Category: community

4 Seasons and a Gas Leak Year

I don’t have any interest in meeting Dan Harmon. That’s not to say that I don’t think he’s brilliant, that I haven’t both laughed at and been brought to tears by his work on Community, that I don’t have a profound respect for the worlds he can build with his mind, for the way he can put 7 people around a table and, with not much more than words, tell a very funny and very moving story in a medium that often relies as heavily on what you can see as it does what you can hear, but I don’t want to sit down and have a cup of coffee (or, probably more appropriately, a beer) with him.

It’s not that I think Harmon would be rude: whatever the well-documented problems he’s had with Sony, NBC and Chevy Chase, he has a decent track record for engaging, probably over-engaging, with his fans, and, much like the central character on Community, he’s never been shy about his desire to be liked by others. He toured the country with his podcast last year, creating opportunities for fans of his work to see him in person, to say hi and shake his hand, and even though he keeps putting his foot in his mouth, he hasn’t let that stop him from putting out episodes of Harmontown, or from Tweeting, or, when he’s made a particularly egregious error and needs to apologize, from Tumbling (even if it maybe should). Lots of people love him, love going to see him, love getting to meet him. And I genuinely believe that, more than anything, he wants to be a good person, a benevolent creator, and that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Unfortunately, he just can’t seem to stop.

Stories are not their storytellers, but some stories are more reliant of the particular minds of their storytellers than others.

No matter how hard they tried, Community was not Community last year without Harmon at the helm, and this year, now that NBC has hired him back, it unquestionably is. Last season the show felt like a shadow of itself. The episodes arrived in the approximate shape of Communitys past, stuffed with call-back gags and homages and big name guest stars, many of the names attached to episodes were familiar, the actors gave strong performances, there were good jokes and there were even a couple of good episodes–the puppet episode, in particular, felt almost like it could have come out of the show’s third season–but it never connected. It felt like an admirable effort from people who were never going to get it quite right.

But in the first four episodes of this post-post-Harmon era, the show has found its voice again. The events of last season were quickly dispatched with a single line about a “gas leak year.” Pierce (Chase), always the most difficult character to like, but also one of Community’s best sources of conflict, has left the show entirely. There’s little question that Chase’s leaving was the best thing for everyone involved, but rather than just letting him go quietly into the night, Harmon has chosen to make Pierce’s departure mean something, first by bringing him into the premiere, “Repilot,” for an unannounced (even to most of the cast) cameo, and then by killing him offscreen, so that the terms of his will could rule over the fourth episode and set up this year’s other big cast-member departure.

“Cooperative Polygraphy” was an excellent episode of television. It’s no easy feat to put seven people at a table for 22 minutes and be funny, let alone touching, but Community has done it before, in “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” most notably. More than that, though, the episode gave the show the opportunity to address the fact that, while Pierce had always been a problem, stirring up trouble amongst his friends and engineering conflict like an elaborate game of dominoes, he did have a place in the study group, and he did love his friends. The moment where, as the executor of Pierce’s will, Walton Goggins’ questions turned from secret-spilling, drama-baiting missives to heartfelt farewells brought tears to my eyes. He wasn’t saying anything we hadn’t heard from Pierce before: that he respected Shirley, that Annie was his favorite, that, in many ways, he loved Troy as a son, but it was coming all at once and, in true Pierce fashion, in the wake of his destruction.

It felt like a gracious way to mourn Pierce without betraying the character.

Pierce’s death also gave the show a way to write out Donald Glover’s Troy.

We’ve known since sometime last summer that Glover would be leaving Community after five episodes, but the way that he would be written out was unclear. Troy and Danny Pudi’s Abed have been a unit since very early in the series, and while Harmon was starting to explore what Troy might look like without Abed at the end of season three, it was hard to see how or why one would leave without the other.

But the terms of Pierce’s will require Troy to take a solo trip around the world (in a boat that’s winkingly named the Childish Tycoon, certainly a reference to the fact that Glover raps under the name Childish Gambino, despite his insistence that he’s not leaving the show for his music career). It’s a contractual demand for Troy and Abed to grow up, one of them off screen and one of them on, and “Cooperative Polygraphy” feels like a promise that the show knows what it’s doing, and that it can handle the consequences of Troy’s departure.

Growing up seems to be the big theme of this season in a lot of ways. Jeff (Joel McHale) has taken on some real resposibility by agreeing to teach at Greendale, and it turns out he doesn’t hate the job–he’s even pretty good at it. Jeff has been the study group’s defacto leader since the pilot, but he’s never championed their educations. Seeing him take on that role feels like a big step forward for the character.

Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is, in some ways, back where she was when the series began, newly single and trying to start over at Greendale, but this time around she has to take responsibility for her own part in her separation, and to face the fact that her husband has taken custody of their children (as well as her DVR). Shirley has always been self-righteous about her morality, but this season seems committed to holding her responsible for her own choices.

And Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is taking her somewhat misguided dream to become a therapist a step further. When, in the past, Britta’s attempts at “therapizing” have worked out it has often been in spite of her efforts, but it will be nice to see her make some advancement in her field of choice…or switch to a nice, safe English major.

Perhaps the biggest sign of growth, though, is the fact that Annie (Alison Brie) gets to wear pants, now! She’s often, especially last season, felt like a character that got trapped in a small quadrant of her identity: the ingenue with a thing for Jeff. But season 5 has pulled her out of that almost immediately. Her first big plot of the season was with Jeff, yes, but it put them in conflict, let Annie take back her long-absent agency, and had her dressed, finally, like a stylish young professional, rather than a teenage girl.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Annie’s old wardrobe, but it often felt like a visual representation of her inability to grow as a character. It’s not that Annie’s not dressing like herself anymore, just that she’s dressing like herself at 23 or 24, not 19. She wears crisp button-downs and blazers instead of cardigans, and tailored pants instead of a-line skirts. She dresses like the pharmaceutical rep she became after graduating from Greendale.

The refrain of Community fans (as well as the cast and crew) since season three has been “Six Season and a Movie,” but there was a time last season when that didn’t seem like something worth wishing for. Without Dan Harmon, the show wasn’t living up to its potential, and then, when NBC and Sony made the unprecedented and kind of bonkers decision to bring him back for season 5, we didn’t know if the show could match our expectations.

But against the odds, Community is a great show once more, and it stands a good chance of coming back for that wished for and prayed for and hashtagged for sixth season (NBC renewed Parks and Recreation for another season yesterday. It’s pretty clear that they want to hang onto the beloved if poorly rated properties they already have, since they’ve really struggled to create new ones). In a great time for TV comedies (New Girl, Girls, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Trophy Wife all come to mind, as well as the funny if incredibly messy The Mindy Project), Community still stands out because it knows so well how to forge an emotional connection with its audience.

Dan Harmon may not be someone I want to meet, but I’ll happily keep letting his work into my life, week after week. Harmon doesn’t lack a heart, but I think he expresses it far better through the filter of his fiction than in his own voice. So I won’t be refollowing him on Twitter, or listening to Harmontown, or seeking him out at ATX Fest, if he makes that trip again this year, but I will keep watching Community, so long as he’s the one writing it.

Anticipation.

A few days ago I talked about some of the new series I’m anticipating this fall, but they’re not the only thing I’m looking forward to come the start of the TV season. For the first time possibly ever, nearly every show I watch got picked up for another season–everything except Bent, which was sadly never coming back anyway, and Ringer, which I won’t so much mourn as lament, since SIOBHAN AND BRIDGET NEVER CAME FACE TO FACE!!!!!–even the shows that seemed like they stood no chance. I never thought I would be looking forward to fourth seasons of Community or Cougar Town, for example, as much as I may have hoped for both.

So with the new television season looming, here are some of my most anticipated returns, in no particular order:

1. Castle (ABC)
Castle finished off last season by finally (finally) turning its will-they-won’t-they central romance into a THEY WILL! central romance. While they may not have waited as long as Bones did (and, unlike Bones, had the decency to actually show Castle and Beckett’s long awaited union), it certainly felt like it took awhile for us to get here. With the big kiss closing out the season, it’s easy to forget that another major shift took place in those final minutes, with Beckett resigning from the twelfth precinct and Esposito getting suspended. While it seems unlikely that the show will give up its police procedural premise, it will be interesting to see how things are resolved. And to see how the show handles the romance.

2. The Vampire Diaries (The CW)
I’ve talked before about the non-stop thrill-fest that is The Vampire Diaries, the way the show employs rapid-fire, tight plotting to keep its audience invested and to keep the story barreling along–I don’t know if you could get off the train if you tried. But last season ended with possibly the biggest plot twist yet: Elena, choosing to give up her own life out of love for one of her oldest friends, and then waking up as a transitioning vampire.

