Compliance: A Hard-to-Watch Movie that’s Worth Seeing

By Jonah Comstock, Editorial Assistant

Dr. Milgram

In 1961 at Yale, Stanley Milgram completed a series of experiments that would become among the most famous in the history of psychology. Studying obedience to authority, Milgram staged scenes where subjects were instructed to deliver what they believed to be painful electric shocks to strangers. Milgram found that 65 percent of subjects were willing to let obedience to the lab-coat-wearing authority trump their innate morality – though some begged and pleaded to be allowed to stop, they never refused to comply and they all administered the highest shock the machine gave out – 450 volts.

I’ve known about the Milgram experiments for many years, but, as chilling as they are, I’ve never lost any sleep over them. This was just an experiment in a lab, I told myself, not the real world. In real life, surely fewer people would succumb to the pressure. Psychology Today recently co-hosted a screening of Craig Zobel’s acclaimed film Compliance. The film is an examination of a real-world Milgram experiment, conducted not in the name of science but as part of a sick criminal act.

In the film, a man calls a fast food restaurant in a rural town and, pretending to be a police officer, tells Sandra, the manager, that young, female employee Becky has stolen money from a customer. In an escalating series of lies and instructions, Sandra is convinced first to take Becky’s clothes, and then to call her fiance, Van, and leave him alone in the room with Becky and the phone. The caller convinces Van to rape and assault Becky before a daytime employee finally puts a stop to the madness. The filmmaking is close and raw, the performances jarring and real.

The film is incredibly disturbing to watch, and at the screening it elicited a certain amount of incredulity – not only “nobody would do that” but also “nobody would believe that.” But at the Q&A it became clear that a certain amount of that resistance is wishful thinking – it’s much preferable to believe the film was badly made than to believe the truth. This could happen. This did happen. The events of the film are directly based on a 2004 crime at a McDonalds in Montana. Prior to that incident, which eventually ended in an arrest (although, appallingly, not a conviction), over 70 similar phone calls were reported that led to some kind of humiliation and/or assault of an employee or customer.

 After the film, Psychology Today Editor-at-large Hara Estroff Marano moderated a panel with Zobel, actress Ann Dowd, and two psychologists and Psychology Today bloggers: Stanton Peele and Nando Pelusi. The discussion was short, but it was heated and emotional. Dr. Peele asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought they would have succumbed – and nobody did. But Marano pointed out that prior to the Milgram experiment, 100 psychology students and faculty at Yale said the same thing: they predicted hardly anyone would go along with it. The only characters in the film who really stood up were the screw-ups, the ones who never had much respect for authority at all. And even they only went as far as refusing to participate.

 Dr. Peele pressed even harder, asking why, if we all found the movie so disturbing, we didn’t just get up out of our seats – whether maybe some sense of what we were supposed to do overrode what we individually might have wanted to do, just as a sense of “supposed to” overrode the morality of the film’s characters. It’s a weak parallel in some ways – watching a movie doesn’t hurt another person – but it captured the brilliance of the film: it made us uncomfortable because it put us into the character’s situation.

 It’s not a fun movie to watch, but it does something that art should – it makes us think about a part of our history and a part of ourselves that we would much rather avoid. And forcing ourselves to think about this disturbing aspect of human nature could be very, very important.

 Milgram took a lot of heat for his experiment on the grounds that the emotional trauma he put his subjects through was unethical. But his subjects themselves responded to a survey, and over 90 percent said they were glad to have participated. One subject wrote Milgram to tell him that experience had given him the strength to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War – that is, to stand up for his own morals in the face of the authority of the whole United States of America. That’s what we can hope to gain by making ourselves sit through this uncomfortable film; by putting ourselves in the shoes of Sandra and Becky. We each hope we’re in the minority that would stand up for what’s right, and we each hope we’ll never have to find out if we are. But perhaps by confronting the dark conformity of human nature through art, we can be more prepared if we ever meet it in life.

A version of this post also appears at Psychology Today.

Panel Report: Korra and Real Life Influences

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!

