Community: “Course Listing Unavailable”
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Community: “Course Listing Unavailable”

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Community

“Course Listing Unavailable”

Season 3, Episode 18

The death of someone you kind of know but aren’t really close to is always an odd thing. Beyond sharing your sympathy with that person’s loved ones, it’s never immediately clear what to do. That’s probably why so many people take a death of that sort and make it all about their own problems, their own mortality, their own weird stuff. I grew up in a small town, where everybody kind of knew everybody, so when there was a death, there was always an uncomfortable attempt to properly calibrate the levels of grief. Ramp things up or obsess over yourself too much and you’d seem insincere. Admit that you felt bad about the whole thing but didn’t really know the person all that well, and you could seem like an asshole.

I like a lot of the individual elements in tonight’s episode of Community, but I’m not sure it works all that well as a whole. I’m still not a fan of the “Chang takes over the campus” storyline, and too much time is spent on that and its form of broad comedy. Broad humor can work in this show, but I’m never going to be someone who thinks the best solution for comedy is a crazy riot setpiece that goes on and on and features kids breaking out the pepper spray. In theory, I like the idea that this episode tests the group’s reactions to Greendale first dicking them over, then tossing them out. Greendale is the heart of the show, a place that both forgives and rejects, and the stuff with the characters getting tossed out is an intriguing direction for the show to go.

But if we’re being honest, the last act of this episode just proceeds too rapidly, especially when compared with the Starburns memorial that makes up the entirety of the second act, or the sequence cutting between the study room and the Dean’s office that makes up the first. (An episode shot entirely on existing sets? I smell cost-saving measures!) First, the group talks the Dean out of blaming them for the riot. Then, he’s replaced by the Shadow Dean (which I am going to call him, and you can’t stop me). Then they’re hauled before the board and expelled. Then they get pissed at each other and their situation. Then, there are some callbacks to “Remedial Chaos Theory,” and Troy and Abed make sure the group realizes they’ll be fine because they’re all alive and together. It’s very, very fast, and I’m not sure a single one of the emotional payoffs lands because the show is so anxious to get on to whatever’s next. Presumably it’s setup for something, but what?

It is, in a way, the equivalent of a serialized drama’s “moving the pieces around on the board” episode. Episodes like this place a lot of weight on whatever comes next, because if the conclusion to all of that piece-moving is suitably moving or devastating, it will make everything that came before seem better in retrospect. (The example I always like to use is Lost’s “Follow The Leader,” which is a messy episode of television, but it leads into the absolute insanity of the fifth season finale, so all is forgiven. Perhaps a better one would be the entirety of Justified’s third season, which was a good—if cluttered—season of television and full of piece-moving episodes that became great because of a tremendous season finale.) I haven’t been entirely sure about Community’s experiments in serialization this season, but I’ve been playing wait-and-see. This is the first episode that makes me think such elements were probably did more harm than they were worth, but, of course, if the final four episodes are any good, they’ll make all of these concerns moot.

Serialization in comedies is a hard thing to pin down. Since television comedies need plot so little, serialization—which is very, very dependent on plot—has been the sort of thing they haven’t tried much of. For the most part, TV comedy serialization is done via very loose character and story arcs—Sam and Diane start dating; Dunder Mifflin is having financial troubles; Jerry and George are doing a TV pilot. There’s nothing there as ambitious as anything you might see on a serialized drama. Even the most serialized of them—that Seinfeld plot—is something that was more an overriding concern for the season than it was an ongoing arc. It dropped in every few episodes, and when it wasn’t present, nobody seemed to care very much about it.

I find it fascinating that both Community and Parks & Recreation have launched intricate, season-long storylines this season, and that those storylines have created situations where the shows struggle under their weight, even as they allow for all manner of forgiveness from fans. For instance: Last week’s episode featured several scenes where Troy seemed irritated with Abed taking the lead in the Law & Order scenario they were playing out. Finally, the show was dealing with the repercussions of the pillow fort episodes! Or was it? Did anybody intend for us to read things that way, or were we just reading into it because we could? Serialization is kind of a crutch in that way, because it allows TV writers to hand-wave away stuff we might otherwise wonder about. Tonight has another example of this: When Troy and Abed pull the group back together with their concluding speech, is that paying off of their pillow fort war or Abed’s growing sense of empathy, or is it just a convenient way to end a down episode on an up note? Just how much can you say, “Oh, they have a plan” before you’re creating plans that don’t exist?

