Monday, June 8, 2015

TV Board Games 101: Dan Harmon Is Community's Old Soul

For some reason I started watching Community back in the day, Anno Domini 2009, aka season 1, and I was hooked. The repartee of the study group at Greendale Community College was some of the wittiest to be found. The pop culture references resonated strongly with me, making me part of its "cult following," and I was not afraid.

I will not try to summarize the élan of a series, you have to experience it for itself (try Hulu, Netflix).

But I must celebrate the tag scene of the season 6 finale--the season that streams on Yahoo--as a beautiful revelation of the old soul of Dan Harmon.


As of this writing it is not known whether the season 6 finale "Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television" is the series finale, or if there will be a season 7 on Yahoo or some other streaming service.

Dan Harmon wrote the episode with the characters pitching what could happen in a season 7. And that was fun.  But it's a fake TV commerical for the Community board game, with a family playing it on the dining room table, that is one of the all-time smartest endings of a series.

Yes. A board game. Based on a TV show.

They were a staple of my childhood. But I would think the whole phenomenon was about 10 years before Harmon's time: he was born in 1973. He wouldn't have first-hand attachment to this early merchandising.

But it's as though Dan Harmon was hovering over my girlhood birthdays (and my older brother's) and our Christmas mornings and learning what these games meant to us. From a crass perspective it was all the beginnings of the movie/TV tie-in merchandizing—sometimes officially counted from the Star Wars product juggernaut that started in 1977—but for a child these Milton Bradley/Ideal games were the first real-world extension of the TV show bond.

TV watching for me as a child was family time together, either the whole family, or just with my older brother in our playroom. I didn't really follow the shows we watched in the late sixties/early seventies, but that wasn't the point. It was time together around something as powerful as narrative.

Land of the Giants; The Time Tunnel; Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Get Smart; the Saturday morning game show Shenanigans.

And then, when either my brother or I would get the board game as a present, it was exciting. We could use our imagination and  play at being the characters in Land of the Giants: I remember that safety pin circle card as though it were yesterday. And for Shenanigans it was like being in the TV game: I remember the Pie Eye and the tiddlywinks SO vividly. We played these games for hours and hours, and I played them with my friends for more hours and hours.

Community: the Board Game

For Harmon to end Community with a board game—a nondigital, noninteractive game— in 2015 is absolutely hysterical. The usual Community attention to the details of an homage is top-notch: the board pieces, the spinner, the action cards are all spot on.  It all works beautifully and harkens back to my childhood's simpler TV time, when the beloved tropes and semiotics of TV programming were just crawling their way out of the primordial soup. 

And then Harmon introduces the twist: the Son plays the script for Community as a ploy to take his Dad's pieces. But Dad realizes that if there's a script, then "they" don't exist. "We haven't been created by God, but by a joke."

Dad then plays the trump "snow globe" card: "We're all just a part of the universe in here."
(That's the Tommy Westphall Universe of course). This brings the family into sadness, as they contemplate their non-existence.

And so the ad voice-over comes in, as it does, with the details.

"Dice not included. Some assembly required."

(The dice were always included, so maybe it's a nod to "Remedial Chaos Theory" and the role of the die that lead to the darkest timeline?)

And then Harmon gives the perfect summation of his show, read quickly in his own"fine print don't pay attention to this" voice.

Lines between perception, desire and reality may become blurred, redundant or interchangeable.

Characters may hook up with no regard for your emotional investment. Some episodes too conceptual to be funny, some too funny to be immersive and some so immersive they still aren't funny.

Consistency between seasons may vary.

Viewers may be measured by a secretive, obsolete system based on selected participants keeping hand written journals of what they watch.

Show may be cancelled and moved to the internet where it turns out tens of millions were watching the whole time. May not matter.

Fake commercial may end with disclaimer gag which may descend into vain, Chuck Lorre-esque rant by narcissistic creator.

Creator may be unstable. Therapist may have told creator this is not how you make yourself a good person. Life may pass by while we ignore and mistreat those close to us. Those close to us may be those watching. Those people may want to know I love them but I may be incapable of saying it.

Contains pieces the size of a child's esophagus.

To capture entire imaginary worlds and systems of media in a minute ad takes a lot of talent. To also evoke an emotional component is the work of an old soul. I hope Harmon turns down any opportunity to continue on to a season 7. I don't think the fans would be well served, and it would ruin this perfect closure.  But I'm all for #andamovie.


Anonymous said...


dave barton said...

Hey Emma/Ellen,
Thought you might like to know that my dad most likely painted that Shennanigans board game cover for Milton Bradley. You wouldn't think so because it's so sloppily painted, but sometimes he would do that on purpose.
Because he painted so many covers for them, he would deliberately use different styles so it wouldn't all look like the same artist. Also sometimes there was a certain look they were going for. In this case I think the word 'cheesy' comes to mind. You should see the psychedelic era covers.
This one looks circa early 60's. My brother Artie and I probably posed for it.
By the early 70's he would let me paint some of the details he didn't want to bother with and would pay me to deliver them to their headquarters in East Longmeadow MA.