Just under 4 million people watched Community last week, give or take. Just over 3.5 million watched Fringe last week, give or take. And yet I suspect the number of people who laughed as they gradually realized that the two Model UNs facing off in tonight’s episode were a “Red Model UN” and a “Blue Model UN” was a surprising percentage of the viewership. There may not seem to be a massive crossover between a goofy sitcom about people going to community college and a science fiction series about two universes at war, but I’d wager the overlap is bigger than most people would expect it to be. It gets that way when you get down to the most passionate of the passionate: There tend to be a lot of TV diehards who get really into the shows that are never going to land that mass audience.
This helps the shows, of course. Fringe is still alive because viewers followed it to Friday nights, against all odds. (If I were a betting man, I’d wager Community will have to see how many diehard fans it can bring with it in a night or timeslot move at some point this season.) And it gives those show a disproportionate amount of influence on TV sites like this one, the kind of place where the diehards can come and dissect every angle. While Big Bang Theory and X Factor eat into Community’s audience totals, you wouldn’t know it from visiting most TV sites, where the show is held up as one of the best show’s you’re not watching, even though sites like these typically cater to, well, the sorts of people who already are watching Community. To watch the show at this point is to pre-emptively bristle at the questions we’re all going to get five years down the line about why we never told the person who’s just checking the show out on Netflix about the show back when it was running. (I TOLD YOU ABOUT ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT ALL THE TIME, IDIOT! Sorry. Still having trouble letting that one go.)
All of this is to say that when a show reaches a point like this—the hunker down, wait for the numbers to come in and quietly weep as you do so point—there’s a curious reaction in diehard fans. One half is inevitably going to cling to every single thing the show does and proclaim it the best ever and bemoan the world that isn’t watching the show, even as they are. And the other half is going to let go of the show ahead of time, either convincing itself it doesn’t like what’s on screen, despite laughter or story investment or whatever, or just deciding that it’s time to let the thing go and leave well enough alone. (This, incidentally, was my exact attitude during the final season of Arrested Development, a kind of relief at no longer having to care as much as I had.) You can already see these schisms developing in the Community fandom, which makes it awfully hard to just step back and say that an episode like “Geography of Global Conflict” was pretty good but often flawed. It either must be the best ever or a sign that the show is failing, and we should be ready to let it go.
Annie’s discovered that one of her classmates in some sort of history class is, essentially, her Asian evil twin, Annie Kim. Annie Kim is just as into the sorts of perfect geek girl things as Annie is, and when Annie offhandedly mentions that she would like to start a Model U.N., Annie Kim takes the idea and runs with it, presenting the idea to Professor Cligoris, Model U.N. aficionado. (The professor is played by Martin Starr, who’s always good at these sorts of enthusiastic dork roles and fits in perfectly with the show’s ensemble.) Our Annie, of course, rages at this idea, which prompts her and Jeff to storm the class and set up a rival Model U.N., causing Cligoris to decide that he’ll set up a competition between the two, the rules of which he’ll spend the evening devising. The next day, the study group, sans Britta (who’s off in her own storyline), takes on the other Model U.N. (the “red” one) in the Model U.N.-off, which is moderated by Garrett and judged by Cligoris. You can imagine about how well this goes.
I’m a big fan of episodes of sitcoms where one character meets a doppelganger or—even better—where one character meets a series of doppelgangers for the whole cast. One of the few late-period Seinfeld episodes I wholeheartedly endorse is “The Bizarro,” and I’ve been tickled just about every time a show tries something like this. It’s often a fun way for a series to comment on itself and its actors without stepping on the “meta” line too heavily. “Global Conflict” doesn’t really do this, instead pitching Annie Kim as Annie Edison’s evil twin (and not really bothering to do anything with the people in her Model U.N.), but it still gets back to one of the things at the heart of Annie’s character. Annie wants things to go right so badly that she tends to lose focus when they don’t, something that can cause her to fall apart completely and utterly. Annie was originally pitched as “Little Miss Perfect,” and while the writers have skewed away from that since the early episodes, there’s still that element of her at the core. She may have gone to college and realized she was really good-looking and all of that, but Annie still most wants to impress people at her core.
It also goes without saying that I’m a big fan of episodes of Community where we get to see the whole group hang out and toss jokes back and forth. And we got a number of these in this episode, starting with the scene around the study group table (complete with emphatic Britta hand gestures and Abed following those hands with his head) and building to the Model U.N. scenes. Not every one of these scenes worked—in particular, I felt like the climax was a mixed bag—but enough of them did to remind me of why this ensemble works so well together. This was decidedly an Annie and Britta episode, but it wasn’t so emphatically an episode about them as, say, last week’s episode was about Jeff. This was a good chance to ease back into the group dynamics that have always defined the show and offer up something as gloriously ridiculous as Troy realizing Georgia was a country of its own but still deciding to do the Southern accent (a great undercutting of the old “there’s a country named Georgia?!” gag) or as sweet as the group deciding to jump in and play Spartacus when Annie tries to take credit for the fart (which may or may not have actually been Jeff’s).
Now we get to the part that doesn’t work as well: the Jeff and Annie part. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the Jeff and Annie relationship, but if the show is going to go ahead and do it, I wish it would just do it. All of the attempts to make it not seem creepy by hanging a lantern on just how creepy it all is have, instead, just made it seem creepy. Joel McHale and Alison Brie are attractive people. Sometimes, attractive people kiss on the TV set. The relationship would only have to be weird if the show made it weird, and that the whole episode pivoted on Jeff calling her “kiddo” and the like—something he’s done before but something that was deliberately highlighted for this episode—made it feel all the stranger. Maybe that’s what the show is going for. Maybe it actively wants to rub our noses in how uncomfortable all of this is. But I think what it’s trying to do is introduce believable conflict into what’s a fairly inevitable hook-up at this point, and it’s, instead, choosing to make realistic something that need not be realistic. Romanticism, after all, is sort of the opposite of realism.
