"Just because we’re awesome doesn’t mean we’re not adults!”
When Community is firing on all cylinders, there’s nothing like it on television. From zombie attacks to chicken-finger crime rings to multi-dimensional pizza parties, the show has been continually innovative for the past two seasons. In lesser hands, the wilder episodes could play as empty stunts, but thanks to the efforts of Dan Harmon and his writers, and a cast unparalleled in any comedy on television right now, those episodes are not only hilarious and bizarre, they reveal aspects of the characters that gives the show’s more serious moments a genuine grounding in emotion.
The show’s “anything can happen” reputation lends each new episode an addictive rush, but it’s also a burden on the creative staff. Fans are always wondering which Community they’re going to get each week, and hoping that it will exceed the incredibly high standard that has been set by the episodes that have gone before. Harmon and crew have to keep continuously topping themselves, or a large portion of the fanbase will feel let down. Sometimes even a truly funny or smart episode will be dismissed if it’s not “weird” enough.
The fans may revel in the weirdness, but America at large just doesn’t seem to know what to make of the show – if they even know that it exists. Though its numbers improved slightly last week, Community is still positively creamed by its timeslot competition, with a full 12 million more people tuning in to The Big Bang Theory every week.
Season Three has actually been the most consistent season of Community so far. Each episode has done a stronger job of telling a self-contained story that bleeds into the next episode, a storytelling aesthetic that Harmon picked up from a summer viewing of the entire run of The Wire. The third season has matched the low-key humor of Season One with the freakshow sensibility of Season Two, maintaining both the acerbic bite and the gooey center that make the show what it is. So far this season has only had one real clunker – last week’s “Advanced Gay”, which was broad but not particularly funny.
This week found Annie following up on Abed’s offer to escape her terrible neighborhood by moving in with him and Troy in their Never Never Land apartment. The odd-couple pairing of the old-before-her-time Annie and the Toy’s R Us kids Abed and Troy is so sitcom perfect that they really had to do it. Troy and Abed are a blast for a half hour a week, but how many people wouldn’t go crazy locked in with them all night – even if they did have their own bad ass blanket fort (I really don’t see what Annie’s complaining about, and I’m pretty sure I had those Empire Strikes Back sheets when I was a kid). Annie struggles to keep her frustration contained, as Troy and Abed waste all the packing tape tying Troy to the bathroom door, or wrapping Abed’s head in bubble wrap (so that Troy can smack it with his tennis racket, naturally) But Annie being Annie, she can’t help but freak out, even as she tries to go loosey goosey (is that two words, or is it hyphenated?).
Through all of this is the undercurrent of Annie growing up and needing to try things on her own. Over the course of the show, Annie has been the character to show the most natural growth, which is partly due to he subtle ways in which Alison Brie has modified her performance. Between her freakouts, her well-times reaction shots, and her bad-ass turn in last year’s spaghetti Western paintball war, she really does have the widest range of any actor on the show.
The resolution of the A-story, with Troy and Abed gladly tearing down their Dream-a-torium (Dream-a-torium my ass, that’s a holodeck if I’ve ever seen one!) and admitting that “sometimes we get stuck in our own little world, and in that world we make another world, and sometimes there are tunnels between those worlds, or a subway, one time a snake…” was obvious, but sweet.
A few weeks ago, Jeff admonished Shirley that baking could not be her personality, well the same goes for Shirley’s religion. It worked in this episode, because of the dueling self-satisfaction her and Britta shared as the hitchhiker validated their respective arguments, before revealing himself to be an all-out psychopath. But one of the lingering weaknesses of the show is the lack of anything of real substance to give to Yvette Nicole Brown, who does more with her eyebrows that anyone in Hollywood this side of The Rock. She’s very good, but the show never seems that sure what to do with her. And speaking of that hitchhiker: was I the only one who wanted to hear the race mixing song “Don’t You Do it”?
The Pierce storyline seemed ready to serve up a good old-fashioned bit of Chevy Chase slapstick, but took a left turn into yet another Pierce drug haze. Maybe they’re just trying to give Chevy storylines that keep him away from the rest of the cast.
The other main half of the episode, the Jeff and Dean Pelton storyline, didn’t accomplish much. Jeff fakes sick to Britta to skip out on the move, with the help of a young salesgirl whose face drops when she realizes that Jeff’s much more interested in shopping (or maybe just staring at his own reflection) than flirting. But Jeff’s plan to spend the day wallowing in self-interest is derailed when Dean Pelton runs into him and blackmails him to spend the day with him in exchange for not telling the group that he lied. The reveal that the Dean has set Jeff up to send the day with him by reading his emails (a provision of the Patriot Act) was funny, but some of the other scenes fell flat.
The storyline was a bummer, but it did set the scene for an out of nowhere marvel: the mid-episode musical sequence that cut between Jeff and the Dean singing a karaoke version of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” (complete with horrible green screen back drop) to Pierce’s paint-fume vision, the hitchhikers song (“Jesus loves marajuana!”), and Troy and Abed’s adorable shadow puppet show. In a mostly grounded episode, the musical interlude showed the goofy risk-taking that makes the show so great.
Most of this episode was very good, with a couple of genuine left turns and some great bits of physical comedy. Apparently, every episode that takes place in Troy and Abed (and now Annie’s) apartment must end with the entire group, except Jeff, singing and dancing around. I’d be just fine with that.
Community, Episode 3:7 “Studies in Modern Movement”: B+