Saturday, May 11, 2013

What I [Graig] Am Watching 2: Portlandia, Maron, Masters of the Universe, Community

As mentioned in the last WI(G)AW, there's a decided absence of Adult Swim on Canadian Television, thus depriving us Canucks of some of the most outlandish, boundary-pushing comedy in existence. Similarly we also get shafted by IFC Canada, who for some reason are refusing to run IFC's original programs, which are some of the more intriguing comedy offerings (FX and Comedy Central originals pop up with a bit more regularity on Canadian television, mercifully). So for IFC's Portlandia, one of the best sketch shows in the past 15 years, we have to wait generally for DVD release, or, for the thriftier of us, new seasons to debut on Netflix.

I'm halfway through Season 2 at this stage, but still my favourite sketch is the opening one "We Can Pickle That", a pseudo-promotional advert for a couple who insist they can pickle anything.  It starts out as odd, weaves into extremely silly and finishes with subtle absurdity.  The sketches are fitted between the episode's larger story arc, which include things like Fred and Carrie travelling to Southern California to track down the bartender she has a crush on, or Fred, Carrie and the Mayor (a wonderfully cast Kyle Maclachlan) deciding the police need a smarter, fashionable image.  The best of the episode arcs finds a couple rapidly obsessing over Battlestar Galactica, a single episode turning into a weeks-long, job-losing, sleep-deprived marathon.  Facing the end of the show, the couple look up showrunner Ronald D Moore in the phone book (they still have phone books in Portland apparently) and pay him a visit to get him to write one more episode, willfully oblivious that the man is quite obviously not the producer of a successful TV show.  With guest appearances from BSG cast members, it's a story sketch that builds upon itself nicely.

Portlandia makes great use of both celebrity and local talent, in a much different and more earnest manner than, say, the cynical and biting Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!  Guests are used to surprising and hilarious effect (last season's use of Amy Mann was just the start), while some prominent faces (Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg) craft characters that fit right in. Creator/writer/stars Fred Armisen (SNL) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney) show a great affection for the stuck-in-the-90s culture of the city (that's a hybrid of the 1890's and 1990's apparently) as well as the socially, artistically and environmentally progressive attitude of its denizens.  There's in equal measure hippies and hipsters, bohemians, beatniks and businessmen.  It's a city of culture and quirks, which is both celebrated and exposed.  Every skit doesn't hit, but it's as comedy goes its gentle and sincere nature makes it really stand out.

Another IFC show that will likely never see the light of Canadian cable or broadcast is IFC's newest comedy Maron, which debuted two weeks ago.  IFC threw the IFC-deprived viewers a bone by posting the second episode of Maron to youtube.  The show is a not-quite-sitcom fictionalization of comedian/podcast legend Marc Maron's life, coming out of a divorce and his professional life in shambles, Marc starts a podcast out of his garage where he gets his celebrity friends come have deep and funny conversations with him.  Marc's real-life podcast, WTF, was started the same way, with the comedian equally bitter, angry, desperate, self-effacing and broken.  Now almost 400 episodes deep four years later, Marc's journey has been one of self-discovery and personal development, making amends with his comedian and celebrity friends, discovering a true calling as an interviewer capable of getting his subjects to open up and share with him in a meaningful way that typical talk shows don't or can't.

Prior to the hour-ish long conversation, WTF twice each week opens with Marc sounding off on the notable (or sometimes not so notable) events of his life, filtered through his neuroses in a manner that will either endear him to his audience or drive them away.  This 10-to-15 minutes of "Maron time" informs Maron the TV show, the second episode hinting heavily at his problematic relationship with his mother (Sally Kellerman), his disdain for others (as he wearily takes on a volunteer assistant), his own self-confidence issues (as guest Denis Leary calls into question his courage and manliness), and he stares down the wrongs of his past.  It's a rich and diverse tapestry of ideas that largely marry together well but occasionally feel too disconnected from one another, like the ill-advised spending spree at the hardware store juxtaposed with the dying ex-father-in-law.

But it's ultimately the shows complexity that I'm really taken with.  Like FX's Louie, Maron manages to balance funny with sincere with meaning (and also like Louie it's beautifully shot and well edited).  It's not looking to be a laugh-a-minute type show, and the comedy comes more from attitude and inflection than from jokes or quips.  It works on a cerebral and emotional level very well, it's a mature comedy that will naturally have a difficult time finding an audience (as Marc Maron has faced his entire career).  I have to wonder about Marc's personality though, as I've been an avid WTF listener for four years I know and connect with the Marc of the TV show immediately, but I wonder for the uninitiated if they will connect with him so quickly, or even understand the Maron-ness of Maron that makes it so good?

I don't know how I became so enamored with He-Man as a kid. I remember receiving some of the first wave of characters and Castle Greyskull as a Christmas gifts in '82. I would have been 6 at the time, so I'm not quite sure how I came to know what He-Man was before that. Did I ask for it or did my parents just intuitively know I would absolutely love it? This was well before the cartoon, which didn't appear until 1984, but by then I was already firmly a He-Man fan. The He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon was a groundbreaking programme, the first-ever syndicated-first children's cartoon, as well as the first to produce a 60+ episode season with the expectation of airing 5 days a week.  Being able to come home from school and watch your favourite show based on toys you loved every day was a brilliant idea.  I, and millions of other boys (and girls too) loved it.  The hybrid of sci-fi and sword-and-sorcery was (and remains) pretty unique, which I think is why the characters and concepts have never truly died.  A great many fans of old remain fans.

