By now, it’s no secret that we here at the Tiny Protagonist have a special place in our hearts for Dan Harmon. If you haven’t already checked out the A.V. Club’s kick-ass series where Dan walks us through every single episode of Community season 2, do yourself a favor and check it out.
That said, here’s another bit of wisdom gleaned from said walk-through when the Community creator discusses his initial contempt for this season’s paintball finale:
What I didn’t count on was the fact that that TV as a medium is a closer cousin to radio than cinema, and that you can get away with a lot more just by saying, “I’m a hero. I feel this way. This is a huge battle, and we’re scared.” People respect the effort; they’re not even drawing the distinction. I was looking at it like a filmmaker, going, “We’ve shown nothing. This is supposed to feel like Braveheart. These people are supposed to be in a war. You can’t tell who’s winning and who’s losing.” So I was abjectly ashamed of the episode.
Granted this probably applies more specifically to the translation between the writer’s vision and the filmmaker’s execution (earlier, Dan cites tight schedules and the difficulty of shooting this particular type of episode as reasons he didn’t achieve what he was going for) but offers an interesting point nonetheless. Twist its arm a bit, and you’ll find it applies to all writing. We can’t file this under the old “Less is more” trope, because in this particular case, more was not necessarily less. After all, no one would have complained about the inclusion of a full-scale paintball battle in Community’s season finale, but in its absence the episode was still received as a success (I liked it, anyways).
I’ve been watching a lot of Community lately, and I’ve noticed that in television (and in this case, situation comedies), you really do seem to need a lot less to get your point across. The story is told in simple beats, each designed to force us one step further into the narrative. There’s no time to waste on illustrative subtleties or jam-packed, Inception-like action scenes if they don’t serve the story’s immediate needs (unless you’re Mad Men or some other kind of slow-burning show). Keep it simple. Let the guy shoot a gun, maybe while jumping, and we’re still entertained.
In this way, “telling” can trump “showing” and still feel entertaining. Or perhaps you just don’t need to show as much as in film – give the audience the clues and let them figure it out. As long as the story’s good and the jokes hit, (or in the case of Law and Order: SVU, the homicides and rapes enjoy a sufficient so-messed-up-you-can’t-look-away quality), people will fill in the blanks.
Nobody cried foul over the missing epic military brawl that Dan had in his head to follow-up Community’s season 1 genre-bending classic episode “Modern Warfare” (directed by Justin Lin of the Fast & Furious franchise). If anything, people were so charmed by the Western motif of “A Fistful of Paintballs”, and then the Star Wars motif of “For a Few Paintballs More”, they didn’t have any time to notice a few extra shots of cleverly choreographed paintball death and destruction.
Whereas “Modern Warfare” was a pitch-perfect parody of action movies like Die Hard and The Killer, the Season 2 paintball episodes managed to transcend its predecessor not through the execution of ever-more fantastic action sequences, but with audacious character arcs that saw several of the characters breaking through their broader character boundaries that we’d gotten fairly comfortable with over the course of the past two seasons. Annie’s rise from innocent maiden to bad-ass gunslinger, Troy’s challenge to Jeff’s alpha dog status, Abed’s Han Solo-inspired seduction of Annie – all scenarios we never would have imagined while watching “Modern Warfare” last year, which focused primarily on the consummation of Jeff and Britta’s sexual tension. Not to mention the ultimate cliffhanger conclusion – which I won’t spoil by repeating here – even though if you’ve read this far, you’re probably a fan of the show, and hence, already know what happened.
(OK, fine. Pierce quits the group. There I said it. Don’t complain, you should have known that already.)
The only thing left to say is that it can be simultaneously alarming and consoling at times how disappointed Dan Harmon seems to be with his own work. I’m glad to see he struggles like the rest of us, but he also consistently bashes episodes that I think were pretty terrific. Sometimes he comes around and gives them a better review in hindsight, but still, I sometimes wonder how that man’s inner critic doesn’t completely paralyze him in the writing process altogether.