4.02- "Paranormal Parentage"
Although it worked well as a tagline for the delayed return of Community, it still felt a little bit off center to have Community's Halloween episode– originally intended to air October 19th, 2012 and usually my personal most anticipated episode– fall on Valentine’s Day. Ever since Season 2's unforgettable Halloween episode, "Epidemiology," Halloween once again became a time where I looked forward to seeing new, original televised content surrounding the holiday, as opposed to constant airings of "It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown!"
Community revitalized the present day frequently shoved aside opportunity for television shows to create something artistic and memorable anytime a holiday rolled around, a tradition I felt was lost back in the '90s when shows like Roseanne and Home Improvement were notorious for annual Halloween-centric episodes. Still, despite the unusual timing of this episode, "Paranormal Parentage" proved itself as an incredibly solid, well rounded episode.
I went into watching "Paranormal Parentage" with far higher hopes than last week's "History 101," not only because I didn't want to believe this show could get any more painful, but also because one of the show's best remaining writers, Megan Ganz, wrote this episode. But the specific chord that resonated with me throughout this episode and why things just seemed to flow and work insatiably better than the episode prior is based off of my own experience as an improviser.
There are many different teaching and performance styles of improvisation. Some focus on finding the game of a scene, honing in on what is funny about the situation and emphasizing and heightening that one thing until it's beaten into the ground. Others focus on the characters and their relationships in the scene, with whatever the characters happen to be doing in the scene becoming the secondary, less important focus. When playing in an improv scene where you and your scene partner are more focused on tasks, like what you're doing, or what you're holding in your hand, you realize just how fast you run out of ideas and how quickly a scene can lose momentum. You're stuck struggling to find a way to move the scene forward, all while trying to keep the audience engaged and entertained. Yet if you begin at the top of a scene with your scene partner focusing on the relationship between your two characters, you immediately begin to discover more details that you can play with to expand the growth and direction of that scene.
The scene doesn't need to focus on hilarity; humor naturally develops within the existence of a character's personalities. If there is a strong relationship that is being explored, that is going to make a longer lasting memory and impression than where the characters are or what they're doing. It's human nature to want to watch other people's lives, getting a perspective of how things exist outside of how we ourselves live day to day in our realities. That's a major appeal in watching film and television, getting the chance to be safely voyeuristic of the lives and relationships of these characters, with things like reality television taking it even one step further by allowing us to actually observe the intimate details in the lives and relationships of other human beings.
For me, watching "History 101" felt like watching an improv scene where there was more focus on doing things rather than relationships, milking the few jokes you could out of a situation and then moving on to something else because there wasn't any foundation to build upon. "Paranormal Parentage" felt like watching an incredibly strong improv scene where the suggestion at the top of the show was "Halloween;" the cast did a tremendous job of honoring that suggestion without playing too heavily on keeping it solely about Halloween, instead engaging the audience in strong character relationships, which is where this show has thrived in the past.
This episode nearly had me biting my tongue at my last review's assessment of Pierce's character. The group, despite Jeff's objections, head down to Hawthorne Manor when Pierce calls Troy saying that he's locked himself inside of his panic room and can't get out. It's almost inarguable that Pierce is lonely, regardless of the questionable truth in his motives for calling. If Pierce actually locked himself inside his panic room and needed help getting out, it grounds the reality that he is really just an old man living alone without anyone he can rely on, whereas if it is all a lie used to derail the group's Halloween plans and get them to spend time with him instead, it is just a grim act of an incredibly lonely reality.
Excluding Troy, no one has really seen the inside of Pierce's mansion, but it's easy to see that despite outdated furnishings of neon signs and odd portraiture on the walls, the place has a very "lived in" feel to it, with clothes strewn across furniture and trash littering most tables and surfaces, like when you end up having guests over when you weren't expecting company and didn't have time to clean up the place first. Pierce quickly concedes his initial explanation for how he got trapped in the panic room and admits to lying, and that he intentionally locked himself in the panic room from genuine fright in thinking he saw his dead dad, almost embarrassed in revealing his true reasoning due to assuming the group would think he was old and crazy. Both incredibly accurate adjectives that I actually have used to describe Pierce, specifically in my last review.
