Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Rulebook Casefile: The Framing Device (and Unsafe Space) on Community

Let’s spend some time luxuriating in the glorious opening minutes of the “Community” pilot, where we get a big burst of Concept, Character, Ensemble Introduction (and Differentiation), Tone and Theme all in the very first minute!

Here’s how it goes: We pan down on the nice-but-plain campus of a community college as bumbling Dean Pelton prepares to give a speech. After comically screwing up with the equipment a little bit he finally launches into:

So what all is this doing?
  • It introduces the setting.
  • It introduces most of our ensemble, where they are in life, what their problems are, how the world sees them, and how they want to be seen (they clearly don’t want to be described in the way the dean is describing them)
  • It introduces the goal (fix your broken life) and the stakes (or else this description will be your epitaph)
  • But it’s genuinely funny on its own merits, so it doesn’t feel like a mere info-dump.
  • It creates conflict: each character is now on the defensive.
  • It subtly solves the problem faced by most college shows: College is supposed to be an “intentional community” and a “safe space”, but those both kill drama, which is why most college shows don’t work. This speech, however, shows that this particular community is actually quite unintentional and this space is not at all safe from judgment.
  • The missing card becomes a metaphor for the series: we can see the problems, but not the solutions. In the filmed episode the dean ad libs a great line as he pleads for people to find the missing card, “If we could all look around our immediate areas…” And that is in fact the mission of the show: look around your immediate area and find the missing instructions for fixing your broken life.
Normally when we talk about “framing devices” on TV, we’re think of past-tense voiceover or flashforwards, but this is a different sort of framing device that’s far less intrusive. A framing device can be anything that briefly takes us out of the world of the characters and allows us to see them with some perspective they don’t have: Anything that allows us to be “in it” and still also “outside of it” looking down on these characters with a little more perspective than they have themselves at the time, before we jump in and see the rest of the story from their point of view.

No comments: