“Basic Lupine Urology” (Dick Wolf, get it?) fulfills much the same function in this season as “Paradigms Of Human Memory” fulfilled in season two: It reminds us this is a show that can be really fucking funny when it wants to be. This is not to suggest that the last few episodes have lacked for laughs or that the back half of season two was utterly bereft of them. But both were more interested in intricate character work than they were in making us laugh every five seconds. And that’s okay. Intricate character work is what got those of us who are invested in this show invested in it in the first place, and I suspect that’s the barricade the show will be willing to die on when the time comes. But it’s nice to remember every once in a while that this is also a great comedy, with a sterling ensemble that’s great at delivering dumb jokes. Yeah, the last moment of the episode is serious (well, not counting the tag), but everything before it is fun genre pastiche.
At the same time, I’m not sure the genre pastiche ever moves past being genre pastiche, the way the show’s best theme episodes do. I had the same concerns about “Paradigms,” but that episode was so laugh-a-second audacious that I ultimately didn’t care. (I still wouldn’t rank it as highly as many of you.) “Urology” comes close to that laugh-a-second pace, but it’s the first theme episode where I really do wonder if it’s going to play as well if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the TV show Law & Order. So many of the gags are specific calls to things on that show, and some of them are so subtle that I don’t wonder if those who’ve never seen the program (and, honestly, is that anyone?) aren’t going to be a little lost.
Our heroes have realized that their biology project—a yam they’ve grown themselves—has gotten tossed on the floor of the biology lab and smushed, perhaps by someone stomping on it. Once Annie finds out this might lead to her getting a C, she switches into overdrive and convinces everybody else to help her prove that the group was maligned. Well, almost everybody else. Pierce and Britta mostly sit the episode out, but the other five members of the group all get solid moments and are perfectly slotted into their appropriate Law & Order roles. Shirley is the no-nonsense police chief. Abed and Troy are the two beat cops, just trying to figure out who did it and getting too emotionally invested in their jobs. Jeff is the Sam Waterston. Annie is the hot brunette assistant DA. In the role of judge is Professor Kane, who’s used better in this episode than in either of his two prior appearances.
Look: If you’re familiar with the Law & Order franchise, this is all an expertly done goof. The episode nails absolutely everything about the show, from the way that the first person the cops question (Todd) is the guy who seems to have done it—until a last second reversal in the courtroom—to the filming style. I had to rewind the scene where Pierce is conducting some sort of gambling ring in the cafeteria because I was laughing so much at how accurately the show had aped the earlier program’s style. This is the perfect episode for anyone who’s ever spent a rainy Saturday watching episode after episode of the original article on TNT. It even perfectly nails the way that the show delivers its climactic moments just before commercial breaks, like little surges of adrenaline to get you through the messages that follow.
Sometimes, a genre parody can work if it so thoroughly commits that it essentially could work as a straight-faced example of the original. I think that’s part of why “Lupine Urology” mostly overcomes the fact that it doesn’t have much to it beyond, “Hey, what if we made a Law & Order parody?” The final moment—when Jeff proves that Neil boiled all of the yams so that he could hook up with Vicki in his parents’ cabin this summer—is pitch-perfect, and I love the way Neil screeches that he did it for love. Similarly, the characters buying a hot dog from Garrett in a Greendale street scene that looks suspiciously like a New York City street scene (shot in Los Angeles, natch) is a lovingly done homage to the New York flavor that made the original series so popular. In everything from Britta making a photo Old West-y to the “courtroom” scene starting with an artist’s rendering, this is a loving parody of the original, made by people who’ve obviously ingested way too many of the show’s over-400 episodes, thrown through the series’ pop culture blender and effectively Community-fied.
If you’re one of those people, then, that just watches this show for the laughs—or a Law & Order fan—I suspect this episode worked really well for you. I’m much more into the character aspect of things, so I liked it, but I wouldn’t say I loved it. I laughed a lot, but I’m not sure what it was trying to say. Annie is really obsessive about getting good grades? Jeff enjoys being asked to play attorney? Troy and Abed really get into playing the roles thrust upon them? I thought perhaps there was more that could have been done with the whole thing being something of Shirley’s first chance to get to play in the show’s big, wild genre playground, but she was mostly confined to the role she was in. It worked for the parody aspect, but if we were looking for a larger character angle, I suspect it was meant to be here.
