I was super pumped for the premier of the fifth season of Community. After all, “Repilot” (5×1) marked the return of Dan Harmon and after a ‘weird’ fourth season, I was eager for the series to go back to normal. Or at least back to what I knew and loved, even with knowledge of Donald Glover’s impending departure looming above the otherwise gleeful occasion.
Perhaps that was a silly thought though – normal or status-quo only equate to average TV. And Community has always been one to aim higher. Or aim for a different target although. Yet I distinctly remember thinking around episode three of this season (“Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” (5×3), you know the one with the ‘Ass-Crack Bandit’), that it seemed a bit too soon for a concept episode. The gang had just gotten back together.
I had a similar thought just before watching “G.I. Jeff” (5×11) the other night. I kind of just wanted to see the group hangout at Greendale, of course that’s before I saw the excellent G.I Joe themed and stylized episode. It was then that it finally occurred to me that there probably is no such thing as a ‘normal’ episode of Community.
Five seasons in and it would seem that nothing in pop culture is off-limits. Below are just some of the more creative places Community has gone. And while that list is certainly not comprehensive of all of Community’s homages, parodies, and escapes from reality, they do account for approximately 30% of all aired episodes. So, is it misguided to assume that there is a normal?
What do you consider to be a standard episode of Community? Or is that the beauty of the show, that there is no predictable and formulaic entry in the series?
A Film Within A Show
“Introduction to Film” (1×3)
“Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” (2×5)
“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” (2×16)
“Documentary Filmmaking Redux” (3×8)
“Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” (4×6)
Mafia Movie Homage
“Contemporary American Poultry” (1×21)
“Modern Warfare” (1×23)
“A Fistful of Paintballs” (2×23)
“For A Few Paintballs More” (2×24)
Apollo 13 / Space Travel Movie Homage
“Basic Rocket Science” (2×4)
“Cooperative Calligraphy” (2×8)
A Conspiracy Theory
“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” (2×9)
“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (2×14)
“Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (5×10)
“Remedial Chaos Theory” (3×4)
“Advanced Introduction to Finality” (4×13)
“Digital Exploration of Interior Design” (3×13)
“Pillows and Blankets” (3×14)
“Regional Holiday Music” (3×10)
“Digital Estate Planning” (3×20)
“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2×11)
“Paradigms of Human Memory” (2×21)
“Intro to Felt Surrogacy” (4×9)
Law & Order / Detective Procedural Homage
“Basic Lupine Urology” (3×17)
“Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” (5×3)
The Floor Is Lava
“Geothermal Escapism” (5×5)
Parody of Internet & Mobile App Games
“App Development and Condiments” (5×8)
G.I. Joe / 80s Cartoon Homage
“G.I. Jeff” (5×11)
Wonderfalls premiered on March 12th 2004, on FOX, at a time when the network was quick to cancel anything with less than stellar ratings (this Family Guy scene sums it up best). Admittedly Wonderfalls was hard to promote, as it dabbled in a variety of genres, but no worries, the show’s been off the air for 10 years and if you’ve been waiting for an invitation to check it out, well here it is.
Through the last two months I’ve been working on checking items off my TV New Year’s Resolution list. In addition to watching a variety of Olympic events, I also just finished the reboot of Battlestar Galactica!
Mostly I just can’t believe it took me this long to watch the series, and if you are reading this thinking about doing the same, then I certainly encourage you to check it out. Especially if you’re a Firefly fan, there are a lot of similarities between the two series like a dystopian future, engaging underdog characters, and of course spaceships.
Here’s a few more practical reasons why you might enjoy marathoning Battlestar Galactica:
- The series ended in 2009, which means that you can watch it at your own leisure and you’re only going to encounter spoilers by looking for them.
- A lot of episodes end in “To Be Continued…”, like way more than normal so being able to hit ‘next episode’ is a welcomed bonus.
- All four seasons, the two-part mini-series, and made-for-tv movie Razor are all available on Netflix streaming. The prequel series Caprica is also available, although I haven’t checked it out yet.
One more thing before you press play – with so many episodes and offshoots like the mini-series, made-for-tv movie, and webisodes you may want to consult this handy Battlestar Galactica viewing order guide to maximize the storytelling experience.