In our first panel of the day for Saturday, Nathan, Alex and I took the stage to lead a packed room full of Legend of Korra fans (many of them in costume) in discussing the Nickelodeon show’s social implications.

I opened the panel by asking audience members to list some of the differences between Korra and its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. This led into a discussion of how technology and social change were shaping Korra’s world.

We had some ideas coming into the panel about how the Equalist movement does and doesn’t mirror the populist movements of today, like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. We asked the crowd if they thought the Equalists had legitimate complaints – if non-benders really were an oppressed group.

The response couldn’t have been more varied. Some people pointed to the capable non-benders in Last Airbender and suggested that Amon essentially created the inequality as a means to seek power. Others expressed solidarity with the nonviolent civilians of the Equalist movement. When we asked the crowd whether people would join up had they been born a non-bender in Republic City, the hands were about half and half.

Next we talked about the avatar’s actual role in society, and what happens when she enters a more modern system of government that isn’t designed to incorporate a warrior/priest who’s above the law. It’s significant that Korra’s first act on arriving in Republic city is to get herself arrested for property damage.

We spoke about the make-up of Republic City’s council, and whether it was significant that non-benders seemed unrepresented. And we talked about how the “unity” of the four nations was really a result of Fire Nation imperialism, and if we would see more of a cultural affect of that in coming seasons.

The discussion segued from populist movements into technology: Is the new tech in Korra really an equalizer? Again we had a lot of great discussion and voices on both sides of the issue. We compared the industrial tech of Korra to the information age tech of today, in it’s capacity to equalize the common people with the people in power.

We considered what the march of technology would mean for bending into the future – most bending might become obsolete, but metal and lightning bending might become even more powerful.

Someone pointed out how the technology seemed to be used mostly in the military, but someone else jumped in to point out that that’s how it’s often worked in our world too. Military technology matriculates into civilian life.

And finally, we had a discussion about gender and shipping, and whether the focus on relationships undermined Korra’s status as a strong female protagonist. We heard good points from both sides, and we all agreed that this would be one thing we’d be watching closely for in future seasons – a real Korra/Asami relationship above and beyond Mako would be a good step.

All in all, it seems like in our hour together we were able to discuss almost every aspect of The Legend of Korra, and hear from a good chunk of the 100 or so highly intelligent Korra fans who turned up. For those of you who came, thanks for talking to us. I hope the rest of our readers have a chance to join us in the future!

Was there a highlight from the discussion I neglected to mention? Tell me in the comments!

Will Lightning Strike Twice? Bunheads and The Newsroom

A renowned show creator with a cult following premiered a new show last month. And although this creator had a much beloved show in the 2000s, their latest attempt to recapture that art was a quickly-canceled flop. Now fans and critics are watching to see if the new show, which follows a similar formula to the old one, including walk and talks; inhumanly fast, witty banter; and pop culture references, will get off the ground or face another early cancellation.

Obviously you all know who I’m talking about, right? This is the part where, if this was a speech, you would answer out loud, and hopefully half of you would say “Aaron Sorkin” and half would say “Amy Sherman-Palladino.”

Early this month, Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads premiered, placing Broadway star Sutton Foster in the familiar wise-cracking 30-something character arc left behind by Lauren Graham’s Lorelai Gilmore, opposite Kelly Bishop in a role that’s hard not to see as Emily Gilmore, redux. The two of them are destined to have mother-daughter conflicts in a quirky small town, which should be a familiar premise to Gilmore Girls fans. Sherman-Palladino’s interim flop was The Return of Jezebel James and it might have died simply because it was on Fox, where good shows go to die, although it also had real premise problems.

But while the media has given Bunheads some glances, many of them positive, about ten times as much energy has gone into Sorkin’s The Newsroom, an HBO effort to do The West Wing for network news shows. Like his former successes, The West Wing and Sports Night, as well as the still-beloved flop Studio 60 on the Sunset StripThe Newsroom is a dramedy with a (un)healthy dose of wish-fulfillment on Sorkin’s part. Just as the Bartlett administration was the government Sorkin wished for, and Studio 60 was the SNL he felt the country needed, The Newsroom is the story of a news show trying to do what Aaron Sorkin believes a news show should be trying to do—return to the glory days of Murrough and Rather.

