One-Set Wonders

The wife and I have become fans of the sitcom Community.  We weren't from the start.  In fact, we very specifically gave its premiere and first few episodes a shot because we liked so many of the people involved, and were very specifically disappointed.  I believe I said something along the lines of, "It's what I was afraid of - unsympathetic protagonist and trite set-ups."  These are my least favorite aspects, after all, of Joel McHale's version of The Soup (formerly Talk Soup).  There's very little TV Wife Megan and I can agree on, but The Soup combines stuff she likes (the [ahem] best of talk shows and reality TV) with stuff I like (some smart writing and unabashed silliness) at a time when we're both groggy and couch-bound.  So we tried Community, didn't like it, stopped watching.

That was then, this is now.

There are several things about the show that have since won me over (not the least of which was a couple of friends forcing me to watch the Halloween episode in which the character Abed impersonates Christian Bale's Batman) but one is especially unique.  That is, the use of a single set.

I'm stirring controversy here (my DOZEN of readers will revolt in the comments) because, of course, the original formula for a sitcom is a single set.  That's how they started, for practical and budgetary reasons, and by-and-large that's how the sitcom has stayed.  In fact, looking at the overall picture, Community has a much broader canvas than most sitcoms.  It gets to take its characters all over, and sometimes off of, a college campus.  In a sense, their setting has more in common with a science fiction one (not the only link to that genre - see this article by Chris Greenland) in that it takes place in this huge idea of a building (or ship) with recyclable corridors and archetypal rooms.  Compared to The Honeymooners' apartment, this is an elaborate structure.

But I'm not just talking about constructed sets here.  One of the things I've come to love about live theatre is the way in which shows that use only a single set put a particular emphasis on character.  Take that even further - again, often as a result of budget issues - into the realm of minimalistic sets, and you're really putting emphasis on the people who occupy the space.  The last show I performed in, Speaking to the Dead, was set up in this way and performed in a completely white room.

It came about as a result of a combination of factors, but I found it strangely apt for a somewhat absurd comedy dealing with the afterlife.  It reminded me of a quiz I learned when I was a kid in which one of the questions was, "You find yourself in a completely white room with no doors or windows, and the only other thing in the room is an enormous white armadillo.  How do you feel?"  Your answer, it would later be revealed to you, was meant to be indicative about how you felt about death and/or heaven.

Community has had a few episodes - and one especially so - that have hinged on what I think of as the Twelve Angry Men scenario.  That is, for one reason or another, a scenario in which people in deep conflict have to stay in a single room together and work something out.  Normally, the single set in Community is a study room on campus where their particular clique has a habit of gathering.  The especially singular episode is #8 in season 2, entitled "Cooperative Calligraphy." In it, one of the character's pens goes missing and the group is forced to stay in the study room until the mystery is solved.

That of course is a device, albeit one that few television comedies would attempt (apart from set-up for a flashback episode).  But throughout the series, much time is spent in the group's homebase, and several other episodes strand most of the group into a single setting together.  (More recently, they had an episode about the group playing a tabletop roleplaying game, and though they of course cut away to in-game imagery, the fact remains that it was an episode about people sitting around being themselves [and other people...?].)  In particular, the study room and its ubiquitous rectangular table highlight the single-set choice for the series.  Each character has their place at the table, and a standard shot presents them as having a sort of stage made from the table surface leading up to a 3/4 bust.  It's simple, theatrical, and puts emphasis on what the actor is doing.

In general, film and television are mediums in which the viewer's attention is rigorously directed, sometimes to better effect than others.  One of the things I love about theatre is that free will has a bigger role in it in almost every respect, making it more unpredictable and frankly dangerous.  In my opinion, be it ever so humble, film and television actually have an obligation to direct our attention.  Without that direction, I can't help but feel abandoned, as I do when I see sloppily directed play.  I don't begrudge them that control at all but, God, do I love it when that control is practiced with moderation, and shared with the performers.

I heard recently that our spatial understanding, particularly as it applies to travel and personal orientation, can be described as a symphony of coded signals in our brains.  Codes like: me walking corridor, me walking corridor, me walking corridor, me turned left, me arrival at doorway, me in new place - room.  Wherever you go, there you are.  Many better writers before me have written about the "empty space" of the theatre, and the significance of theatre being a shared act or storytelling in the same room, but it makes especial sense to me when I think of it in terms of those "me" orientation codes.  I am in the story room.  We are going places together.  In fact, part of what theatre allows us to do is orient ourselves, just for a little while, in tandem with others.  Perhaps it's that the simpler the setting, the more inner-orientation there is potential for.  I don't know.

(Shameless tangent: How much better is a fight scene when the director has done just a little bit of work setting up the space in which it takes place?  Makes it more like an arena, and lends more unity to the whole thing.  [My favorite example of this is the stairway to the roof in Die Hard. We go up and down it and through the room several times before McClane gets into his final hand-to-hand brawl in there.])

Now, I'm not saying that Community pretends to this kind of ambition.  (How about that title though, eh?)  What I am saying, though, is that this is something the show gets right.  It's a situation comedy that's more about the characters than the situation.  Just about every dramatic presentation is aiming to have its audience identify with one or more of its characters, but not all of them do a good job of inviting the audience to join them in the room.
 
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