The thing is, I wasn’t even supposed to GET this assignment.
Community was the last show we added to our 2009 fall schedule, and I ended up on it pretty much by default. At the time, I was covering just whatever got handed to me, and though everybody at AVC central LIKED the Community pilot, it wasn’t immediately clear how I’d write about an ongoing comedy from week to week. Wouldn’t I, wouldn’t ANYone, eventually run out of things to say? Plus, the premise—wiseass gradually learns to love thanks to a band of lovable rapscallions—seemed like the sort of thing that would run out of juice by episode 13, leaving the show spinning its wheels. We weren’t sure Community would be good enough (or on the air long enough) for us to keep writing about. And would the thing even draw an audience from our readers? To be perfectly honest, I was WAY more excited about covering FlashForward. And we all know how that turned out.
Two seasons on, Community has evolved into not just one of my favorite shows on TV (I’m going to make it, Parks And Recreation, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad hold a rock-paper-scissors off at TCA) but a show that seems to incorporate virtually everything I love about television into one bright, shiny package. It’s a show about disparate people coming together to build something better. (Check.) It’s a show that tries many different types of things and has many different types of episodes. (Check.) It’s a show that isn’t afraid to try wild tonal shifts or get borderline depressing or set aside jokes for dramatic beats. (Check.) It’s a show based less around clear lead characters and more around the idea of an ensemble, one that keeps expanding to encompass more and more people. (Check.) In many ways, Community feels like it’s been pieced together from raw materials it dug out of my own brain.
That’s never been more true than it has in the second season. I’m not trying to denigrate the first season when I say I preferred year two. If you preferred year one, that’s cool. I get where you’re coming from. It was filled with great moments, great episodes, and great stuff. But I’m someone who tends to like watching things evolve, who tends to find it more interesting to watch how things grow and change over time, and season two has been filled with moments like these. Hell, the final act of this episode contains emotional payoffs that have been building for the whole series, payoffs that wouldn’t have been possible a year ago. I know some of you don’t like the show’s turns into forthrightly emotional territory, like “Mixology Certification” or “Critical Film Studies,” but they’re the gas that makes episodes like this one run, the fuel that feeds the fun so that final scene has some sort of feeling behind it.
On paper, it’s not much of a cliffhanger. The group has invited Pierce back, but he’s finally realized that he’ll never quite fit, so he’s left. If I have a complaint about this episode (which I really liked on the whole and might have preferred to last week’s), it’s that final speech from Pierce about how he acts out because he’s afraid of rejection. Occasionally, the characters on this show can speak like they’re on the therapist’s couch, not talking among friends. I mean, yeah, I’ve had deep heart to heart conversations with friends where we get into our own emotional motivations and what not, but it’s rare for people to do it as often as the characters on this show do. While I liked the bit about how Pierce has been coming to Greendale for 12 years and has never hung out with anyone for more than a semester until now, the speech felt a LITTLE obvious. Still, it puts a nice capper on Pierce’s arc for the season: He’s a jerk to people because what he really cares about is Greendale, and Greendale will never reject him (possibly even if he ever didn’t have the money to continue attending). It makes his final actions in winning the paintball war and having the check made out to Greendale all the more intriguing.
The main complaint against “For A Few Paintballs More,” I think, is going to be that it drops the Western motif in favor of something vaguely Star Wars-ish, but it doesn’t seem too interested in Star Wars beyond an opening crawl, a few shots cribbed from the original, and Abed playing Han Solo. But, honestly, this was one of the things I liked about the episode. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to see some sort of full-fledged Star Wars parody (though that’s been done so many times I can see why the show shied away from it), but this episode was, by necessity, much more about Greendale. Abed gets into the spirit of things because he’s Abed, but everybody else (including transfer students Busy Philipps and Dan Byrd) has everything at stake: They’ve destroyed the school that’s given them a second home, and now they have one last crazy gambit to get the money that will make that a non-issue and allow Greendale to continue operating as it has in the past.
This means that the episode largely turns into something between a war movie spoof and another generic action movie parody. But I didn’t mind because the focus was so much on the characters and on the character of Greendale, the school that will take anyone, even a stray cat made human like Pierce. Many of the best sitcoms have been about building places where anyone will belong, where a ragtag band of misfits can take on the world, and Community has kept expanding that circle ever-outward, to the point where it’s easy enough to imagine that this show could be about a random collection of seven OTHER characters who spend all of their time hanging out together and are irritated by Chang and the Dean. The season finale made me realize just how big this “ensemble” has really gotten, just how big the show’s heart is, and just how much everybody in the series is a character, not just a plot point. Even Quendra showed up!
One of my favorite pieces of online film criticism I’ve ever read (one I sadly can’t find to link to you all now) was a piece comparing Knocked Up and Juno, of all things, based on the “openness” of their universes. The idea of an open universe is the idea that pretty much anyone within the universe of that particular work of art could be at the center, and the work of art would still be interesting and well thought-out. The article argued that Juno, which was getting all of the hype at the time, wasn’t as open as Knocked Up because certain characters in it existed solely to either support or tear down the main character. They were ciphers, designed entirely to advance the story and the main character’s arc. Knocked Up, meanwhile, had time for EVERYbody. That made it feel shapeless and too long in places, but it also turned over whole scenes to a doorman at a club who hated his job and so on. It was egalitarian, where Juno was ruthlessly plotted.
