"Mixology Certification" takes almost everything that most people would jump to when trying to describe Community and tosses it in the trash. There are remarkably few pop culture references, since Abed is sidelined early. The cast mostly sticks together in the same storyline (though they pop off into their own story beats within that storyline). Even the central setting of the show of Greendale Community College is left behind early on. Basically, "Mixology Certification" is an "everybody goes to the bar!" episode of Community, and while field trips on sitcoms always make me a little leery, what the show ended up with was sweet and sad and just a little sentimental. It's one of my favorite episodes the show's ever done (yeah, yeah, I'm saying that weekly now), but I half expect lots of people to just hate it because of how thoroughly it wears its heart on its sleeve.
It's Troy's birthday. Since he's a Jehovah's Witness and doesn't celebrate birthdays, his party is hilariously vague (I loved the scrawl of almost birthday-related but not QUITE birthday-related words on his cake), and the whole first scene is a delightful study room scene, just letting the characters ping off of each other and letting Chevy Chase destroy the cake. Through a variety of contrivances, it turns out that Troy is mistaken, and he's actually celebrating his 21st birthday, not his 20th (see, his mom told him he was 10 twice because he repeated the fourth grade). And, of course, this being America and Jeff and Britta being Jeff and Britta, that means Troy has to go out and get hammered at a local bar, one of those grand college rites of passage. Annie's 19, though, so Britta gets her a fake from a friend who collects old IDs, making Annie Caroline Decker from Corpus Christi, Texas, for the rest of the night.
And, really, that's about it. There's some business about whether the gang is going to go to Jeff's favored haunt, L Street, or Britta's favorite bar, The Red Door (see, L Street is douchey, but The Red Door is for hipsters), but the rest of the episode is just the characters being the characters in a setting where we're not familiar with them. The show has spent so much time expanding the world of Greendale that it's always fascinating to watch these people escape that orbit and end up in some other world entirely, which they've done a couple of times this season. But where the lawyer gathering back in episode two was very much of a piece with the things that happen at Greendale, the bar the gang ends up at, The Ballroom, is pretty much just a bar, where people hit on each other and the bartender will listen to your sad, sad stories. Every character gets his or her own moment in this episode, so let's break things down storyline by storyline, since we haven't done that in a while.
Troy: Troy's the stealth lead of this episode. It's his birthday, after all, and he's ready to be 21, to be a man and learn everything there is to know about alcohol and women and all of those good things. But as the night wears on and he waits longer and longer for midnight, he sees the ways that his friends descend more and more into drunkenness, leaving him to be the only responsible one who can take care of everybody. Troy's usually sweet and a little dumb, but I'm intrigued by the way the show has made him more and more of a traditional hero figure this season. He's cool enough to hang plausibly with Jeff, but he's indulgent enough to have his best friendship be with Abed. There's something very solid about Troy, something that makes him a kind of glue that holds all of these disparate friends together that makes me think of all of the characters, he's the one the show would be most hurt by having to write out. (Pity, then, that Donald Glover is almost certainly going to hit it big in a movie any day now and end up being lured by the big bucks of Hollywood. Time-travelin' TV Club from 2015 is here to say, "DON'T DO IT, DONALD!")
Anyway, Troy's the one who talks Annie through her sudden crisis of confidence and makes sure everybody gets home safely. When he, Jeff, and Britta make Shirley sad, he's the only one who sees that it's going too far, too quickly. And when he sees just how shit-faced and depressed Annie and Abed seem to be getting, not to mention how out of it Jeff and Britta seem to be, he takes on the role of the leader of the group without question, getting everybody to Jeff's car and making sure everyone ends up in the right place. The overall arc of "Mixology" seems to be traditional comic capers that resolve themselves in unexpectedly somber ways, and Troy's the person making sure all of the resolutions head in the right directions.
