Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Paintball Episode's Really Good, Too

This is a post on TV.

Over the last few days, I've been watching the DVD commentaries for the first season of the sitcom Community. (Wonderful show. You should be watching it. And if you already are, you should be watching more of it.) In particular, I'm watching the episode where Peirce (played by Chevy Chase) convinces Annie (Alison Brie) to let him write the school song. The commentators mention that the original storyline was much darker, with Peirce ridiculing and mocking Annie until she rejects him with an angry speech over how he's determinedly driven away everyone in his life that's ever shown him any kindness or pity. The network made them rewrite the scene, fearing it was too dark for early in the series. That anecdote was when Peirce's character finally clicked for me. In broad strokes, Peirce's backstory is that he's a successful businessman, now retired, who has returned to community college because he realizes (in a self-denial kind of way) that despite his success, he has nothing meaningful in his life. The character fluctuates back and forth between early onset senior dementia and pratfalls, and the generally unpleasant, unlikeable man that he's been for most of his life. (For an example of just how unlikeable he can be, see the recent D&D episode.)

And that brings me to the Simpsons. (Stay with me here; I'm going somewhere with this.) Continuity on the Simpsons TV show is actually very similar to comic book superhero continuity. That's because both are essentially unaging; time moves for us, but not for the characters. Bart is still as 10 years old now as he was 10 years ago, and Superman's never going to get gray hairs. One of the consequences of this timelessness, however, is that the characters are trapped in amber. There isn't so much change as the illusion of change. In the Simpsons, this is doubly so, by nature of it being not just a timeless cartoon, but a sitcom, where things are almost always dragged back to the status quo by episode's end. The series' major changes are almost always changed back: Krabappel and Skinner were dating, now they're not; Barney did join AA, but he fell off the wagon; Wally West did take over as the Flash, but now it's Barry West again; Spider-Man was never married to Mary Jane (Okay, I've drifted into comic book territory again. Sorry.).

My point is, such a set-up is not disposed towards character arcs and development. Change does happen, but so incrementally and minutely that it's generally not worth noticing. But there is, I argue, one character in the Simpsons who has had, through various flashbacks, a fairly nuanced existence: Grandpa Abraham Simpson.

In over two decades of Simpsons experience, Abe Simpson's past has been plumbed a lot. We know he was in WWII, and was the leader of a platoon. We know he came back from the war. We know he was a terrible father and husband; he cheated on his wife, drove her to leave him, and his son felt no remorse about putting him into a home. And over the course of the actual series, he's changed a great deal. In the early seasons, he was a grumpy old man that dispensed advice to his grandson and fought for some consideration by others. Slowly, the scales tilted and he became more of a rambling, crazy old coot. There's pragmatic reasons for this shift; "cranky old man" isn't as funny as "crazy rambling Grampa," and toning down the crankiness in favor of the craziness gets more mileage out of the character.

But the resulting arc is rather disturbing. Abraham Simpson was a man whose success peaked when he was in the battlefield, and never quite reached that level again. He was self-serving and callous to the people who loved him, until they left him. He struggled bitterly against the loss of dignity that comes with age, but ultimately succumbed to senility and became a twisted joke, a parody of his former self.

Not very funny, is it?

And yet, in its individual pieces, it is funny. It's only when you look at the long term that it appears as something else. The same general arc, I'd argue, seems to be happening to Peirce in Community. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's a sitcom archetype: the waning old man. We see it in Martin's character in Fraser (albeit in a toned down form; still, compare Martin from episode 1 to Martin 3 or 4 seasons later), and Frank in Everybody Loves Raymond. I think the best example would be Archie Bunker's character (he said, having never actually seen an episode of the show in question). It's a symbolic decline--the old, dominating patriarchy that ignored women and uttered racial epithets and repressed their feelings is replaced by a new, gentler breed of... well, younger patriarchy that dominates in a different way. (Homer Simpson: "I'm a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are!")

I'm not sure exactly what conclusions can be drawn from this. I do know that I felt almost relieved when I thought I'd "figured out" Pierce. Does this imply that a part of us wants to see these elderly male figures fail, that an atavistic part of ourselves (okay, myself) wants to see them punished? Does it demonstrate the insidious nature of genre television, in that is generally disquieting to see a break from trope form? Does such television act as a moral salve for society at large, justifying our own poor treatment of the elderly? Should I be concerned over who is being marginalized and disempowered for the sake of my entertainment?

Homer: Man... fall down. Funny.
Me: Mmmmmm...

Later Days.

1 comment:

Epigraphd said...

nice connections here. But speaking of continuity and change, a Simpsons aficionado can't help but utter those two horrid words: Armen Tamzarian. Which, interestingly enough, required some absurd collective amnesia of the WWII episode where we see Sgt. Sheldon Skinner (it's interesting to read the contortions of his identity over at the Simpsons wiki:

Anyway, it'll be interesting to see how the Community writers deal with a character that walks (and sometimes rolls) along a very fine line between outdated and irrelevant and misogynist and racist. Sounds like they dodged a bullet early on in the series