Old ground for both shows—a dose of innovation mixed in with the familiar—but is it enough? And is 2012 ready for the cult hits of 2000, resurrected?

In the six years since Gilmore Girls and The West Wing ended their runs (both, it should be noted, under the helm of someone other than the creator), television has changed a lot. Hour-long dramedies that aren’t easily classified into funny or serious were a novel oddity in 2000. Now they’re standard prime time fare. All our dramas are funnier, all our comedies more serious. And quick, back and forth dialogue has replaced the “joke, wait for laugh track” model as the standard in sitcom writing.  So these two pilots, even if they were every bit as good as their predecessors, wouldn’t stand out in the way those original shows did.

But The West Wing also served a purpose, at least for the liberals in its fanbase, presenting an idealized, Democratic presidency during the Bush years. In a time many considered dark, The West Wing brought both light and levity in the form of fiction for the politically inclined. Now, one could argue, we’re in a similar dark age for the media — but this one doesn’t have an eight-year cap on it. In an age where you can’t believe in TV news, Sorkin is proposing to offer another idealized vacation world.

The problem is that while government was undergoing a temporary party change, as it always is, the media is in the midst of a paradigm shift. The news show Sorkin is longing for is never coming back, and, many have argued, perhaps it shouldn’t. It’s hard to ignore the extent to which the “golden age” of network TV news was an age of great white men. And advocating backwards progress ignores the incredible potential the Internet has for changing the way the news works. Both these criticisms belay the harsh critical reception Sorkin’s show has received, even from critics who professed to enjoy the pilot. So it seems Aaron Sorkin may be trying to pull out the same rusty tool to do a totally different job.

So what about Sherman-Palladino? Compared to Jezebel JamesBunheads really is a return to form. Bunheads has another quirky small town as a backdrop, this time in California and not Connecticut. It has another mother-daughter relationship at its heart, with a multi-generational component (although this time none of the relationships are biological). It has the same sort of warm-fuzziness in the relationships of the characters, especially as Michelle forges relationships with the students at Fanny’s ballet school (the titular bunheads).

The show certainly not a clone. Fanny Flowers, though played by Kelly Bishop, is not Emily Gilmore. Foster’s Michelle isn’t Lorelai either, though she certainly shares some comic mannerisms and a basic look. But it’s very clear that Sherman-Palladino is not afraid to borrow the winningest parts of the Gilmore Girls formula. And while the Sorkin fans are not universally saying “Yay!” to Sorkin’s return to form, for the reasons mentioned above, Gilmore Girls fans have good reason to be excited about Bunheads.

Even when Gilmore Girls was on the air, it struggled with ratings and slumped along through its seven seasons. Bunheads might very well progress the same way: Sherman-Palladino’s fast-paced banter comedy is decidedly not for everyone, and her shows don’t attract the male 18-35 demographic very well. But if I had to bet on one of these two throwbacks from cultish creators, I’d bet on Bunheads. Sherman-Palladino’s return is altogether less loaded and less drama-filled than Sorkin’s, and, all told, the show is a bit better.

In the comments: Did you watch either Bunheads or The Newsroom?  Which did you prefer? Did you think they lived into their predecessors’ legacies? Do you think this is a good thing?

My Little Korra Bending Is Magic: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cartoons

Sitting in my living room, finishing up a season one episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on Netflix and moving right on to Nickelodeon’s website to catch the latest The Legend of Korra, a surreal thought occurred to me. At the age of 24, I’m once again looking forward to Saturday morning for the cartoons.

This article is now about Ponies. Oh wait, it was always about ponies.

