One of the things Community has been missing a bit this season, one of the things “Remedial Chaos Theory” provided in spades that the others didn’t, is the idea that these people really do like hanging out with each other. Sure, they squabble and fight about stuff, but they also ultimately enjoy each other’s company, and they all make each other better in ways that are hard to explain. The conclusion of “Chaos” showed this beyond a shadow of a doubt—while suggesting Jeff might stand outside that happy circle—but the other episodes have seemed a touch mean-spirited at times. That’s not a problem, necessarily, since there can be great humor in seeing people snipe at each other, but that’s not exactly the show I signed up for, and if it had continued, it would have eventually gotten to me.
“Advanced Gay,” for whatever faults it has, is definitely an episode where everybody gets along for the most part. The insults and snipes are fairly tame and very much in keeping with the established group dynamics so far. More importantly, this is an episode where the group takes care of one of its own, figuring out a way to help Pierce deal with the complicated emotions that arise from his father showing up at school to condemn Pierce’s plan to launch a new version of Hawthorne Wipes aimed at the gay community. If I suspected anybody from Community would be nominated for an Emmy, this would be a good tape for Chevy Chase, and it’s a nice reminder of the fact that he can do the dramatic stuff as well as the comedic stuff, even if most of the heavy lifting in that department falls to Joel McHale.
But screw talking about Community; let’s talk about Roseanne.
Roseanne’s been on my mind because it’s one of my wife’s favorite shows ever made, and she’s been making her way through it on Netflix while I’m in the room. It’s also been on my mind because, well, this episode stars John Goodman, who is still probably best known for his work on that earlier sitcom. One thing I always appreciated about Roseanne was its ability to let the dramatic episodes be essentially dramatic. The justifiably acclaimed episode where Roseanne’s father—with whom she had a terrible relationship—dies is screamingly funny, but it’s also dark and kind of depressing, and the only jokes that exist rise out of the characters’ interactions in a time that’s fraught with emotion. It’s one of the best sitcom episodes out there in terms of showing what it’s actually like when someone you have a complicated relationship with dies and how that process can fuck with your emotions. The ending of the episode goes on for around three minutes, and there’s not a single joke in it. It’s just Roseanne telling off a casket bearing her father, and it’s great television.
Does Community achieve that level of dramatic resonance? Not really. For one thing, our knowledge of Pierce’s relationship to his father is fairly basic, and it’s been used more often as a commentary on Pierce’s relationship to the other group members (and his need to be loved). Here, it’s used just as often as a commentary on Jeff’s own father issues, and when Pierce stands up to give his own version of the Roseanne speech, it’s a touch too short, though I admire the show for letting us see that sometimes the death of someone can free us of certain burdens. Pierce, though he certainly wouldn’t have wished death on his father, can now be able to move out of the man’s shadow and stop trying to impress him. We dealt with the death of Pierce’s mother last year in an episode that got at how none of us wants to die and how death can leave us terribly lonely. But here, we get the less common flipside: Sometimes, death is just a relief.
Now, the episode didn’t quite earn all of its emotional moments, but I was impressed with how well it did regardless. (I’d speculate here about how sitcoms have had trouble making emotional moments work in the last decade because their running times have been cut back so much; even The Office, generally very good at this sort of thing at its best, had a number of them that were mawkish and cloying during its glory years. But I already wasted a paragraph on Roseanne, and I know how you guys hate meandering.) When Pierce’s dad showed up at the “Gay Bash,” there was a palpable sense of tension, even though he’d appeared in exactly one scene before that. And when Jeff laid into Pierce’s dad—and his own dad, by proxy—the whole scene hit some really nice notes. There were jokes in all of these sequences. I wouldn’t pretend to claim otherwise. But where the show usually slots a Jeff speech that sums everything up a bit too cleanly some weeks, it instead slotted short speeches from Jeff and Pierce that allowed for more complication. Sometimes, things—like issues with your parents—can’t be solved by someone saying just the right thing.
If I have a problem with this episode, it’s that it doesn’t really end. (This has been a consistent problem with this season’s episodes, with only “Chaos” and—sort of—the premiere ending on strong notes.) I appreciate the way the show is weaving together the stories this season, creating something of a dense web of serialization that I expect will start paying off soon, as we get into the meat of the season. But at the same time, the stories don’t really have clear, strong moments to end on, which creates a situation where a lot of buildup results in a weak payoff. Even if the emotions from Pierce’s father’s death continue—as well they should!—it’d be nice to get something a little stronger than the ending we get here, though I’d say this was the strongest of the season’s weak endings, if that makes any damn sense. Just based on what I’ve read about the season so far (and my interview with Dan Harmon at the end of last season), I suspect the show’s writers are putting a lot of eggs in the “let’s finish out this season very strong” basket, and while there’s nothing quite like a terrific season finale, it’s sometimes nice to have individual chapters close out well, too.
