I’ve watched “A Fistful Of Paintballs” three times now, and I still don’t really know what to say about it. (In fact, since writing this sentence, I’ve watched it a fourth.) I thought it was exceedingly clever and very fun, and I liked the way that it built many of the season’s major conflicts into the story proper. But Community is so obviously CONSTRUCTED every week, so obviously STRUCTURED (and while this is a good thing for me, I get how it’s a deal-breaker for others), that it’s hard to watch the first half of an intended two-parter and be able to say much about the work as a whole. I’ll say that I think this is a pretty great set-up, but it’s essentially ALL set-up, and that means a lot of how successful it is depends on next week’s episode and how it goes. Thus, this might be more recap-heavy than usual, and I reserve the right to revise this grade upward or downward in the event of whatever happens next week. (WE TAKE THIS VERY SERIOUSLY.)
“Fistful Of Paintballs,” of course, is the sequel to last season’s “Modern Warfare,” the episode that’s still the high-water mark of this series for many, many people. For me, a handful of season two episodes have eclipsed that one, but I get why “Modern Warfare” will always be the standard-bearer. It was the episode where the show took a WHOLE bunch of things it had been doing in season one and then sent them through a blender with a bunch of action movie clichés. It was an episode of a sitcom very unlike any other sitcom episode that had ever been made, more like an animated series than the other comedies it shared a network with. There was a sense throughout of the writers and actors realizing that, shit, they could DO this, they could turn the show into something completely different every week, totally abandon the reality they’d set up if they really wanted to. And depending on your point of view, that either freed the show up for its stellar second season or consigned it to keep trying to chase an endless series of diminishing returns. (I think you all know which side of the aisle I’m on.)
Directly taking on your most famous episode takes a certain kind of courage and skill, and Community takes aim at “Modern Warfare” in two ways: It both ramps up the complexity and simplifies itself. The complexity comes from the character relationships and the storytelling, which are both more complicated in this episode than they were in “Modern Warfare.” Nearly everything that’s been building this season comes to a head here, and everything pays off (or begins to be paid off) in logical, largely interesting ways. We get little nods to the storylines for every character this season, and we even get a glimpse at just about all of the recurring players as well. It’d be easy for this to feel overstuffed, but it doesn’t, and I think that ties into the episode’s simplicity.
Where “Modern Warfare” felt like a very wide-ranging take on the action genre, “A Fistful Of Paintballs” takes aim not just at Westerns but at spaghetti Westerns and most specifically at the films of Sergio Leone. That leaves it much more breathing room for the character stories than “Modern Warfare” had. It also leaves the episode feeling slightly less audacious. “Modern Warfare” became a modern classic because it so thoroughly stuck EVERYTHING about the modern action film into a half-hour running time and then added in an interesting Jeff and Britta storyline to boot. But if you look at that episode now, it’s somewhat disappointing to see characters like Troy or Annie exit so early. It’s very clearly a Jeff story, and the episode rarely strays from his viewpoint.
“Fistful Of Paintballs,” then, expands the viewpoint far more. It’s ostensibly an Annie story, but there are little things here going on with EVERYone, and the character who probably directly affects the story the most is Pierce, who builds his peaceful little settlement of Fort Hawthorne, then purports to still love everybody in the group, then shows his true colors by putting blanks into everyone’s guns when they head out to find the secret stash of paintball ammo (hidden in the Dean’s office). But to compensate for that expansion of character stuff, the episode scales back on the pop culture riffing, to the point where there are only a handful of specific jokes to the Leone Westerns, and mostly in the first half of the episode (which is really the first quarter). Sure, the episode follows the basic storyline of this type of movie, but it seems much less concerned with that than “Modern Warfare” did with following specific action beats. Again, I wouldn’t really want to compare the two until I’ve seen next week’s, but I really liked all of this as setup, and I’m excited to see where we’re headed.
As with “Modern Warfare,” the episode skips most of what happens in between the announcement of the paintball game and where the episode begins (indeed, it slides in how the game began via flashback). As it begins, we’re watching bullies (led, again, by Anthony Michael Hall, who makes a very fun cameo return here) chase down Fat Neil, only to be interrupted by Annie, who drops from the ceiling (apparently) and shoots all of them down, then takes their guns, not allowing Neil to have one for himself. Annie escapes into the lab, where she begins heating up a sole can of beans. As she does, the episode flashes back to how all of this began: with a talking ice cream cone announcing that the prize, unlike last year’s too-valuable prize, will be $100,000 cash (and in an episode filled with very funny jokes, seeing an ice cream cone say this may have been my favorite).