I'm not quite certain how many new fans He-Man is picking up, but I can say that my daughter loves it all, Skeletor being her particular favourite.  With my long-dormant fandom getting it's pull-start yanked, I thought it best to allow my daughter's curiosity and my nostalgia (as well as my completist sensibilities) to be fed by purchasing the Masters of the Universe 30th Anniversay Commemorative Collection (including all 130 episodes of the original series, all of the 2002-2004 series, and 20 highlight episodes of the dreaded The New Adventures of He-Man).

The '80's series is quite an an enjoyable all-ages show.  There was a specific edict of minimal violence as well as a required moral/educational component to each show.  It seems rather primitive from an adult storytelling perspective, but then it truly was intended as a kids program.  And yet it's still a wonderfully animated, eye-catching program, with great character designs and truly unique adventure situations.  To be honest, I can't dedicate myself to watching it when it's on, I tend to be cruising the net or playing a game on my phone when it's on, but the kids (ages 4 and 11) really quite dig it from start to finish.  My beef with it always was they didn't use a diverse enough selection of characters from the toy line in the show, but that was by design.  The creators were more focused on children's entertainment than selling toys, if you can believe it (considering it was controversial at the time because it was seen as being a 1/2 hour toy commercial).

Speaking of things I can't really watch anymore, Community season 4 has completed it's treacherous 13 episode run, and I'm... I don't know what to say... I'm a little heartbroken, feeling a little betrayed.  After 3 amazing seasons and establishing a deeply personal connection with the characters and the performers who played them, season 4 returned from prolonged hiatus without its creator Dan Harmon in the driver's seat, and the absence was felt immediately and the sense of loss never went away.

Season 4 felt like a batch of poseur episodes.  What made Community so great the seasons before was partly the highly conceptual ideas that dominated each season (a "My Dinner With Andre" homage? A spoof on Ken Burns documentaries?  A Law & Order riff? A painball fight staged as a western?), but it wasn't a Mad TV style of spoof, instead the show's toying with genre and format was always underpinned by character and story.  The comedy came from all sources: performance, dialogue, running gags, characters, story, pratfalls, pop culture references, nerd/geek/hipster culture, religion, family, and still more.  By putting characters first, Community could play in any genre, and work with any story.  Season 4 failed because, by and large, it didn't put its characters before the concept, and when it did, the characters didn't feel true to themselves.

That's largely the result of Harmon's dismissal from the show.  Harmon was a noted taskmaster on the show, each script filtering through him before heading into the production, which accounted for the amazing character consistency in the first 3 seasons, but it didn't train any of the other staff writers to fully find the voices of the characters.  Even still, this season largely abandoned the characters in order to focus on the "clever" stuff or pop culture riffing.  There were germs of good episodes in a lot of the season, but the characters didn't advance much and the comedy was generally lacking (at least in the considerable measure it operated in previously).

I stopped watching the Simpsons in season 10, after putting up with a terrible season 9 in which most episodes the comedy comprised of referencing jokes of the past.  Season 4 of Community fell into the same trap, paying too much attention to the things fans keyed into previously, rather than creating new ones.  But therein lies the rub, the handshake and Inspector Spacetime and the Darkest Timeline and Troy and Abed in the Morning and Britta-the-verb (as in "They really Britta'd this season") all manifested from the character's enjoyment of them, not the audience's and without having much character focus, it was nearly impossibly for season 4 to develop new that would connect with the fans.  The characters referencing or performing like monkeys (Annie's Boobs) on the aundience's behalf took all the joy and natural charm out of the jokes.  Even "Pop Pop" was driven into the ground.

Were there any bright spots?  Barely.  Oscar winner Jim Rash wrote perhaps the best episode of the season, a body-switching epic that had it's roots in Troy's emotional state, but it still didn't fully connect due to the poor handling/ignoring of Troy and Britta's relationship earlier in the season.  The puppet episode many cite as a highlight but I found it's exposing the characters' darkest moments to be hollow and meaningless, a real treading-water moment of characterization.  Even the ultimate reveal of Jeff's dad didn't hit the emotional threads quite right because the writers didn't have the emotional connection to the set-up that Harmon had built for three years.

But the final episode was a series low, centered around a pitiable fake-out dream sequence in which Jeff and company face down their Darkest Timeline alternates, all supposedly in the service of a Jeff Winger who is unable to process his own emotions upon graduating.  Instead it was blatant fan-servicing that backfired completely denying the fans the emotional payoff of the past four years in favour of a rehashing of past glories in faded colors.  So dire was the final episode that I immediately pleaded for its cancellation, a sentiment I couldn't even fathom a year ago when I was lobbying for its return along with all the other devotees.

In cruel irony, where the fans have pleaded for the show's continued existence the prior 3 years, this years the indifference or even hopefulness for cancellation from the fan base has been rewarded with yet another 13-episode order.  This comes from an NBC desperate for any content that will obtain and sustain traction with even a modest loyal fanbase, given that the Office and 30 Rock have both ended their lengthy runs and no other of its comedies, besides Parks and Recreation (also, thankfully, renewed) had anything close to a loyal fanbase.