A year ago, at the end of the second season, Elena was given a choice: become a vampire and “live” forever, or face certain death. At the time she chose death (obviously her friends found a loophole), and she gave a big speech about how much she did not want to become a vampire. About how she wanted to grow old, have a life, meet her own potential. She was perhaps the only teenager in the history of fiction to understand that just because she loved a vampire (or really anyone) passionately when she was 17, their love may not be eternal. Or at least she stands in stark contrast to Bella Swan.

A few characters on the show have now made the transition from human to vampire (or werewolf in one case…well, werewolf and then werewolf/vampire hybrid), and that change is never the same for any two characters. Elena has always functioned out of love, making choices and sacrifices again and again for her brother, her boyfriend, her friends. And the vampire canon of The Vampire Diaries long ago established that a character’s personality isn’t so much changed as magnified by vampirism. Setting up the season with Elena in transition opens up a myriad of possibilities for telling stories about control, about choices and about Elena–my favorite subject. I am excited to see where the story goes.

3. Bones (FOX)
I’ve never considered Bones to be my favorite show, but it’s always had a curious affect on me–almost the second an episode ends I find myself itching for the next one to air. I find even short hiatuses to be interminable. Which is unfortunate, since it seems to take a long break every spring for the new season of American Idol. Basically, I am always in a state of anticipating new episodes of Bones.

While I do agree with the popular opinion that the series is not as good as it once was, and while I’ve already mentioned my frustration that they chose to unite Booth and Brennan off-screen last year, after making the audience wait six seasons, I still find myself eager for the show’s return.

It helps that they ended last season with an intriguing cliff-hanger, with Brennan accused of murder and taking her parents’ way out–running away. Of course, she took her kid with her, having been the kid that got left behind, but she did not take Booth. And while I doubt the show will do what I want it to–a massive time jump–I’m still interested to see how this pans out, how it affects Booth and Brennan’s relationship, and how Brennan ultimately proves herself innocent.

4. Community (NBC)
My interest here is less plot based than creative.

I love Community. I was seriously bummed when it went off the air for much of last spring–bummed to the point of attending a goatee-ed Christmas flash mob outside of Rockefeller Center last winter–and thrilled at the initial news of a surprise fourth season pick-up.

But I also know that a huge part of what makes Community so great is that it comes out of Dan Harmon’s brain, which is clearly a weird, somewhat disturbed, but largely delightful place. I don’t doubt that Harmon is difficult to work with, that he’s pretty screwed up, and that he’s made some mistakes in his professional life that would contribute to the decision to let him go, but I also know that the entertainment industry has made a lot of allowances for brilliant screwed up people over the years, and I worry that they’re sacrificing the very thing that makes Community great. They might be giving the fans another season, a season they didn’t really expect, but…are they really?

There are still enough of the same people involved with this new era of Community that I won’t be writing off the show until I’ve seen it. Obviously the cast is the same, and writers whose episodes I have loved, like Megan Ganz, are still on board. The information coming out about season 4 has been encouraging. So I am excited to see what’s next for the show. I’m just a little nervous as well.

5. Parenthood (NBC)
Parenthood has never quite managed to fill the Friday Night Lights shaped place in my heart, hard as it tries, but I do love it quite a bit. It’s a show that manages to tell compelling stories about nearly all of its characters–Joel and Julia are the big exception there, but the writers have gotten some things right with them of late and set up their season 4 arc in an interesting way–and allows each of the Bravermans to be flawed (often deeply flawed) and still sympathetic.

Season 3 did not leave a lot of plots hanging, probably due to the series’ uncertain future, but there was an impulsive marriage proposal in the final minutes. Mostly I am eager to spend time with these characters again. If that’s not a hallmark of a good show then I don’t know what is.

6. Gossip Girl (The CW)
I am actually furious with this show right now. I’m furious because I’m only invested in it over the relationship between two characters (Dan and Blair), a relationship that has basically been set on fire to service a different relationship (between Blair and Chuck), which I will never understand. I’m also furious because the season 5 finale basically functioned as a reset button for the series, taking nearly every character and relationship back to where it stood in the second season, no matter how ridiculously most of the characters had to behave to get there. It’s lazy writing done to service demanding fans. And it’s not particularly surprising coming from this show.

Unfortunately, now that I’ve gotten invested in Gossip Girl again, I’m going to have a hard time letting it go. Though I may seethe my way through it each week, I’m ready for the show to come back. The faster it comes back, the faster we can get through these final twelve episodes and the faster I can move on.

(There’s also the tiny part of me that is hoping things will turn around, that everything the show has done up until this point has been a giant misdirect and it will all shake out the way I’d like it to. That seems highly unlikely, but as I am still a fangirl, a certain amount of delusion is built into the way I function.)