Now, I’m a TV junkie. So it makes sense that during the summer hiatus I would get my kicks wherever there are new episodes to see — whether that’s PBS shows like Sherlock or the latest fare from the Hub or Nick. But there’s more than that going on here. Assuming you’ve been living on the Internet and not in a cave, you’ve heard all about the Brony phenomenon. And there’s no question that a big part of the direction that’s been taken with Korra is in recognition of Avatar‘s large non-child audience. The makers of Saturday morning cartoons are not just making shows for kids anymore. Increasingly, they’re walking a tightrope of sophistication in order to make programs simple and unobjectionable enough that parents can still park their kids in front of them, but complex and entertaining enough to rope in those young adult fans.

So, with all the programming geared and designed for us specifically, the coveted 18-to-25-year-old demographic, why are we drawn to these children’s shows? I see in these two very different children’s cartoons not only why so many people in my generation are drawn to this regressive entertainment, but what it is that draws us into all entertainment, all literature: exploration and escapism.

The plotlines in The Legend of Korra wrestle with might, right, and political power. Even nine episodes in, the drama is so intense and the lighthearted moments so few that I wonder how many truly youthful fans the show has. (A Google search for “actual kids who watch Korra” reveals that I am not alone in this question.) The Legend of Korra is following in the tradition of great science fiction and using a fantastic world to explore questions about humanity. When some people (benders) have power and some don’t, how do you build a functioning society? Do you take away the powers so everyone is equal, like Amon wants to do, or do you find a way to regulate those with the power, to force them to use it fairly and responsibly?

Also they shoot fire and stuff? Ok, the kids probably get a kick out of that part.

Unlike Aang, who had to learn to fight and attain the power to overthrow a nation, Korra comes to Republic City a fierce fighter, but must learn temperance and wisdom to be the Avatar, and to save the city from the sinister forces threatening not just attack, but social upheaval. Korra is perpetually caught between supposed good guys on the side of the law and supposed bad guys who are genuinely oppressed. There are big problems in The Legend of Korra, but there are no easy solutions.

 My Little Pony is like the opposite of Korra. It’s lighthearted to the extreme, but the characters are so dynamic and the world so inviting that you can’t help but be drawn in. The challenges the ponies face lack Korra‘s complexity: An evil mare who wants to bring perpetual night, a dragon whose snores are suffocating everypony with smog. And in this case there IS an easy solution, an easy, one size fits all, dare-I-say magical solution: friendship. MLP is all about friendship, and Twilight Sparkle’s struggles to learn about its many mysteries.

As a disaffected twenty-something, I enjoy engaging with the complex, morally gray world of The Legend of Korra. But at the end of a complex, morally gray day, there is nothing like escaping to a world where friendship is a magical force that solves all problems. Friendship is the one thing in this world I feel I’m truly good at. And I have experienced time and again that when I reach the end of my rope, it’s my friends who pull through and rescue me. So Equestria and its simple morality offer a welcome change from the often confusing realities of life, but that simplistic morality also rings true to me. And even in Korra’s world, and Aang’s before her, friendship was always the one thing the heroes could count on. These two cartoons aren’t just offering cool fight scenes or selling us toys, they’re helping us to engage with our lives meaningfully.

Korra explores our changing world, while MLP lets us escape it, and both try to point us toward something we can hold on to, something truly important: friendship. Which, if you haven’t heard, is magic.

Some people said I should talk about Spongebob in this article.
I ignored them, but this is my concession.

Comments sound off: What’s your favorite Saturday Morning Cartoon? What do you think of Bronies? Have you ever met an actual child who watches The Legend of Korra?

The Lake House: Sci-Fi and Romance Come So Close to Mixing Well

Science fiction and romance have a long history together, but one that’s largely stayed out of the mainstream. Network executives and book publishers have a 20th century idea of demographic that says boys like sci-fi and girls like romance, so combining them will just confuse and alienate everyone. That’s an oversimplification, but it explains why smart sci-fi rom-coms like TiMER are small indie films and not big theater movies.
However, the target demographic problem is real, and when you decide to do a sci-fi romance, you kind of have to decide who you’re making it for. You can put a little romance in your sci-fi pretty easily — take Crichton and Aeryn on Farscape or the sci-fi love connection of your choice. You can commit to an even hybrid, where the sci-fi is inherently romantic or the romance in inherently sci-fi-ey. See, again, TiMER, or, in the book department, some of the works of Lois McMaster Bujold.

