After season five took a little detour from what appeared to be its main story in favor of two arcs designed to say goodbye to important characters in the show’s run and a David Fincher-esque concept episode, Community gets back on track with the committee to improve Greendale plot in “Analysis Of Cork-Based Networking,” which centers on getting a bulletin board hung and preparing for yet another school dance. It’s a good episode and a funny one, and it’s probably what the season needed right now. I’ve liked the last string of episodes quite a bit, but the show usually works best when it can balance out the concept episodes with some standard-issue campus hijinks. “Networking” is about as standard issue as the show gets anymore, which is to say that it ends with Chang teaching everyone a dance called the Fat Dog and Garrett screaming, “IT’S A BEAR DANCE!” (So, it ends well.)
The problem with being the kind of show that does high concept episodes—a tradition that puts Community in the fine lineage of Moonlighting, The X-Files, and Buffy—is that then the other episodes can have a tendency to blend together. “Networking”’s greatest claim to fame for many will probably be that it boasts a bunch of guest stars, but, honestly, the guest stars were the weakest parts of the episodes for me. I enjoyed Nathan Fillion a fair amount, and Kumail Nanjiani is always a good time. But Paget Brewster—whom I normally like a lot—didn’t get a lot to do, and the scene with Robert Patrick was fairly strained. At a certain point, all of this ridiculousness became too much to hang on the idea of just hanging up a bulletin board. I get that this was the point—the final joke is that, ultimately, Hickey does just that—but there are some comic premises that can withstand that kind of piling on. I’m not sure this was one of them. The way it twists in the last act to become some kind of John Hughes montage thing doesn’t entirely work either.
That’s no matter, though, because the episode was filled with enough other great stuff to keep things rolling along. “Networking” returns to the three-story structure that Community usually follows after a couple of weeks that needed to focus respectively on the departures of Pierce and Troy to the exclusion of everything else. In most cases, that story structure leads to one story that feels a little undercooked when mashed up against the other two, but I didn’t necessarily feel that here. Indeed, the B-story—featuring Jeff, Shirley, Chang, and Duncan trying to come up with a dance theme—might have been the funniest in the episode. It relied a lot on Chang being overly emotional and annoying, which is rarely the best thing the character does, but it also leaned into that by having everybody give in to his demands to have a ridiculous bear-themed dance. (Chang endlessly repeating “Bear down for midterms” to explain his theme is maybe my favorite joke for the character in several seasons.)
By the time it was revealed that Chang got the idea from hearing news of a bear sowing death and destruction at a child’s birthday party in Wisconsin (something everybody else missed hearing about), the story became this weird meditation on ass-covering in the wake of a tragedy that I really liked. I have a weakness for sitcom stories where some of the characters try to convince someone else of something ridiculous, and the idea that “fat dog” was a popular and well-known saying (that has its own Wikipedia page!) fell so perfectly into this zone for me that I loved every minute of it. I had my doubts this would all work when Neil entered to reveal the news of the birthday-party bear massacre, but I think it worked because the show didn’t try to flip this into something where everybody gets mad at Chang. Instead, they all just sort of panic and come up with the worst plan ever, then try to make that plan make sense to everybody else, especially Annie. It’s a great little story about how we use emotional manipulation to get around all sorts of uncomfortable truths we’d rather not have exposed. And, again, it ends with Garrett screaming, “IT’S A BEAR DANCE!” so points for that.
The episode’s other storyline involves Abed wearing noise-canceling earmuffs to keep Britta from spoiling him on future events in Bloodlines Of Conquest, a very Game Of Thrones-ish HBO show. Britta, who only watches shows after they’re popular enough that her watching them won’t make any kind of statement, is accidentally spoiled in the opening study table scene (another element of the episode that feels very much like a throwback to the first two seasons), so she resolves to spoil the show for Abed by reading all of the books and getting ahead of where he is in the series to tell him everything that’s about to happen. Hence the earmuffs. There’s probably a story in here somewhere about the ridiculousness of spoiler culture, especially as it pertains to movies and TV shows adapted from other works, but the show quite smartly pivots toward something else.