This leads into the climax, which has one really good gag—Cligoris’ line about how the largely symbolic act of Earth 1 trying to make peace with Earth 2 was just like the real U.N.—and then some other strained stuff. It’s not that nothing was funny; the episode just seemed a little too intent on wrapping everything up and making sure the B-story intersected with everything else that was going on. And when Britta raced into the room, covered in Barbie dolls and ranting about something or other, the episode took a step too far toward the cartoon-y, something it had mostly avoided up until that point. I more or less got what the Britta and Chang B-plot was trying to do, and I quite enjoyed some of its earlier scenes, but intersecting both storylines at the end caused both of them to become muddled and messy.
Backing up, I enjoyed seeing Britta get a storyline of her own, even if it stranded her off on her own little island. (Doesn’t it seem like she’d be all about patronizingly helping Annie along in her Model U.N. plan?) I think Gillian Jacobs is a very talented physical comedienne, and the scene where she ate the warning Chang gave her might have been the comedic highlight for me. While I liked the subversion of the romantic comedy plotline (complete with Lionel Richie) to be about a cop who meets his first hippie protestor, it was kind of a one-joke premise: Once you figured out what the show was doing, it didn’t really have anywhere else to go, and that left it repeating the same gag over and over, forced to take it bigger and bigger until it didn’t have anywhere big but still believable to go. Once Britta’s dumped red paint all over a globe and been forced to confront the fact that she’s no more a dangerous protestor than Chang is a cop, where else is there to go? This results in Britta racing into the Model U.N.-off and dancing around like a crazy person, and it results in everything building to a fever pitch when it maybe hasn’t quite earned it.
All in all, I like what this season is trying to do thematically—as it seems to be asking the characters on the show to both focus on who they believe they are and who Greendale has actually shown them to be. Both the Annie and Britta storylines fit in with this effort, as did last week’s Jeff storyline. But there’s also an almost frantic attempt to not be too strange or too goofy or too weird. I mean, yes, this is a TV show that can end with Annie invading another universe (on stage), so it’s never going to be the most normal show on television, but in this episode, at least, it almost feels as if the show is tying one of its own hands behind its back, attempting to smile and please the massive crowds while hoping those who loved it in the first place will stick around. And of course we will! That’s what we do. But at the same time, there’s the ever creeping fear that this might be the last season of this show we’ll ever get, the need to either let the thing go or pull it even closer until it’s forcibly taken away from us, and when an episode ends with a woman in Barbie dolls getting Tased in a romantic comedy parody that’s simultaneously trying too hard (to be wacky) and not trying hard enough (to subvert the clichés it’s sending up even further), well, it starts to maybe feel like a little more of a letdown than it actually is.
- Here’s as good a place as any to make this plea: Watch this show (and Parks & Recreation and Cougar Town and Fringe and…) live. I know you think you don’t count if you don’t have a Nielsen box. And you don’t. Not directly. But the idea behind Nielsens is that other people like you will watch live, will get drawn in. Watch the show. Talk about how you watch it. Talk about what time it’s on. You never know when you’re going to motivate a Nielsen viewer, and that will bump the show’s ratings up a touch. Community’s on a network mired in last place of the big four. This is a network that has other, bigger problems. If we can boost the show’s numbers just enough that it’s one of the network’s lesser problem spots, we’ll have this show for probably years to come. Watch it live. Watch it on Hulu the next day. DVR it if you must but don’t skip the commercials. To save the show will require getting in full-on “save this show” mode early, and even if that makes us annoying, so be it. It’d be worth it to see the series reach at least its most natural end point—the end of a fourth season.
- I really enjoyed Chang’s scenes with his boss, particularly the argument about what you call the “stick” that keeps people from leaving a parking lot.
- Pierce was also very funny in this episode, in his usual incorrigible old bastard role. His racism and misogyny were downright delightful, I say. Downright delightful.
- I’ve never been involved in Model U.N. Is it as boring and prone to people shouting “CRISIS!” as it’s portrayed here?
- Yvette Nicole Brown continues to be very funny in limited screentime, tonight making tremendous work of the line “I farted.”
- Tonight’s writer is Andy Bobrow, credited for the script for “Mixology Certification,” which may explain my relatively muted reaction to this one. Expectations!
- I don’t quite know how to explain this, but it very much feels like the show has returned to having Joel McHale as its unquestioned lead. Last season, he’d sometimes get a little lost in the shuffle, and this season, he’s very much at the front and center of most things that happen. It’s an interesting development, and it spurs some of the season’s “back to season one” feel. The problem for the show will be making it seem as though we needed to go back to season one, that going back won’t stunt the show’s development somehow. On the other hand, it’s ridiculously early to worry about any of this, as Community seasons tend to be growers.
- "How's my smile?"
- "How progressive of you to have a multi-cultural evil twin."
- "Not Asians! Women!"
- "Don't worry. She'll be bad at it."
- "Don't research this."
- "The rules to which... I would have to spend the evening devising."
- "Uruguay kindly requests that Somalia stops pronouncing it Ur-a-gay."
- "It's like a gate, but it's just a stick."
- "Okay, that made me sound creepy. But here's the thing..."