Thursday, December 16, 2010

Community vs. Better Off Ted

There's no earthly reason to compare these two shows. They are both worth your time, two excellent examples of television comedy that each deserve a bigger audience.

My point is, watch both of these. But I'm not like that, and frankly I don't think most people are, either. Everybody wants to crown a winner, one show to rule them all. And I am here to do that. Let's break it down by category:

Leading man:
Joel McHale has been killing it on The Soup for years, but it's a little easier to be likable when you're hating on the dregs of reality TV and washed-up celebrities than it is to pull off a multi-faceted, flawed and all too human character like Jeff Winger. Jeff is charismatic, but his "a-hole who slowly learns to love people" shtick reeks of chick flicks and sometimes makes him difficult to sympathize with, especially when (season one spoilers coming up) every woman on the show basically throws herself at him in the finale and his problem is he can't choose between them. Aww. Plus, as the show moves into its second season, he's hardly the focal point of most episodes anymore.

Ted Crisp, on the other hand, is played by Jay Harrington as a good guy working for an evil company. The worst thing you could really say about Ted is he's such a company man. As for the rest, the character is so gosh-darn lovable he makes me use the word "gosh-darn". I'd like to hang out with Jeff and perhaps even be in his study group, but I'd LOVE to have Ted as my boss.

Advantage: Better Off Ted

BOT has solid supporting players in Lem, Phil, Linda and especially Veronica (Portia De Rossi, cast MVP hands down, pulling off a role that's completely the opposite of Lindsay Bluth while being just as convincing). But Community brings together the comedic powers of Donald Glover and Danny Pudi (as Troy and Abed, who are basically the Wondertwins of hilarity on this show), Mad Men's Alison Brie (proving she's way more suited to comedy than drama), plus John Oliver, Ken Jeong, and Chevy Chase (in a role that screams "How the hell did I get so washed up? I'm awesome!"). That's not even including recurring characters like Starburns, Dean Pelton, Leonard and others. In fact, Community might have the strongest cast of any comedy show on the air right now.

Advantage: Community

One of my problems with TV comedy today is that every new hyped-up show seems to be either a ripoff of The Office or Arrested Development, or some combination thereof. Better Off Ted doesn't quite avoid that trap (it's kind of hard not to notice de Rossi is on this show), but it manages to set its own sort of tone for the most part, especially when they exploit the wacky "mad science" side of Veridian.

Community is one of those premises that just make you think "Why hasn't anybody done this before?" They could easily stretch this concept for about five seasons without becoming derivative or repetitive. The college setting provides endless fodder for weird stories and the diversity of the cast often means a different type of episode each week.

Advantage: Community

Too hard. Only way to resolve this is through a Battle of the Quotes Smackdown:

Better Off Ted - "Friendship. It's the same as stealing."

"The Veridian Foundation... helping the world then telling people about it makes us feel so good. The Veridian Foundation... Helping people. By telling people we're helping the world."

Veronica: Those are just facts, and facts are just opinions, and opinions can be wrong.

Veronica: Oh, God, we have unhappy Germans. Nothing good has ever come from that.

Ted: The potential for a long-lasting light bulb is enormous. In a recent study, people's desire to see things ranked third, right after hitting things and trying to have sex with things.

Linda: You guys are thinking about antlers and tails, aren't you?
Phil: Why do animals get all the best stuff attached to their bodies?
Lem: I would love to have a blowhole.

Lem: Oh, my God. Maybe we're evil scientists.
Phil: (laughing maniacally) I'm sorry. I laugh like that when faced with an unpleasant truth. That's why I got thrown out of that Al Gore movie.

Ted: The implications for weight loss are enormous. And while elective brain surgery doesn't test that great, it still tests better than dieting and exercise.

Commercial: Veridian Dynamics. The environment. Everyone likes it. And so, we do too. That's why we're committed to saving it. Veridian Dynamics is turning every one of our buildings 100% green. It's ridiculously expensive and spending money makes us sad. But we're doing it because we love nature, even when it's being mean or just acting stupid. Veridian Dynamics. Greening our world.

Community - Troy: My uncle was struck by lightning. You'd think it would give you superpowers, but now he just masturbates in movie theaters.

Pierce: Abed, Your social skills aren't exactly streets ahead, know what I mean?
Abed: I don't.
Jeff. You're not alone in this case. Pierce, stop trying to coin the phrase 'streets ahead'.
Pierce: Trying? Coined and minted.

Jeff: Why do you have a monkey?
Troy: Uh, it's an animal that looks like a dude. Why don't I have 10 of them?

Troy: You should be like Calvin. His best friend was a tiger, he always went on dope adventures, and if anything stood in his way, he just peed on it.

Vaughn: Actually, everyone is my bro in the whole entire universe because everything is connected. Rocks... eagles... hats.