But what I’ve yet to see done right is putting a little sci-fi in your romance. I’m talking, of course, about The Lake House.

Starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, the movie is basically You’ve Got Mail with time travel. But, as Bullock’s character’s mother says, the time thing is “just a detail.” Despite the involvement of the wooden Reeves, the romance works. It’s compelling and pushes all the rom-com buttons. Bullock and Reeves have chemistry and the audience is rooting for them to get together like we should be. And for nine-tenths of the movie, the science fiction works, too. And then it all blows up with what is one of the worst endings in the history of film (mind you it doesn’t literally blow up, though even that would have been a better ending). If you haven’t seen The Lake House yet and actually want to, maybe you should stop reading this article here.
Kate (Bullock) is living two years in the future of Alex (Reeves), communicating via a magic mailbox at the Lake House they both live in. This makes for some cool moments, as Alex can seek Kate out, but can only interact with her in ways that are predetermined, though unknown to him ahead of time. He spots her at a train station and retrieves her book. And, more interestingly, he encounters her at a party thrown by her at-his-time boyfriend (at her time, ex-boyfriend) and the two of them connect, and kiss. The time travel aspect enhances these moments and the filmmaking is deft, cutting between her recalling the party, which she had forgotten, and him living it. Two years is the perfect amount of time to keep the characters so close, and yet impossibly far away.

When Kate tries to find Alex in her time (something she waits a contrived amount of time to do), she fails. He makes a reservation two years in advance for a restaurant and she heads over to meet him. But he never shows. Gradually, it becomes clear to the audience why. If we are at all astute, we realize their meeting in real time will never happen, because the man Kate saw get hit by a car in the very beginning of the movie was Alex, and he was only there because he was rushing to meet Kate and declare his love.

I didn’t even really mind the predictability of this ending, because it just emphasized the inevitability. In the moment Kate realizes what happens, she’s utterly powerless. Alex is dead. He’s been dead all along, and she saw him die. It has happened, it must happen. This is perhaps the biggest dramatic strength of a time travel story.
But then, it doesn’t happen! In contrived romantic comedy BS, she manages to warn him through the magic mailbox not to come. Instead, he shows up at the mailbox, having for some reason waited two more years to get in touch with her, and they presumably live happily ever after with their mutual dog.

The ending sort of works for those people coming into the movie as a romance. There’s a sense of love overcoming all odds, there’s that happy ending, you can buy it. There’s even something sweet about Kate’s willingness to try something she knows to be futile for the chance of saving her love.
But from the sci-fi perspective, it’s just terrible. Because the movie, up until that point, is full of perfectly executed closed causality loops. A leads to B leads to C leads to A, and even though the future is having a causal effect on the past, causality is never violated. It’s paradox-free.

The ending, though, is awash in paradox. Why does Kate still have the memory of Alex’s death, which has now never happened? By changing the last two years, she should find herself in a drastically different world than the one she’s been living in all movie. Alex is an architect! He designs and builds lasting monuments for a living! It’s a profession that tends to have a large and obvious effect on the world. Plus, where has he been for his intervening two years (between not dying and showing up in her arms)? “You waited!” Kate says, because it’s a better line then “You went into hiding for two years for no reason other than to make it less obvious that this doesn’t make any sense!” It doesn’t work, it doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t follow the same time travel rules as the rest of the movie.
There is a catharsis to closed causal loops. It’s like closing a parenthesis. You leave the movie feeling like everything has wrapped up and the world makes sense. Unresolvable paradoxes, on the other hand, create the feeling of being ripped off by a nonsensical film, or like nothing in our world is stable or dependable.

At some point, the writer had to make a choice between the best ending for the romance and the best ending for the sci-fi movie. The romance could have gone either way. The sci-fi movie needed to end in tragedy. But the movie was billed and marketed as a romance, so that’s the way it went. The Lake House is a cautionary tale for would-be genre benders: if you’re going to try to be two or more films, make sure you’re very well-versed in the conventions, and pitfalls, of both.

