We tell ourselves the hardest thing to do is fall in love. The idea is that if you find someone who will love you forever, you can partner off with them until the end of time, and then everything will be just fine. The great romantic comedies always end with the wedding. They don’t end with the day, 70 years later, when the young lovers, now old, die peacefully next to each other in their sleep. This is because the minutiae of daily life is, frankly, boring. But it’s also because the shift that occurs once you’re in the middle of a relationship is an even harder shift to deal with than the simple shift from “single” to “taken.” At some point, you have to move from being someone who’s alone in the world, a person out on your own, to someone who is capable of being loved. And I’m not saying this is about becoming a better person. No. This is about knowing that you exist in a space where someone could love you no matter what you did, that you can exist in a space where forgiveness is always possible with enough time and healing.
I’m not going to come out and say that the third season of Community will be all about moving from finding love to being loved, but the première, at least, struck me as suggesting this is the journey we’ll be taking with these characters this season. And that’s—let’s face it—a tough journey to dramatize. But as I watch this episode of television, the only thing that strikes me is that every character is longing to find a place where they’ll be accepted, where they’ll be taken in without being judged and loved unconditionally. But at the same time, not a one of these characters trusts that space because who does, really? The second you realize you’re loved is also the second that you start doubting that love and start wondering when things are going to fall apart. This is an episode where Jeff—the ostensible leader of the group—realizes, yet again, that he is not so very far removed from Pierce—the ostensible villain of the group, yet one who realizes he has a part to play in all of this and is more than happy to play that part, if only because he’s the one person secure enough in his place to not mind being hated now and again. He knows he’s loved, and he knows he’ll eventually be welcomed back.
All of this is an elaborate way to say that while I laughed a lot at this episode of Community—probably more than I laughed at last season’s equivalent episode—I was more struck by the episode’s slightly melancholy moments. Melancholy is an emotion the show does well. The space between happy moments has always been my favorite dramatic space to explore, and I think the show is at its best in the little times when not much is going on but the characters are being honest with each other. (See also: last season’s “Mixology” episode.) So I appreciated the moments in this episode where, say, Jeff was briefly willing to admit that, yeah, he’s someone who keeps his walls up or where you listened to the lyrics of the song opening the episode and realized that a.) they applied to the show and were really funny on that level and b.) they also applied to the character of Jeff and were pretty sad on that level.
The musical number was something I wasn’t sure the show could pull off. The first time I watched this episode, I found it a little gratuitous, the sort of thing the show was doing just because you expect this show to do something wild, like stage a musical number that’s also a meta-commentary on the criticisms most frequently leveled against the show last season. (My favorite bit of meta-commentary is actually when the Dean says everything’s going to be just like last year but with less money.) But the second time through, I saw exactly what the show was trying to say with the number. This is Jeff—who’s always been the show’s way of portraying that the people who seem the most together are also often the most broken—trying to find a way to be healed, a way to let go of some of his bullshit and start getting down to actually figuring out who he is and who he wants to be. We act like self-improvement comes in terms of character arcs. You see something you want to be. You become it. The end. But it’s a never-ending process, and even if Jeff’s a nicer guy than he was when the series started, it hasn’t done a damn thing to fix his problems. Is it any wonder that the woman who’s always been posited as both his polar opposite and his slightly self-loathing love interest declares that she’s going to become a therapist? These two are locked in this journey together.
Or, I don’t know, fuck it. I’m probably thinking too much about this because I’ve gotten too little sleep, and I’m just glad to have the show back. This was also the episode that brought John Goodman into the show. Now, John Goodman has a character name, but I can’t help but refer to him as John Goodman, because that’s the kind of fan I am of the man’s work. He wasn’t in this episode a whole lot, but he brought a lot of gleeful malevolence to the scenes he was in, which he mostly shared with Jim Rash, who’s a regular this year. Goodman was given lots of big, goofy monologues, and he imbued them with just the right level of villainy while still finding every comic beat there was in them. The show has always been a good place for sitcom stars of the ’80s and ’90s to wash up, so in love with the shows of that era is it, so it’s nice to see that this is a series that knows how to actually use him. (Suggested other sitcom stars from that era who should pop up here: John Larroquette. Jason Alexander. Alan Thicke. Jane Curtin—yeah, yeah, SNL. The dad from Family Ties whose name I can’t remember.)