Troy: Girls are supposed to dance. That's why God gave them parts that jiggle.

Shirley: You think religion is stupid.
Jeff: No, no. To me, religion is like Paul Rudd. I see the appeal and I would never take it away from anyone, but I would also never stand in line for it.

"East Side, West Side, North Side, South
Vaughn's breath is so bad his butt's mad at his mouth
This rap is by Pierce, Vaughn is dumb
He wears diapers to bed and sucks his mother's thumb
When he wakes up stupid wishing he was me
He has a big poop breakfast and a glass of pee
Then he goes to school where he's stupid again
And everybody hates him even all of his friends
When you come after Pierce, then the battle is on
So this rap goes out to stupid Vaughn"

Advantage: Too hard. Let's call it a draw.

Cancellability (not a word? is now):

Everybody knows cancellation makes the heart grow fonder. There's several reasons for this: unfulfilled potential is always better than mundane reality, shows that stay on the air too long will inevitably start to suck after awhile, it's more fun to root for an underdog than a champion. Mostly I think that after Arrested Development and Firefly got so popular (i.e. post-cancellation), nobody wants to miss the boat on these things anymore.

Community hasn't exactly lit the world on fire ratings-wise, but Better Off Ted's ratings were so abysmally low it's amazing it even lasted a full season, let alone two sets of 13 episodes. Plus, Ted has already been canceled. No contest.

Advantage: Better Off Ted


Better Off Ted could pull off some emotional moments when it wanted to, but ultimately it was too absurd of a show to get too sentimental (reminiscent of Arrested Development in that way). Community regularly goes for the TV trope of "characters learn lesson X this week", but somehow they manage to pull it off almost every time. The second season in particular has contained episodes that are almost bittersweet in their resolutions. It's a subjective thing, but I feel that comedy has more impact when it involves characters that we care about, that we care what happens to them. It's the difference between a show like The Simpsons or South Park and a show like Family Guy. No matter how funny the latter can be, it's impossible to feel invested in anything that happens. Comedy doesn't always have to be an empty laugh.

Advantage: Community

Total score: 3-2, and 1 tie. Better Off Ted is one of the funniest comedies in recent memory. It has it all. But Community is streets ahead, and since it's still on the air, has the potential to get even better.

But seriously, watch both shows.


Wendy McMillan said...

Clearly you've put a lot of thought into this and I have to agree with your overall conclusion. But I think I would have given BOT the advantage when it comes to supporting cast. Everyone is great while Community has a some filler that I could live without (Britta). I would added another category comparing the effectiveness of Veridian ads to Troy & Abed in the Morning.

Tracie said...

This is so funny that you wrote a post comparing these two because Austin and I have been doing the same. We bought season 1 of Community on Black Friday and just finished watching it marathon-style the other day.

I like both shows but BOT I think is much better written. It snaps, crackles, and pops more than Community. (I'm surprised you listed Community as more original. As far as I know, there really hasn't been sitcoms about corporations. Especially satires. There's been several shows about college.) Besides Abed, no one is really likable on Community. (Sure, many are "amusing" but not really likable.) Most of the characters are cliched stereotypes, but the women are the worst. (Stereotypical "feminist," stereotypical Christian black woman, stereotypical high school overachiever) Seriously I feel like slapping at least one of them per episode. Also, Chevy Chase is annoying. I think he's funny sometimes. But nowhere near as funny as the writers (or Chevy) thinks him to be. Also, I really don't find racism or sexism funny. Unless, like BOT, it is satirizing it.

So really in my mind, there is no comparison. Community (as far as season 1 goes) is funny and amusing, especially compared to a lot of the other crap out there. But I think BOT was BRILLIANT. (And Veronica is one of my favorite female characters ever.) I'll keep watching Community as it's still on the air but I won't pretend it compares to BOT. But, yeah, I agree, people should watch both.

Jacob I. McMillan said...

I've been working on this post for a long time and I actually thought about deleting it at one point. But there's no new episode of Community this week so I've been jonesing for my fix.

@Wendy: I think my problem with the BOT cast is that half of them never interacted with the other half in a lot of episodes. The main plot would be about Ted/Linda/Veronica and then Phil/Lem would be off doing something irrelevant. I like how Community can mix & match different members of its cast each week. Another one of my favorite shows, Newsradio, used to do that a lot.

@Tracie: You say the characters on Community are stereotypes, but how does that not apply to Better Off Ted? Isn't Veronica pretty much a stereotypical career woman? Ted is a stereotypical company man, Linda is a a stereotypical conflicted office drone and Phil/Lem are stereotypical science nerds? (BTW I don't believe this, but the criticism could be made) And you don't find Troy likable? I could see how many of your criticisms could apply to the early episodes (especially the pilot), but I feel like the show has developed everybody well beyond their types with the exception of Shirley.

