Thursday, March 19, 2015

Season Six of Community vs. Season One Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Community has been fighting in a television Hunger Games since its inception and with every reaping it has changed, evolved into something newer and stranger in order to endure its competition and satiate the voraciousness of its audience. Originally it was about a disgraced lawyer trying to endure a school so far beneath him it would be in China while he's in the International Space Station. Slowly, the show began to take shape as a self-aware-meta-satirical-referential-homeopathic-2edgy4me-japanese-game-show where everyone is simultaneously in on the joke and the butt thereof. 

After season 3, the show's creator and head writer Dan Harmon was ejected and if the description I wrote is any indicator, it immediately tipped over the fine line it was walking and somersaulted into a pool of "No one knows why we we’re good". With the return of Harmon to the show for a thirteen episode season five, the show had an immediate uptick in quality but the ratings they were looking for never materialized and the show was canned. That is, upon seeing the dedicated fanbase the show carried with it, Yahoo picked it up, dusted it off, and validated the meme everyone knows this show for (#coolcoolcool). It's kind of like what happened with Arrested Development and Netflix. No wait, it's exactly like that.

Anyway, Yahoo has finally released the first couple episodes of Community, and truth be told I didn't have any expectations for it going in and now coming back out... I still don't. With two episodes I can't say with 100% certainty that the show will match the heights of the second and third seasons, but I can say it definitely won't match the lows of the fourth. In other words, the show doesn't miss the point. People don't watch the show for the references alone, they're simply a means of telling a story to a generation raised with an oversaturation of pop culture. It's the same way everyone in stuff written by Tina Fey talk like they intentionally don't understand what someone else is saying. Speaking of which, have you seen Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix? It's a hoot and a half. It's the characters we care about. And whether it's about a woman who's excited to see the world after a decade and a half in a religious nutcase's bunker, or a former fake lawyer resigned to his fate of trying to be a good person, the show only works if we care about the people, not the antics. What I'm saying is the show's still pretty good and exactly what you expect now that 3/7 of the cast have been sliced off.   

So what's it got to do with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (I am not typing out that again)? A lot, actually. The first season spent three fourths of its time trying to find its legs after a rocky beginning that introduced all at once too much and too little. Here's a niche in the marvel cinematic universe that simultaneously contains all the threats and chaos of the big, expansive movies but none of the grand scope, turning it into a loose fanfic than something all its own. 

Surviving on the half eaten story points of its cinematic parents results in the absence of the big superheroes and the handbrake pulled on evil plans to last episodes instead of just two hours. Which means that it falls to the strength of the characters to keep the show worth watching. And, much like Gotham, characters are generally defined by their role in action scenes rather than the choices they make (Tangential thought: What is the point of Barbara on that show? She eats up several minutes in every episode but every time the result is a two dimensional character somehow getting slimmer). But that might be overly harsh, of Agents I mean. In truth the show is perfectly watchable and enjoyable, but its biggest draw is its biggest flaw. A show that needs to fill the months between movie premieres means that it will drag on the story points of the most recent movie until the next one comes out and it has to veer in a new direction. Hence, you now have the jettisoning of a plot built up since the end of season one in lieu of following the cinematic timeline that Marvel announced a little while ago.

So how do these shows fair against each other?

1. Consistency in Cast
Agents likes to boast that it has "the guy from the movies everyone pretends to care about", but I've never found him to be all that spectacular in the position of team leader. Replace him with Maria Hill, Colonel Rhodes, the guy who plays Galaga, hell even if you made him Captain America the only real change would be the fight scenes getting shorter. Having the B-listers (and Samuel L. Jackson occasionally) show up for periodic cameos coupled with the missing "people who should actually be handling these missions" who don't ever show up only exacerbates the issue.  

Community has been bouncing back and forth on a seesaw with its cast; losing members, regaining members, replacing members, killing off and subsequently resurrecting members, you'd think the soap they generate could let them open a carwash. Originally having a main cast of seven, first John Oliver left, then Chevy Chase left, then John Oliver came back, then Donald Glover left, then John Oliver left again, and then Yvette Nicole Brown only returned for a cameo appearance in the stinger to the season six premiere. In that time a slew of characters have come and gone to replace, mirror, and grow the show into something different and possibly better than it was before. But these first two episodes felt smaller, more contained than in the previous seasons, likely due to the condensed plotlines the characters group up to follow. Where there could be three groups of two there are now two groups of three. Not necessarily bad, but something I hope later episodes dispel my anxiety of.  

Agents' win.

2. Am I having fun or am I researching a thesis?  
The established lore behind both of these shows is surprisingly deep, what with Agents following the continuity of movies that have been coming out for oh wow 7 years already?! Jeez. Anyway, even if you haven't seen the movies and you wanted to get into the show... you can't. Every episode follows the same guidelines, wherein some macguffin from the movies is brought up to explain the circumstances of the episode in one way or another, and if you didn't see The Avengers odds are you won't care nearly enough to get invested.

