Community can be a difficult series to analyze, particularly because it has so many different circulating/reoccurring thematic and stylistic identities. Sometimes it’s a very smartly written laugh-a-minute sitcom; other times it’s a meta-subtext-fueled, parody-driven, set piece-structured spectacle; and sometimes it gets relatively dramatic, using the emotional gaps and varying backgrounds of its central characters as catalysts to either rip them apart or bring them closer together (oftentimes it’s all three, and within the very same episode).
With the exception of the wonderful “Modern Warfare” episode, the first season of Community tried too hard to be quirky and original, and in doing so became tedious and trite. As its second season unfolded, the show began to demonstrate consistently smart storytelling and character development, and after a bit of a shaky start, Community has really come into its own in its third season, focusing not so much on individual characters, which was thoroughly and brilliantly explored in season two, but instead on the dynamics of its ragtag group, which has become the true personification of something greater than the sum of its parts.
Community is at its most watchable not when it’s tackling some real-world hot-button issue via the guise of a Greendale Community College campus event, but when it’s examining the interactions of its main characters. Perhaps that’s why, after the generally solid season premiere (complete with a Glee-inspired dance number and great guest appearances from Michael Kenneth Williams and John Goodman, respectively as a biology professor and the vice dean of the Air Conditioning Repair Annex), the show delivered two of its most unappealing episodes in quite some time. “Geography of Global Conflict” more or less highlights Community‘s Achilles’ heel: pushing one character to the forefront (in this case, Alison Brie’s Annie), thus fracturing the remainder of its cast, forcing the writers to craft specific, often hokey scenarios for them to fill up time until everything collides in a final act that goes for broke and often misses. The episode almost feels like something out of another show entirely: spiteful, disjointed, all over the map, and with little focus on an already uncertain theme. Only Britta (Gillian Jacobs, who’s by far the season’s MVP so far) and her strange chemistry with newly appointed security officer, Chang (Ken Jeong), in a series of comic-relief bits that manage to salvage an otherwise lackluster episode.
The following episode, “Competitive Ecology,” does well in keeping Community‘s major players in close quarters, but falters as it tosses a random fifth wheel, a goodie-two-shoes-type character named Todd (David Neher) into the mix, expectedly causing splinters in the core group that result in trivial arguments over how to pair off into lab partners for a biology assignment. The entire episode turns into a shallow popularity contest among people who are obviously in no way popular. “Competitive Ecology” fumbles most of all in its final moments, as its main characters blame their disdainful arguments, immaturity, and mudslinging not on themselves, but on the out-of-place Todd, a guy who just happens to be there, and is the model of normalcy. These characters, who’ve so frequently displayed authentically identifiable soft spots, come off as nothing but a troop of cartoonish assholes who could care less about the feelings of those around them.
Thankfully, Community shines a light on the season-long theme of future-driven choices, kicking itself into high gear beginning with its high-concept fourth episode, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” a genre-defying encapsulation of everything that makes the show one of the strongest sitcoms on television. By playing out seven different timelines through the tossing of dice by Joel McHale’s Jeff (his own scenario, the one that actually happens, occurs near the conclusion), each detailing what would happen if any one member of the group departed indefinitely, the episode skillfully emphasizes Community‘s most prominent, resonant message: These people, with all their disturbing insecurities and striking dissimilarities, need each other more than anything else at this point in their lives to move forward. The Halloween episode, “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” builds off the success of “Remedial Chaos Theory” by employing a similar format, but instead of observing what would happen in the absence of certain characters, it takes a look at how each character views the personalities of everyone else in the group through the pretense of some very funny Treehouse of Horror-style scary stories.
While the episode “Advanced Gay” deals with homophobia and unstable father-son relationships, the worldliness of its messages isn’t lost through scatterbrained plotting as in previous episodes. Instead of causing a sudden rift in the group, the controversial issues at hand work to soulfully unite Community‘s characters through the death of Pierce’s (Chevy Chase) controlling, elitist, racist father, Cornelius Hawthorne (Larry Cedar). The episode nudges its leads into making choices that will or will not benefit them in the future. Jeff, who also has a douchebag for a dad, puts his tumultuous relationship with Pierce aside to aid him in telling off Cornelius in a moment of intense self-revelation. Perhaps most notably, Troy (Donald Glover) passes up an opportunity to embrace his savant gift as an appliance repairman to simply hang out and watch TV with his BFF, Abed (Danny Pudi). If there’s one thing Community has to say about the vast limbo that’s community college, it’s that making a poor decision and venturing forward ultimately leaves you in a better position than perpetually hesitating to choose a route, quickly becoming stuck within the treacherous revolving door of an ineffectual education.