7. Once Upon a Time (ABC)
Once Upon a Time never quite grew into the show I wanted it to be. It had its moments over the course of the first season, but I mostly found it frustrating. The show did some cool things with its series finale, though, mostly by letting everyone remember who they are and where they came from, but also by unleashing magic into the “real world.” And I have always been a sucker for stories that allow the world we live in to coexist with fantasy worlds.

I don’t know if things will improve in the second season, but I certainly hope so. This show still has the potential to be something really cool, I still want it to be something really cool. And I am interested to see how the relationships between the characters shift as the memories of their old lives get tacked on to the memories of their new ones. The relationship between Emma and Mary Margaret and David should be particularly intriguing–how do you deal with the discovery that your best friend is also your mother? That you’re the same age as your daughter? The show has nothing but potential and I’d like to see it live up to that.

Intersections.

If you’re just a casual TV viewer, or a rampant channel surfer, a college student with a light schedule or laid up in bed for some reason, procedurals can be a godsend. They’re very easy to dive into without requiring much fore-knowledge and without needing any place-setting, and pretty much no matter the time of day, it’s not that difficult to find one in reruns. Especially the Law & Order franchise.

Procedurals work because they all follow a basic formula. Even if you stop in on an episode of Law & Order that’s half-over, it’s not that difficult to figure out where you are in the story. Someone’s (usually) dead–if it’s SVU they may have been raped, or a child may have gone missing, but original recipe L&O deals mostly in murder–and there are suspects and witness interviews and dimly lit scenes where bit players in lab coats stand over bodies and computer screens to share exposition. There are district attorneys, also dimly lit, having late-night meetings over Chinese take-out to discuss circumstantial evidence and drink scotch. There’s local color and there are cheesy one-liners and someone is falsely accused. There are “chung chungs.” And whether or not the good guys succeed in nailing the bad guys for their crimes, episodes always end on some bleak note. The process grinds on, there’s always a call for more law & order on Law & Order.

The other side of the narrative coin is serial storytelling, where one week leads into the next, and the next and the next and the next. Show like Lost and Heroes were heavily serialized, and it made it very difficult to just dive in in the middle. If procedurals are the ultimate in accessible television, serialized shows are about as inaccessible as it gets. They cater to die-hards, the people who will tune in each week without fail.

Most television these days falls somewhere in between. Shows like Bones, House and Castle follow a case-of-the-week format, but they’re more concerned with their characters than the who-done-its, and shows like Veronica Mars and Life built season long arcs alongside smaller individual mysteries. Sitcoms are generally designed for syndication, so that even if you’re just catching an episode at the gym or turning on the TV while you fold laundry, you’ll be able to step in and then out of the story.

And then there are shows like Community.

Community is frequently excellent. It’s a very smart, rich series, it knows its characters really well, it’s not afraid to try unusual things–episodes that are war movies, episodes that are action movies, episodes that are done entirely in claymation, episodes in the style of Ken Burns documentaries, episodes where everyone sits at a table and plays Dungeons and Dragons–and it is very, very funny, but it is not remotely accessible. Unless you’re already in on the wonderful, weird world of the show, you can’t just drop in on episodes. Or you can, but you might hate them. It’s for this reason that Community is never going to be a massive hit. Its fanbase is small, but intensely loyal.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like Law & Order and Community have all that much in common. But Community doesn’t have all that much in common with Ken Burns documentaries, either, or with Apollo 13 or Star Wars or westerns or really any of the styles it’s aped over the last three years. Despite the fact that the series has tremendous respect for its own medium, and could not exist without shows that came before it like Spaced and Scrubs and NewsRadioCommunity is a show that’s often best when it’s trying to figure out how to put a new spin on that medium. Sometimes that’s a clip show episode composed entirely of new clips. Sometimes that’s a self-aware bottle episode. Last week it was a thorough homage to the Law & Order franchise.

From its opening moments, “Basic Lupine Urology” was an episode of Law & Order. The direction, the tone, the performances, the costuming, the script–anyone who has ever spent Memorial Day vegged out on the couch could tell you that Community nailed the essence of the series. They even brought in one of the actual L&O medical examiners, they adopted the in media res scene-setting and handheld camerawork. But that alone doesn’t make an homage successful. That’s just fanfiction. Where Community truly succeeded was in the way it deployed its own characters, slotting them into the archetypes that make up the cast of any episode of the Law & Order franchise.

Logically, Troy and Abed step in as the detectives, with Shirley doing her best S. Epatha Merkerson.