[Spoilers Below: You’ve Been Warned.]
So Say We All – Onboard With The Crew’s Quest For Earth
Despite all of the time I spend watching TV and reading about various television shows, somehow I knew very little about this series before starting it, which I think was refreshing to be able to watch something with rather vague expectations. Unlike my Breaking Bad marathon, I was able to just kind of let events unfold and enjoy or gasp or shake my head in bewilderment as they came.
I thought the series got off to an especially strong start when the then newly sworn-in President Roslin made the tough call for the fleet to jump away from the oncoming Cylon attack, leaving the FTL-less civilian ships behind and defenseless in Part II of the initial Mini-Series. That one moment set the tone for the rest of the series – that this wasn’t going to be a show about ‘big damn heroes’, but about survivors.
Sure they’d occasionally get some small victories and I suppose the last one, but for the most part everything was about minimizing loss and reacting to the circumstances around them. The theme of survival didn’t just apply to the crew of Galactica and its fleet either, the Cylons were fighting for the same thing, the survival of their race, hence all the big hullabaloo about about resurrection ships, reproduction rights, and Hera Agathon. Hell, even the opening title sequence displayed the number of ‘survivors’ left from the initial attacks on the twelve colonies.
And as much as Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin have the reputation for killing off characters, I’m surprised that Ronald D. Moore’s name is mentioned more often. After the initial attacks, Roslin’s whiteboard estimated 50,298 survivors, by the end of the series that number dwindled to 39,406 according to the title card of the final opening sequence. You better believe that some of those people were characters we came to know and care about.
Obviously there are many more themes present in Battlestar Galactica, but for me the act of survival was always the most consistent and most interesting one. Maybe its the most basic, but I really enjoyed the episodes that didn’t get too bogged down in religious mythology or Cylon politics. What made the series so engaging was the characters, many of which were normal people trying to keep on keeping on under extraordinary circumstances. And as long as I’m invested in the characters I’m willing to go on whatever ride the showrunners want to take us, even if that ride ends with the Galactica flying into the sun while the rest of mankind turns it back on technology.
Other Random Thoughts
- I believe one of the show’s greatest strengths was its lack of angsty annoying teenager characters. I mean I’m sure they existed, but thankfully they were probably on those unseen civilian ships. If only shows like Jericho, Under the Dome, Falling Skies, and Terranova had learned.
- I really liked the CIC’s old school war room map board and models used to visually display the action, it gave the space battle sequences some logic and structure and kept the show presumably on budget.
- Another aspect I enjoyed about both Firefly and Battlestar Galactica was the way their ships had character. I think I was almost as heartbroken about Galactica breaking down as the Admiral.
- Battlestar Galactica made good use of a time jump between seasons two and three. I was just beginning to grow tired of their current predicament, the shake-up was welcomed.
- Favorite episode: “Unfinished Business” (3×9) – As much as I appreciated the time jump, I quickly found myself interested in finding out what I missed on New Caprica, and then this episode happened. Also, I love the insanely complicated relationship between Apollo and Starbuck.
This past week Pretty Little Liars aired a black and white episode (“Shadow Play” 4×19), a homage to film noir, that I thought was equal parts amusing and frustrating. While the episode looked beautiful and thematically worked, I was slightly annoyed by the break in the season’s new found momentum. And I think that highlights a common issue with gimmick episodes, moving the story along needs to be of equal importance as the creation of the new world or new story structure that is being presented.
Gimmick episodes can be a fun break or departure from a television show’s existing world or structure. Hell, television may be one of the only storytelling formats that allows for such a diversion, but the fact remains that television series are meant to tell a story and its a bit of a disservice to fans to not follow through – even if there happens to be singing and dancing.
I mean that’s probably why these kind of episodes got shouldered with the term ‘gimmick’ in the first place. But not all of them are all pizazz and no substance. Just look at Dan Harmon’s Community or the works of Joss Whedon for further proof. From claymation to puppets to musicals to silence, these episodes were effectively used to shed new light on characters or to push a narrative along by eliminating obstacles or inhibitions.