I’m less certain on Michael K. Williams, who’s basically fine as the biology teacher who ends up feuding with Jeff but also occasionally seems like he’s there to deliver the season’s themes to us in the most direct and unsubtle methods possible. The scene where he tells Jeff that there’s no crack in him that will let even that single blade of grass through is, again, basically fine, but there’s not a lot of subtext to it. It’s just a scene where somebody tells Jeff something he needs to hear. Now, granted, this is always a show that’s said, “Here’s the big lesson for the episode!” at the end of the episode, no matter how much you want to put a spin of, “Well, they’re commenting on the sitcom form itself!” on that. But that’s usually spun through the cast, who are all very good at that sort of thing, and whom we all have a lot of affection for. While, obviously, we have plenty of affection for Williams, his character is so new to us that I’m not sure he’s ready to start laying the thematic groundwork right out there for us.
The episode tells a very basic story, the kind of story that this show has done time and time again: Somebody gets kicked out of the group, then they get back into the group. But I liked the way the episode played with this storyline just a bit, like how Annie, realizing that Jeff’s already out of the group and she doesn’t have any more options, resolves that she’ll no longer be friends with him. I also liked the motif of the table, another thing that could have been stupid—and frequently walked right up to the line of being stupid—but never quite was. It was a symbol on a very obvious level—Jeff saw the table as a sign of his ability to be in charge of the group and a symbol of his power, and when it was taken, he needed it back. It was also a story point—Jeff just wants to be back in the group! But it also worked on that other, more metaphorical level, where Jeff sees the table as a symbol of the one place where he’s unconditionally loved and accepted, even if he bristles at feeling that way. The group—and, more broadly, Greendale in general—is a place where he’s free to learn and grow. Without it, he’s cast out and alone, like Pierce when the episode starts, or the astronaut at the end of 2001. To evolve, he needs the table. To evolve, he needs the group. It’s just the right combination of over-obvious and pleasantly poncey.
Anyway, what the hell am I doing? I keep lapsing into pretentious twaddle, and this episode also featured Chang living in the air vents and eventually becoming a security guard (something I think is a solid idea for his character, though we’ll have to see how it plays out). It was an episode that featured the absolutely brilliant gag—one that my wife didn’t laugh at once because she does not understand how this was the funniest joke ever—that Cougar Town was based on a British show called Cougarton Abbey that ended in episode six with the entire cast consuming hemlock and falling to the floor as a sad song plays. Britta smiles and talks about closure, and Abed (whom Dan Harmon discussed at length as a possible surrogate for himself in this excellent Wired piece) lets out a scream that’s one of the funniest things the show’s done. It’s a great moment that just keeps building, and I love the way it subtly defends the American method of producing TV.
This is also an episode that spends much of its running time commenting on the show’s desire to be “less weird,” more or less. That’s the surface-level point of that whole musical number, after all, and there’s plenty of stuff where the show seems determined to keep everything grounded very firmly in the Greendale reality but constantly seems to be trying to figure out just how far it can go off the leash without really alienating anybody. It’s going to be a tricky balance to get just right—if the people who were alienated by the show can ever be convinced to give it another shot anyway—but this episode suggests that, yeah, there’s a way to make it work. Again, the Cougarton Abbey gag is a good example of this. It works if you have a knowledge of the differences in comedy production between the U.S. and the U.K., but the big laugh comes off of the cast killing itself and then Abed’s scream (as well as Troy calling Britta the “opposite of Batman”). It’s a good blend of the kinds of snarky commentary the show does so well with the kinds of broader gags that it also does well. The two don’t have to be isolated in different worlds, just like there doesn’t have to be “theme” episodes and “normal” episodes.
Obviously, there are a lot of big ideas Community is evidently trying to tackle this season. And while I’d almost always rather watch a TV show that takes aim at big, ambitious goals and ideals, it’s just as easy to fall far short once you start setting your sights this high. I have every hope in the world that this show can pull this ambitious plan off, but we have to be okay if it falls just short. When I talked to Harmon over the summer, he discussed wanting to make a season where it feels like you’ve gone on a rewarding journey with the characters. Can this team pull that off? Sure. But at the same time, there are so many more potential pitfalls on that path than there are on the path of making a zombie episode. It could turn into so much, well, pretentious twaddle (like the first several paragraphs of this review).