Cast: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Chevy Chase, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ken Jeong, Jim Rash Airtime: NBC, Thursdays @ 8 p.m. Buy: Amazon
Review: Russian Doll Resists Becoming a Simplistic Morality Tale
The Netflix show’s premise is like a playfully morbid Escher painting.3
The premise of Russian Doll, in which Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) keeps dying during her 36th birthday party only to awaken each time at the start of the night, suggests a playfully morbid Escher painting. In one episode, Nadia dies multiple times by falling down the same staircase and snapping her neck; in another, she learns her lesson and avoids the stairs by using the fire escape, only to later choke on a chicken wing. The character’s repetitive 24-hour cycle provides a showcase for Lyonne: The actress, uniquely suited to play a sardonic New Yorker such as Nadia, highlights the dark comedy of the character’s situation as well as her lingering emotional damage.
Nadia eventually meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man who also keeps dying, and together they hunt for a way out of their peculiar situation. The discoveries they make along the way don’t always make logical sense—in part because, while Alan has some vaguely compulsive tendencies, the series isn’t specific about his personal issues. Although Nadia and Alan begin to grasp that their salvation may depend on confronting their emotional and mental damage, the series never quite provides an answer for exactly how they found themselves in these loops to begin with. Do these cycles befall other people besides Nadia and Alan? Are they an act of god? Does it all have to do with Nadia’s cat, who has recently gone missing?
The fact that Russian Doll doesn’t address the specific root of Nadia’s predicament, though, invites a number of interpretations. And by glossing over the precise details of its central mystery, the series resists reducing Nadia’s quest to a simplistic morality tale. She can be vulgar, unfiltered, and even cruel. She also indulges in a breadth of vices. Without ever suggesting that she must alter herself to meet the expectations of others, though, Russian Doll maintains an astute understanding of which aspects of Nadia are permanent and which are malleable. It suggests that the parts of her that need changing, like her self-loathing and emotional numbness, relate primarily to her own happiness rather than virtue or goodness. In a philosophical conversation with between her and Alan, the series seems to make the case that morality is relative, amorphous, and immaterial.
In resisting convenient lesson-teaching, Russian Doll sustains its central mystery and never collapses into saccharine didacticism. There’s no checklist for Nadia to attend to in order to free herself, no great wrongs that need righting. She must get better, but not necessarily to be better—though, in some instances, she does that as well. And while the resolution of her predicament is somewhat vague, it remains sweetly fulfilling, because, while the series deals in opaque supernaturalism, its protagonist is easy to root for as she fumbles toward happiness.
Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Ashley, Greta Lee, Charlie Barnett Airtime: Netflix
Review: Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy Slumps Into Mopey Mediocrity
The series is unable to render any of the visual imagination its source material practically begs for.1.5
So many superhero stories—particularly the gritty Marvel shows in Netflix’s stable—focus on minimizing the weirdness of their characters, streamlining their iconic costumes, and simplifying their origin stories, in order to flaunt a kind of fashionable semi-plausibility. At first, The Umbrella Academy seems to buck this trend by remaining refreshingly off the wall. The series is populated by characters like a talking chimpanzee butler named Pogo (Adam Godley) and time-traveling assassins in children’s masks (Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton). In the first 10 minutes of the pilot, an impossibly beefy man hangs out on the moon. As the series wears on, though, it reveals itself to be largely incapable of juggling such promising absurdity with the demands of the average TV superhero melodrama.
Adapted from the Eisner-winning Dark Horse comic book drawn by Gabriel Bá and written by My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, the series sifts through the wreckage of a superhero team that’s less a nuclear family than a family gone nuclear. In 1989, more than 40 women around the world were spontaneously impregnated and gave birth to super-powered children. The mysterious billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven such children and trained six, sans one apparently without powers, into a crime-fighting team that grew up, grew dysfunctional, and grew apart. The patriarch’s sudden death brings the estranged siblings back together, including the time-traveling Number Five (Aidan Gallagher).
Despite such an audacious premise, The Umbrella Academy quickly slumps into mopey mediocrity, unable to render any of the visual imagination the material practically begs for. Throughout, the action is sloppy, the cinematography is pedestrian, and the production design is gray and largely nondescript. Beyond a ‘50s-flavored donut shop and the apparent nonexistence of cell phones, the series barely bothers to portray its retro setting. There are brief flashes of style, but The Umbrella Academy is largely content to abuse slow-mo and ironic needle-drops. Several drug trips, the hijacking of an ice cream truck, a meeting with God, and other such moments feel more like aberrations than examples of a coherent tone, gestures toward an irreverent personality the series never sustains.
