Tag Archives: Community

Narrative Contracts

Early on in Borderlands 2 the player encounters a fence of electricity in between them and their goal. Claptrap, the voice over the radio, tells you there’s a fusebox on the other side and that if you run fast enough, you won’t take damage from the fence. Your objective changes, now saying to run into the forcefield. So you do, and it deals damage to your shield and pushes you back. Claptrap suggests you do it again, he says you weren’t running fast enough. Seeing as this is a video game and voices-over-the-radio are seldom wrong, and your objective once again tells you to run into it. You do, and the same thing happens.

Undeterred, Claptrap tells you to try again, only for you to once again be electrocuted and pushed back. He then starts to make another suggestion for how to run through it when another voice on the radio comes in and tells you to just shoot the fusebox. And to ignore any advice Claptrap gives you.

It’s a funny moment, in no small part because the player is used to games and objectives being helpful. Borderlands 2 is effectively using the tropes of the medium itself to screw with you. It’s like a betrayal by the game, a really funny one. But it also serves to highlight the contract between a player and a game.

See, when it comes to entertainment there’s this sort of unspoken agreement. The movie’s arc will come to a head and resolution, the book’s narrative will conclude in some way, this essay will make a point at the end that warrants the five minutes you spend reading it. In video games, completing objectives will both advance the plot and progress the player. When the voice on the radio gives you an objective, you do it.

Which is what makes that gag in Borderlands 2 so great. These narrative contracts are vital to maintaining reader interest and telling a good story, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in breaking them. Community, for example, plays fast and loose with the expected promise that a tv show doesn’t know it’s a tv show. There’s something a little unsettling when a character in a tv show refers to ‘seasons’ or seems acutely aware that it’s a show.

Yet in the series finale a couple weeks ago, the characters envisioning how they’d want the Season Seven of their friendship to play out give us a unique look into each character’s psyche. That each scenario is introduced by a truncated version of the show’s opening only further draws the viewer in. What’s key is that the breaking of the rules service both story and humor.

For another example it’s hard not to mention Ulysses. The James Joyce novel eschews much in the way of the plot that’s expected of it. Bits of stories are started and continued, but nothing is ever truly resolved as the modernist novel captures the wandering minds and lives of a fairly average day in 1904 Dublin. Had the book instead followed a more traditional structure, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest books ever. More importantly, it wouldn’t have felt half as realistic and emotionally true to life as it does.

But if we’re talking about books breaking narrative contracts, nothing quite beats Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. In an increasingly frustrating fashion, the narrator tells the reader that he, as the storyteller, could do anything he wanted, like set the titular Jacques and his master off on a great adventure. But he doesn’t. Instead the book is one of unmet expectations, where the reader neither gets to hear the true story of Jacques’ loves or is even given a proper ending to the book — rather the reader is given three to choose from. But as an exercise in playing with narrative, it excels.

All this to say that rules are meant to be broken. That said, rules have to be broken right, like in Community or Ulysses. Because unless you’re Denis Diderot, there’s not much point in doing it just to prove a point. Or if you want to screw with your player.

Now I’ve just gotta finish Borderlands 2.

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Computer-Mediated Communi-what now?

Being a big fan of his other stuff, I saw Jon Favreau’s Chef last night. It’s a wonderful movie full of heart and food porn. Seriously. That movie will make you hungry. Really hungry.

It’s remarkable for more than just salacious shots of food, though. There’s the fun character dynamics and the great soundtrack. There’s the fact that it avoids the obnoxious Bad Thing Before the Third Act that’s so commonplace in comedies and other films like Chef. But what I wanna talk about is its use of social media.

Oh boy, there’s that buzzword.

Social media and other forms of computer-mediated communication, as it’s known in Conversation Analysis (which is a thing, and I’m taking a class on it), are becoming more and more common. Heck, you’re probably reading this ‘cuz I posted the link on my Facebook or Twitter.

