Bizarro World – TV Shows and the Ol’ Switcheroo

There’s something about showing characters in a completely different light that is always memorable. The writers have many options, such as putting them in a completely different place (like a bottle episode) or have characters switch roles, but it’s almost always a treat for fans.

This week’s Adventure Time, featuring a nosed Finn and a mute Jake, was loved by some critics and fans, but at the same time felt like a completely different show. The Jake-centric half of the episode (where he was his usual self) was definitely great, but the first half was just…out there. That being said, it’s always interesting to see a different spin on a show that has been on for a while, and it kicked up some other great memories of bizarro worlds and concocted identities.

Seinfeld was on so long that changing character behavior became a way to keep episodes fresh. There was the episode where Jerry and Kramer switched apartments, allowing Seinfeld to put on his best Kramer impression. There was also the episode where George gave up on his usual approach at attracting women and started doing the opposite of what he usually would. But in the eighth season of Seinfeld, the sitcom got meta, putting Elaine in the middle of two opposing trios via the episode “The Bizarro Jerry. Everything Kramer, George, and Jerry lacked, Kevin, Gene, and Felton had – smarts, responsibility, and empathy, for starters. It was a pretty fun episode, and to see George trying to follow Elaine’s better-off group like a puppy was almost heartbreaking.

Whenever it comes to characters switching roles or being confronted with a mirror image of themselves, “The Bizarro Jerry” is my go-to. But then came Community, which makes a routine out of putting its characters into different roles. These are some of the most interesting and popular episodes, and are sometimes also known as “theme episodes.”

The study group explicitly addresses their self-aware, “we barely pretend there’s anyone outside our group” mentality in the third season episode “Competitive Ecology.” This episode introduces the man of misfortune, Todd, who is really just your normal person, living in the the cartoonish sitcom world of the study group. But before this episode, Dan Harmon not only tinkered with the idea of outsiders entering the group, but with the concept of celebrity cameos in television as well.

Coincidentally, “Investigative Journalism” also involves Jeff trying to fit into a new laid back role, or Hawkeye from M.A.S.H., as Abed describes him. The episode’s ending really puts the gang in their place, as Jack Black decides to team up with a more popular group of students, including another (surprise) cameo.

“Investigative Journalism,” started the show’s trend of meta character observation by putting them out of their comfort zone and changing up the group dynamic. “Temporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare,” showed the characters through cinematic lenses, answering the questions “what would Abed be like as Robert DeNiro in Goodfellas” or “let’s see how much we can turn Jeff into Bruce Willis circa Diehard.” But it was “Mixology Certification” that first showed these characters out of the context of Greendale.

Community is largely a show about people overcoming their past, whether it’s pill addiction, trying to impress Radiohead, or coping with the end of their athletic career. In this episode, every character truly faces a personal challenge when outside their Greendale comfort zone. Annie’s switch to devil-may-care southern girl showed her desire to free herself from a schoolgirl stereotype. Jeff and Britta spend the entire evening sticking to a social code and criticizing each other’s lifestyles, only to realize they’re living the same life. Meanwhile, Pierce and Shirley are realizing it’s difficult to keep up when they’re considered the elder members of the group, and Abed continues to struggle connecting with others emotionally. “Mixology Certification” is a pretty deep episode Community and one that really builds well on each character.

The tease of monumental changes in a show never usually go through unless a writing team is totally out of ideas. Wedding episodes and birth episodes are usually the highest rated in part because of this. But these big momentum swings, whether things go right or not, allow actors to almost create a new character.

One of the all-time greats in 30 Rock history, “Succession” shows what Liz Lemon would be like if she became a female Jack Donaghy. The episode is hilarious mostly because of the Amadeus-esque jealousy between Frank and Tracy, but watching Liz (successfully) try to fit in with the crowd she once had so much contempt for is a thing of beauty. 

The friction between Jack and Liz produces some of the best moments on the show, but at the same time, it’s nice to see them on the same side. If Liz decided to not stay true to herself, “Succession” shows what she might have become.

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There are plenty of other examples for characters switching places or playing different versions of themselves. Apparently, I just like the way NBC comedies do it.

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