Community: When is a sequel not a sequel, when is a parody not a parody, when is a war not a war?

So I finally watched Community.

And before I get all analytical, to all of you who have had annoying friends insisting that you watch Community before it’s too late, do that.

I don’t think the show has the consistent brilliance of, say, an Arrested Development. But when it’s on, boy is it on. Episodes like “Remedial Chaos Theory”, “Modern Warfare”, and “Paradigms of Human Memory” are some of the best TV episodes I’ve seen, ever. They literally give me new hope for the medium, as a lens that looks at itself.

The genesis of this blog was the belief that pop culture genres like television are, and have been for some time, coming into their own as literary media. Reflexiveness and self-referential parody, the meta, if you will, is somewhat of a rite of passage in a genre’s evolution from entertainment to literature, and Community is impressively daring in its forays into meta-humor. Last year, Chalkey wrote about how the show uses parody as a device, but there’s a lot more to be said.

Community‘s many parodies, homages, or send ups, depending on how you want to think of them, work for a lot of reasons when they could very easily fall flat or come across as gimmicky. They work because they are built on a solid foundation of character which is built up in the non-gimmick episodes. They work because of the terrifying level of obsession with which the creative team throws itself into the parody. They work because they fit into and enhance the structure of the show and the ongoing plot arcs.

But most of all, they work because Community is set at a third-rate community college. Greendale itself, with the Dean as its human avatar, is the key to making Community‘s parodies work, because it is so thoroughly unremarkable. Television and movies, the mainstays of Community‘s parody targets, are inherently epic in scale, and every successful Community parody juxtaposes that epicness with stakes that are actually, ultimately, incredibly low. (The exception here is the zombie episode, but even then nobody died.)

Last week’s two-part episode was, in many ways, a sequel to last season’s “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” my favorite episode of the series so far. “Conspiracy Theories” didn’t have redone opening credits or a big change in the shooting aesthetic like “Modern Warfare” or “Pillows and Blankets,” last week’s Ken Burns send-up, so it’s easy to think of it as a “regular” episode. But it really is a parody, and the target is conspiracy movies.

Jeff has created a fake class, Conspiracy Theories, with a fake professor named Professor Professorson. The Dean catches on and Jeff leads him to an empty supply closet, hoping to convince the Dean that the reason he can’t find the Professor is because he’s in the midst of an object lesson about conspiracy theories. Instead, he encounters the made-up prof, and he and Annie begin to unravel a conspiracy that shakes the very foundations of … Greendale’s night school.

The lowest stakes possible. But the show plays them up with a straight face, even when the characters don’t. Jeff gets a mysterious phone call and Annie’s tiny Hot Wheel’s car gets sabotaged. It sparks slightly as Jeff dives into Annie, knocking her to the ground.

In a seemingly unrelated plotline, Troy and Abed build a blanket fort. But the payoff is the moment when the two plots intersect, and the conspiracy parody’s signature chase scene takes our heroes through the seemingly endless fort.

“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” was a brilliant episode, but the two-part sequel (consisting of “Digital Exploration of Interior Design” and “Pillows and Blankets”) took it to the next level. It might not seem like a sequel. Professor Professorson (actually Professor Garrity) does not make an appearance, and the main plot of “Conspiracy Theories” is not revived. Instead, Troy and Abed, and their bigger, better blanket fort, take center stage.

But the show’s writers connect the shows in our minds, first with the blanket fort and then with the use of “Interior Design” in the two of the episode titles, and when we look at the shows as a pair (or a trio) we start to see a lot of connections.

Thematically, we have another conspiracy theory, though one that’s unnoticed by the characters: Vice Dean Laybourne’s shadowy behind-the-scenes meddling orchestrates the whole war, Darth Sidious-style, a plot point that’s left curiously unconcluded.