In Chef, the protagonist, Carl Casper, sets up a Twitter account and gets involved in a flamewar with a critic. It’s delightful to watch because of how it’s presented: we see an overlay of the Tweet box which, when sent, becomes a small blue bird that flies off screen. But what’s really great is that it’s treated not as a fad or something insignificant, but rather as a legitimate means of communication. In the world of Chef, just as in the real world, Twitter (along with texting, Vine, and Facebook) is a perfectly normal way of interacting with other people (and drumming up noise about your awesome new food truck).

The TV show Sherlock and the film Non-Stop both use an overlay effect for texting and present it as a normal means of conversation. Non-Stop uses its potential anonymity and discreetness to hide the identity of the hijacker and to build tension, but it never feels like a gimmick. Characters in Sherlock, well, mostly John, will get texts during conversations. As viewers we now get to watch the all too familiar tension that comes from being stuck in one conversation when there’s another waiting in the wings. Wonderfully, Sherlock also treats texting as something people do. It’s as commonplace as phone calls and given equal weight.

Texting is showing up in books too. The Fault in Our Stars has Hazel and Gus texting each other. Like in the other examples, it’s treated as a normal part of life. People text to talk. It’s a thing. The Fault in Our Stars has a very, well, contemporary, attitude to texting. It’s not a Big Deal or even some magical piece of New Technology or a sign of Declining Sociality; instead it’s downright normal. It’s not trite, it’s just a part of life. You don’t have to call someone, you can text them instead — which is often more convenient.

What sets these examples apart is how well integrated they are. A lot of shows and movies either ignore the presence of cell-phones or only use them on occasion. It’s seldom to see texting and social media as integrated into a story as in Chef, Sherlock, and The Fault in Our Stars.

The world’s changing. Computer-mediated communication is becoming really commonplace. Not only that, but it’s steadily being scholarly accepted as a legitimate form of communication (seriously, I read a paper on gossip in instant messaging). Yet pop-culture has been oddly slow on the upkeep. There aren’t many shows like Community where everyone’s digital lives are presented as normal, including Jeff’s constant texting and Troy’s Clive Owen Tumblr. Granted, it can be a slow or overwrought way of communicating exposition, but it can be done well and, as in Chef, it can be visually interesting. I want to see more movies, shows, and books like this; where computer-mediated communication isn’t necessarily nerdy or reclusive, where a Vine and Facebook can be a bonding moment between a father and son.

Because hey, this is the world we live in.

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Nerd Culture, The Big Bang Theory, and Chuck

I stopped watching The Big Bang Theory a couple years ago. Part of the reason was because I was growing tired of it, other part was I simply couldn’t be bothered to keep up with it. For a class, though, I have to write a scene for The Big Bang Theory. This means watching episodes of the show to get a hold of the rhythm and voices of the show.

I started watching Big Bang during its second season and enjoyed it for what it was; a sitcom about a bunch of nerds. I got the references they threw around, had or wanted some of the memorabilia in their rooms, and remembered when that Rebellion poster in Leonard’s room was announced. This show speaks my language.

So did Chuck, another show I began watching around the same time, although it spoke it differently than Big Bang did. In Chuck the nerd shout outs came as frequently and as accurately as in Big Bang, but in this show they felt more a part of the plot. Maybe it’d be meta gags like an entire episode following the structure of Die Hard or guest stars quoting characters they’d played in Terminator or Firefly. Other times the show would work it into the story: Chuck and Bryce speaking Klingon so they won’t be understood or Casey telling Morgan there are only three Indiana Jones movies. Chuck used nerd culture to enhance the story, partially because the protagonist himself is a nerd, partially because it’s that sort of show.

The protagonists of Big Bang are caricatures more than characters; Sheldon the insufferable genius, Raj the funny foreigner, Penny the clueless blonde, and so on. The entire premise of the show stems from their nerdiness and inability to mesh with the ‘real’ world.

Chuck of the eponymous show, is a far more rounded character. Yes, we’re told he can quote Wrath of Khan word for word and he does employ the Wookie prisoner trick on a mission, but it’s all part of who he is rather than who he is.The show’s about a normal, nerdy guy who gets brought into a world of spies and intrigue, and sometimes it’s his nerdiness that saves the day, other times it can be his sheer gumption. Chuck’s identity goes beyond his nerdy traits.