Another common thread this season seems to be putting more of an emphasis on the Greendale stories that might have fit in nicely in season one, then putting the more ambitious, genre-happy stuff down in the B-stories. It’s a dynamic I’m quite liking, as I thought this one and the other episode that employed this structure (“Competitive Ecology”) were both enjoyable and interesting on that level. The genre stuff in this episode plays around with portrayals of secret societies, as Troy is recruited by Vice Dean Laybourne to join the air conditioning repair school. The sequence featuring the “initiation,” for lack of a better word, is the show at its bizarre best, with astronauts making paninis and a black Hitler. It’s also anchored by Goodman, who’s rarely given more to do than spout bizarre tirades but makes those bizarre tirades his own.
This plot also speaks to a larger theme developing within the season, that of choice. The characters are all starting to circle around the things that might be their majors, that might point toward their futures. The choices they’re making will have bearing on their lives to come, but they will also have bearing on the here and now and whether the group will remain as tight and friendly as it is. (It’s here that I’ll note I suspect this is why we got so many stories about how the group sees each other and how outsiders see the group to start out the season, as well as why I suspect “Chaos Theory” will be seen as a foundational episode that laid out just how everything was going to play out once the season is over.) Just as Pierce is offered a choice to break free of the toxic influence his father holds over his life, Troy is offered a choice to live a life of comfort and luxury, but one that will inevitably take him away from his friends. Troy chooses what will make him happy, knowing full well it’s a mistake. Pierce chooses fear, because it’s the path of least resistance.
The show wants us to believe that choosing what makes you happy is the “right” choice, because it preserves the status quo we’re interested in. But it also understands that that’s kinda bullshit. I suspect that’s why Goodman is the man playing Laybourne. With most other actors, his threats of a life unfulfilled would sound sort of stupid; with Goodman, it really does seem like Troy will wake up five years from now, cursing the day everything went wrong. But at the same time, Troy has a gift—a gift for manual labor involving intricate systems with a number of smaller parts—and Laybourne is going to make sure that he uses it, for the betterment of both of them. There’s interesting potential here, particularly with Goodman involved, and I’m intrigued by where it all might end up.
And, of course, this episode is very funny. I often find myself growing nervous before reviewing this show, now, simply because I’m worried there will come an episode that doesn’t make me laugh. But every week, I find myself proved wrong early and often. “Advanced Gay” isn’t perfect, but it’s filled with laughs (and reminds us that even when Community has nothing else, it will have juvenile gay jokes, as we saw in the teaser), and the emotional moments are surprisingly deep and fascinating. There’s been a lot of good setup this season, and with “Advanced Gay,” I’m hopeful that we’re finally moving into the meat of the storyline. Here’s hoping the show can figure out how to make all of this setup pay off.
- Jerry Minor returns as Troy’s janitor friend, and it’s nice to see the way that his role—initially one that felt vaguely like an afterthought—continues to grow and change. Even the recurring bit players get arcs.
- I also quite liked Larry Cedar’s portrayal of Pierce’s father, Cornelius, and I really enjoyed every time he would say, “Piercenault!” which is what I’m naming my son if I ever have one. And can there be any question that Jeff will end up wearing that hairpiece at some point this season?
- Some of you were complaining last week that the show relies too heavily on the Troy and Abed pairing last week, and while I don’t exactly agree, I can see where you’re coming from. I think the Troy and Abed scenes worked better in this episode because the two were split up for some of the episode, and the scene where they did impressions of each other hit one of my sitcom love buttons, wherein I will always enjoy a gag that features the characters impersonating each other.
- Britta’s more in the background this week, but it’s another good one for the character, who basically gets everything about Pierce and Jeff right but gets dismissed by everyone because she’s not terribly great at expressing this. She’s the worst.
- Favorite small moment: The Dean has absolutely no idea what Tron is.
- I liked the scene where Cornelius proved himself to be the Abed of racism, particularly the way Cedar tore into the word “Laplanders,” which is something I could listen to over and over. (Please don’t make a YouTube video to test this theory.)
- Abed and Troy continue to be heavily into Inspector Spacetime, as shown in the tag, where both take on the evil monster Jeff, before dropping the façade so they can attempt to appear mature for the good-looking woman who just entered the room.
- As amusing as I could imagine it being, I don’t really know that I want to see an episode where we see the aftermath of Chang leaving with the drag queen.
- Also, the Hawthorne Wipes music video was hysterical. I hope a full version of that makes its way online.