Abed: There's little to the Abed story, but it's a good one, nonetheless. Abed's playing Asteroids at the bar, when he's approached by a guy who can quote both Last Starfighter and Farscape chapter and verse (played, Twitter tells me, by Paul F. Tompkins). As it turns out, he's trying to hook up with Abed, but Abed's uninterested. He just likes talking about Farscape. So the drink gets thrown in Abed's face, the guy says Stargate was better anyway (lies!), and Abed's left alone, waiting for Troy to take him home. As I said, there's not a lot to this, but I like the way that it suggests how lonely a lot of life can be for Abed, who probably couldn't have a conversation about Farscape this intense with anyone in the group. And yet the group is the place where he's most accepted, where he can still be himself, even if they, like Jeff and Britta do tonight, sometimes ignore him.
Pierce: If there's little to the Abed story, there's even less to the Pierce story. The guy gets stuck in a door, unwilling to ask the doorman to help him get through it. After the battery on his wheelchair runs out of juice, he's simply sitting there, waiting to be moved, which Shirley eventually has to do after she storms out of the bar. As always, Pierce's storyline is fairly broad comic relief, but it ties in to the episode's larger themes about how these people continue to question who they are and the ways the group builds and reinforces connections between them.
Annie: Annie, convinced that her fake ID is going to be called into question by the people at the bar and not reassured by Britta's suggestion that she's a hot girl and, thus, a cinch to get in, spends the entire ride over to the bar trying to build an identity for the drivers license she now holds, for one Caroline Decker, of Corpus Christi, Texas. It starts with Annie adopting a surprisingly plausible accent (perhaps this is yet another secret skill of Alison Brie's), then building an entire persona of Caroline as her exact opposite, a drifter who doesn't have her life planned out down to the smallest of items. As the night wears on and Annie continues the absurd Caroline persona, she eventually switches from root beers to screwdrivers, leading her to pontificate more and more about how fun her life is as Caroline and how much ANNIE has her life planned out. It's all a little bizarre, and I'm impressed by how far the show was able to push this gimmick to find emotional truth. The end, where Troy and Annie talk about who she is to him, is one of the sweetest scenes the show has ever done. There have been episodes this season where I don't think the Annie character has completely worked, but this episode very much returned her to her essence as a girl who tries hard because she doesn't know what else to do with herself.
Shirley: One of the other major drives of the season has been to deepen Shirley as a character, to push past the "That's nice!" person she was in the first season and find the roots of the anger she obviously carries with her but manages to tamp down at almost all times. Why is Shirley so vehemently opposed to going to The Ballroom? Why does she suggest the gang go to a big, chain-type bar, with plastic menus and non-alcoholic mudslides (which are just milkshakes, after all)? Well, that's because The Ballroom is one of her former haunts, and the place is absolutely littered with photos of her in a drunken stupor, right down to a cautionary poster of her in the women's restroom. Naturally, we're expecting the story to involve Shirley removing these photos until someone discovers one of them, and that's exactly what happens, when Britta finds the poster in the restroom. But when Jeff, Britta, and Troy joke about it to her, it doesn't become your typical, friendly moment between the gang's members. Instead, it's a deeply hurtful reminder of Shirley's past, one she could do without. Despite Troy's attempts to smooth things over and Jeff's halfhearted, "Shirley! Wait!" Shirley leaves the bar, trying to put that piece of herself further in the past, but not before she helps Pierce out the door.
Jeff and Britta: I'm not the kind of guy who does the 'shipper thing. I'm not going to suggest I'm too cool for that or anything like that, but I generally like to let the show take me where it wants and not get too hung up on any one aspect of the show. (There's a tendency for 'shippers to let the existence of a particular relationship within the show's universe define whether they enjoy the show or not.) But my Lord, do I now want these two to hook up more and more often. The show often plays their periodic hook-ups for laughs (as it does when they make out tonight), but I think the series has really found something in the mutual loathing/grudging affection the two feel for each other that was never present when it was trying to sell Britta as the girl who would help fix up Jeff back in the early going. (Yeah, she was other things, too, I know.) Joel McHale and Alison Brie have stronger chemistry as actors, but, I dunno, the Jeff and Britta pairing just makes more sense to me as a relationship thing. (Then again, the last time I felt this strongly about a TV couple, it was Jim and Karen on The Office, so I have a tendency to be on the losing side of these battles.)
