Allow me to climb aboard my TV Soapbox for a little while (I specify because I have many. Maybe one day I’ll drag out my “irregardless” soapbox). I make no effort to hide the fact that I love watching TV. Usually it’s in conjunction with something else. Dateline while I clean the apartment or some variation of Law and Order while I surf the Internet. However, there are exactly two shows currently on TV that I will stop everything and give my undivided attention to – Community and Justified.TV is, at its core, an entertainment medium; however, when it’s great, it can be so much more than that. You watch and you actually cheer for these people, you become attached to them and you may even wish they were real. The best show runners and/or writers are those that realize that people are inviting them into their homes for 30 minutes to an hour at a time and the best way to continue to reach these people is not to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but to make them feel invested in the lives of these characters.
Far and away the best 30 minutes on TV right now is Community whose basic premise is that Jeff Winger, a lawyer who has recently had his license suspended, must attend Community College after it’s discovered his bachelor’s degree is fake (“I thought you had a degree from Columbia.” “And now I have to get one from America.”). I watched the pilot episode of this show when it first came out and then kind of forgot about it. It was funny, but at the time I had other shows filling up my DVR and was in the midst of mourning the loss of Battlestar Galactica (The most recent version, and a show that people make fun of me for watching, but that I maintain was one of the best and most solid shows on TV). It fell off my radar until the end of this summer when I watched the last three episodes of the season on demand. I believe my words were “Why have I not been watching this show all along.” One of my Facebook friends even responded with “What? That show’s right up your alley.” And she was right.
Community started out as a vehicle for Joel McHale – the snarky host of the E! channel’s “The Soup.” It quickly became evident that this show is all that and more. While McHale is exceptional as the self-centered Jeff Winger, his co-stars are equally up to the challenge, making this a true ensemble cast. I could go character by character, but that seems excessive. Suffice to say when Chevy Chase is your weak link, you have a stellar ensemble on your hands. I could also re-count the numerous homages and parodies the show has engaged from a post-apocalyptic paintball war to a mob movie spin on a chicken finger cartel (one of my personal favorites) to an absolutely inspired take on conspiracy theory movies, but that’s been done, and while it’s a part of what I love about this show, it’s not all I love about it.
The thing I like most about Community is the writing. And not just from an episodic standpoint. Creator Dan Harmon and his team of writers infuse each character with a unique personality full of quirks and charm making them likable and identifiable (with the possible exception of Chevy Chase’s Pierce – not a criticism, just an observation). You honestly care for these people and their lives and there is consistent character development throughout the series. You root for them to become better and share the other characters’ disappointment when they fail to live up to expectations.
Most sitcoms are happy to go for the cheap laugh week after week. People tune in to The Office knowing that Michael Scott is going to once again play the buffoon to Jim’s straight man and Dwight’s crazy antics. The characters presented in the first episode are pretty much the characters you get in the latest. And I’m not knocking that. I used to watch Entourage, and my favorite thing about that show was that no matter what happened during, you knew that by the end of that half hour everything was going to be ok. It was comforting. However, I think that’s the difference between good TV and great TV. Great TV leaves you a little uncomfortable and makes you think about what you just watched and what the ramifications might be. Community manages to weave in moments of character development between laughs, creating episodes that don’t just amuse, but also create a sense of evolution towards something greater.
Also, it’s pretty damn funny. I may not laugh at all of the jokes all of the time, but I laugh at most of them, and hard. While a lot of the credit goes to Harmon and his writing staff, it’s a confluence of great writing and a cast that can carry it and, on occasion, improvise. I could list my favorite quotes (“I did eat all the macaroni, it’s weird that he knows that”) but the effect isn’t the same.
I recognize this show is not for everyone, but it’s for a lot of you. So, my question is – why are you not watching it? Why are you reading this? Go watch. Now. I’ll wait.
Back? Ok, good. On with the show.
The second show I have recently discovered and subsequently fallen in love with isJustified on FX. Again, a lot of the appeal is the writing. It’s based on an Elmore Leonard character, Raylan Givens – a quick-drawing, anachronistic cowboy-hat wearing Deputy U.S. Marshal. Graham Yost and his team have managed to consistently reproduce the Elmore Leonard patter that makes a good adaptation great (see Out of Sight and Get Shorty). It also helps that Leonard consults on the show and has fully endorsed it.
Like Community the writing is translated to the screen by a talented ensemble cast. Timothy Olyphant manages to make Raylan more than an Old West gunslinger transplanted to modern-day Kentucky, although he is consistently given grief about his ever present cowboy hat. Even as he racks up the body count (which is, of course, justified as the title implies) you find yourself wanting to share a beer with the guy. His closet has skeltons in the form of a criminal father, an ex wife and a childhood friend who may or may not be on the straight and narrow depending on what time of day it is. However, none of this ever dissolves into a soapy mess. People deal with their interpersonal issues like grown ups and don’t wallow around in the misery of a love triangle. While Justified is, at its heart, the story of a man being forced to face his demons, it’s also a pretty good time.
One of those demons, and perhaps the best part of the show, is Boyd Crowder played by Walton Goggins (previously raved about by others for his work on The Shield, a show I have never seen but have been told I should). I can’t describe Boyd other than to say he’s crazy, a little schizophrenic and delightful. Seriously, the man is a ticking time bomb of insanity, and yet, again, I’d have a beer with him. Fun fact – Boyd was originally written to die in the pilot episode, but the focus groups loved him so much, they kept him around and now he’s a regular cast member.
Ultimately, I think what draws me in to this show is the overall feel of it. If you’ve grown up or spent any length of time in a small town, you’ll recognize it. Setting aside the rampant drug problem and criminal element depicted, there’s this feeling that you can’t ever really reconcile who you used to be with who you are now. Combine that with the comfort of familiar southern characters and the show has definitely replicated that small town southern feel. They also cast a lot of southern actors, and the ones who aren’t get the accent down pretty well, or at least better than others who have tried before them (see Varsity Blues).
If you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me while I fawn all over two of my favorite things. Let me know if you have a favorite show and what you like about it. I’m always looking!