And that something else is Katie LeClerc! The show hasn’t given Abed a love interest since season four’s “Herstory Of Dance”—one of the better episodes of that season—and Britta even hangs a lantern on this by asking of LeClerc’s character is someone Abed will form an intense connection with that no one will ever hear about again. There aren’t a ton of hard jokes in this story, though Abed continually saying the same thing in sign language is pretty great, but Danny Pudi makes a great leading dude in a romantic storyline, even though the structure of Community usually means that he’s not allowed to do a lot of this sort of thing. Plus, LeClerc is totally game and a lot of fun, making it all the better how the storyline makes you almost forget about how this started out as an Abed and Britta storyline. Normally, I’d be complaining about the underuse of Britta, but not having her around is what makes the final payoff—that Abed’s new friend spoils him on Bloodlines Of Conquest via ASL—all the funnier. And it all ends with the return of Brie Larson as Rachel, the aforementioned previous love interest, and Brie Larson makes all things better. I hope she’s around for more than just the end of this episode, though I fear that might be it given her, y’know, movie career.
“Networking” seems, at times, like it might be leaning on its guest stars a bit too heavily. That certainly feels like the case in the Annie and Hickey storyline, where I get what the episode was going for, but it almost feels as if trying to cram all of that into about 10 minutes of screentime was detrimental both to the storyline and the episode as a whole. There are whole sections here that get devoted to some clunky exposition—like Annie and Hickey’s fight while having lunch with the Dean—instead of any jokes, and the story is often overwhelmed by the fact that what’s at the center of it is so, so silly. But at a certain point, the ridiculousness becomes endearing—like when the Dean is perfectly willing to sign off on the form that will institute an office of bulletin board oversight (which will allow the parking guy to cut down on rideshares, so he can give the IT woman a better parking spot, so she can let the custodians look at porn, so they will complete the bulletin board work order—I told you it got a little out of hand), but only if Hickey will say, “Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.” The more the story doesn’t push its actual construction too hard and, instead, simply hangs back and lets the weirdness of the situations create most of the laughs, the better it works. But there are places in the middle where it seems to be trying a little too hard and where the guest players feel less like actors who came in to play for a day and more like some weird stunt-casting.
This is too bad, because I like proactive Annie much better than the Annie that moons over Jeff, and she and Hickey make for a good character pairing (just like Annie and Pierce always did). The character of Annie often works best when the show allows her to hang onto at least a shred of her idealism, and when this story ended with Hickey hanging the bulletin board and her leaping on the back of the custodians (or were they janitors?!) who came to stop him from doing so, it was a good place to bring her to—defeated by the system but still ready to fight it when the little guy steps up to do the right thing. If I were inclined to push this further, I could probably tease out some sort of connection between the ass-covering here and the ass-covering in the other storyline, or the way that systems resist change, or something something libertarianism, but nobody wants to hear that. (And, also, the Abed storyline doesn’t really intersect with those themes in any way, so it would all be kind of a moot point.)
I’ve been detecting some hesitation from some of you in comments these last few weeks to re-embrace the show to the degree that you once did. And on the one hand, I get that. It’s no longer the show it was. Even with the shot in the arm that Dan Harmon’s return has given the show this season, it’s still very much a show in its fifth season. It’s going to be showing its age, and we’re going to know almost all of the kinds of jokes it’s able to tell and what the characters can and can’t do. And yet at the same time, when the episode opened with all of those characters sitting around the study table—some familiar with it and some brand new to it—I was reminded anew of what makes this show so much fun to watch. I can’t imagine “Networking” ending up on top of anybody’s list of favorite episodes of the show, but that it’s still so fun and so fresh and so filled with great gags makes it all the more impressive that this is a show in its fifth year. This may no longer be the show that feels like it can do something completely unprecedented and unexpected, but it’s still one of the funniest shows on TV. And how many other five-season-old sitcoms can say that?
- No, seriously, Brie Larson! Rachel! She didn’t even get permission to start the coat check! (Everybody see Short Term 12. Please. For me. That one guy from The Newsroom is in it too! That may not be a selling point for all of you!)
- Britta paying off LeClerc’s character and then signing “thank you” but actually saying, “Sugar” was a good joke. In general, I am in favor of mistranslation humor, so all of the hand gestures that actually meant other things in sign language were great. If any of you know ASL, please inform us if those signs were accurate.
- I’ve been a big John Oliver fan for a while now, but I really like the energy that Duncan adds to the storylines he’s in, particularly when he’s at the study table.
- Hickey and the Dean have very different ideas of what the strengths of the movie Labyrinth were.
- I guarantee you one of those “Save Community” flash mobs later this spring will be doing the Fat Dog outside of NBC headquarters. It’s not even a question at this point.
- God, VanDerWerff, just tell us what was funny: I am going to work “IT’S A BEAR DANCE!” into every single conversation I have for at least the next several days.
- That’s all for now, folks! We’ll see you again on February 27, when people are done sliding around on the ice and snow!