This yields different treatments of the characters and their nerdiness. Take gaming as an example. Rock Band is played for laughs in Big Bang, whereas Chuck brokenheartedly playing Guitar Hero while drinking whiskey leads to one of Season 3’s most heartfelt moments. Halo Night in Big Bang is often used as a gag or an opportunity to show how unchanging Sheldon is, even if the other guys would rather be doing something else. Early in Chuck’s first season, Chuck and Morgan are discussing something while playing Halo. The former presents Halo as being a gag in and of itself, whereas Chuck presents it as just something guys do.

And there’s the central conceit of the nerdy humor in The Big Bang Theory: It’s funny because they’re nerds. The characters playing Dungeons and Dragons or reading comics is funny in and of itself, not because of anything they do with it.

Compare Community, which just aired their second Dungeons and Dragon episode. Once again it features the characters playing a relatively realistic game of D&D. It’s funny, not because they’re playing D&D, but because of what they bring to it. Hickey using his ex-cop interrogation techniques on a hobgoblin or Dean Pelton’s overcommitment to his character’s relationship with his father. It wasn’t funny because they were playing D&D, but what they did while playing it.

Now, Chuck ended in early 2012 and I stopped watching Big Bang shortly after. In the years since I started watching these shows nerd culture has, as a whole, become far more mainstream. The Avengers happened, superhero movies are topping the box office, suddenly it seems like everyone’s watching shows like Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Nerd culture and pop culture are overlapping more and more. Big Bang is steadily becoming out of touch with where things are headed. A recent episode has a gag about how girls don’t play D&D though I know more than a handful who play tabletop off the top of my head.

What I love about Chuck and Community is their willingness to embrace nerd culture for all that it is. For someone like me, someone who’s been neck-deep in nerd culture and general geekiness since before Iron Man became a household name, it’s great to see shows who love this and celebrate the fun of being a nerd. With regards to Big Bang, well, I’ll quote Penny Arcade: “In Big Bang being like me is the punchline.”

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Abed, I Know What We’re Gonna Do Today!

My favorite show this past season aired on Thursdays at 8pm on NBC. This was, of course, Community. It also happens to be one of my favorite shows of all time (up there with Firefly, Lost, and Chuck). It’s smart, excellently written, and consistently hilarious.

I’m not sure when my favorite cartoon airs. I know it’s on Disney Channel, but I just watch it on Netflix. Phineas and Ferb, my favorite cartoon, is smart, excellently written, and consistently hilarious.

They’re very different shows: one’s about a group of community college students and the escapades they get up to, the other’s about a pair of step-brothers and their attempts to make the most of the 104 days of summer vacation. The two, however, do share a comedic style that’s right up my alley. Both are meta, post-modern, fourth-wall taunting, and trope playing shows that have far more in common than not.

The foundation for a series such as these is a setting in which just about anything can transpire. For Phineas and Ferb it’s the brothers’ ability to create literally anything in their backyard; for Community it’s the unpredictably goofy campus of Greendale Community College. Both worlds are slightly (okay, very in the case of Phineas and Ferb) fantastical but grounded in some semblance of reality. Both shows have done westerns, science fiction, alternate realities, and musicals. Since they’ve established that reality is malleable in their worlds they’re free to play around with it as much as they want. Of course, their little winks and nods to the audience helps us play along.

Beyond their bouts of fantasy, both shows are very self-aware of not only the tropes they play with, but their own tendency to play with these tropes. Phineas and Ferb knows it has a wealth of catchphrases and so aired an episode set in prehistoric times with the entire episode’s dialogue simple grunts. Yet, due to the nature of the show, anyone who’s seen a few episodes knows exactly what each character means and where the plot is going. Community not only gleefully pointed out that the episode ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ was a bottle episode but expressed disdain at the very idea of bottle episodes. Within their bottle episode. The result is one of the most cleverly written episodes of the series.

They know what they’re doing, and they know that you too know what they’re doing. So they take you in stride, welcome you to the fold, and have fun.