My point is that I kind of feel this way about Community now. I’m not going to argue that Leonard, say, is as well-developed a character as any of the main seven (or even as well developed as, say, the Dean), but it’s also sort of clear that the writers COULD do a whole episode about Leonard and Vicki teaming up to solve mysteries with Quendra as their quirky secretary who speaks exclusively in rhyme. They’ve clearly got a lot of affection for everybody that exists in this universe, and the finale is the best expression of that so far. The main character here isn’t Jeff or Britta or Annie or even Greendale itself; it’s the student body and how it comes together to face an external threat. Community is a show that’s endlessly inventive, sure, but unlike other pop culture mash-up shows, it’s also open to all points-of-view and deeply humane. The jokes are great, sure, but the show—even at its clunkiest—really believes that every person that goes to Greendale, even if they seem to exclusively say “Pop pop!” is worthy of our time and attention. When I say the show has “heart,” I don’t mean that it shoehorns in a little speech from the characters about what they learned at the end of each episode; I mean that it really does seem to view all of these people as equals, as potential leads to their own stories.
We’ve talked a lot about other touchstones for Community this season, including The Simpsons, Newsradio, and Arrested Development. Obviously, Community is still on the air and could grow fat and lazy next year and just do whole half hours of Annie and Britta making out or something (A++!), but for its second season, at least, I kind of see where the comparisons come in. Like those shows, this is a series that has constructed its own world with its own comic rules and sensibilities, its own rhythms. It’s a show where anybody could be the lead and no one would bat an eye. There were faltering steps along the way here and there, but the highpoints of season two are as high as any sitcom has ever been, and the low points were episodes that were still very funny and instantly watchable. Years from now, when you’re up in the middle of the night, and you really need to get to bed because the baby’s finally asleep, you might flip on Nick at Nite to see what’s coming up and see that it’s “Critical Film Studies” or “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” or “Cooperative Calligraphy,” and you’re going to stay up because you need to see it one more time. And no matter where you rank this season in the all-time greats, ultimately, that’s the highest praise of all. Not bad for a show I wasn't sure could make it 13 episodes.
Finale grade (both parts): A
Season grade: A
- “JUST TALK ABOUT THE EPISODE, GOD!”: While I think the SEASON FINALE is a good time to talk about the show as a whole, I WILL share that I laughed at this episode a LOT, particularly in that long, delirious opening where Troy was trying to take charge and Magnitude was being felled by a paintbot and Abed was borrowing Starburns’ vest so he could play Han Solo. Great stuff.
- Also, if we’re talking cliffhangers, I like that this is yet another episode to have Annie be highly into a kiss from a man who will immediately become emotionally unavailable to her.
- Even though I was spoiled on the fact that Busy Philipps and Dan Byrd would turn up from press photos, it was still nice to see the Cougar Town two there, even if all they did was chant.
- OK, yeah, I can see the argument that the first two acts felt a little generic and maybe didn’t do enough with the Star Wars motif. But that final act is one of the best pure emotional acts the show has done (minus the minor issues with Pierce’s speech). Lots of shows have done the “the group splits up” cliffhanger, but Community understands both that it’s ultimately a minor event in the grand scheme of things and kind of devastating to the people who sit around that table.
- Season three wishlist: More for Britta (of course) but also more for Shirley, whose baby arc weirdly turned into a Chang arc much of the time. And while we’re at it, I’d like to request an episode with Muppets. Because what the hell, right?
- Top five season two episodes: “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” “Critical Film Studies,” “Cooperative Calligraphy,” “Mixology Certification.” (You have NO IDEA how much it pains me to leave the clip show out.)
- And I watched this on a Slingbox, which doesn’t really allow for rewinding to catch lines, so I missed a lot. As always, fill in your favorites in comments.
- "Why would someone who gets paid to do things be at Greendale?"
- "But if you need to explain it to your men, I understand."
- "You haven't seen how mean this dean can be-ean."
- "Let's not draw this out..."
- "They are an unstoppable jugglenaut."
- "The floor recognizes Magnitude."
- "I'm calling dibs on the Han Solo role before Jeff slouches into it by default."
- "Those guys are ballers, yo. I hope you like getting balled."
- "Our sperm counts are higher... EVEN IN OUR WOMEN."
- "I hope I don't get shot waiting out here. I'd hate to go home to my babies."
- "...which I will have rigged using my super plumbing skills..."
- "Now we have the tactical advantage of the knowledge that Jeff Winger wants to be a ballerina and has the Achilles heel of... weiners."
- "Everyone look alive. Leonard, good enough."
- "There is a place that we will all see each other again, and that is Denny's."
- "Can we move this along? I'm missing C.S.I."
- "Denny's is for winners."
- "Will you still be Han Solo after we die?"
- "Sequels are almost always disappointing."
- "I've seen this behavior before. In cats. My cats."
- "In 5, 4, 3, 2..."