Behind Community are five seasons worth of jokes and references that don't matter to the story in the long run because the first episode on Yahoo immediately brings you in and says "This is how things are going now." While I wouldn't personally suggest starting at season six, you could be doing a lot worse. If you ever want to communicate with the fanbase (or your friends that watch the show), you might want to familiarize yourself with some of the stuff that's happened, but there's no requirement.

Community's win.

3. Weird Stuff is Weird
This is a tricky one because I'm not sure if more weird or less weird is better for either show. I think I'll go with whichever show does weird better.

In Agents, Coulson and his team of quirky misfits go door to door at Marvel asking for bread crumbs they can spread around the show like Hansel and Gretel at a duck feeding contest. As such most episodes have boiled down to at best including knockoff gadgets from the movies and at worst tangential plotlines that have no bearing on anything; transforming the show from movie plot thread cleanup crew to CSI: Marvel... actually that sounds pretty good. For the most part the show is still playing it safe by never venturing far from what the movies have already deemed safe for generating mass viewership.    

Certain shows need time to grow and expand the scope of what's happening, not only to draw in new viewer but to keep the old ones interested. Most of the time when this happens to successful shows, they grow too much and end up collapsing in on themselves. At that point it's better to imagine they ended on the highest note they struck (Parks and Rec ended with season 4, The Office ended at Season 5 etc.). It's not to say that the show can't still be funny, or even genuinely good at times, but sometimes the lengths showrunners will go to reach the absurd. The school in Community gets completely destroyed a number of times, sometimes just weeks apart from each other. And between those times there have been phases of gladiatorial games to pick classes, schoolwide segregation based on popularity measured by smartphone apps, and paintball. It's all good and funny, but at a certain point you have to wonder how Jeff didn't realize the school was this crazy and applied to City College instead.

Agents' win.

4. Consistency in Plot

For so much of the first season of Agents, episode to episode, everything was trying to drag out the connection to the movies with only minor new elements from the comic books. This translated into a holding pattern on the show where adventures constantly shifted from getting a destructive macguffin from South America to... getting a destructive macguffin from some rich guy's basement. All of which never serve a larger part of plot as episodes go on, instead remaining contained in one or two episodes and then one or two shoutouts later. It's only when the movies began to change direction that the show was granted a permission slip to change itself up, but even then it only did so to again maintain its holding pattern and set up mysteries for the next season.

Community is like a chameleon. That is to say, every episode is something different, and the show is just self-aware enough to know when it's getting too obvious and change gears. This season has started off with a swipe at the very fanbase it owes its continued existence to, life-lessoning that change is inevitable in everything we like and love, and learning to come to terms with that allows us to be happy instead of wallowing in perpetual adolescence. For this new season, even with so many characters having jumped shipped, the plot still hasn't had to drastically change direction. Everyone still wants to make Greendale a bit better since it made all of them better.   

Community's win.

5. Is My Concern with the Future of This Property Healthy?
Being tied to a mega-successful brand of movies, Agents has the pleasure of being examined from every angle, with every shot deconstructed for potential easter eggs that fans will inevitably seek out and broadcast to the world, speculating wildly on theories of future developments. The show continuing means that slowly, more facts will be disseminated, interpreted, chewed up, spit out, and shouted from the mountain tops like its information vital to the understanding and appreciation of the movies and not just free advertising for one of the largest corporations in the world.

Community's fanbase is dedicated because the show connects with them as an audience, having grown up in an age where pop-culture defines so much of who we are. A show that's outwardly designed to be a reflection and deconstruction of that pop-culture would no doubt resonate with anyone. Which means that whenever the show's survival has been threatened, people came out in droves as dedicated watchers to promote awareness unlike any other modern series. Unlike Agents, Community survives off the continued support of its audience and not the continued branding.  

Community's win.

Coming back to the subject of characters, what happened to Patton Oswalt on Agents? I understand if Oswalt's schedule is busy, but Agent Koenig was the only character that ever actually, well, marveled at all the crazy stuff they were doing. Everyone else just rolls with it like any other investigation, but even in the movies people were aghast or excited at new revelations or plot twists while here the argument always falls back to:

"Can I do X today?"

"No, you get to have a vague conversation with this guy about vague suspicions that will take three episodes to resolve into another vague situation"

Community has had a very clear throughline throughout the series, what with Jeff Winger trying to get a real degree so he can go back to being a lawyer, then fixing up Greendale because he's stuck there. Not every show can, or is even meant to, pull of that kind of story but in terms of results I'd say Community is the better show overall. That might also seem to make it the safer show, but in the end, you're just as likely to get lost if you don't quite get it.   
And Jesus wept.

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