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TV That Matters: Dan Harmon can do no wrong

By John Thomas Columnist

As a teenager who worked at a comic book store, a lot of my friends assumed that I was an avid player of tabletop roleplaying games, and that assumption led to innumerable conversations about a topic that, for the most part, bored me. It isn’t that I had anything against crafting fantastical characters and worlds, rather that I didn’t understand the necessity of a rulebook to facilitate the fabrication of such things. I was under the misguided notion that great fiction could only come from a mind unencumbered by any sort of artificial restraints, when in truth the opposite is often the case — compelling narrative, generally speaking, thrives within a set of rules.

If there’s one person in television today who understands that maxim, among the obvious many, it’s Dan Harmon.

 

‘Community’

His first great work of television (we won’t count “Heat Vision and Jack” since it never actually made it to air) is “Community.” It’s defined by a strict adherence to conventional structures found first in the works of Joseph Campbell. Harmon, in a now famous post entitled “Story Structure 101 – Super Basic Shit”, adapted it on his old — but still kicking – Internet television venture Channel 101.

You might find that page on the web and think that the structure is so broad and malleable that it isn’t of consequence, but I promise you it is. Just look at the absolute worst episode of “Community” ever made, season four’s “Conventions of Space and Time”. The writers trade that aforementioned structure for mushy wooshy melodrama that meanders around for awkward fan service.

 

‘Rick and Morty’

With his new show, a show that I think could become his and co-creator Justin Roiland’s magnum opus, “Rick and Morty” has the same structure that’s made Community so great. It is both subverted and fortified to craft a show that dares to be dynamic. We see this from the first episode. We’re presented with what is presumably the basic concept of the show, that Morty slowly learns the ropes of mad science from his grandfather, sacrificing the conventions of an ordinary life for an extraordinary mind. The moral framework of the show is tossed away when it’s revealed that Morty hasn’t actually learned anything from his adventures with Rick, and in fact will sustain brain damage from their latest foray. In fact that concept was just a fugue put on by Rick to convince Morty’s parents to basically let him use his grandson as forced labor. It’s to the writer’s credit that such a cynical development doesn’t kill the show’s giggles, which are so often contingent on an unbridled enthusiasm for the conceit of any given episode.

That trick is performed yet again in the episode “Lawnmower Dog.” The immensely powerful sentient dog cyborgs unwittingly (?) spawned by one of Rick’s experiments decide to leave due to a similar fakeout by Rick as featured in the pilot. However, I actually would venture to say that the one episode so far where Rick hasn’t been able to construct a reset button for their world has been the program’s strongest. “Rick Potion Number 9,” spoilers, ends with the pair leaving their reality in total damnation, taking the place of their recently deceased counterparts in a world where they didn’t quite screw up as badly. I know, I know, I just said that Rick wasn’t able to find a reset button, and sure in a way he did, the show will go on, but it’s made abundantly clear that Morty is forever changed. The stakes are changed for the twelve year old, and with that the entire universe of the show is reformed in a somehow darker, and even more intriguing image.

 

Review Round-up: Drowners, Minor Wiley & Bettye Swann

“Labor Day”: subtly sweet, but overwrought