A Change of Pace

Denis McGrath notes that tonight’s (McGrath-scripted) episode of The Border was intended as “to see if the show could stretch enough to not take itself too seriously.,” though reviews didn’t necessarily pick up on that. (It’s about the return of an FLQ bomber, a plot that has echoes of the old standby story about the Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over.) I haven’t seen the episode yet — I will tonight — but the description intrigues me, because I like change-of-pace episodes.

Change-of-pace episodes, particularly episodes where a show tries to take itself less seriously than usual, are a bit tricky for a show to pull off. For one thing, almost every show teeters on the edge of absurdity (the very idea that so many things could happen to the same people is inherently crazy), meaning that if a show tries to do a sillier episode, it may just seem like it was silly by accident. Remember when Buffy the Vampire Slayer did an episode called “The Zeppo,” where Xander was having his own adventure while the other characters were doing an intentionally idiotic, generic monster story that parodied all the show’s typical story points? It wasn’t universally accepted at the time that the “B” story was supposed to be a joke; many online reviews, maybe even a majority, just said that this was a really lame “B” story. The Simpsons did episodes like that back in the Bill Oakley/Josh Weinstein era, like “Two Bad Neighbors” and the Frank Grimes episode, where the idea was to show what The Simpsons universe looks like to a person from the “real” world, which meant that, if the joke was not clear, the episodes just felt weird.

If an episode is not an outright comedy episode, but just an episode that exaggerates or pushes the limits of what the show usually does, then it’s kind of a crapshoot as to whether a particular viewer will pick up on this — some will, but some won’t, and it has nothing to do with whether that particular viewer is unusually perceptive; it’s just that each of us picks up on some things and not other. Of course if the episode’s story works and satisfies on its own terms, then it doesn’t really matter that much whether we get that the episode isn’t supposed to take itself seriously; even if we choose to take it seriously, it can still work as a piece of storytelling.

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