I’m not saying the episode was bad. I liked it an awful lot, and I think pretty much every joke landed. (I could have done without Annie’s premature celebration in the courtroom, but, then, I’m just sympathetic to that Todd fellow.) Comedically, it’s one of the two or three strongest episodes of the season. But this is always a series that does its best when it reaches for more than just the easy jokes. I’ll admit that sometimes, the jokes are so strong that it can carry you past an episode that’s otherwise empty of great character stuff. But when I talked to Dan Harmon last summer, he said the writers are always looking for the “Jeff and Britta fucking” of every theme episode, referring back to the major character breakthrough of season one’s “Modern Warfare.” I’m not sure the show found that dynamic here. In other theme episodes—even if the moment is incredibly clumsy (as with Annie wanting to transfer schools back in the space simulator episode)—it’s immediately obvious what the episode means on a character basis. That’s not really the case here, as the episode mostly tells us stuff we already know about these people.
That’s one of the burdens of the sitcom, though. I mentioned this a few weeks ago in comments, but I don’t know how many of you actually saw it. It’s tremendously hard for a sitcom to continue to grow and evolve and change like a drama does. Sitcoms are built to run on different engines, and they have a tendency to continue to repeat a lot of the same beats and themes as they did in seasons previous. I watch a lot of Cheers, of course, but I’ve been amazed at how swiftly the show’s often daring sense of pathos was replaced by a very entertaining, but sort of slick professionalism after its second season. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that’s true of virtually every sitcom I’ve ever loved. Season three on is the time when the show settles into its profitable syndication years. It’s not bad—no one would ever claim that—but the shock of the new has worn off. It’s all but impossible for a sitcom to revitalize itself like Lost did at the end of its third season because the engine the sitcom runs on is comfort, not surprise. Plenty of shows have had their best seasons in these years (which tend to run between seasons three and five), but those seasons tend to come once we’ve all adjusted to the fact that the show is no longer able to surprise us.
What I’m trying to say is that these reports are necessarily reports from the field (as my colleague Noel Murray smartly puts it). I would not be surprised if all of you love this episode more than I do, and I would not be surprised if in five years I’ll be thrilled to see it pop up on Comedy Central because I just need some good laughs. But right now, in the moment, after watching this episode a second time, I think it’s very, very good, but it falls just short of greatness. This is a show still capable of the latter—“Remedial Chaos Theory” and last week’s stunner, which I like more every time I see it (I’m up to five now)—but it’s also a show that’s settled quite a bit into what it’s going to be for the immediate future. I still love the show, as I think should be obvious. I just don’t love it like I once did, and that will take some adjusting.
All TV shows have relationships with their fans that operate almost like long-term romantic relationships. There’s the initial ardor, the period when you realize that it seems like there’s nothing this person can’t do to make you happy, then the long period where you slowly realize you know all of this person’s tricks. I’d say a lot of us (including myself) are currently in that third period right now. But there’s always hope: What usually follows the “I know everything this person can do” period is the point where you realize how lucky you’ve been to have them all along and how silly it was to expect them to continue to surprise you as much as the first day you met. “Lupine Urology” isn’t my favorite episode of the series, but it reminds me just how much I like having this show around and how sad I’d be if it left.
- Necessary qualification #1: I do not know what happens in the last five seconds of the episode, as my screener cuts off the spoiler (it was sent out over a month ago, so I see why). However, I’m all but certain that someone is calling to say that Starburns has died. Correct me if I’m wrong! Does this moment change the entire tenor of the episode? I’ll re-grade if so, but I feel pretty safe in this grade without those last five seconds.
- Necessary qualification #2: I don’t really like Law & Order. I appreciate the show, and I have enjoyed several of its episodes, but I’ve never been someone who could just sit down and watch episode after episode of it. This would make an excellent chaser if I were ever to do so again, however.
- I’m glad the old blind guy in the cafeteria is apparently going to become a recurring character. It makes up for the loss of Paradox, who was just the best.
- One joke that didn’t land for me: Magnitude responding to Troy and Abed with “pop pop!” I guess you always know where things are going when Magnitude pops up, but it didn’t work for me tonight, for some reason.
- Jim Rash has an excellent singing voice, and I would like him to record an album of lullabies to lull me gently to sleep.
- I liked all of the jokes about how Troy and Abed aren’t actually police officers. I don’t know why, but every time this show goes to the, “Well, this isn’t actually what’s happening” well, I laugh.
- NBC’s been promoting this episode quite a bit (as well they should with such an easily promotable hook). Let’s hope it correlates to a boost in the ratings, heading into the season when the show’s future will be decided. I’m still bullish on a renewal, but last week’s numbers were disappointing, even factoring in the fact that fewer and fewer people are watching TV in the 8 p.m. hour. (I suspect the heavily promoted 30 Rock live show might also allow for some ratings spillover to this episode.)