Though the format of the episode is immediately apparent, Shirley is the one who establishes the homage to the other characters, confessing that she watches crime shows when she’s bored and then taking over the “crime scene,” assigning tasks to the rest of the characters. She’s the one who establishes the rules of the episode, rewrites the Miranda Rights, shares personal experience with her “detectives” so they know where to look, keeps a watchful eye over interrogations from behind a two-way mirror dirty aquarium.

Troy and Abed, meanwhile, live their lives like buddy cops, and they’re pop culture-vores. Out of all of the characters on the show, Troy and Abed are the ones who can best see the procedural structure that has taken over their lives. They try and out-zinger each other, switch out on good cop/bad cop (“I’m sorry about my partner, he’s been on edge ever since we switched,” may be my favorite line of the night), and, once the premise has been established, they start showing up dressed like Lennie Briscoe, with bad ties and oversized overcoats. They’ve been playing make-believe more than usual this season, using their dreamatorium to turn their lives into episodes of Inspector Spacetime, and they’re more than happy to do that here as well. They commit to the structure because that’s what Troy and Abed do, and that commitment is what makes the episode hum.

Annie and Jeff, meanwhile, stand in as the crack legal team, the ones who discuss their case over Chinese take-out containers. Jeff actually is a lawyer, kind of, and knows what it takes to win a case, what questions to ask the witness, what to look for with the testimonies they hear, and Annie is just the sort of driven second-chair he needs to back him up. She’s motivated after all–if they can’t find the culprit she’ll have to take a C, which is about as bad as getting “pregnant at a bus station.” And the over-enthusiastic dance she does when she gets her confession is what manages to push the moment from Law & Order to Law & Order parody, while remaining completely in character.

Britta and Pierce aren’t given much to do, with Britta stepping in as one of the techs, who can’t do much with a photo alibi except turn it “old west color,” and attempt to offer her opinion as a psych major. Pierce is, naturally, the first suspect. Though neither of them has more than a scene in the spotlight, they both embrace their roles. The skill is in the details. It’s in the way Britta carries her mug to the computer, in Pierce’s visor, in the way the tech tosses self-deprecating quips at no one and the first suspect immediately passes the blame onto someone else.

Plenty of Community‘s supporting players are brought in to flesh out the episode: Garrett and Magnitude, Todd and Starburns, Professor Kane and Vicki, Fat Neil. Most of them are suspects, which makes sense given the way the study group tends to treat people who aren’t in the study group, especially their arch-nemesis Todd.

The detail that really makes the episode sing, though, is the final moment, the bleak note that is such a Law & Order staple: as the characters debrief and unwind in the Dean’s office after the “trial” is over, a call comes in on the Dean’s phone. The meth lab that Starburns was building in the trunk of his car, a detail established when he was questioned by Troy and Abed, has exploded in a car accident. He’s dead. And cut to “special thanks to Dick Wolf.”

A few extra things:

  • I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to figure out where they got the episode title.
  • There were several pitch-perfect references I couldn’t fit in above: the cops and lawyers meeting at Garrett’s hotdog truck, repeated references to Todd’s time in Iraq, “Whoever did do this does owe you guys a letter…an A,” Fat Neil walking around the main office with his arms full of folders, Annie stating that “the case really was about biology,” the entire courtroom sequence, from Todd’s war stories on the stand to Annie withdrawing accusations to Todd’s outburst to the way Annie encourages Todd to “diffuse the I.E.D. of dishonesty”…and plenty more.
  • “Why were you late?”/”I fell asleep in a sunbeam.”/”Likely story.”/”Actually it is. I used to live with him. It’s kind of adorable.”
  • “Keep the change Garrett. You know what, keep the hotdog.”
  • The tag was completely disconnected from the rest of the episode, as is generally the case with Community, and while the abrupt departure from the style is a little disarming, it’s worth it for the Dean’s incredibly creepy singing voice. “Sweet Deans!”

Tis the Season for Christmas TV.

I love Christmas. Perhaps this is an obvious statement, but I don’t really care. I love Christmas. It’s fun to get gifts. It’s fun to give gifts. Also, Christmas is my birthday and thus doubly special to me. I know the holiday season is not all about celebrating the wonder of my existence, but it’s fun to pretend that the wreaths, the trees, the lights, the songs and especially the holiday-themed television episodes are a way of making up for the fact that I have to share my day with such a large percentage of the western world.