One of the things I love about the show is that it has no illusions about the relative maturity of Jeff and Britta, when compared to Annie and Troy. They're just as immature, ultimately, and the show is able to garner huge laughs from having their cool exteriors punctured by the fact that, deep down, they're just as stupid as anyone else in the group. Tonight's one of those episodes, as Jeff and Britta's mutual sniping eventually reveals the two bars they want to go to are actually ONE bar, which is on L Street and has a red door. (Troy's exasperation at this moment is perhaps the episode's best moment.) But this episode is full of the two indulging in their weird, friendly antagonism, as they try to teach Troy about being a cool drinker and argue about anything and everything with each other and end up making out. Jeff and Britta are more in the background than they often are, but they're still central to the narrative, if that makes any sense. When Jeff tells Troy that Britta's a "hurricane" and Troy's eyes light up as he says, "I know," it's a great little moment, trying to pin down the two very different ways these men see that idea. (And check the hurt in Troy's eyes when Abed reveals Jeff and Britta have been making out.)
I know that the big promotional push NBC is throwing behind the show is for next week's Christmas stop-motion episode. It certainly makes sense why that's the case. The gimmick episodes tend to do well, and if the show plays its cards right, it could end up with an episode that people are able to line up right after rewatching Rudolph and Charlie Brown every year. (It's here that I issue my annual disclaimer that I am not to be trusted around all things Christmas. I love the season too damned much.) But the series only works insofar as it's able to do episodes like this one, and with "Mixology," the episode knocked what could have been a bunch of disconnected, goofy storylines out of the park. I mentioned above that all of these started out as fairly silly, stock sitcom plots, then turned unexpectedly serious, but it's remarkable just how somberly the last half, where everybody's drunk and kind of regretting their actions and Troy has to make everything right, played out. It's easy to joke about how alcohol is only fun in moderation or whatever, but Community nailed the feel of being out with friends on a drunken night that turns sour, and that's tough to do. (Of course there was a goofy tag after, so it wasn't TOO somber, but the overall feeling was definitely present.)
See, there's a kind of melancholy that bubbles up around the holidays, a melancholy that unites all of the greatest Christmas stories, from A Charlie Brown Christmas to It's a Wonderful Life to A Christmas Carol. I realize this is such a snobby thing to say, but the people who think Christmas is about unalloyed joy, about smiling until you're gritting your teeth, I don't think they GET IT, not really. Christmas is about another year coming to a close and drawing the people you love closer to you because you don't know what you'd be without them. It's about what you don't have as much as what you do have, about the realization that loneliness is the flip-side of love and happiness only comes easily after you've been through some pain. To me, Christmas and New Year's are all wrapped up in sadness and melancholy and loneliness, and that's what makes the happiness feel that much more earned, that much more essential.
My point (and I do have one) is this: The stop-motion episode is going to be fantastic, but this episode of Community should have been the Christmas episode. It's an episode entirely about how lonely these people would be if they didn't have each other. It's an episode about how having each other gives them the freedom to explore the kinds of people they wish to become. And it's an episode about how, at the end of the day, they'll be there for each other, even in the pits of their greatest disappointments. Festive joy and singing carols are fun, but there's something to be said for reflection, for an earned moment of sentiment (like that scene between Troy and Annie), for snatching happiness from a place where despair could just as easily exist or vice versa. And what's more Christmas-y than that?
- "Happy expulsion, Troy!"
- "I got a cousin in Detroit. They're not crazy about it there."
- "I broke my legs, not my gender."
- "I wanna bathe in manhood."
- "Like Caroline Decker, who probably has really bad credit and a half-finished mermaid tattoo."
- "'Hey, Troy, you're ruining Fuddrucker's for everyone!'"
- "Back in Corpus Christi, they call me Capricious Caroline."
- "Abed, would you like to have gay sex with me?"
- "It's like the Lifetime movie of beverages."