Tonight’s Community hit a lot of predictable targets, stories that many, many, many other sitcoms have done before (and often done very well). Let’s see if we can rattle ‘em off here. You had mockery of lame anti-drug presentations. There was one character giving another character money and that causing conflict between them. There was one character sending text messages under the guise of being another character and getting in over their head because of that. And then there was the guy nobody likes trying to win respect within the group (specifically the mother of his unborn child). OK, maybe that last one didn’t pop up too often on Petticoat Junction, but variations on these plotlines are as old as comedy itself. Perhaps even odder, the show didn’t really do a lot to acknowledge that, yeah, the stories it was telling this time around are old, old ones, ones you’ve seen lots of times before. (Sure, they didn’t have texting for most of the history of the sitcom, but storylines about, say, someone sending letters to a mysterious suitor who turns out to be another one of the characters playing a joke are an old device.)
The question then becomes if you enjoy hanging out with the characters enough to find the half hour’s plotting being sort of cliché not such a big deal. Obviously, I really like these characters, and I thought there were a lot of strong jokes in the episode, but it wasn’t enough to dispel some of the familiarity around the edges. I mean, I love having a Pierce storyline, and I thought having him take over the assembly to inadvertently make it seem to be expressing a POSITIVE message about using drugs was a nice way to both twist that storyline just a bit and acknowledge the neediness at the heart of the character. But I could have done without all of the scenes where he reminded Annie of how he paid her rent and, thus, weaseling his way even further into her good graces. Those had a very rote quality to them, as if the show was just racing to get through them.
The thing is, I really like the character dynamic this is based on. Pierce is a showboat. He’s someone who wants to be the center of attention but rarely gets to be. (If you’ve ever seen the Community cast in the flesh, you’ll know that this particular trait is very similar to how Chevy Chase often acts in real life when in front of an audience.) It’s tempting to say that this is because Pierce is an old man, and life has passed him by, leaving him without anyone listening to what he has to say. But the footage Pierce watches of the old commercial he was in when he was a kid proves that he kept butting into the foreground even back then, when everybody involved probably would have rather had him in the background all along. What Community’s done with Chase is fairly interesting. They’ve basically asked him to play himself as Chevy Chase if Chevy Chase had never pursued his dreams or had never gotten his big break. This means Pierce can be kind of irritating from time to time, but he can also take a sharp turn into borderline tragedy. He’s a very sad man, much of the time, and that’s why the rest of the group is willing to put up with his less likable tendencies.
So it makes sense to toss him in a storyline with Annie, who’s always the most forgiving of the other characters. I’ve enjoyed the way the show has played her stabs at independence this season, her attempts to break away from her parents and everybody else who’s coddled her and forge her own identity. That’s the core of the show, really, and I’ve liked that we’ve gotten this in bits and pieces. (The argument that this show is too on-the-nose with character development strikes me as wrong-headed, because the character development we get tends to happen in fits and starts.) Still, she’s up against the fact that she can’t pay her rent, and Pierce is rich, and all he wants is one line in the play, so what could go wrong, right?
Now, obviously, if you’ve seen a sitcom ever before, you’ll know that plenty could go wrong. Pierce is clearly the type who will hold the money he’s given Annie over her head, and Annie’s clearly the type who would feel guilty about what he’s done for her and let him get away with things she wouldn’t normally let him get away with. Combine this with the idea of Pierce then playing “drugs” in front of the at-risk kids at the assembly, and you have a recipe for something that could be very amusing. And the scenes where Pierce takes over the assembly (particularly the other characters’ reactions to his mugging need for the kids’ laughter) are funny, yes. But everything around them, everything with Annie trying to reconcile her vision with the pressure Pierce puts on her, feels rather rote. I mean, yeah, this is something that happens between friends in real life, but Community’s usually a little cleverer about lifting these sorts of plots you’ve seen millions of times before.
Fortunately, I liked the other stuff well enough that the fact that the main plot was pretty blasé didn’t bother me too much. Yes, every other show has done a “uh oh, we’re texting someone who thinks we’re someone else!” plot at this point, but I liked the execution here, with Jeff and Abed causing Britta’s nephew, Marcus, to lust for his aunt. Having Britta be the target here is what makes everything so funny, and this sort of mistaken identity plot is almost always amusing to me. It doesn’t hurt that Joel McHale and Danny Pudi play the whole thing with a big wink, nor does it hurt that Jeff eventually is force to grovel before Marcus by telling even more lies that would make Britta even angrier. Sometimes, stuff like this is just funny, even if you’ve heard it before, and I felt that way about this plot.
Chang’s attempts to get Shirley’s attention and get her to talk about the fact that she may be carrying his child were less a storyline than a simple runner, but I do like that the show is playing out the full implications of this particular storyline. (Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that Community tends to play its more serialized elements like this, relegating them to the sidelines of the episodes, but keeping them there for the hardcore fans who watch every week? I think it’s a pretty smart structure, certainly better than having the soapier stuff briefly take over an episode every so often, as most other shows do it. It also signifies that the characters’ emotions are always present, even underneath the wackier stuff.) Having the storyline eventually intersect with the drug awareness assembly also worked, as it acknowledged that Chang is basically the flipside of Pierce anyway. Pierce acts out to get something like love and attention; Chang acts out to antagonize, and having him be the only way to get the kids to stop chanting for drugs was a nice choice.
Then we come to the content of the assembly itself. Sure, lame-ass drug awareness warnings are a dime a dozen nowadays, but just seeing these characters dressed as bees or “cool cats” (or that inexplicable green crayon get-up for Shirley) was fun, and the few snippets we got of the assembly walked the line between believability and ridiculousness pretty well. Plus, it’s always nice to see these characters all doing something together. But at the same time, something about this just didn’t hang together for me as well as I would have liked. I’m usually a sucker for the group hug moments at the end of each episode, but this was the first one this season where it felt forced to me (perhaps because everybody was hugging Chang, something that felt weirdly wrong). The episode itself was funny, and I liked parts of it, but they ultimately didn’t add up to a satisfying whole. Granted, this show can get away with that, but it still feels like many of the ideas here were undercooked and over-obvious.
- This episode was directed by one of my sitcom heroes, Fred Goss, who’s been wandering in the wilderness for far too long. (He directed Sons & Daughters, which I went on about at length here.) Here’s hoping Community brings him back to direct a few more episodes.
- Good Dean Pelton: Being dressed up in a bee costume just incidentally, since he’s got business in a bee costume that evening. Bad Dean Pelton: The continued obsession with Jeff, which is less funny every time (though maybe it will loop back around to being funny again).
- My Slingbox often garbles dialogue and stuff. Does Annie really live right above a store called Dongopolis?
- "Does marijuana make people work faster? I thought it just made them custom paint their van and solve mysteries."
- "You don't count, Britta. You don't respond to anything appropriately."
- "As you can see from my outfit, I already have plans. Off to the airport Ramada!"
- "I made you a mix tape. Hope you like Johnny Gill."
- "I don't get it. Aren't everyone's parents rich."
- "You save your eggs for a rainy day."
- "He sent her an emotipenis. What are we gonna do?"
- "You ignore me because I'm Korean?" "You're Chinese." "There's a difference?"
- "Look! It's drugs, with a crazy wig and sparklers!"
- "The only reason we did this was for you and your stupid ideals!"
- "Here's the situation. We've got 50 at-risk pre-teens, armed with baseballs, chanting for drugs, who just spent intermission eating nothing but Charleston Chews, thank God."