And that’s not to say that Pretty Little Liars failed in those aspects, I just wish this episode aired at a different point in the season, because the last two episodes were finally hitting its rapid-fire WTF pacing that makes the show so much fun, and this one slowed things down considerably, albeit understandably since we were supposed to be inside of Spencer’s sleep deprived and Adderall fueled brain.
Interestingly enough it was the ABC Family who approached the showrunners with the idea to have Pretty Little Liars embrace it’s noir roots and go full on black-and-white. Typically that kind of request would be a hallmark sign for a gimmick episode – something shiny and new for the network to promote during sweeps months, similar to stunt casting. But I’ve got to give the showrunners credit for taking the opportunity to make like the classiest drug haze dream episode ever.
Although there was an ‘ah-ha’ mystery solving moment at the end of the episode, along with a present day reveal to the rest of the Liars that Aria and Ezra were back together, I thought the episode was actually most effective when it was focusing on the Emily and Paige relationship in the 1940s.
Despite the fact that the episode was initially told from Spencer’s point of view, “Shadow Play” really excelled when it switched perspectives to demonstrate that the fears and trepidations expressed by Emily and Paige are still common today. They might be out to their family and friends and live in a pretty protective and supportive circle, but they still have to, unfairly might I add, worry about how society as a whole views them and their relationship and for the show’s writers to make that one of the takeaways, well that’s a pretty good way for a gimmick episode to mean more.
Out of all of the genres that routinely cross between television and film, horror seems like one of the most under-served on the small screen, which is one of the reasons I’ve so quickly grown fond of SyFy’s new original series Helix.
Obviously there are other shows on TV that tap into the horror genre, like Hannibal and American Horror Story, but their visual stylization almost puts a shiny sheen on what was once terrifying. And that isn’t meant to be a criticism; both are quite effective at storytelling and for Hannibal it’s probably the only way they can get away with showing what they do on NBC.
That’s also not to say that Helix doesn’t look visually interesting, because it certainly makes good use of its secluded stark medical / research lab setting. However, the primary difference between Helix and its counterparts is that it utilizes a blend of science fiction and classic horror tropes to build suspense and provide some scares.
Isolation Ups The Ante
[The following contains mild spoilers for the first three episode.]
As I mentioned before, one of Helix’s strongest horror elements is its isolated arctic locale. Research medical labs aren’t typically known for their warm and fuzzy vibes, so when you pair that with a remote location, the stakes just get higher. They are literally alone once the helicopter flies away in the pilot.
Of course this isn’t the only form of isolation utilized in the series. Characters become further isolated, on purpose, as a way of trying to contain the virus. And let’s be honest, in a crowded room full of panicky and possibly infected people, you are the only one looking out for yourself.
But even beyond that, the CDC team is so small that they often have to split up to accomplish the various tasks at hand – whether it be working in the lab (lookout for those infected monkeys), looking for evidence in the mostly locked-down facility (lookout for infected people), or crawling through the air duct system (lookout for your infected brother).
And all of that alone time only feeds into the paranoia and unsettling fear that something is out there, which isn’t farfetched given that someone infected with the virus is almost always on the loose. Plus Dr. Hatake and his team have been less than forthcoming with what’s really going on further lending itself to the distrust and unease that’s only grown as the unknown virus continues to spread.
But these feelings aren’t just evoked via the plot, Helix incorporates camera angles that we all know so well from horror movies. You know the ones, the shot that trails behind a character as if they are being followed and the one that positions the character just a bit more towards the edge of the frame than normal, which only means one thing – look out behind you!
The sound editing has also been quite effective. If you’re anything like me, silence can be eerie in its own right and from what I can recall most of the audio is diegetic, or at least pretty subtle, with the exception of the title card sequence that is. So the hum and beeping of machines and the hissing from the air vents is all that exists when things are going well. And none of those noises are all that calming or reassuring. This of course makes the sound of someone crawling through the air vents or banging on a door all that more jarring.
Whether the series can sustain this form of suspense is something we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve long figured that horror doesn’t mix well with television because of its long form storytelling format. And while these horror elements initially grabbed my attention, I’d still like to see some more character development. Hopefully Helix will find a nice balance between the two in the coming weeks.
Helix airs on the SyFy channel Fridays at 10pm.