All season long, I’ve been wondering just what Community has been doing. It’s not that I haven’t liked the show or anything like that—far from it. But everything about it has felt… different. Experimental in a way I couldn’t pin down, and not in the way we usually mean experimental when talking about this show. No, this has been a season where the storylines have mostly stayed grounded and down to Earth. Even “Remedial Chaos Theory” is just about some friends having a party and getting pizza. There are no space buses or random psychotic breaks that lead to seeing the world as animated or clip shows that don’t feature actual clips. Instead, there’s a deliberate attempt to make everything far more grounded, and perhaps even more than in the “we’re mixing the heart of season one with the ambition of season two!” boilerplate everybody kept talking about in pre-season interviews about the show.
But then Jeff and Shirley saw their foosball fight boil over into anime, and it hit me. The anime stuff was a very small part of the episode. It was there mostly in a way that anybody who’s ever seen or heard of anime (including me, since I’m not terribly well-versed in the form) could understand. It was a way to heighten an already emotional conflict, then gradually reduce the boil to a simmer. But it wasn’t what the whole episode was about it was just a thing that the show did, and then it went off and did some other things. What Community has been up to all season—in the episodes I’ve loved and the ones I’ve found less successful—has been about switching up some of its storytelling on a molecular level. It’s playing with the formula, seeing if it can move some things around here and move other things there. It’s seeing if you need to have an anime episode if you can just have an anime scene.
And I think that’s a smart move, honestly. If the show kept aiming higher and higher and higher, it would eventually tip over and become a cautionary tale. I was talking with my wife the other night about season fours—Breaking Bad was the subject of our discussion—and how season fours are often about proving that the show can go on for many more years or that it’s only got a little gas left in the tank, but season threes are often about synthesis, about taking everything that’s been learned in the process of making the show so far and seeing if you can’t boil that down into something hard and kind of perfect. (My favorite example of a show doing this will always be Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a show I keep returning to when talking about this one.) If season one of this show was all about saying, “Look what we can do!” and season two was all about saying, “No. Seriously. Look what we can do,” then season three has been about saying, “We can do all of this, but we don’t always have to.”
And that’s been kind of a weird shift to make after the grand, out-there experimentation of season two. The show hasn’t abandoned experimentation entirely, but it’s also trying to make sure that the ratio of ambition to character beats is somewhere back in the realm of Simpsons, season three. I’ll fully admit that I haven’t always been able to roll with those punches, and that I may have under- or overrated things, just because I thought I knew what I was looking at, even as I didn’t. It’s going to be impossible, to a real degree, to know if any of this worked until the season is over. (Despite the fact that I get paid to do it, I find looking at TV on an episode-by-episode basis kind of silly on a critical level. The season level is where I’m more comfortable making pronouncements about quality.) But I love that the show is futzing with what already worked all the same. It’s vaguely brave to court that hardcore fanbase and then say, “Thanks for hanging out, guys. Let’s see if we can’t make the tent just a bit bigger.” (Again, not saying this is a bad thing at all.)
Tonight’s episode does spins on two fairly classic sitcom stories. The first is the sort of thing that you have to do damn well to pull off in this day and age, simply because every show in the world has done some version of it at one point or another, and it’s hard to make it seem believable because nobody on Earth would keep perpetuating the lie and not simply fess up to what happened. Abed and Troy have purchased an elaborate, extra-awesome edition of The Dark Knight, and before they can watch it, Annie steps on it and breaks it accidentally (while dusting the TV). The episode immediately hangs a lantern on the idea that this is a very, very old story idea, one that dates back to I Love Lucy, in TV terms, but to the very roots of storytelling itself if you want to keep going. Troy tells Annie she can’t get away with this because Abed’s seen the episodes where someone tries to do this before, and he’ll catch her in the lie. She’s planning to tell him what happened, but, instead, she concocts a lie about a thief breaking in and taking the DVD and one of her necklaces. It’s stupid. She knows it. Troy knows it. Abed realizes something’s fishy. But he blames the landlord and gets out his Batman costume.
What I liked about this storyline where I might have hated it before was that there were real consequences. Annie’s decision to keep piling on with the lie makes her kind of a bad person, since she implicates the landlord for a crime he didn’t commit—as it turns out, he did steal a bunch of women’s footwear, including a pair of Annie’s shoes, but when the time comes for Annie to fess up, she digs ever deeper, letting Abed call in the cops on the guy. (He did steal all of those shoes…) Where a typical version of this story would have Annie’s lie spiral further and further out there and require more and more crazy complications—you can see this basic plot done very well just about every week on Happy Endings—Community ducked away from the farcical and made things both very strange and oddly realistic. Abed’s Batman act became a kind of crutch, a way to deal with something that had obviously pained him and to set aside the fact that he was starting to realize his friend had done this to him and didn’t know how to confess. (I, personally, read the story as Abed realizing roughly when Annie confesses that, yes, she did it, but he continues to play out the façade because he’s not sure what else to do, and it helps him process whatever he’s feeling.) This isn’t a work of sheer televisual genius or anything, but it does deal with all of these story beats in an honest and forthright manner, which is more than you can say for a plot device that’s inherently unrealistic on its face.