All three episodes have a Troy and Abed story and a Jeff and Annie story. The first episode’s Troy and Abed story is really simple: it’s a celebration of their friendship and it’s amazing potential to create worlds and reshape the world they live in, turning Greendale into a blanket city, complete with a Latvian Independence Parade. A year later, the sequel invites us to compare Troy and Abed now to Troy and Abed then, to look closely at the changes in their relationship and the rift that’s grown between us. The imaginative world created by their friendship returns, but now it’s a place of violence and strife. The mounting tension in their relationship becomes an all-out war.

The decision to do the second half of the two-parter as a parody of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, then, is not a random choice or a gimmick. Here we have the war that pitted brother against brother, that nearly tore a nation apart but ultimately made it stronger, evoked, hilariously, but poignantly, as a symbol for Troy and Abed’s relationship. The Civil War was the violent growing pain of a new nation, Troy and Abed’s civil war is the violent growing pain of a new friendship. But again, the humor in this plotline that could be serious comes from the extreme harmlessness of pillows and blankets. Again, the lowest stakes ever physically, but the highest stakes emotionally.

Jeff and Annie’s plot in the first episode is, at its heart, about friends teaching each other lessons. In the hilarious final scene, we find that Annie and the Dean are trying to teach Jeff a lesson, and Jeff is trying to teach the Dean a lesson (about lessons) and Annie a lesson (about not trying to change her friends). The shaky conclusion is that everyone decides to accept each other the way they are.

But again, a year later we’re invited to look at the way the relationship has evolved in the meantime. Jeff and Annie’s relationship has often been about age and about lessons – Annie looks to Jeff as a model of maturity as she grows up, while Jeff looks to Annie as a model for being the better person he’s trying to become. Despite the conclusion, the two have never stopped trying to teach each other – and trying to learn from one another.

In the Kim subplot of “Digital Exploration,” Annie tries to teach Jeff a lesson about seeing people, but when it doesn’t turn out the way she wants, she gets upset, leading Jeff to teach her a lesson about maturity. In “Pillows and Blankets,” Annie’s sweetness and goodness and moral high ground is highlighted by her role as battlefield nurse. Meanwhile Jeff’s role as undiscriminating rabble rouser takes him back to his Winger worst – using other people and their problems as a means to accomplishing his own ends. So it takes Annie to bring Jeff into the fight, or rather, to get Jeff to use his rhetorical talents for good instead of evil.

But the maturity arc is at play here, too – Annie is joining the game, in an almost laughably irrelevant role, a nurse in a war with no real injuries, while Jeff is, in some sense, being the grown-up and rising above it. The conclusion here is especially interesting in that light. When Jeff goes to retrieve the magical friendship hats, he’s participating in the childish make-believe more fully than he ever has before. Annie appears to have done all the teaching here, with Jeff realizing that sometimes the grown-up thing to do is to act like a little kid, rather than just turning up his nose at a “childish” problem and refusing to engage with it.

When all is said and done, the status quo has returned, but all of the relationships have advanced in meaningful ways. Troy and Abed’s rift isn’t erased, but now that it’s been aired and somewhat addressed we’re likely to see them work through their issues more constructively. Jeff and Annie have taken one more step in their journey of understanding themselves better by learning to think more like each other.

A great parody, one of the best yet, has been executed, but that is a small side benefit to the real and symbolic character stories that have been told.

I Love You, Man: Bromance Comes Out of the Closet

Something about “guy comedies”—movies like American Pie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Superbad, where the entire driving force of the plot is some kind of fundamentally immature attitude about sex—has never appealed to me. But 2009’s I Love You, Man is a fundamentally different kind of guy movie, a bromantic comedy where a straight male relationship stands at the center, and is treated with the utmost respect.

My condemnation of the wildly popular movies above may seem self-indulgent, but I bring it up because I imagine Peter Klaven, Paul Rudd’s character in I Love You, Man, would feel the same way about those movies—at least the way the trailers sold them—as I do. When he confesses to his new best bro that his favorite movie is Chocolat, it’s one more indication that he’s the kind of sensitive, overly-respectful guy who doesn’t know what to do with that kind of humor. He wants to revel in it and find it funny, but somewhere deep in his upbringing, something is telling him that he can’t be “that kind of guy.”