The majority of The Umbrella Academy is marred by fumbled attempts at character development and stilted performances. The protagonists rarely transcend the broadest strokes as the Netflix series dwells on the same few character beats and displays of sibling bickering and mind-numbing romance. Only Robert Sheehan’s anarchic Klaus, who takes drugs to dull his ability to commune with ghosts, and Ellen Page’s frustrated Vanya, who has no powers at all, seem to benefit from the show’s attempts to beef up its breezy source material. Their character arcs are the most heartfelt and relatable, rooted in fear and insecurity.
Occasionally, The Umbrella Academy hits on something profound about feeling inferior, abandoned, and alone, mostly in its flirtations with familial trauma. Reginald Hargreeves was a cold man, and he left lasting emotional and physical scars on each of his children; he referred to them by numbers instead of names. But rather than look to the past, the series advises its characters to let go and focus on what’s in front of them, who they’ve grown into, and how they can heal together. The problem, of course, is that the show’s past seems significantly more interesting than its present, which is confined to the same handful of locations and full of red herrings that delay obvious plot twists.
Way and Bá’s comic exhibits none of the bloat that sinks this adaptation. It’s briskly paced, with exaggerated art and striking colors that perfectly service the story’s unhinged invention and wacky detours. For whatever weirdness the TV series promises at its outset, it ends up as another distended superhero show that smooths out its source material’s idiosyncrasies until little remains of whatever made it appealing in the first place.
Review: Amazon’s The ABC Murders Is a Formulaic Adaptation
The miniseries transforms Agatha Christie’s novel into a formulaic, adamantly bleak exercise.1.5
Re-fashioned by screenwriter Sarah Phelps as a beaten-down man sporting a goatee instead of his trademark moustache, the Hercule Poirot of Amazon’s three-part adaption of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is a total bore. John Malkovich, in bringing this iteration of the famed detective to life, performs accordingly, as the actor’s oddball charisma is nowhere to be seen. Here, Poirot’s dogged stoicism scans as disinterest.
While much of Poirot’s investigative work is dispassionate and mechanical, however, the story’s central mystery is deftly plotted, with Christie’s trail of breadcrumbs twisting and turning toward a clever and surprising conclusion. Poirot receives regular letters from The A.B.C. Killer, a serial murderer who leaves a trail of victims across the British countryside and seems to know Poirot personally. The killer at least has an encyclopedic knowledge of Poirot’s life before the detective fled for England from his native Belgium during the first World War.
Poirot’s time in Belgium is a secondary mystery here, one that’s hinted at in repetitive, vague flashbacks. The series leans heavily on the mystery of the detective’s traumatic past, allowing his suffering to subsume any of the character’s other discernible traits. He’s merely a tortured man, and when the story hidden in those flashbacks is finally revealed, the truth (which is an invention of this adaptation) does little to explain anything about Poirot except his misery. It doesn’t even enhance our understanding of his prodigious investigative skill.
The characters who surround Poirot are sketched with as little nuance as the detective himself. Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint), for one, exists solely to eye Poirot with suspicion; the boyish Grint instills his character with a hint of adolescent insecurity that suggests a professional jealousy, but that isn’t something that’s otherwise explored in the writing. Elsewhere, the killer’s victims are caricatures, and the likely killer, a creepy-looking man named Alexander Bonaparte Cust (Eamon Farron), is defined by two traits: masochism and epilepsy.
Director Alex Gabassi renders The ABC Murders’s 1930s setting with an attention to detail both large and small, from eerie Victorian-era mansions to period-specific cigarettes. Indeed, the most memorable moments from the series are touches of visual flair. A climactic chase through a rail yard cleverly uses track switches to build suspense and surprise as CGI trains thunder by, and in one of the show’s most striking (and revolting) moments, a close-up of a man’s bulbous cyst precedes a similar close-up of a runny fried egg.
The ABC Murders also makes painstaking note of a rising nativist movement. Xenophobic posters can be seen at train stations, and characters often cringe at Poirot’s French linguistic flourishes. These elements plainly gesture toward Brexit and the broader, worldwide surge of nationalism in 2019. But Phelps struggles to thematically relate the fascism that envelopes the setting to the story’s events as they unfold, or even to Poirot’s modus operandi as a detective. Poirot remains a cipher, humorlessly bearing the weight of a tragic origin story and a nation’s decay on his shoulders. In the end, The ABC Murders suffocates the enthralling, exciting qualities of a detective mystery beneath a layer of self-regarding grimness.
Cast: John Malkovich, Rupert Grint, Michael Shaeffer, Andrew Buchan, Eamon Farren, Jack Farthing, Tara Fitgerald Airtime: Amazon Prime