But all the shenanigans in the world mean nothing if you can’t connect. To that, both shows have a core cast who you quickly grow to love. The Study Group from Community may be involved in hijinks aplenty, but the characters and their interactions are treated with gravitas and respect. Sure, their world may not be real, but the people at the core are. Phineas and Ferb has the titular brothers and Isabella, Buford, Baljeet, and Candace stick together for all the adventures. No matter how absurd their worlds may get, the characters and their relationships are very real. It’s both shows wonderful artificial families that give us a frame and reference for the adventures.

Phineas and Ferb and Community are very different tv shows. One’s aimed primarily (well, more halfway intended) at kids and the other at adults/teens. Yet both shows share a very similar sort of humor and sense of family. It’s no guarantee that liking one show means you’ll like the other, but it’s certainly a very strong possibility. Again: it’s that post-modern sense of humor and slick writing with the artificial family at its core that unites the shows.

This is quality television.

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The Artificial Family

I grew up on a ship. Well, not really grew up exactly, more spent four very key years of my youth onboard a ship. It’s a long story. The thing about living on a ship, though, was that with only two hundred people on board it was a small community. Smaller still were the number of kids on board. I’m not kidding when I say there were a handful. Out of necessity we became more of a family than a group of friends. Life’s changed and gone on, but even though it’s been several several years since those days I still find myself drawn to stories about that sense of community, about building that group of people who aren’t so much friends as they are family.

There’s this Japanese word, nakama, that has no proper English translation. A rough rendition of it means something to the effect of a deep friendship not unlike family. Everyone can think of people fitting that description. And if not, well, I’m so sorry, you’re missing out.

This concept of friends who are family is everywhere in literature. Like Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Harry Potter. Once they became friends nothing stood in their way. They fought with each other, but, when they chips were down, they were there for each other. They were those good friends who came out on top. You’ve got the protagonists of Zombieland, or the members of the Bartlett administration in The West Wing, the heroes in Chuck, Drake and Sully in Uncharted, or the Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that group of friends who, even if they don’t always like each other, will stick together through it all.

Lost shows just how strong that relationship is. The survivors on the island don’t get along. They fight, they steal, they kill; they really don’t get along. But the relationships that form over time are real. They might not always be friends but throughout the six seasons they come to be something like a (highly dysfunctional Arrested Development-esque) family. Their bonds are to the point where in the end, it’s all that really mattered, and as long as they have each other, they will be content.

So what draws this people together? CS Lewis describes friendship as “the moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’”. There’s this movie out now called The Avengers that you may have heard of. The titular Avengers are all lonely people in their own way; Joss Whedon said so himself. Their connection that forms comes from being lonely together. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner – the two scientisty characters – have a conversation about it; about having something that is both a blessing and a curse. It was their moment of realizing they weren’t the only one alone. The seed of friendship, leading to that team, that community of people who can’t be broken.

Then there’s Community (did you really think I’d let that semi-forced transition slip by?). The Study Group has the common ground of all being students Greendale Community College. Over the seasons they’ve grown closer and had their moments. Like all of these artificial families; they break at the edges. But the heart of it is simple: they were all at Greendale lacking something, needing someone, lacking stability, or any host of reasons. They found what they needed in each other, creating that familial bond in the process. Yes, they are (in their own words), a dysfunctional and incestuous family, but they are one all the same. A, you know, community. Hence the name.

Firefly, another one of Whedon’s creations that I love, is another example of this bond. The crew of Serenity have been with each other through a lot. They’ve seen the best and the worst of each other and they definitely don’t always like each other. But since they’re there together on that ship, they have no choice but to reconcile and stick with it. They can’t walk away from it because they’re in it together, no matter what. Like the members of Community’s Study Group and the Avengers: they’re alone. They’ve left their lives behind and are wandering the black alone together. By the time the film Serenity rolls around they’ve gone beyond just being crew members who live on the same ship.

So yeah I’m drawn to the story of the artificial family. That sense of building a group of friends who will stick with you through it all. People who find what they need in each other, finding strength in their bonds.

A few months ago I met up with some of the others who had been kids on the ship the same time I was. Most of us hadn’t seen or hardly spoken to each other in years. But when we sat down together it was as if we hadn’t missed a day. Life went on and our ship was gone, but our connection was still there.

Makes sense though, we’re family.

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