Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The TV Comedy aka Britain shames America once again

I think it was Grant Morrison who said that after the British empire fell apart, they began to take over the world in a different way, namely by becoming the cutting edge leaders in art and culture. During the 60s, British rock groups were both popular and artistically phenomenal, from The Beatles to Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin and so on. Mod culture spread across the globe. In the 80s, the British invaded America in another medium, namely comics. Alan Moore completely redefined what comics could do, and Grant Morrison followed up, and even surpassed the pioneer. Now, most of the top writers in the comics industry are British, andd by and large they do the best work.

So, British own comics, but what about comedy? Obviously there was Python and others 60s groups, but recent British sitcoms have been putting our own to shame. In the past two days, I watched the first episode of Spaced, a Britcom, and also the first episode I'd ever seen of Family Guy, an American show you probably know all too well. Now, I'd heard a lot about both series, they're both beloved by fans, however, one is great and one makes me ashamed to be part of a culture that could love it.

Spaced, the first episode, was very impressive. The movie Shaun of the Dead, that came out a while ago came out of Spaced, and the series and the film share a writer, director and cast. Now, Shaun was pretty good, but Spaced the series is already better than it. The show is a comedy, but it's shot in a really interesting way, very feature like. It's shot with one camera, that uses a lot of complex moves and scene transitions. Director Edgar Wright uses a lot of really interesting techniques to show the passage of time. A big part of the show is paying homage to other films, and this leads to a lot of highly stylized and expressive shots. The show, despite being about two people living in a house, feels very exciting, just becuase of the way it's made. One notable sequence was that in which Tim and Daisy are going over each other's past, still images, quick cuts, and voiceover are used to convey a lot of narrative information very quickly.

As I said before, the show makes a lot of homages to movies. Subtly dropping in the Han and Luke "Same as always," "That bad, huh?" exchange from Jedi into a scene got a big laugh from me, but it's inserted so subtly into the text that it works both as an homage and as just a line of dialogue. I'll admit I can't really approach the show without bias since the characters share so many of my interests. The main character, Tim, works at a comic book shop, wants to be a graphic artist, and goes off on pretentious speeches in defense of sci-fi TV shows and comics themselves. He feels like a real person, and I actually care about his plight. This is something I saw in The Office too, a creator who doesn't want to do just comedy, he wants to make real characters. So, I'm looking forward to the rest of Spaced.

I had to watch Family Guy for class. Now, I'd never watched the show, I'd heard so many people talk about it, and how good it was, but I never really had the desire to see it. Unfortunately, this class made me have to watch it. I feel bad for the animators who drew this thing, since the 20 minutes watching it were painful enough, I would not want to have had to slave over drawing it.

So, to use the food metaphor, this show wouldn't even qualify as a bag of chips, it's more like eating some paper, you get absolutely nothing out of it. If this show were to be made physical, it would be a gas that just dissipates in the atmosphere, without enough cohesion to even hold its own molecules together. I was astonished at how bad the show was. While the possible re-election of George W. Bush makes me scared of people out in the middle of the country, watching this show made me scared about the college type smart audience that's watching this show.

The episode I watched was about a camping trip that Peter and his son go on, which prompts them to break up. What's so bad about it? First off, all the jokes are really cliched, and predictable. Using Mr. T in a joke at this point is about as cliche as it gets. Half the jokes seemed to be a character says something ridiculous then they cut to that very thing. If you do that every single time someone says something ridiculous, it's not funny anymore, it's expected.

Also, the creators seemed to be taking such joy in "breaking the rules." There was a Little House on the Prarie parody that seemed to be trying to get a laugh by making fun of the blind. The thing is, the parody wasn't funny because it was just a blind person tripping over stuff. The Office uses parody like this, but places it in a context where people have to take responsibility for their prejudice. The humor isn't in making of a person, it's in the awkward moment when someone catches you making fun of them. The Office episode in which David is telling racist jokes, only to have a black guy interrupt him in the middle of one brilliantly illustrates this. The humor isn't in the joke itself, it's in seeing David squirm as he tries to come up with an alternate ending to the joke. Curb Your Enthusiasm's Affirmative Action episode also does this.

At the end of the episode, Peter and the son hit golfballs that apparently kill someone. It's not funny because there's no consequences. It would have worked better if they had to actually confront the death, but instead they go for shock value. To be honest, if you want to be shocking you have to go a lot further. I love humor that is politically incorrent and out of sync with society's values, but this whole show is more like what a ten year old would consider offensive than what an actual adult would be offended by.

What else doesn't work about the show? The characters are horribly cliched. All the men on the are lazy, shun intellectualism, and possibly outright retarded. The women are cliched sitcom characters. The baby and dog characters just don't work, it's another example of trying to break the rules so boldly that it ends up just going nowhere. Plus, the creators of the show have a thirty second attention span. Nothing is developed at all, it's just surface.

So, you may say, I don't watch it for depth, sometimes I like to just kick back with some comedy. However, this show is so popular, it's not just kicking back. This is all that people are watching, shows with no characters or depth, just instant fulfillment. People can justify it saying that it's not great, but it's entertaining enough. Here's the thing. You shouldn't settle for not great until you've watched at least all of Twin Peaks, Buffy, The Office, The Sopranos, Angel and Six Feet Under. These are shows that infinitely more fulfilling and entertaining than Family Guy ever could be, and they don't leave you feeling degraded.

So, what does the popularity of Family Guy indicate about our society? The show's really popular with a lot of smart people, and that bothers me, because it's symptomatic of a trend in society. People are so attracted to these shows that have no depth whatsoever. They're ironically above any notion of actually caring about things, taking such pleasure in ridiculing people who are actually doing stuff they care about, rather than just making fun of others. I don't mind criticizing and making fun of something, if you're offering something better. Joss Whedon insulting reality TV is perfectly justified becuase he's made amazing shows already, he's not just talking, he's out doing. Whereas Spaced uses reference to other works to supplement its narrative, in Family Guy, the parody is the narrative, and it's not even parody really. It's just recreating scenes and conventions from other stories and expecting people to laugh because they remember that movie.

How could people not only like the show, but actively tell others to watch it? How could you buy it on DVD when there's so much better stuff out there? There's enough stuff to not care about out here in the real world, do we really need to watch TV shows to tell us not to care about anything?

Related Posts
Spaced: The First Series (11/5/2004)
The Office (12/26/2004)
the Office: The Christmas Special (12/27/2004)


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