I don’t want to sound too down on the episode. There’s plenty of good stuff in the non-Chang scenes, though the group’s sheer anger over having to attend summer school on a technicality felt a little forced. (That said, I liked Annie and Pierce’s angry speeches the best, and the episode really cemented what a strong back half of the season Alison Brie is having.) The first act was some strong stuff, with Britta’s attempts to help the group cope mostly going very awry (in amusing fashion) and the Dean’s realization that he was going to have to break more bad news to “Jeff and the group” being one of my  favorite gags of the episode. I also liked Garrett singing “Ave Maria” and the content of the final scene in Troy and Abed’s apartment, even if the story placement of it was a little wacky. And it’s hard to go wrong with a Starburns death montage using entirely greenscreen footage.

But even here, I find myself wondering just what we’re trying to get at. Britta’s been shown to be at least semi-competent in several earlier episodes, so why is she suddenly the worst grief counselor ever? What’s up with Jeff’s emotional overwroughtness this season? You can say that both of these things are isolated gags that are there to drive comedy, and I’d mostly agree with that. It’s funny to watch Britta screw things up, and it’s funny to see the normally cynical Jeff realize how much he cares about something—even if he cares about it in the sense of not wanting to have to do it. But you can’t introduce these one-scene/one-episode ideas, but also suggest the whole season is building toward something. That makes it seem more suspect when Britta was bumbling but basically competent in previous episodes, but is now getting everyone to envision puppies on fire. It’s funny, but for what?

If this all sounds like I’m being needlessly hard on the show, I am. As stated, if everything wraps up in two weeks (two weeks!) in a way that pulls together all of the plot threads from the season and makes them work, we probably won’t worry too much about some of the weaker episodes that got us there. It’s worked for many a drama series, and it can work for this show and Parks & Rec. I chuckled quite a few times at “Course Listing Unavailable,” and if it wasn’t the funniest episode of the season (by a long shot), it still offered some interesting moments and some good gags. If the show sticks the landing, then future viewings of this season on DVD will put much less weight on this episode, allowing it to stand alongside the season’s other half hours as more or less equal.

But at the same time, I found myself wanting more space, wanting everything to feel less cluttered. I opened this piece up by talking about death, and I think it’s telling that in an episode in which a somewhat major recurring character dies, his death is almost incidental. That’s a really funny idea if handled properly, but it gets buried under a bunch of plot mechanics. There’s a reason that TV comedies so rarely do heavily plotted stuff, and that’s because every second you spend laying out the plot is a second you spend not telling jokes. Comedy arises from spontaneity, and having a rock-solid plan is the enemy of that. I wanted more time to breathe. I wanted more time to not mourn Starburns.

Stray observations:

  • This is the rare case where I talked myself down on a grade as I wrote something. Since I know you all love to talk grading more than anything else, please tell me just how wrong I am. With impunity.
  • Focusing so much of the late season escapades on Chang’s army just strikes me as a really, really dangerous idea, since it could so easily blow up. Maybe it won’t, but that’s two episodes that have focused heavily on the device that I haven’t liked as well as the others.
  • I liked every single joke about the lizard, but I especially liked how sad Troy was by the lizard’s death.
  • This was another good Shirley episode. I liked her response to the Dean asking if she wanted to sing something, then her attempts to find something nice to say about Starburns.
  • Joel McHale saying “Starburns” as two words is never going to stop being amusing to me. I wonder if that’s intentional, or if he just has trouble saying it as one word?
  • I think it’s telling that my biggest laugh, however, came from the pizza guy saying, “There are other timelines?” again. I love that pizza guy. He should become the character who gets a spinoff.
  • Well, folks, we’re down to the last two weeks of the season, and I’d be very surprised if we don’t have some indication of whether the show is coming back or not next week. I continue to think the odds are stacked in favor of the series’ renewal (because it’s held up fairly well against the onslaught of daylight savings time, all things considered), and I’d even go so far as to say the odds favor the show’s renewal about 85/15. But I’m not going to lie and say it’s certain. If the show’s canceled, we’ll know going into the season finale, so at least I will have ample time to prepare a 50,000 word eulogy. Then we’ll turn the comments section into some weird Viking funeral pyre and set everything on fire. 2012!