As for originality, I wasn't comparing the settings. A show isn't about where it takes place, but how it uses that setting. Sure, Saved By The Bell: The College Years apparently existed, but it doesn't compare to the way Community exploited its setting to create new, unique situations. How many shows would do an episode about its main cast parlaying the acquisition of chicken wings into effective control over every aspect of the campus, and present the entire thing as a spoof of mafia movies? That is what I meant by originality. Better Off Ted did that sort of thing sometimes, but maybe I'm just tired of workplace sitcoms. And isn't pretty much every workplace sitcom about a corporation?

You're not wrong to prefer one over the other, but I'd argue that neither one is superior by a wide margin.

Wendy McMillan said...

"...neither one is superior by a wide margin." I think that's the key here.

I forgot how much Linda annoyed me on BOT but team Phlem made up for so all the back-and-forth between her and Ted. Props to BOT however for bringing in Khandi Alexander for one episode.

As far as stereotypes go, did you guys learn nothing from the zombie Halloween episode? Chang dressed up as Peggy Flemming and everyone assumed he was Michelle Kwan or Kristi Yamagushi. Community is all about overcoming stereotypes.

Annie may be an overachiever but didn't she also OD in high school, drop out, and whore around for a while?

I thought Troy would just be a stupid popular jock but he has so much heart.

Pierce reminds me of how my mom interacted with community college students when she took a night class there while I was in high school. Maybe she didn't have to try as hard as Pierce but she fit in because she was crazy and older than everyone else.

And then there's Britta who is just a pretentious jerk to everyone.

Tracie said...

I would say people on BOT are more archetypes than stereotypes. They are based on those types, but then they are given wings to fly. Veronica is a typical "career woman" but usually that stereotype is portrayed as a frosty, "man-like" bitch. But Veronica is not like that. She's not warm, but she's likable. She is also her own person. She doesn't have that complex of "I need to sleep with a bunch of men to show I'm like a man and I don't care and I don't get emotionally attached." Yeah, she had a tryst with Ted. But it doesn't define who she is. She is not defined by how much she fits "masculine" or "feminine" traits. She's just Veronica. And hilarious.

I've only seen the first season of Community thus far so I may revise my opinion as it goes along. You may be right they improve the characterization of characters. (redundancy alert!) But I guess that's part of my point. I've seen a comparable number of episodes of both so far and thus far I find the *characters* of BOT to be far more developed. I don't feel like they could be replaced with someone else whereas thus far I find most (but not all) of Community's main characters to be more of the same of characters I've seen before. But this is just the characters I'm talking about. I agree that the *situations* they put the characters in are definitely original, most of the time. The show in general is definitely MUCH MORE than the run-of-the-mill. But this has to do with wall breaking and the deliberate utilization (and spelling out) of TV tropes.

Once I saw the paintball episode (near the end of the first season), I saw that the show does hold incredible potential to improve, expand, and grow, which I'm hoping it does.

On Troy, I only find him likable when he is with Abed. Other than that I find him a stereotypical dumb, conceited jock.(But most of the cast seems to have an air of arrogance, again excepting Abed. And that just be a problem for me because I really despise arrogance.)

Also, Linda bugs me too. But at least I find her to be more of an authentic character than Britta or many of the other characters on Comm. I think the difference is I feel Linda to be more of a person that bugs me whereas the writing of the characters on COMM bugs me. I'm not sure if that makes sense or not.

Again, you make good points about the originality factor extending beyond the setting. I guess I hadn't factored that part in. But as I've only seen the first season, I find that those "out-of-the-box" episodes were fewer than I would have liked. I'm hoping they continue to do more of this since this is what I do like about the show. I hope they also develop the characters more. And I think it's because I'm really into politics and satire right now that BOT resonated more with me. I think both are funny and original but BOT for me also manages to say something I guess. Not that TV shows have to do that, but I guess I just liked how BOT manages to make points about different situations without coming across as preachy or after school specially or "character learns a lesson."

And those are my thoughts. Great discussion. I like discussing stuff with you guys cuz you keep me thinking. :)

Jacob I. McMillan said...

The second season has had a lot more conceptual episodes along the lines of the "paintball" episode. There's been riffs on conspiracy plots, zombie movies, space travel, and stop-motion animated Xmas specials. Sometimes it has come at the expense of characterization.

My point with the types is that you could reduce ANY character to a type if you choose not to read anything deeper into how they are presented. I can't help but feel your criticisms of the characters on Community is based on a shallow reading of them, perhaps because you don't find them likable. Anyway, there's definitely something different in the way we both watch the same show.

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I hope it didn't feel like Wendy and I were dog-piling on you. I'm pretty sure we all totally agree about Veronica. When will Portia De Rossi ever get to be on a funny show that doesn't get canned before its time?

Elizabeth said...

how very Abed of you to post this :)