Creative Storytelling in Community and HIMYM
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
There is no denying that Remedial Chaos Theory is the best episode of Community. It is the one where Jeff throws a die to see which one of the main cast will get the pizza from downstairs. The plot is as simple as this: Just about a minute of one of them going down, and the dynamic of the group without that person. While they are definitely presenting everything in a chaotic manner, there is more structure here than meets the eye.
Everything shown in each timeline is following either the principle of the Chekhov's Gun, or is presenting a good mystery for the upcoming timelines. It starts with Annie going downstairs, and the audience finding out that there is a gun in her purse. We also see the Indiana Jones boulder almost fall over and over. This is peak worldbuilding. You see, many critics dislike worldbuilding since it kills pacing. The trick for many creators is to build it however they want, but only narrate the elements important to the plot. Well, the problem here is contrivances. Now, we know that everything we are shown will factor into the plot, and we are far too aware about these elements.
Community came around by making many timelines. Now, while everything shown WILL factor into the plotline, it can factor into any one of them. Shirley's pies are important mostly for her and Abed's timelines. Annie's gun is important for Troy's timeline. This works much like a Hitman level from the new games. Of course, Community also needs to establish that it will continue with one of these timelines, and achieving this was as simple as stopping the die.
Throughout the episode, Jeff stops Britta from singing "Roxanne". Including a few other factors, this allowed for the hindrance for what was the endgame of the episode: Annie moving in with Troy and Abed. This is the one element from the episode that needs to be carried forward to the next. While the darkest timeline thing comes up later, it is completely in Abed's head or factors into an awful ending for season 4. But to get to this ending, we need Annie to hate Jeff enough to laugh at his fan injury, Britta to sing Roxanne and not go to the bathroom, Shirley to sing a duet and forget about her pies, Pierce to feel warm enough to let go of his pettiness, Annie having a positive memory of the place, and Abed inviting her as a roommate. All they needed was for Abed to stop the die, embrace each others' flaws, and call out the one guy who was stopping everyone from having fun. That's right, this is one of the few episodes to embrace Jeff not just as a flawed protagonist, but as the antagonistic anti-villain.
Imagine my excitement when I learned that there was an entire sitcom out there which embraced two of my favourite storytelling elements: non-linearity and unreliable narrator. Ted is a surprisingly good storyteller in this show. In most sitcoms, the story is usually intercut between several plotlines which happen to reach narrative climax at approximately the same time. Sometimes, the stories can be loosely connected to each other. I am someone who is not a fan of this kind of storytelling, even in shows I love.
Well, HIMYM is aware about this. The show's primary theme is about breaking the grand illusion of adulthood. This theme works so well since the show also juxtaposes it with an unbroken commitment to the idea of "the one". Most stories about adulthood usually break this idea before anything. Well, for the show to work, the stories it tells are (at their peaks) stories a parent wants to tell their children about how the world will feel stacked up against them sometimes. An important part of this is to let them know that it will get better.
In one of the best episodes of the show, Three Days of Snow, Ted tells a story about Marshall and Lily struggling with the idea of letting go of their big romantic gestures. The two made an agreement that they will not perform their dance they do every year where Lily brings Marshall beer and he does a little routine. Well, now that a storm is approaching, both of them are afraid that the other one will be alone at the airport, having fully prepared their routine, while they themselves fail to fulfil their part. So, throughout the episode, we see them race to the airport.
Well, by the end, the both reach the airport at the same time, except they don't. Ted was narrating the events of three different days simultaneously. The snow storm lasted three days. Marshall went on to pick Lily up on day 1, but her flight was delayed two days. He did not hear it until he reached the airport. That explains why Lily was not at the airport when Marshall was waiting. However, Marshall was not there when she was waiting either. Why was that?
Immediately following this, we see a discouraged Marshall talking about how he feels stupid going this far for a short gesture. This had to be the reason Marshall is not with Lily, right? Well, we continue the scene with Lily alone at the airport with a huge barrel of beer, feeling depressed and embarrassed. Only after we have drawn the romantic tragedy angle do we see that despite being pushed, buried and broken, he still went to the airport and made the biggest gesture he could.
The same story told in a linear method wouldn't prove so effective. Marshall goes to pick up Lily, finds out that Lily is not showing up for two more days. Then, we see Lily struggling to reach on time two days later. This gives us the length of an entire plot to hope, and once we hope, we cannot feel the pain (or the ecstasy following it) like Lily does. The idea behind non-linearity is to either juxtapose or to support, and either way, it is there to solidify the theme of the narrative.
What the show does better than any other is using the unreliable narrator. Since the entire story is being told by old man Ted, he was bound to do stuff like romanticising every memory he has with the mother, or jumping years ahead to give closure to a story. Usually, this is used to provide solid comedy. This is something that can be seen in episodes like high Ted and Marshall, three versions of the same story involving the captain, or in my favourite example, Robin slowly revealing to Lily over decades that she let a stranger comfort her son, take him to the strip club, and leave him with the stranger. Oh, and the stranger was Mike Tyson.
There are two examples that stick out as being used for amazing dramatic storytelling. The first of these involves Ted misinterpreting the events of his Saint Patrick's Day event. After remembering a romanticised version of the events, Ted saw an objective look at his actions and how he is not always the hero in his story, and he does not always deserve pity. Bojack Horseman fans definitely love these scenes. For 6 seasons, we jump from hating Bojack to empathising with him, only to have everything he has ever done come down on him in one interview and realising that there HAD to be a time when he confronted everything, where he cannot have excuses. In HIMYM, Ted was lucky enough to have his mistakes thrown at him early enough.
The other time was after Robin found out that she was pregnant. That episode is narrated by Robin to her children. After she has a rollercoaster of emotions about children and finding out that she is not pregnant, she learns that she is infertile. Now, throughout the series, Robin made it clear that she never wanted children. However, being confronted by the fact that it was never even a possibility took a huge toll on her. But how is she narrating this story to her children, then? Well, she wasn't narrating to her children. The fact is, being confronted by loss, even the loss of something we hardly held dear, puts a person into a "What if?" scenario. Whether Robin was completely honest about never wanting children at all is true or not is irrelevant here. We here a narration Robin will never get to give.
And you know what? If the show had not devastated us like this, then the scene that followed it would not have had the same impact.
This was a show that slipped under my radar as "The replacement for Friends", and I was burned out on Friends. This was the worst marketing this amazingly-written and creative show could have gotten.
Recently, more and more shows are diversifying from the traditional storytelling formula. Every episode of Bojack Horseman season 5 feels VASTLY different from the previous one. Every writer wants their stories to be talked about, to be used as examples of how to write.