TV Recap: Community “Contemporary Impressionists”

(Image © NBC Universal)

(Image © NBC Universal)

"Cool, cool. cool.”
“Hot, hot, hot.”

Somewhere at the heart of this cacophonous jumble of an episode are two well-realized parallel stories in which both Troy and Britta come to the realization that they can’t save the narcissist that they love. Instead, focus goes to those narcissists themselves, one of the reasons that this installment felt so flat.

Donald Glover once said in an interview that the Troy/Abed dynamic was at its heart an unrequited love story. Troy loves Abed (not necessarily in the romantic way, but you know, maybe), but Abed is incapable of feeling and expressing love toward Troy – and always will be. Troy fights all episode to save his friend from his growing addiction to hiring expensive celebrity impersonators to act out scenes from film and TV – led by a French Stewart impersonator played (har, har) by French Stewart himself. But in the end, Troy’s efforts only push Abed further away from him (and under the spell of the goateed Evil Abed from the darkest parallel universe).

There is a very good story possibility there, but we only saw glimpses of it in this episode. The scene at the end where Troy attempts to confront Abed about his fantasy life was played more dramatically straight than any scene in the show’s history. And it was a great scene. There were no swelling strings or broad performances. Glover perfectly portrayed Troy’s confusion, caught between caring for Abed’s future and wanting to enjoy their present. And placing Abed in such a normal context allowed us to see just what a wounded bird he is, cocking his head and avoiding Troy’s gaze.

The Jeff storyline starts off promisingly, with a truly great hook, that Jeff’s therapy has fueled his arrogance rather than extinguish it. But soon the story goes off the rails, culminating in an Incredible Hulk homage that just doesn’t feel fresh (though I’m sure anyone pining for a bit of the Joel McHale beefcake from seasons past quite enjoyed it, as Annie obviously did). Jeff learns nothing from his misadventure. However, Britta clearly does. She should have gotten more screen time, as she has a more defined arc in the episode than Jeff. But no, instead we get some throw away stuff about Pierce looking like either young, buff Burt Reynolds or old, fat Marlon Brando (the obvious compromise: old, fat Burt Reynolds) and dead-on-arrival scenes of the drunken aunts of a bar mitzvah kid trying to pick up Jeff. Excising these cliche moments might have gone a long way toward giving this episode a bit more direction.

Community has often been called a live-action Simpsons, a series with pop culture references stitched into the framework of the story and a large cast of supporting characters filling the entire Greendale universe. But in execution the show has never engaged in the sort of cutaway gags that became the Simpsons trademark. The “style” of Community is to build these references into the episode in a way that feels organic. Part of the fun of the show is in seeing how far they can go and stay real. So why did this episode feel so much more ungrounded than, say, last season’s finale, which saw the entire campus completely overrun by paintball mercenaries and scheming villains in giant ice-cream cones?

The problem with this episode lies in the direction, handled by Kyle Newacheck, creator and director of the Comedy Central series Workaholics. Given his direction, it’s little wonder that the show felt more like a “wacky” cable comedy than the show we usually get. I don’t want to just shit on Kyle Newacheck (who did also direct an excellent episode of Happy Endings this year), or Workaholics (or even Comedy Central), but there was a key difference in tone to this episode. Abed may fully engage in this kind of wackiness, but for it to overrun everything would be a major mistake. There needs to be balance.

To further add to the confusion, this episode was clearly moved out of the regular sequence. At the beginning, the study group greets each other as if they had just returned from Christmas break, but of course we saw them all at Greendale just last week for Shirley’s wedding. I suspect they moved this episode away from the return slot because it was so weak – a smart decision. However, the trailer for Community’s return showed scenes of child SWAT teams descending on the Greendale cafeteria and Troy and Abed on opposing sides of a pillow war – plots that would seem to spin directly from this episode.

There were funny moments scattered throughout. Abed impersonating Jamie-Lee Curtis in True Lies was an incredible, barely acknowledged, gag. Shirley’s Oprah was spot on, and I liked the Dean’s melting, orgasmic response to Jeff’s aviator shades (“Oh my God, even his shadow!”). But aside from those highlights, there wasn’t a lot there. When are people going to learn that French Stewart ruins everything?

Community, Episode 3:12 “Contemporary Impressionists”: C-