You may have noticed the word “especially” before “holiday-themed television episodes” in that paragraph. That’s because I love Christmas TV. Probably even more than I love popping in my Love Actually DVD as soon as Thanksgiving dinner is off the table. Each year brings new episodes to the canon (I can think of several really excellent episodes from this year, some of which you’ll see mentioned below), but going back and revisiting the “classics” is good fun too.

I could not possibly come up with a comprehensive list of Christmas TV, and without one I wouldn’t dare to try an official East Cupcake top ten list. What I have to offer, however, is a list of ten Christmas episodes–or at least ten shows, there are a few series on this list that have turned out more than one excellent Christmas episode–that I especially love. This isn’t definitive, it isn’t complete, it’s just a handful of suggestions, things I plan to watch over the next few days to get in the spirit of this time of year.

1. Veronica Mars – “An Echolls Family Christmas”
I’m actually watching this episode as I type this. The first season of Veronica Mars is one of the greats: smart, well-plotted, sometimes very funny and frequently very dark. And “An Echolls Family Christmas” is a stand-out episode. The central mystery plays with most of the main characters, only introducing a couple of extraneous guests to help flesh out the world of the show (and offer up a baddie), and putting Neptune’s economic divide on full display, and the B-plot is a puzzle piece to the overall arc of the season. It’s a fun and funny episode that builds the world, furthers the plot and advances both characters and relationships. And it’s not so much about Christmas as it is set to a holiday backdrop, with carols and twinkly lights there to remind you of the season without forcing it on you.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Amends”
“Amends” is one of Buffy‘s most memorable episodes. It plays a little game of Ghosts of Christmas Past as the First (in its first appearance, long before its role as the Big Bad to end all Big Bads in season 7) haunts Angel in the guise of his past victims. The episode is very dark, taking Angel to the brink of suicide, but its overall message is one of healing and forgiveness (and the magical powers of snow). And if Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn’t rip your heart out, well, you didn’t have a heart to begin with.
3. Gilmore Girls –  “Forgiveness and Stuff,” “The Bracebridge Dinner”
The A.V. Club has been ringing in the season with a daily entry in their T.V. Club Advent Calendar and last week they covered “Forgiveness and Stuff,” Gilmore Girls‘ first season Christmas episode. David Sims talked about what a lovely job the episode does with addressing the family tensions that were especially prevalent in that first season, and “The Bracebridge Dinner,” expands on that–a year down the line the relationship between Lorelai and her parents has changed, things aren’t as tense. When you look at the two episodes back to back you can see how much things have progressed; where Lorelai was an outsider looking in on her family in the first season, she’s more of a participant in season 2, even if it takes some needling from Rory. She talks to her parents, even jokes with them a little, and while she’s still not thrilled with the suggestion that she might be a little like her mother, she’s clearly embraced her role in the Gilmore family. Neither episode throws the holiday at you, either. “Forgiveness and Stuff” uses it as a setting, and the holiday party at the center of “The Bracebridge Dinner” is more interested in having fun with its Elizabethan theme than any sort of religious celebration.
4. Community – “Comparative Religion,” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” “Regional Holiday Music”
Community has now turned out a Christmas episode in each of its three seasons and while the first one was fine (worth it for the Forest Whitaker eye alone), the second and third are outstanding. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” manages to be a silly and loving homage to the stop motion Christmas specials of yore and also a heartbreaking story about Abed’s inability to deal with his own emotions. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is actually quite similar to a later episode in season 2, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” They’re both stories of this study group sitting in a room with someone they believe is at risk, trying to talk them down in their own ways, but “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” hides it behind stop motion and musical numbers. In many ways it is tremendously sad. “Regional Holiday Music,” however, is transcendant. If Community never comes back (though I’m choosing to remain optimistic), at least it will have ended on an absolute high note, a better episode of Glee than any episode Glee has ever done. The songs are goofy, the jokes send up Glee, yes, but also aspects of Community, like all the messed up dimensions of Annie’s relationship with Jeff. And it’s unrelentingly hilarious.
 
5. The O.C. – “The Best Chrismukkah Ever,” “The Chrismukkah That Almost Wasn’t,” “The Chrismukk-huh?”
The O.C. did a Chrismukkah episode in each of its four seasons, but I’m only recommending three of them because I can barely remember the events of “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitzvah-kah” (beyond the fact that there was a Bar Mitzvah). The other three episodes are each delightful in their own way, though, whether Seth’s first introducing the holiday in season 1, Lindsay’s true family tree is coming out at the world’s most awkward Christmas dinner in season 2, or Ryan and Taylor are trying to put the Cohens back together in a world where they don’t exist (or were born the wrong gender) in season 4. (The O.C. Mix 3: Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah is a staple in my Christmas playlist, too.)
 
