hidden away from the world by the machinations of the prison-industrial complex, it isn’t until cameras are brought to bear on the men and women of death row that the implications of their sentence truly resonate. Articulate, impassioned, and more knowledgeable about the American justice system than the average true crime junkie, the subjects of these interviews (and those of Herzog’s companion film, Into the Abyss) are fascinating not because of the crimes they’ve been convicted of committing, but because, like many of the individuals Herzog focuses his camera on, they live in pockets of the universe too uncompromising and barbarous to be properly rationalized. Read more
I knew before Seth MacFarlane was announced as the host of this year’s Academy Awards that I would not be watching the ceremony. If Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, two incredibly talented women whose shows 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation rank among my favorite of all time, couldn’t convince me to watch the Golden Globes, there’s no way MacFarlane, the creator of several shows I hate almost instinctually, could get me to tune in for the Globes’ stuffier, more overbearing sibling. But then a curious thing happened: a grinning, self-satisfied MacFarlane took to the stage and started singing about how great it was to be in a crowd with so many women whose breasts he’s seen, and the Academy Awards became more noticeably sexist than ever before. There’s been so much talk about these Academy Awards that one could be intimate with them without having watched, but, like a good cultural critic, I did. The end results were, to be kind, less than impressive. Read more
“Conventions of Space and Time” focuses on the continued friction of the Troy-Britta-Abed love triangle. Both Abed and Troy attempt to figure out how to deal with the fact that they no longer can spend every waking moment together. Meanwhile, Britta, to better connect with Troy, continues to search for something she can enjoy in his interests. It remains to be seen whether Troy will ever return the favor. I suppose that depends on which of the Troys we’re going to get the rest of the way: the thoughtful and empathetic one or the clueless, narcissistic version of Troy we saw throughout most of the first season. Troy telling Abed, “now, you’re sure it’s OK Britta’s here, because she can just wait in the car” does worry me a tad. Yes, Troy was the one making most of the effort to get into the relationship, but now it’s a two-way street and I hope the writers don’t simply focus on commitment-o-phobe Britta’s attempts to change herself for Troy. Read more
Note: This review contains significant spoilers and is meant to be read after viewing the episode.
In classic Community style they’ve turned expectations on their head and given us a Halloween episode on Valentine’s Day. Sure, it was in large part due to the show’s four month postponement, but I can’t imagine the specific timing was a coincidence. Halloween episodes have been a strong suit of the show from the beginning, and this one does not disappoint. While certainly not surpassing the excellence of season two’s “Epidemiology”, “Paranormal Parentage” compares favorably to the other Halloween offerings Community has put out. The costumes are as great as ever, with Jeff, bare-chested as usual, as a boxer (though as we’ll see, there’s more to it than vanity this time around), Shirely as Princess Leia and Annie dressed as the “Ring Girl” and giving us the creepiest moment of the episode as she makes her appearance. Britta’s costume is, of course, as unsexy as possible and is summed up perfectly by my fiancée’s rhetorical question, “Why is Britta dressed like a ham?” Exactly. Somehow Gillian Jacobs manages to make being a ham as adorable as her Squirrel costume ever was. Abed and Troy are Calvin and Hobbes, which couldn’t be more apt, though at first I thought Abed was a strangely-haired Freddie Krueger to Troy’s Tigger. Jim Rash as Dean Pelton (sadly absent from most of the episode) shows up as an actual “Ring Girl”, replete with blonde wig, sparkly short-shorts and a “Round 1” sign to save the day after Jeff and Annie’s miscommunication about their costumes. Is this sign of the chemistry been Jeff and the Dean or simply more evidence of Dean Pelton’s obsessive pursuit of Jeff? We’re left to wonder, as this serves as the catalyst that convinces Jeff to head to Hawthorne Manor.
