A Confident Risk, Or How The Good Becomes The Great

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Suits. However, I never came close to catching up on it. By the end of season 3 I felt like I had seen the same episode five times in a row, not because the plot was always the same, but because the format was. Harvey’s a charming smug asshole, Mike is loveable and clever, the rat-faced dude continues to be a thorn in everyone’s side, and the cases keep coming in. This is what separates good TV from great TV: risk. Not only risk, but the confidence in this risk that never even gives you the chance to question whether or not it was a good idea. Suits lacks any risk whatsoever, and therefore loses its lustre real quick.

What we’re going to be talking about here is confident risk episodes. These are episodes where a show deviates from its normal format to create something bold, something new, something never been done before. This is Bojack Horseman’s Free Churro, this is The Leftovers’ International Assassin (Finally, I get to talk about The freakin’ Leftovers!!!), and this is Community’s Remedial Chaos Theory.

Let’s start with the episode that gave me this idea in the first place, Free Churro. Bojack has never shied away from risky episodes. In fact, the worst episode of the entire show is a big risk. Season 3 episode 4, Fish out of Water, takes on the challenge of being an almost entirely silent half hour. The problem is, it falls flat on its face. It tries to coast on the gimmick while ignoring what makes Bojack one of the best shows on television: the characters. Free Churro, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. It’s a half hour of pure, unrelenting character. The episode features two scenes: an opening in which we see Butterscotch Horseman being a misogynist prick while poor Bojack endures his cynical wrath, and the rest of the episode, Bojack’s eulogy for his mother. During the eulogy, there are no cutaways, no Bojack talking over footage from his past, no creative visuals (except one brief moment), it is simply a horse, a coffin, and a podium. And it’s absolutely genius. Is it okay to say that I have never been more entertained by a eulogy?

“Knock once if you want me to shut up.” Bojack is emancipated from the torment of his mother, but as the episode goes on, it becomes clear that Bojack genuinely wanted to love her. The fake story he tells, he tells because he wanted desperately for it to be his story. “Knock once if you love me and care about me and want me to know that I made your life a little bit brighter.” Bojack is always trying to impress everyone, but nobody more than his mother. Beatrice lacked any sense of humour whatsoever, so what becomes Bojack’s signature thing? Explaining every joke he makes until he feels assured that people get it, until he feels validated, even at the cost of actual humour. And just when he begins to think she gave him the validation he needs so much, “I see you,” he realises that she was simply stating the letters on a sign, ICU. He never does get his closure, and he never will. But Bojack tells plenty of jokes in this episode. Stop me if you think I’m reading too far into it, but I think this is intentional. He tells jokes in his eulogy, and doesn’t try to explain a single one of them. Even if he doesn’t realise it, Bojack is already a better, less starved person after being freed from his mother. He says at the end of the episode that it’s good his mother’s dead. I don’t believe that he believes that, even if it’s true. “My mom died and all I got was this free churro.” At the end of the season, when Bojack voices his fears about being the same broken person once he gets out of rehab, Diane says she doesn’t know, but I think I do. I think Bojack can and will be a better person. Horse. Horseman. He’ll be an impressin’ equestrian.

Bojack Horseman is a fast paced and frantic show, but decides to slow all the way down to give ample time to flesh out a pivotal point in the life of our main character. With inferior writing, this episode could have yielded different results: it could have been pretentious, it could have been over-sentimental, or worse yet, it could have been boring. But Raphael Bob-Waksberg writes one of the most genuine episodes of television ever made. In fact, the entire season is heartbreakingly genuine; heartbreaking in the fact that despite my limited life experience, I believe that this is real, this is how shitty relationships can be, how shitty mental health can be, how shitty life can be. That’s why every positive moment in the show, no matter how rare, is such a bright spot to me. The show may be bitter, but when the sweet shines through it not only gives us hope for the characters, but for ourselves as well.

Community is one of the funniest shows of all time, and has also never been a stranger to the risk. Initially, I was going to write about the paintball episodes, and those are entirely worthy of being analysed in their own right. The difference with Remedial Chaos Theory, though, is how much of a challenge it is. Sure, paintball must have had a high budget and the concept is hilarious, but the Russo brothers are already great at action; we’ve seen plenty of it in their various Marvel movies. Remedial Chaos Theory has seven different stories, each offering a different side of the characters we know so well. Remember what I said about Coherence in my previous post? This episode is the same in that it lets your brain wander excitedly about the potential of the timelines that weren’t fully fleshed out by the end. In a way, it’s actually a bottle episode, but combined with a unique element that sets it apart from any other episode of anything, ever.