6. How I Met Your Mother – “How Lily Stole Christmas,” “Little Minnesota,” “False Positive,” “Symphony of Illumination”
How I Met Your Mother has turned out nearly as many Christmas episodes as it has seasons and they’re all worth watching at this time of year. “How Lily Stole Christmas” is funny and sweet and it explores Lily’s friendship with Ted, which doesn’t always get as much attention as either of their relationships with Marshall. “Little Minnesota” does this with Marshall and Robin, another little seen pairing and the primary reason I love the episode so. Last year’s “False Positive” and this year’s “Symphony of Illumination” have both explored the days after learning you’re pregnant and what that means both for those who want kids and those who don’t, as well as the roles your friends play in a moment of personal crisis. The two episodes took those stories in different directions, but they both did a great job with it. “False Positive” is also especially and exceptionally funny, and the home of Ted’s Christmas-Themed Movie Snack.
 
7. Doctor Who – the Christmas Specials
Before I started watching Doctor Who I never got new TV on my birthday. Times have changed, though, and now each year brings a new Christmas special like it’s a birthday present just for me. And with only one exception (*cough*”The Next Doctor”*cough*), they’ve all been pretty incredible. Just think of that moment when the Tenth Doctor steps out of the TARDIS at the end of “The Christmas Invasion,” awakened by spilled tea and ready to save the world (again and also for the first time). He’s tasting blood and quoting The Lion King and having a sword-fight on the ledge of a spaceship over London and it’s fantastic. Or think about loud, brilliant, loud Donna’s introduction in “The Runaway Bride.” Or Astrid’s fate in “The Voyage of the Damned.” Or the Tenth Doctor’s heartbreaking swan song in “The End of Time.” Or the way “A Christmas Carol” plays with sharks and stories and the ways time can be rewritten.  Even “The Next Doctor” isn’t terrible, it just doesn’t live up to my expectations after so many other great Christmas specials.
 
8. The Office (US) – “Christmas Party,” “A Benihana Christmas,” “Classy Christmas”
The US version of The Office has turned out 5 Christmas episodes in 8 years, and while they’ve all had their moments I’d say these three are the best of the bunch. “Christmas Party” is both hilarious–Michael turning Secret Santa into Yankee Swap–and heart-wrenching–Jim trying to make sure Pam gets the present he’s probably been planning for years. “A Benihana Christmas” pits the Party Planning Committee against the Committee to Plan Parties and finally unites Karen and Pam as friends (however briefly). And “Classy Christmas” is a brilliant study in psychological torture.
 
9. The West Wing – “In Excelsis Deo,” “Noël,” “Holy Night”
Aaron Sorkin’s sentimental side works well in Christmas episodes, where a certain amount of sentimentality is to be expected. It’s been awhile since I saw any of these episodes of The West Wing, but images from them stand out, whether it’s Toby and Mrs. Landingham at the funeral in “In Excelsis Deo” or Leo telling Josh the story of the man in the hole in “Noël” or Danny, in his Santa disguise, kissing CJ in front of the rest of the press in “Holy Night,” these episodes work because, at least on TV, Christmas is a time when you can get away with a little extra sentiment. (I can’t remember which of these episodes featured the Whiffenpoofs performing “O Holy Night”–probably “Holy Night”–but it’s lovely. And there’s a gorgeous instrumental version in the Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip episode “The Christmas Show.”)
 
10. Parks & Recreation – “Christmas Scandal,” “Citizen Knope”
Parks & Recreation has done two Christmas episodes, both about Leslie having to step back from her job in the Parks department. In “Christmas Scandal” she gets pulled into a local sex scandal and has to fight to salvage her reputation and in “Citizen Knope” she is dealing with the repercussions of an actual sex scandal, though one on a much smaller scale. And in both episodes the rest of the Parks department comes together to show their appreciation for everything it is that Leslie does for them, whether that’s taking on an outrageous list of tasks that keep things running smoothly or just giving the absolute best Christmas presents. The episodes are really about how much she means to her Parks Department family and that’s where they get their holiday spirit. They’re also both hilarious.

This is a Blog About Television, Not Fandom

But here’s an inaugural post about both.