The general plot outline is simple, but effective. The episode opens in the study room with the group discussing Vicky’s Halloween party. Absent is Pierce, who has not been invited given their history (read: pencil feud). That quickly changes after Troy gets a call from Pierce, with a sob story about trapping himself in his panic room. Jeff doesn’t believe it for a minute, and the rest of the group doesn’t seem to either, but nonetheless, feel it their duty to go to Pierce’s rescue, if only from his own loneliness. The viewer is never given much reason for believing that Pierce is being sincere, even when he tells the others that he’s seen the ghost of his deceased father, Cornelius Hawthorne, the ivory-haired phrenology enthusiast. There is some mystery over what is actually going on in the Hawrthorne Manor and a series of dark figures looming in the background, but the writer’s never really try to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes. Soon enough we discover what we already knew: that Pierce had concocted the whole thing to get the group to spend time with him rather than go to a party he wasn’t invited to. Except, we learn, that Pierce knows nothing about Abed’s discovery of a shadowy figure who has been watching him sleep. It was a classic moment of the antagonist copping to being behind everything save one important detail, of which he knows nothing, and while certainly not a surprising development, it was one I enjoyed. However, I was a bit disappointed when we learn that the shadow was simply a lonely Gilbert (Giancarlo Esposito), who, after coming to look in on Pierce, had been living in the mansion for six weeks. I have no idea who or what I was hoping would come through the door, but I wanted to be surprised and this episode provided almost no startling moments. The most glaring flaw was that the whole episode felt a little too safe and predictable.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the return of Pierce’s modus operandi when feeling abandoned by the group: to force them (someway, anyway) to acknowledge him. But, humans are nothing if not creatures of habit and it was a believable premise. While his motives and actions may have been clichéd, the plot device worked well enough as a vehicle for some great jokes, much appreciated continuity and enjoyable chemistry and interactions between the characters. Despite my complaints about Gilbert’s appearance, he is one of my favorite secondary characters and it was nice to see the further development of his and Pierce’s relationship.
The story arcs unfold slowly, but we’re given more clues to where the season is heading. Annie and Jeff’s relationship is still an uncertainty, hinted at only subtly except for Britta’s quip about leaving couples costumes to the couples. We also get some insight as to Troy and Britta’s troubles: they seem to be having some difficulty connecting. Yet, despite any difficulties that may be surfacing, their relationship has a genuineness that is rare to see on TV. This is in large part, I believe, because of how Donald Glover has portrayed Troy for at least the latter half of the shows run: vulnerable, naïve, and at times aggressively defensive, but ultimately with an honesty and earnestness that has turned him into perhaps the most likeable character on television. But it’s Britta who is making the effort here, suggesting they watch Inspector Spacetime together rather than head to the Halloween party.
The biggest development comes with Jeff’s daddy issues. First, we get Jeff’s unintentional admission to Britta of how much his father’s abandonment had affected him and the implication that he is still struggling to move past it. Then, in the penultimate scene it is revealed that Jeff’s boxing gloves were actually his father’s and that this costume has more meaning than anyone suspected, especially when coupled with the fact that Jeff has had his father’s phone number for three weeks, but has yet to call him. The scene ends with Jeff dialing his father’s number and waiting as the phone rings and the screen fades to black.
All in all a solid and funny episode that recovered well a rather weak season premiere. It certainly didn’t blaze new ground, but perhaps there is still hope that this season still has a few surprises left for us.
Not being a big horror movie aficionado, I’m sure I missed a bunch of references that would’ve made the episode even better.
The map was a great touch, and though I’m not sure where it was taken from, it reminded me of Resident Evil 4.
Annie’s “I hate reference humor” and Abed’s “I remember when this show was about a Community College” were both wonderfully self-deprecating jabs by the writers.
Pierce reversing Chang’s line from the season three finale: “Ghost’s can’t go through doors, stupid, they’re not fire”, while not as great as the original, was good for a laugh.
It’s a shame that we’re two episodes into the season and we’ve only had a few seconds of Ken Jeong, but I have a feeling he’ll be bursting onto the scene soon.
Note: This review contains significant spoilers and is meant to be read after viewing the episode.
Last season’s finale was in many ways the perfect ending for Community. It wrapped up a good deal of loose ends while hinting at some avenues for the series to continue should it be picked up for this fourth season. The final montage, backed by an extended version of the theme song, was endlessly satisfying and it would have been fitting for the show to give us Leonard’s YouTube review of Let’s potato chips as our final glimpse of the world of Greendale. The perfection of the season three finale and the departure of Dan Harmon leave me with a somewhat ambivalent feeling about season four. I’ve been looking forward to this for almost a year, but it’s coupled with an odd sense that perhaps we would’ve been better off just letting Community walk off into the sunset.
Can season four live up to that would-be ending and the rest of the first three seasons that, at their best, provided some of the most enjoyable and innovative television that I can remember? Can it do so without its creator? Probably not, but I still expect this season to be enjoyable, if not as tightly constructed, daring or innovative as it had become. I’m going to take the stance (perhaps for my own sanity) that there are only twelve more episodes left of one of my favorite shows of all time, and just try to enjoy the ride.