From there, the episode becomes just as much about Annie’s journey this season and Pierce’s journey this season as it does anything else. And that was where it worried me. For as much as other critics have worried about Pierce’s storyline this season making sense in terms of the group keeping him around, I’ve been having trouble reconciling the Annie storyline, period. Her story sunk the Apollo 13 episode for me, and the show has too often been interested in her solely as a girl who’s fallen for Jeff (something that really only worked for me in the conspiracy theories episode). She’s had good moments throughout the season, what with her storylines in “Mixology Certification” and even “Celebrity Pharmacology” (one of the season’s weaker episodes). But she’s been the character perhaps most hurt by the decreased focus on Greendale as a school this season, sometimes reduced to a romantic bargaining chip where she was the whiz kid longing for a second chance last season. Season two has been all about expanding the characters’ lives outside of Greendale; Annie’s the character whose life pretty much IS Greendale.
But I thought the episode worked very well at placing her at the center of the story and roughly paralleling her journey with Pierce’s. Where Annie is the character most desperate to hold the group together and, thus, the only character to vote to keep Pierce in the group (in a nice reveal for the playing-card nicknames), Pierce is the character who tries to most pretend he doesn’t need the group at all. Sure, his warm words about how the gang is his whole life and how his long summer will be filled with just waiting for things to start up again in the fall seem genuine (if suspiciously touchy-feely, as Britta points out), but he DOES hand Jeff a gun filled with blanks as the group heads out on its mission. Still, the Pierce backstory is elegantly laid out, with the show not revealing too much of it all at once, so some of the references to the guy make more sense on a re-watch. And on a show where the moments filled with heart can be layered on a BIT thickly, the conclusion of this episode—with Annie finally deciding it was time to kick Pierce out for what he’d done—was a solidly dramatic climax point for this entire arc.
Yet as it looks like we transition to a different genre next week (at least, based on the next week on), the show has kept all of these storylines spinning heading into that finale. “Fistful Of Paintballs” isn’t the season’s funniest episode, but it might be the most FUN, and that’s where the episode, ultimately, gets me. If the show were still doing “theme” episodes because it felt like it had to, they would take on a feeling of obligation, of the show just doing them because that’s one of the things it does. But they continue to feel fresh and fun because the people making this show clearly love the pop culture they’re reinventing. (I’m also thrilled to see the show “remaking” something from a slightly earlier era, and I hope it sends some of the show’s young fans to seek out the original movies.) There are so many goofy, winning touches in this episode that it almost feels churlish to write too much that’s negative about it. And it sure seems like whatever comes next week, we’re being set up for a huge conclusion.
- Thanks to Steve Heisler for filling in last week. I really enjoyed his piece.
- C’mon. City College has gotta be behind all of this, right?
- All right, here’s a complaint: I wanted more of the Black Rider! Obviously, he’s just a device, but even a scene or two more where he threatened the group would have made that moment when he breaks and heads off to see Coldplay even funnier. Plus, Josh Holloway is terrific. Now I know who all those people who wanted more Pulp Fiction in “Critical Film Studies” felt.
- Favorite random touch: the dancers at Fort Hawthorne (they even have someone more to Jeff’s tastes!).
- The look on Troy’s face when he sees Abed? Terrific. I’m thrilled that the show chose that moment for his title card.
- These might be my favorite alternate credits of the season, even though I figured Abed’s Christmas version of the song could never be topped.
- I have no idea if the show could have done a tag in this episode, but I missed one all the same.
- I like the way the commandoes at the end appear to worship the ice cream woman. (I know they don’t, and that’s just how they do their briefing, but I choose to believe that she is their god. Also, a friend points out, that’s totally Slater, right?)
- Spoilers for the next-week on, if you skipped it: Looks like we’re in for a war movie of some sort, right?
- "Hey, Christina Ricci, I said kick."
- "Free ice cream and that one guy having a heart attack aren't the only surprises this year!"
- "There's the guns... and here's the prize! $100,000 cash! Go nuts!"
- "Seeing as I'm... eating your beans."
- "Yeah? And I want pants. A lot of people want a lot of things."
- "That wasn't a no! I'm coming over!"
- "I hear he has more paint than a French kindergarten."
- "Does that guy even go to this school? He's really good-looking. I mean network TV good looking."
- "My forehead's not that big, right?" "It's not small."
- "He's created a safe zone where people can rest, eat, and, if necessary, pump their breast milk."
- "Look, I don't name people, Annie! I'm a deputy. I deputize."
- "I found that people were willing to roll bullets under the door just to take a dump."
- "Cuz you're gay."
- "She's a dance major, Jeff! She likes Twinkies!"
- "You talkin' about peeing, right?" "No." "Me neither."
- "That's a rash. I'm allergic to beans."
- "He's a bad shot, too? Man, what does this guy have going for him?"
- "What kind of ice cream company DOES this?"
- "I can get it out. I GUESS."
- "OK, Black Rider. Now let's see who's attractive."
- "I can't go back out there. This is the only life I know."
- "Black Rider, It's Jeff Winger. I know you've heard of me by now!"
- "Starting with you, Mr. Insecure. You think you're good-looking, but you're not. You're average. You're just an average-looking guy with a big chin."