 

I found my way here–to the internet, to blogging, to writing enthusiastically about television–through fandom. I wouldn’t think that’s an unusual path to take, though my perspective is surely skewed by personal experience. I think if you care passionately about a show or a character or a relationship (“ship” from here on out) or anything really, tv related or otherwise, it’s only natural that you’d seek out like-minded people. In my life, the internet has served its greatest purpose in bringing me into contact with people all over the world (Israel, Singapore, Bosnia, Italy, England, California, Illinois, North Carolina, Michigan…this is not a complete list, just a sampling) who love the things I love, or who introduce me to new things to love or vice versa.

 

I’ve inhabited many parts of the internet (inhabited in the truest xkcd sense). I first followed a “Rory Gilmore” keyword search down the Google rabbit hole to fanfiction.net in late 2001. My first 3 online “friends” (though I hesitate to even put that word in quotation marks–many of my most sincere, honest friendships have taken place entirely through IM and message boards and livejournal comments) ranged in age from 12 to 21. I was 14. We exchanged emails for over two years. Then came a Gilmore Girls message board, where my fandom family expanded, and then LiveJournal. These days most of my fandom-ing is done on Tumblr. The sites change, some of the people change, the fandoms change, but there’s something about the experience of fandom-at-large that remains constant.

 

And here is the most important thing I’ve learned from 10 years in this world: fandom is about people. It is not about a tv show or a ship, it’s not about a character or a creator or about that one fanfic that changed the way you regard fanfic as a whole. Fandom is about finding people who love what you love. It’s about finding someone in Israel who has the same reaction to Milo Ventimiglia’s bottom lip, or someone in Singapore who will share in your Downton Abbey geekery, or someone in Michigan who knows what you mean when you can’t express your emotions beyond “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.” And who will then ask you about your day, or send you a link they know will make you laugh, or recommend something else (a tv show, band, podcast, book, youtube video) they know you’re going to love. Because they know you.

 

It was fandom that gave me an idea of what caring passionately about television looks like. Obviously there’s more than one way to love anything; just as not every relationship looks the same, not everyone’s relationship with tv is going to look the same. But the number of people I’ve met in fandom who want to someday work in television is so large…wouldn’t you think that some of the people working in television would once have been a part of a fandom? Wouldn’t they at least understand it? The place of passion and excitement that it comes from? And hasn’t everyone, at some point, formed a friendship founded on mutual interests? Hell, Deep Blue Something found “kinda” liking Breakfast at Tiffany’s to be enough of a basis for a love story.

 

It doesn’t seem to be the case, though. I would say at least once every tv season a show (generally some sort of procedural: police, medical, legal) will try to tackle “fandom” in what they must think is a nice wink to the fans.

 

Castle last season did an episode about the murder of a soap writer that turned its eye on television fandom. For a show that fully embraces its will-they-or-won’t-they central characters (spoiler alert: they totally will), whose creator speaks eloquently about the relationship between them, and whose fanbase is largely composed of the hardcore shippers it so brutally takes down in the episode–for a show whose star has always shown an understanding and appreciation of fandom–the plot was handled with minimal sensitivity. The fans at its center were sneered at by the characters, depicted as cliché loners and crazy cat ladies, the type to live at home well into their forties. It was an unflattering funhouse mirror reflecting fandom and shipping back at the audience.

 

Most recently, last night’s Grey’s Anatomy involved a stampede at a local Comic Convention, inspired by a first-come-first-served TARDIS give-away (they’re signed by Russell T. Davies, which is not a name I ever thought I’d hear on a prime-time, American medical show). While there was a moment of joy at the realization that one of the guest stars was dressed as the Eleventh Doctor, it was quickly soured by the way the show treated his love of fandom. While a plastic TARDIS is hardly worth dying over, the lecture he receives from his roommate over his collectibles comes across as superior. It’s sneering. Surely these creators must realize they’re alienating a chunk of their audience.

 

Now, there are shows that get it right. Whenever Bones attempts to infiltrate geek culture it makes sure at least one of the main characters shows just as much enthusiasm for the subject (though that sometimes leads to episodes that are actually 40-minute Avatar commercials). The Big Bang Theory at least knows what it’s talking about, but tends to look down its nose at its own main characters. And Community has given us Abed and his obsessive love of Cougar Town, among other things–as well as the catch-phrase “six seasons and a movie”–and it shows him embraced by his friends, even if they don’t really get it all the time. It’s maybe the kindest portrayal of a TV addict I’ve seen on television.

 

If these programs could learn to follow Community‘s example and show television fans as people, rather than caricatures, there are plenty of interesting stories waiting to be told. Stories about long distance friendships and mutual appreciation and what it actually means to filter the world through fiction. But thus far most of what I’ve seen has been, if not outright offensive, then at least ill-informed.