Friday, December 9, 2011

The Abed Op-Ed

There's a movie coming this Christmas called War Horse. It's about a lost horse that tries to find its owners during World War I. Directed by Steven Spielberg, score by John Williams. If you hear tapping sounds, that's the entire crew nailing up shelves for their new Oscars.

It's probably going to be great...why shouldn't it be? Spielberg has been making movies like this his whole life and he's great at it. Still, the engorged gland in my brain that produces hate practically explodes when I'm seeing trailers for it. I mean, it's maudlin, it's tear-jerking, and it's probably so formulaic that I've seen it all a million times.

Then again, who am I to be so jaded? I'm 24. I have a BA in English. If Roger Ebert wants to lecture about the overused devices in movies, he can because he earned that right by devoting his life to the study and critique of the medium.

My generation has been spoiled by access to the internet in general and in particular. We've seen the tropes and devices of literature chopped up and rearranged in a dizzyingly complete array. As a side result, I think we think a little too highly of ourselves. And so, like Icarus flying too close to the sun on wings of artificial genre-savvy, we're heading for a dangerous situation. (Not real danger, mind you, more quality of television and movies danger.)

To see this danger playing out, turn to NBC's very high-quality comedy Community. In it, the delightfully funny Danny Pudi plays the character of Abed Nadir. If you're not familiar with Community, Abed's main shticks is that he has encyclopedic knowledge of the tropes of TV and movies and frequently comments on them both in character and beyond the fourth wall. And there's a lot to like: The performance is great, his lines are cleverly funny, and his fascination with classic sitcom style comes from a place of honesty and genuine knowledge that makes it work all the better.

Unfortunately, as we've learned from Dark Knight, though, just because something is great doesn't mean that I won't have a negative influence on the creative landscape. Abed making an impact as an excellent character means that we're going to start seeing imitators, and unless we start cloning Danny Pudi, they won't be as good. I'm not against cloning Danny Pudi, obviously, but without the help of science I can't really offer that as a solution.

Returning to reality, though, there's a real danger that a “Too Smart for TV” character starts becoming the norm. We already saw it happen to slasher movies when Scream came along and an entire generation of viewers decided that they were two smart for slasher movies even if they hadn't seen enough of them to be genuinely jaded. Abed, though, is the universal expert who knows all movies and all television: the stakes are a lot higher this time.

As even TVTropes will tell you, tropes are not bad; they're useful. Formulas and devices aren't necessarily innovative, but they're still important to making likable stories in a reliable time-frame. Take Frasier, a long-running, high quality show. It lasted 12 reliably funny seasons on tropes and formulas and never stopped being funny. If we start pointing these tropes out constantly, however, then we're risking their long-term usefulness. Tropes run on a suspension of disbelief the same way that actors and props do. If someone is constantly pointing out that the Senator is really Laurence Olivier, then it's hard to get into the performance no matter how good it is.

What is going to happen when every single show has to have a genre-savvy snarker quipping constantly about how this stuff would only happen on TV? Not only will we play that joke out, but every trope that they quip about will be collateral damage.

Now, I can't ask to get rid of Abed and I wouldn't want to, but maybe we should start being a little bit nicer to tropes. People my age aren't jaded intellectuals who've seen everything under the sun, we've just had more time to read about tropes than other people. It might do us all some good to lie back and appreciate useful formulas for what they are.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home