But that story was nothing compared to the terrific Jeff and Shirley tale, one that offers a spin on the old, “These two people knew each other before they were on this particular show, but they didn’t know it.” Shirley turns out to have been a mean hand at foosball back in the day, whereas it was the game that Jeff used to fill his loneliness and inability to connect to people as a kid. When we learn that a young Shirley made some other kid pee his pants while the two were playing foosball, it’s almost immediately obvious that the other kid was Jeff (and I’m glad the show didn’t drag this out). The storyline turns from a pretty goofy way to get Jeff and Shirley into a storyline together—continuing the season’s trend of re-centering Jeff as the main character and finally giving Shirley something to do—into something much more interesting about the ways that the things we suffer in childhood are never quite put behind us and the fact that these are still two people who probably wouldn’t be friends if Abed hadn’t brought Shirley in for the study group back in the pilot.
It should be said that the foosball stuff is funny. The three guys playing the foosball douchebags—including Nick Kroll!—are all very good, and I loved their ridiculous accents. I also liked the way that the show teased foosball bringing out the worst in Jeff and Shirley, finally culminating in that truly awesome anime sequence that then deflated with the “You’re a perfectly fine person!” admissions. One of the nice things about the group is that it gives these seven people a place to start to feel like they’re making progress not just in becoming better people but in truly becoming themselves, and here was a way—albeit a totally contrived sitcom way—for these two people to start to put some of the pains of childhood past behind them.
I often like episodes that have big Shirley storylines because I feel like the show has to do as much as it can to lean over to Shirley and get her into a storyline with Jeff. The two are perhaps the most diametrically opposed characters in the show’s world, and story ideas for them don’t flow naturally. (Has there been another about these two doing something together? The time that Shirley and Jeff enjoyed gossiping together is the only one that comes to mind.) Community has to work to get Shirley into a story, and sometimes, that strain shows. But when it works—as it does beautifully here—it becomes an interesting tale about how being someone’s friend sometimes exposes you to ways of looking at the world that you might not have considered, or how being someone’s friend can reveal that you’re not as different from other people as you might imagine you are.
Look: The fact that Jeff and Shirley played foosball together and had such a big blowup is incredibly coincidental and contrived. But it works because the deeper things it gets at—like the fact that we never truly give up on that childhood pain or the fact that Jeff and Shirley realize they had the same emotions growing up and can now lean on each other—are essentially true. When you talk with a friend and realize you went through some of the same shit as kids or teenagers, it takes away some of that pain and makes it easier to bear. The process of growing up is often about giving up on some of that stuff and realizing that you’re able to rise above it with the help of the friends and family you’ve cultivated along the way. Your issues don’t have to have power over you because other people empower you to rise above them, ideally.
What’s amazing is that Community gets to all of this in an episode that features Abed playing at being Batman and a random anime sequence. And that’s what I mean by playing around with the show’s storytelling DNA above. Not every experiment this season has worked, but if you look at what the show has been doing, it’s just as bold and ambitious as season two, just in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. Community has always been known as a clever show, and that’s because what the show throws at you upfront is that cool cleverness, that sense that it’s just too awesome for words. But when you start to dig down a bit, you see that what it also is is achingly sincere. That’s not always something that’s easy to deal with, but I’m glad that as the show is boiling itself down to something hard and pure, the sincerity is becoming even more evident.
- I’m really disappointed there’s not actually a YouTube channel where Leonard reviews frozen pizzas, even though I completely understand why, legally, such a thing cannot exist. Bring us Leonard reviewing Tombstone! Bring it now!
- Even though there was only a very small amount of Britta in this episode, she still offered up my favorite line of the night with her explanation that she couldn’t buy a cat monocle because it was pretentious.
- I liked the idea that this episode took place over the weekend. I’m not sure why, but I like when the show presents a Greendale that’s not the Greendale we normally know.
- Maybe pushing it a bit far: the little kid Jeff and Shirley walking away from the group at the end.
- Also maybe pushing it a bit far: I get that Batman was Abed’s way of working through stuff, but I’m not sure it was the only way he could forgive Annie. Maybe. Maybe not.
- Credit where it’s due: Alison Brie was hilarious this episode. I loved her attempts to talk like Christian Bale. It’s easy to forget how funny she is when she gets sucked into the schmoopy stuff.
- Congratulations to Jim Rash on winning the National Board of Review award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants. Someday, when he’s Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter, we’ll say we knew him when he was dressing with people in Dalmatian suits.