Community's only been gone for three weeks, but man, I've missed it. I don't think the show is perfect just yet, but it's rare to see a series that is figuring out just what it wants to be in such a consistent and satisfying manner. Even the episodes I don't think work on a story level make me laugh a whole lot, and the vast majority of them work on both the story and laughs level. If I seem hard on the show sometimes, it's only because I think this show has the potential to be one of the greatest TV comedies of all time, and I really love every step it takes closer to that post, to not merely being on the level of the best comedies on right now but on the level of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Cheers or Seinfeld.
But enough about how much I love the show. I think I talk about that every week. Let's talk more about how this episode was terrific. What I love about Community is the way it seems to experiment with being a different kind of show every week, the way it feels free to gallivant about between different genres and types of shows but still stay fundamentally itself. "Contemporary American Poultry" was recognizably an episode of Community. It was, after all, an elaborate Goodfellas parody, executed with panache and featuring Abed in the role of Henry Hill. But it wasn't just that. It also worked pretty well as a mafia story in and of itself, of a group that comes to power and then finds that power splintering the group apart.
I talked a little bit last time about how the show's use of pop culture references isn't dependent on the viewer having seen the things being referenced. I don't know that I could say this of this episode. I'm sure that someone who's never seen Goodfellas would still find plenty of stuff to laugh at here, but I don't know that the episode would wholly work if you weren't well versed in the Scorsese film. That said, who isn't well versed in the Scorsese film? And who didn't love the way the show both played off of that storyline and made it its own? This manages to stay nicely on the parody line of the parody/ripoff line, particularly because it ties in to a phenomenon that's real on campuses (of all sorts) across the countries: Chicken fingers are in high demand.
I don't think I've seen an episode of a scripted series that reveals this central fact of our educational culture (though there was an extended and rather gross scene where Jamie Oliver made chicken nuggets on his show a couple of weeks ago). And it's a good example of how the show's gags often work on a variety of levels. The central storyline is, sure, a movie parody and an elaborately constructed one. The scene where Abed sends everyone a message is probably funny to you if you haven't seen Goodfellas, but it becomes even funnier when you know just why the piano outro from "Layla" is playing. Then, at the same time, this plays off of observational humor about campus life, about something that lots of people may have noticed but may have never thought to make this particular joke about. (Chicken fingers as drugs in a complicated underground community college mafia? Awesome.)
There's also plenty of room for little goofy jokes to split off of this main storyline as well, like Jeff realizing the thing he does with his hand to shut everyone up doesn't work or the name of Troy's monkey or Abed's lengthy dissertation on why he's supplanted Jeff. If you're tired of one joke, the show is always on to another, and if that joke doesn't land for you, there will be another one along in a moment, probably one that comes from a certain type of joke that works more consistently for you than some other jokes might. This extends to the characters as well. An Abed episode is often more pop culture reference heavy than, say, a Britta episode, but each are capable of many different types of jokes.
And, in the end, what makes the show work best for me is the fact that it's almost perfectly captured the voices of its characters. There's no question from episode to episode that the series is capable of many, many things, but what makes it all worth following is how it manages to find a way to balance all of this with character moments that are genuinely winning and sweet. Sure, this episode is a mafia movie, but it's also a story of how the group changes when Jeff's not in charge, how he's actually a pretty good person underneath all of his bluster and how he tries to hide that fact, how Abed is able to shift and mold his persona to fit the occasion. The best way to tell that a comedy is clicking is to figure out if a line from one character could come from any other character. Community isn't full of interchangeable joke machines. It's full of very real, very funny people, and they all have something to say.
- Look, I like 30 Rock still, but no new Parks and Recreation? Makes me want to kill something.
- Nice character moment: When Jeff is sort of becoming the Abed of the group and is trying to make a cultural reference that pertains to evil robots and/or computers.
- I loved that scene with the giant poster board that shows all of the members of the gang with Abed's notes on their likes, needs and functions, but it was never on screen long enough to really dissect. Here's Gillian Jacobs' photo of the Britta portion, which gives you a sense of how amusing it was.
- Also, the props department on this show is aces. It's not often that you see a show that puts THIS much care into making all of the background jokes as amusing as this one does, but there are some damn funny posters hanging on the walls of Greendale. Personal favorite? "FASCISM: Does Not Compute!" with two '80s-style robots on it.
- I also liked seeing that Leonard was one of the people in the new chicken finger syndicate.
- OK, and I laughed really hard at the final Troy and Abed gag. I liked the fact that they thought what they were doing was so obviously awesome.
- "I thought it was a class about crazy farm animals, all right?"
- "Streets ahead is verbal wildfire."
- "If it was cool to eat God, he'd be a chicken finger."
- "I've gotta stop hanging out with her. She sounds like a chicken finger."
- "At that moment, we stopped being a family and started being a family ... in italics."
- "It's an animal that looks like a dude. Why don't I have ten of them?"
- "More insane than programming them to replace auto workers?" "What?"
- "You're not tired of chicken. You miss the taste of control."
- "For your information, I don't have an ego. My Facebook photo is a landscape."
- "Can we make this quick? I have to give a banana to Annie's Boobs."
- "You wanna boss me around? Get me an entourage! Get Troy a monkey! That's what a real boss does."
- "I caught him stuffing my man full of chicken and Tyler Perry has a whole series of movies about why that's wrong."