Man, I’m stealing blog topics lately like… um… is there any kind of animal out there that regularly steals blog topics? No? Okay. That’s probably what makes that simile fall kind of flat.
Anyway, this blog post was inspired by a) Jodi Meadows’s excellent post on the things Stargate SG-1 taught her about writing and b) the unrelated realization that, yes, I love TV shows as more than just distraction from writing. I know a lot of people harp on how you shouldn’t watch TV if you can read/write instead, it’s just a waste of time, etc. etc. but I really think that, in addition to the sheer entertainment value and closing-off-your-brain factor you sometimes need as a writer, it’s a great way to study storytelling. It won’t teach you to write prose, but it can teach you plenty about other things, and studying how and why TV shows do what they do can be an excellent way to learn.
Which is a kind of long intro to me saying that, holy crap, I love the TV series Community and if you haven’t seen it yet, you ought to do so. Right this second. Or at the very least when the DVD-set comes out. It’s a very smart comedy which far exceeded my expectations based on its rather standard premise: community college! band of misfits! shenanigans ensue! It’s probably my favourite comedy series in a long time, on par perhaps only with Better Off Ted.
(Which you should also watch.)
Warning: as I discuss what I think Community does right, I’ll use comparisons from certain shows who try to do similar things but don’t pull it off, in my opinion. By ‘certain shows’, I mean Glee. I’ll try to be fair, but my unparalleled loathing of Glee1 may colour my analysis. Fair warning!
1. Know Thy Tropes
Whether you want to avoid them, subvert them, or ridicule them all to hell – know them. Your audience will, too, and they’ll appreciate being taken by surprise or seeing a clever spin on something they recognize.
This means reading/watching in your genre, and spending a lot of time on TV Tropes. If you don’t know the site, prepare to waste an ungodly amount of hours there.
(Note to self: next time you link to TV Tropes, do it at the end of a post, or you’ll lose readers.)
2. Go There – But Know Where You’re Going
This applies to anything ~controversial~ or otherwise shocking: go there. Don’t back down, don’t play it safe. It’s okay to be outrageous.
But please, know what you’re doing. Don’t just do random shit for the sake of being edgy and then wonder why people are annoyed or offended when you fuck up.
Community is a silly comedy and they regularly tackle issues of racism or sexism in the least PC way possible, and they succeed2. Glee is a silly comedy that regularly tackles issues of sexism or racism in the least PC way possible, and they fail on multiple levels, because they’re doing it for kicks without understanding what they’re doing. Sometimes this results in laughs. But usually, when it comes to the issues they address, they do more to alienate the groups they’re trying to support than anything else. I think that’s a shame. With that kind of cast and talent, they could do so much better.
3. A Little Goes A Long Way
Community is a comedy show and it KNOWS this, but it can still tackle solid drama. In one episode – minor spoilers to follow - the students have a Halloween party. One of them, Abed, dresses in a Batman costume and plays the role awesomely, raspy Christian Bale voice et al. Jeff, the lead of the show, is embarrassed by his friends’ immaturity and tries to avoid the party, but keeps getting dragged in. At one point, he snaps:
Jeff: Britta, I don’t care about your high school soap opera. Abed, you’re not Batman.
Abed: I know I’m not Batman. You could try not being a dick.
Paraphrased, since I can’t seem to find the quote online. When I watched this, I went, ouch. When I rewatched the episode with a friend, he gasped.
It’s so simple, so direct, and it works so damn well for both characters. There’s no need to harp on the point whatsoever.
4. Make Up Your Mind
For the most part, Community doesn’t try to be something it’s not, and I love it for that. It’s the same reason I love shows like Chuck: they don’t take themselves too seriously. This doesn’t mean that Community can’t do drama on occasion. Just watch the episode Introduction to Film.
But it does mean that it knows its genre and doesn’t bounce between different styles. Only very few shows (Buffy!) can pull that off without giving the viewer a mental whiplash.
Now, certain shows have a big problem with this. They try to be satirical high school comedies and then interject it with moments of tearful Very Special Episode-style drama, played completely straight. Even people who have liked Glee since the beginning have expressed issues with this, and the more pronounced it gets, the more people are getting annoyed by how the show can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be.
It pains me to say this, but here goes: In its first season finale, Community did the exact same thing. It went from a trope-subverting ensemble cast to a one-man-show that played entirely by the rules, annoying love triangle included, and it irritated a lot of its die-hard fans in the process.
(See? I can be fair and criticize the shows I love!)
1 Believe me, I gave Glee a fair shot: I started the show fully expecting to love it, and gave it a full season to redeem itself when it didn’t quite catch on. It just ended up annoying me more and more. Sorry, Glee fans. (I still love the singing-and-dancing.)
2 It doesn’t succeed all the time. I’ve been rather annoyed with its treatment of Britta and Shirley. Still, it does a lot better than 95% of shows out there, so I think the point is valid.