At this point (unless you're Jeff Winger), it's difficult to not feel sympathetic towards Pierce. He's lonely and in his vulnerability is actually aware of his shortcomings and his status as a burden to the group; admitting you have a problem is the first step, right?
The group ends up splitting up in pairs to search for the panic room code, which allows the show to fall into that improv sweet spot that I mentioned before. Although the characters technically are looking for the code, the show is progressing based off of the relationships they have with each other; namely Jeff and Britta. With Britta being one of my personal favorite characters
, I have been perpetually disappointed lately at the lack of depth her character has been allowed to portray, an issue that has carried over from Season 3. The only topic of substance you ever seem to hear come out of Britta's mouth these days is about psychology, and I'm pleased to say that this episode is no different because for once her psychobabble actually unintentionally positively pays off. Britta wants to use her shrink thinking to resolve Pierce's daddy issues, which BAM, right there, logical explanation for why Pierce thinks he's seeing his dead dad, but when things start happening that can't easily be explained, Britta is quick to drop her usual psychological logic. Still not buying into Pierce's ghost story, Jeff is left being the rational and level-headed one, explaining to Britta that just because Pierce may have daddy issues, there is no way those things can manifest into ghosts. How does Jeff know this? Through his overcoming of his own daddy iss–wait, what? One of the greatest mythologies on this show is Jeff's father. We know that his abandonment at a young age heavily ties into why Jeff constantly keeps people at a distance and is unable to open himself up to others. Jeff hates him for leaving and constantly evades having to talk about his past involving his father. Jeff may have Britta'd it, but that Freudian slip is now solidly established. No matter how Jeff tries to talk his way out of this one, Britta told him best, "denial is the first step to acceptance".
This episode kicked my nostalgia for TGIF and Saturday morning cartoons into overdrive with the structure of the episode reminding me of Boy Meets World's "And Then There Was Shawn," where the entire episode revolved around a murder mystery happening while trapped at John Adams High, but instead of trying to figure out who the killer was, I was left with boiling down the possibilities of what was behind the g-g-g-ghoooost. There had to be some explanation for the dark, looming shadow that kept frequently appearing, the shaking rooms, hands and faces coming out of the wall like a live action Wailing Wall from The Simpsons' "Treehouse of Horror." A childhood filled with Scooby-Doo told my gut to think that it really was mean old Mr. Hawthorne (Pierce that is, not Cornelius) playing a trick on the gang. Community, like Scooby-Doo, always gives a somewhat rational explanation for paranormal goings-on, teaching valuable lessons like if all your peers turn into zombies because they ate the party snacks you bought at the army surplus store, just turn the thermostat down to break everyone's food poisoning fevers. At the same time, I wanted to throw that logic aside and believe Pierce just this once; maybe there is something paranormal afoot, something that can still logically be explained, but redeems Pierce as a decent person through these once in a lifetime honest motives.
That is of course why our brains were designed for thinking and not our hearts. The heart is just what keeps the blood moving, you shouldn't let it interfere with what you find to be rational, and I should have never wanted to believe that Pierce could be anything other than Pierce. Everything paranormal ends up explained by simple, predictable haunted housery, a remarkable step up in sharpness and intelligence in comparison to how Pierce was portrayed in "History 101"– everything is explained except for the dark, shadowy figure, that is. I won't ruin the surprise, but Community does provide a rational explanation, rational by its own standards anyway, and also manages to resolve the issue of Pierce's loneliness. "Paranormal Parentage" was an improvement by leaps and bounds over "History 101," and may have added a few more shreds of hope to my collection for the rest of the season. Holiday episodes on Community have set a very high bar for themselves, though. As a result, the combination of how the episode stands on its own and how it held up as a holiday episode that was a little too easy to predict makes it come in at a 3.5/5.
Janelle Revord is one of the few authentically born and raised Austinites you'll ever encounter in your lifetime. When she's not yelling at people who have just moved to town to "get off her lawn," or attempting to holla at celebrities to get drinks with her when guest-hosting on CB's own Paranoid Video, you can find her on twitter basically doing the exact same thing in 140 characters or less.