"There are a lot of layers to this.” “It’s almost too conceptual to follow, but…I love it.”
On any other network, Community would never have come back. Luckily, Community airs on NBC. This is great news, not because the network will stand behind a critically acclaimed but low-rated show with a loyal following and huge internet buzz, but because NBC has fuck-all-else to air. The network shifted its line-up around to give more attention to new shows Whitney and Up All Night, and placed its beloved 30 Rock in Community’s time slot. But 30 Rock failed to deliver ratings that were any more a threat to The Big Bang Theory juggernaut than the adventures of our plucky study group. Tina Fey was all, like, “blerg” and America was all, like, “meh”, and NBC decided give Community a second chance, as if nothing had ever happened. So now, all eyes are fixed on Greendale.
Interestingly, this most high-profile of all episodes of Community focused on Shirley, a character who is often overlooked and underappreciated by fans (and sometimes, it would seem, the writers). Shirley may not be handsome and sly like Jeff, or as goofy and loveable as Troy and Abed, but she is, in her own subtle ways, one of the show’s very best characters. Yvette Nicole Brown has consistently proven her ability to carry dramatic scenes when given a chance. She imbues Shirley with dignity and grace, while always revealing little hints of the tension bubbling just below the surface. Often she may get only a few lines per episode, but she has always made the most of them. The woman has turned the simple phrase “that’s nice” into a flexible jazz riff, capable of conveying pure glee, casual distinterest, or slowly growing terror. In short, she’s awesome. So it’s nice to see her finally given a potential story arc with some meat to it.
More troublesome were the moments with Shirley’s once-again husband, Andre, played with inconsistent gruffness by Malcolm Jamal-Warner. Andre supplied some of the funniest moments of the episode in his frequent threatening of the newly-normal Troy and Abed (who set aside their weirdness at Shirley’s request), but Andre’s objections to Shirley’s new career are too deep set to just gloss over with a cutesy scene at the altar. Andre’s mysogonistic objections to Shirley’s new role seemed so deeply-seeded that I’m not sure if that moment would be enough to really change his point of view. His sudden turn seemed more like what it was, a necessity of Shirley’s plot rather, than a genuine reflection of his own character.
A few months ago, while writing the early episodes of this season, Dan Harmon tweeted (quoting Abed last season) “I feel intensely bored with Pierce as a subject”. Well, I’ll second that feeling. I didn’t have the problems that many others did with his “evil” arc last season, but while Pierce has to remain a dick to be who he is, the end of the episode reveal that Pierce has sold out Shirley seems a step too far, even for him. His one-upmanship with Jeff rises naturally from both men dealing with their own father issues and, most significantly, their shared fear of growing old and obselete. Fucking over Shirley, who had taken pity on him earlier in the episode, is a supremely weak and evil move for Pierce (though it allows the show to work in a new product placement. Apparently Community has had to go the Chuck route in their sponsorships. Listen, Subway, I’ll choke down your awful sandwiches, just keep this show on the air for another season. Deal?) If the back half of this season is supposed to redeem Pierce from this act, it’s got a lot of work to do.
Elsewhere, Britta panics when she discovers that she has a natural gift for wedding planning and decorating, making her a tool of an institution she despises. She becomes convinced that this talent, along with the shameful secret that she is from a “long line of wives and mothers”, dooms her to a life of matrimonial drudgery. This was a really good episode for Gillian Jacobs, who’s doing a great job this season of showing Britta’s spazzy truculence as she acts out against the roles that she feels that society is demanding she fill (but which usually stem from Britta herself). Her angry, drunken exchange of wedding vows with Jeff was the highlight of an episode filled with snappy dialogue.
And on that note, I hope that Jeff’s drunken freak out about his father is a setup for some genuine plot resolution, because otherwise it’s ground that feels a little too familiar. Much of this episode focused on setting up what would seem to be the season-defining arcs for each character, so let’s hope for some real movement on Jeff’s daddy issues to clear the way for some fresh plots next season (and there will be a next season, I’m sure of it).
There were also a number of cut-away gags, like the title cards over Shirley’s laughter at, than disgust with, Britta and Jeff’s animated, spinning heart, that were off tone from the usual rythms of the show. These were actually pretty good jokes, just delivered in a very different way. It’s hard to tell if these were signs of a new direction or just outliers. But, aside from seeing the story gears grind a bit, this was a fun and funny episode. From Pierce’s racist security camera, to Andre’s continual inference that Troy and Abed’s white-bread appearance at the wedding was a gag at his expense, to the triumphant, grinning return of Annie’s Boobs, this was a low-key but heartfelt return.
Community, Episode 3:11 “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts”: B+