This is shocking: Dan Harmon, after all, created “Heat Vision and Jack”, perhaps the most tongue-in-cheek pilot ever made, and then followed that up with the droll anti-sitcom “The Sarah Silverman Program”. How did this guy end up creating this pilot? Two possible answers:
- Presumably after failing to break through to a wide audience, he was more willing to take network notes and give them the kind of show they wanted, but more importantly…
- This pilot’s ingenuousness is somewhat disingenuous. When I saw it in 2009, I remember thinking “Wow, this looks great, and it could be the show that brings unironic learning and growing back to sitcoms.” I was certainly right about the show being great, but not about the show’s commitment to non-irony. Just the opposite happened: the show quickly shifted to a far more ironic tone, to the point where every other episode became a brilliantly-post-modern parody of a different film genre.
- The ironic dilemma, between individual achievement and community building, tips decisively in one direction (no hints as to which one.)
- The plot doesn’t just collide thesis and antithesis and let us choose, the characters actually talk quite a bit about what it all means, synthesizing a concrete moral. Audiences normally hate this.
- Our hero has a resolvable issue that can ultimately be solved in a tidy way
This show doesn’t simply ignore the possibility of moral ambiguity, it actively campaigns against it. As Jeff says at one point, while defending his lies: “I’ve understood since I was a kid that if I talked long enough, I could make anything true. So either I’m God or truth is relative, and in either case: booyah.” This is refreshing. In the world of the show, unambiguous morality, instead of seeming trite and simplistic, seems like a daring new concept.
So why doesn’t it sabotage things to have the cast talk so much about morality? One reason is the setting: college is the land of over-earnest talky-talk-talk. That’s true to life and it’s also part of the joke: at no other point in life is your level of “insight” so divorced from your actual wisdom. When we watch this very diverse ensemble trying to wrap things up with a bow, we maintain a healthy distance from them, somewhat convinced but also amused, which keeps the show from feeling overly moralistic.
And a third reason crosses over with our next edition of “Straying from the Party Line”…