The episode geniusly fleshes out characters without them even being there. How the gang acts without various characters shows how integral each one of them is to the cohesiveness of the group. Annie’s absence not only shows just how terrible her apartment’s neighbourhood is, but also gives the group a colder feel, like they’re missing their youngest and most optimistic member.

Shirley leaves the group lacking any of her necessary motherly presence, and lacking any pie presence, too. Maybe the pie part is a good thing, but the group isn’t the same sans Shirley. Without a mom, they’ll just end up making googly eyes at each other all day!

With Pierce gone, the onus is on Jeff to be the asshole, and he ends up hurting Troy more than he meant to. However, a lack of Pierce also brings friends closer together, since he’s the one constantly putting everyone down.

Britta, the wildcard, causes a bunch of random shit to happen. Without Britta playing Roxanne to kick everything off, the group isn’t sure where to go, and events similar to those in other timelines occur. Looking at it from this perspective, this is definitely the weakest timeline. It actually ends up telling us very little about Britta’s place in the group, and instead opts to commit to Britta’s wild card status.

Then, of course, we have the darkest timeline. This one paints Troy as the glue of the study group. Without Troy as an anchor, the group descends rapidly into madness (except in the later seasons, but for the sake of my argument let’s agree he’s the glue). Britta’s weed habit and Annie’s stubbornness are brought to the forefront in hilarious ways, but so is Troy’s childlike nature that keeps everyone sane.

Abed’s exit leaves everyone miffed at each other. His ability to point out others’ flaws with no reservations is absent, and leaves the group without a compass to keep everyone in check. Just imagine Abed intervening with any of the issues the group has here: he’d probably defuse most of them with a single observational comment. In fact, Abed defuses every problem that could possibly arise upon catching the die, creating the true timeline.

Which leads us to our final absence, Jeff. A lack of Winger dispels much of the negativity the group harbours, and allows them all to finally have a great time dancing to Roxanne.

I feel like we’re missing a character here, are we missing someone? Hmmm…

Not someone, Joey, but something. A song! Roxanne is as much a character in this episode as the rest of the cast. The Police’s most popular song is the perfect choice for this episode as it has the ability to play so many roles. For the majority of the timelines, it can be considered simple background music. But in three of them, it has a noticeable effect on the tone. In the timeline where Britta gets the pizza, there is no Roxanne, and even if you don’t notice it, it changes the feel, as if there are two missing characters rather than one. The lack of any music disconnects us from the rest of the timelines, despite the events being relatively similar. In most timelines, Roxanne feels chill and docile, making its absence feel like something is definitely amiss. Something other than Britta marrying the creepy pizza guy, of course.

In the darkest timeline, Roxanne changes from being chill to being frantic. The music doesn’t change at all, and yet Roxanne gives the ensuing chaos an even more hectic feel. How can one song sound both chill and chaotic? I dunno, call up Sting and find out. 

A final display of Roxanne’s versatility is in the true timeline, when it becomes a fun song for everyone to put aside any problems they would’ve had in other timelines and just dance together as a study group. No madness can be felt this time, despite us having seen just how chaotic the song can feel not five minutes prior.

This isn’t me saying Roxanne is a fantastic song or anything, I’m just trying to show how some well implemented diegetic music can make a genuine difference, especially in an episode as unique as this one. It elevates the episode just a little bit more to make it something truly special.

Finally, finally, the moment I’ve all been waiting for. The Leftovers is one of my favourite shows of all time, if not my favourite, and I know for a fact only two people reading this have seen it. They may or may not be my parents who I forced to watch it. With that being the case, I’m going to try to keep this as light on spoilers as I possibly can. Of course, I’d love for you to watch the show before reading this, but that is a commitment I know most of you don’t have the time for. So the goal of this segment is twofold: do an in depth analysis of a confidently risky episode, and also to convince you that this show is worth all of your time.

Anyone who’s read a synopsis will tell you that The Leftovers is about the aftermath of October 14th, 2011, when 2% of the population disappeared without a trace. However, anyone who has seen the entire series will tell you that it’s far more about the fantastic characters than it is about the mystery of the missing humans. It’s really too bad I chose an episode that only features one main character, because I’d love to talk about Nora and Matt, but perhaps we’ll save that for another day. The episode in question takes a dramatic turn plot-wise, and what I’m gonna try to do is dance around this as much as possible. This is gonna be tougher than dancing to Roxanne.

Kevin Garvey wakes up in a bathtub, confused as shit. You know who else is gonna be confused as shit? You, if you haven’t seen The Leftovers. But bear with me! Immediately, he has to decide who he is, the choice manifesting as clothing in his closet. He’s given a bunch of choices, but only two matter: a suit, becoming the international assassin, and the police jacket, becoming the Mapleton cop. Despite not knowing what the suit even means, he rejects his former occupation in favour of the unknown. Neil later inadvertently explains to Kevin exactly why he chose the suit: the International Assassin has no relational obligations, not to his kids, not to his wife, not to his past.

More than Kevin’s character, though, we learn about Patti Levin, the constant source of turmoil for poor Mr. Garvey. We learn that maybe Kevin and Patti aren’t all that different after all. Patti wants to destroy the family; Kevin wants to escape his own familial obligations. Kevin, helpless, but Patti, entirely empowered. We finally begin to understand Patti as a human being, rather than a force butting heads (head?) with Kevin. She may say that on October 14th, the family ceased to exist, but for her, that day was the day she married Neil. The Departure was simply the catalyst, what gave her the reason and motivation to finally take a stand against her husband, and wage a war against the greatest American value. If she can’t have a functional family, nobody can. Before the Departure, she was weak, aimless, and suffering. Her story about Jeopardy! drives this home pretty explicitly: despite winning all that money for the sole reason of leaving her abusive husband, she decides to stay. Before this episode, we see Patti as entirely misguided, bordering on malicious. But International Assassin allows us to see how she became the way she is, and maybe even sympathise with her point of view. She was weak, but now she has strength, and she’s sure as hell gonna use it. Even in this… place… she has the strength to resist the thing so many have succumbed to. Kevin’s arrival in this… place… is the world, God, asking if he really wants to do what he’s about to do. He’s given every chance to see every perspective so that he can make an entirely informed decision on what to do with his dark passenger, Patti Levin.

It may not seem like it from my analysis so far, but International Assassin is almost a parody of action movies. It has a man showing up with flowers who attacks Kevin with a knife, mysterious parking garage meetings, guns hidden in toilets (“Like… in the Godfather?”), and body doubles (what is this, Mission: Impossible?). It’s such a massive departure from the core show, but it never falters, not for a single second. There was not a moment while watching it where I went “wait, what the hell is happening, and why?” I had complete and utter trust in the writers to pull through in the end, and they do so perfectly. This episode is confident in the way that it’s boldly going where no Leftovers episode has gone before, but also in the sense that I was already so on board with the incredible writing that I never felt that the show would take a turn for the worse, even when it borders on ridiculous. Now, don’t misinterpret ridiculous as a bad thing. What at first may come off as silly quickly becomes a not-so-abstract metaphor for how Kevin views the numerous problems in his life. How he ends up dealing with them, well, that’s for you to find out.

Much like Roxanne in Remedial Chaos Theory, the song Nabucco: Act III – “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (jeez, that’s a mouthful) is used to drive home the message that hey, this episode is a little bit different from what you’re used to. This… place… is unfamiliar, and therefore is accompanied with music that makes us feel like we’re watching an entirely different show. The upbeat tone creates a strange dissonance that furthers the sense that this… place… is one where many of the rules we know to be true are anything but. The episode persists in its bizarre dissonant tone until the final “holy shit!”, when we’re thrust back into the familiar. The thing is, the events of the episode mean nothing can be familiar, not anymore.

And isn’t that what all these episodes are about? Taking something familiar and manipulating it in such a way that it becomes something entirely different, but remarkable in a new way? Remedial Chaos Theory is the only episode that does not end up positively capitalised on in future episodes. The Leftovers is changed drastically post-International Assassin, and Free Churro shows us a side to Bojack that makes us understand his future motivations better. The darkest timeline stuff is brought back at the end of the fourth season of Community, and we don’t talk about that. No, really, we don’t talk about the gas leak year at Greendale, it’s too terrible to comprehend. The problem there was the fact that for season 4, new writers were brought in to replace Dan Harmon, the mastermind behind every other season, and you can’t just replace a consistently great writer like Dan Harmon and expect the same quality. Shit, I’m getting dangerously close to touching on a subject that may potentially be the basis of my next post. Consider this a little bit of a teaser, then?

I feel like there have been a lot of things I’ve tried to teach you in this post. Well, you’re wrong, the only thing I want for you to take home today is the desire to go watch all of these shows, but mostly The Leftovers. It seriously upsets me how little recognition this show gets. (I feel like I’m assigning readings for a class or something and now I feel like a hypocrite, ‘cause god knows I never get those done.)

Speaking of leftovers, I’m gonna grab some of that spaghetti I put in a Tupperware last night. Yum. 


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