In I Love You, Man, Klaven becomes engaged to a beautiful woman named Zooey (Rashida Jones) and quickly realizes that while she has a gaggle of female friends, he has not a single guy friend he can ask to be his best man. So he begins an awkward search for male bonding in a world where there seem to be no structures for straight men to find each other. Ultimately, he finds Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), a smart but crude man-boy, and the two bond over their love for the band Rush and their undeniable bro-chemistry.

The jokes come from the clumsiness and obtuseness of ritualized male bonding. And the thing that makes male bonding so clumsy and obtuse is generations of institutionalized homophobia. The movie is not only celebrating bromance, but drawing attention to the near impossibility of finding it in a society that still doesn’t know how to deal with male emotional closeness. At poker nights and sports games, Klaven repeatedly discovers he doesn’t know the codes and therefore can’t participate in socially-acceptable male bonding.

But when he meets Sydney Fife, a man who has no real concept of socially acceptable, there’s an instant connection. The two just hang out in Fife’s mancave or go for walks on the boardwalk. There are no codes, no rules, because Fife is the kind of guy who ignores society’s rules—he talks openly about masturbation and lets his dog poop wherever it wants. So in the world of I Love You, Man, the only way a real friendship can form between two grown men is when one is oblivious to cultural pressures and one is willfully defying them. It makes a clear statement about the absurdity of the layers of cultural boundaries, steeped in hypermasculine posturing, that keep men from having platonic, close friendships.

Throughout the film, the relationship between Fife and Klaven is never really played for laughs. The feelings of love these two men find for each other are taken seriously. This is essentially a bromantic comedy—not a “guy comedy.” As in a romantic comedy, the romance itself is not the source of the humor, but the framework that the jokes and humorous scenes hang on. And the climactic scene, the declaration of love, is not meant to make you laugh, but to make you go, “Awww…”

Bromance, which is essentially a platonic romance between men, usually straight men, is nothing new. But there’s something new about the way in which we’re willing to approach it, the amount we’re willing to invest in it. There is somewhat of a cultural revolution centered on the Millennial generation. While their parents and grandparents debate about homosexuality and whether it’s right or OK or natural, more and more kids are growing up with open sexuality in all its forms as simply a part of life.

And as this article suggests, it’s changing the way straight men interact, too. The bromance that has been around in our literature for centuries has always been coded in the structures that I Love You, Man is satirizing. It’s always had the “not-gay” asterisk affixed somehow.

Take Turk and JD on Scrubs, a smart, funny, progressive show which I love. Their bromance is nothing short of legendary. And neither character seems homophobic. But the vast majority of the humor in that relationship came from the two being mistaken for gay lovers, or from them coming uncomfortably close to erotic situations or feelings for one another. And as much as I hate to say it, that strikes me as a fundamentally homophobic kind of humor—a kind of humor that relies on a cultural stigma to be funny. The focus is on what the relationship isn’t, rather than on what it is.

The central relationship of the I Love You, Man is defined by its own parameters and by the amazing chemistry Segel and Rudd have, not by its “not-gayness” or an “isn’t it funny, two men are acting like a couple” mentality. The obvious jokes are resisted in favor of exploring something real.

There are gay men in I Love You, Man. Klaven’s gay brother, portrayed by a surprisingly reined-in Andy Samberg, tries to set him up on not-gay man-dates with guys from his gym and gives him some advice on how not to send the wrong signals. And when he fails to take that advice, Klaven does end up on a real date with a man, unbeknowest to him. But even in that situation, the humor is still based on the absurdity of male rituals—it’s one more set of codes Klaven fails to pick up on.

The gay men and the women in this film stay on the sidelines, and in this case that’s rightly so. This is a film about being a straight man in the 21st century. It’s a film that affirms straight men, while honestly showcasing all the types of ridiculous assholes we can be. But it’s a film that also gives us permission to have feelings—feelings for women, feelings for other men, feelings about what it means to be a straight man—and to share them however we want, without fear of misperception.