Opening the episode with horrendous jokes backed by a cacophonous laugh track induced a visceral recoil followed by some genuine worry. While, intellectually, I reassured myself that it must just be parody, nightmare scenarios kept bursting forth as I worried that NBC had not just canned Harmon, but gutted the soul of the show entirely. Perhaps the writers were going for such subversion, but it was a cruel joke to play on an audience at the best of times, and given my lack of trust in the future of the show, it was a sour note to begin on. Moreover, the sitcom segments, largely failed to play on TV tropes to much humorous effect, and instead were often simply grating.
Ultimately, the season premiere disappointed. It wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination and, dare I say, was good when compared to most of television, but that’s not the bar that Community has set for itself. It failed to achieve the greatness that I grew used to throughout season three, in large part because it tried to do too much by jamming four plot threads together without adequate investment in any of them. It was an enjoyable episode, but failed to quell my worries that it is all just downhill from here.
After discovering that the mother of all blow-off classes, the History of Ice Cream, has been over-registered, the study group splits up. Jeff spends the episode competing in the Dean’s ludicrous competition (The Hunger Deans) to win spots in the class for the entire study group, while Troy and Britta go off to make wishes in a fountain, and Annie and Shirley attempt to pull a prank on the Dean. Meanwhile Pierce tries to craft the perfect balls joke and Abed retreats into his mind at the thought of college ending. It turns out that Jeff has been taking summer classes and needs just one history course to graduate, prompting the study group to deal with the end of an era a semester early. In a predictable twist, the Dean had concocted this elaborate plan from the start so that Jeff would have to spend another semester at Greendale.
The Abed fugue state has been done before (and much better), and while I liked the idea of parodying a sitcom, and the Muppet Babies allusion brought a smile to my face, both fell flat. There was little depth in either and not much humor. If you’d like to see the sitcom parody done right, check out Scrubs S4E17, which quite effectively juxtaposes the conventions of the genre against Scrubs’ own style. Given that Community relies so heavily on meddling with television conventions, it is worrying that these segments were so loose. Not everything about these scenes was bad, however. Fred Willard as sitcom Pierce was a bright spot and a clever play on the audience’s fears/expectations given the rocky relationship between Chevy Chase and the show. Additionally, the riotous applause when Jeff appears, the Abed TV theme song, Coffins magazine, Microsoft Paint line, the American Sword Cooks advert, and Baby Pierce stuck in a terrarium all worked very well.
Both the Annie/Shirley and Troy/Britta plots lacked sufficient depth or screen time, which is a shame, because I felt both were worthwhile to explore, but weren’t given enough space. The tension between Troy and Britta deserved more exploration, particularly considering they seemed to wrap it up so quickly at the end rather than allowing the plot to play out in subsequent episodes. I was interested to see how Britta’s breaking of Abed’s rules would play given Troy’s usual rabid defense of his best friend, but we were given a quick fix instead. In Annie’s case, we again see her trying to escape the bonds of her own anxieties and expectations, but aren’t given much we haven’t already seen. Both plots provided some good moments, though, including the return of Annie’s Carolina Decker accent, and perhaps my favorite line of the episode, Troy’s “Why doe this feel good?” as Britta throttles him in the fountain.
However, the plot that suffers the most from the lack of screen time is Jeff’s. Which, is a shame because I thought there was a lot of potential with The Hunger Deans. Instead, we were left with only glimpses of the contest and only from Jeff’s point of view. When I heard there would be a Hunger Games spoof, I was expecting real chaos and conflict within the group; instead, we had brief glimpses of American Gladiators. Oddly enough, the paint ball episodes felt far more like The Hunger Games than anything in this episode did. Most of what we did see of Jeff and the Dean in this episode was great (particularly their tango), and the development of New Jeff, embracing his emotions and love of his friends, while trying to balance that with his efforts to regain his old life, is something I look forward to see explored further throughout the season. He has swung back and forth between the two poles from the very beginning, and maybe he’s finally finding some equilibrium.
A few random thoughts: Pierce seemed mostly absent from the episode, which I’m fine with given Chevy Chase’s behavior over the series’ run, though he did provide some laughs here. Dean Pelton appearing in red dress, black wig, and atop a chariot pulled by Unicorn-men was inspired. Yet, he also provided the worst moment of the episode, when he elongates the word “to” all the way to the Cafeteria to unveil “The Hunger Deans”. It was a classic Family Guy move, and as far as I can gather, only served to make the audience twitch. I kept waiting for Abed to do something to sabotage Jeff’s attempt to win the red balls (bone saw anyone?) but all we got was him retreating again and again to the sitcom in his mind. The last scene should have been naked Chang wandering up to the postman; it was the perfect reintroduction to the man who finally descended into madness last season.
At the end of the day, this historian is just glad they’re finally taking a history class.