But if there’s one thing this première reminded me of, it’s that Greendale has grown into the kind of place and the kind of sitcom world that’s welcoming and worth hanging out in every week. It’s just a nice feeling to be back at Greendale, just as it was a nice feeling to move back into Pawnee this year or to drop back in at Cheers back in the ’80s or to stop in to see WJM record its newscast in the ’70s. Community gets a lot of flack for the way that everybody on it is an ultimate pop culture maven, but when I look at the show, I see a world that’s strangely warm and just a nice place to hang out. It, like the very best sitcoms, presents a Platonic ideal of a world where acceptance is just around the corner, no matter how bad of a person you are. Greendale doesn’t exist; it can’t exist. But the show makes it feel like it’s just around the corner, and if we somehow finally made it there, we’d be among our people. We’d feel, just a bit, at home.
- My first resolution for the new TV season was to not quite go on so much about things, but it wouldn’t be Community if we weren’t talking about the PHILOSOPHICAL UNDERPINNINGS OF THE UNIVERSE (in all-caps). I’ll hopefully pull it back a bit in the weeks to come. Also, hi! It’s good to see you again. I hope you had a good summer. (Next week: 2,500 words on how the writer-commenter on a TV recap experience roughly replicates the sensation of coming back to a TV show after a long while away.)
- Mayhaps the song at the start is spoiling future plot developments, when it says that Jeff and Annie are going to “sleep together?” A million Tumblrs just went wild!
- I’m glad that not only did Jim Rash make the opening credits, but that he’s now actually in the opening credits, instead of just listed as “also starring” after the title sequence. The evolution of TV title sequences over time is one of those things I’m weirdly obsessed with, and this will make for a fun addition to that tradition.
- While I’m glad to have the show back, it was nice to have a little break from Community for a while. I would occasionally drop into the comments section of the finale review from last season and while I admire all of your dedication, goodness. That was some… dedication.
- Troy and Abed are now living together. I was recently on set for the show (on a set visit day meant to get some interviews for another show entirely), and I saw some things in regards to this plot development that are… pretty cool. That’s all I’ll say.
- Chevy Chase is really quite good in the scene where he takes the fall so Jeff can be the good guy again. He’s a little underrated on this show by the fanbase, I think.
- If there’s a character who’s a little underserved by the premiere, it’s Shirley, though I really enjoyed her talk with Starburns about his lizard.
- Also, Leonard wandered through. Hi, Leonard!
- Finally, a note about grades: Since this is all any of you will want to talk about some weeks, here’s how it works. I rate these shows both against their own recent pasts and against what I believe to be their potential. Since last season of Community was damned good, that means I’ll probably be slightly more nitpicky of this season. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the show. It just means that when you can roll out a string of episodes as impressive as “Calligraphy”/”Conspiracies”/”Mixology”/”Christmas” from last year, I hold you to a certain standard. Doesn’t mean I won’t be handing out the A’s, but the show, naturally enough, will have to work harder to surprise me. I think it’s up to the task, and if I give an episode a B or even a… gasp… C, it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving it and, by extension, you. Though you should really take a bath. That might stop the love. (An example: I don’t love tonight’s episode of Parks And Recreation, but I still love the show. And next week’s is a stone-cold classic. So you have that to look forward to. At this point, I’ve seen what that show can do. I want to see more, even as that’s harder and harder to pull off. Also, Louie has REDEFINED WHAT TELEVISION IS CAPABLE OF OVER THE SUMMER, so… no pressure, guys.)
- “We have plenty of linens. We mainly want the things."
- "Are you in a play right now?"
- "I named him Annie’s Boobs. After Annie’s boobs.”
- “Don’t tell the monkey I’m living here.”
- “I know who Sean Penn is! I’ve seen Milk!”
- “If I wanted to run a monkey hotel, I’d install a banana buffet. I’d use vines as elevators, I’d put tailholes in all the bathrobes, and I’d lower all the shower heads.”
- “Spray your solutions all over me.”
- “All hail, Sir Eats Alone!” “Shut up, Leonard. I know all about your prescription socks.”
- “That’s the great thing about British TV. They give you closure.”
- “You are the opposite of Batman.”
- “Where you living now?” “The air vents. Live in the air vents at the school.”
- “You could have lived the rest of your life in blissful ignorance and died a happy pansexual imp.”
- “You look like a white Lou Gossett, Jr.”
- “I guess they share one important feature in your eyes.”
- “I just came by to tell everyone this year isn’t gonna be that different, with the notable exception we won’t really have any money.”
- “You’re lucky I need my scuba certification.”
- “Pierce isn’t crazy. The table. Is. Magic.”
- “Sorry, Starface.”
- “So this is the year we all die.”