I realized early this week—I think when I saw some of Community’s writers talking up this episode on Twitter—that I needed to start treating Community, season four, as basically a new show. After the transitional period the show’s been through—and the transitional period that will continue with some of the cast changes coming later this season—the series is naturally going to need some time to find its feet. I usually give new comedies about seven episodes to get their sea legs and impress me with either their storytelling or their gags. It takes longer for comedies to figure out what they’re doing, to the point where I’m rarely surprised if somebody tells me that some comedy I gave up on (like, say, The Neighbors) is now riotously funny. Sometimes, it just takes a while. (I have no idea on The Neighbors, let me just clarify. The idea that that could somehow have gotten as good as some people say it is just seems crazy to me.)
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait all that long for something to convince me this new Community might be worth sticking with. Despite finding last week’s episode fairly messy and thinking next week’s is perhaps the worst the show’s done, “Paranormal Parentage” is a strong episode of the show, one that packs in lots of gags and ends on a couple of well-earned emotional beats. This still isn’t quite in the league of the show’s best half-hours, but it’s within spitting distance, and that’s enough to make me think once this new version of the show works out its kinks, it could become a lot of fun. All I’m looking for here is a foundation worth building on, and “Paranormal Parentage” very much provides one.
The gang has gathered together in costumes—Jeff’s a boxer, Annie’s Samara from The Ring, Abed and Troy are Calvin and Hobbes, Shirley is Princess Leia, and Britta is a ham, like Scout at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird—to get ready for Vicky’s party, which Pierce was not invited to. (When asked later why he didn’t bother Vicky about not being invited and instead bothered the group, Pierce snarls, “I hate her,” which might have been my favorite gag.) Of course, the whole thing ends up being interrupted by a jealous Pierce, who lets Troy know he’s locked himself in his panic room. The group, after realizing it doesn’t terrible want to hang out with the Dean, dressed as the “ring girl” Jeff originally requested of Annie, heads over to Hawthorne Manor, where Pierce sends them in search of the panic room’s code. Naturally enough, this coincides with a kind of Scooby Doo thing where everybody splits off into pairs and has creepy good times with the ghost of Pierce’s dad, who, of course, turns out to be Pierce himself.
It’s not a bad setup for a Halloween episode, and I liked that the story skewed clear of any paranormal explanations, coming up with a ridiculously elaborate setup—including latex walls!—that Pierce would have used to convince the gang they were being haunted. Naturally, there really is an uninvited presence in the manor, but it just turns out to be returning guest star Giancarlo Esposito as Gilbert, Pierce’s long-lost half-brother. Discovered, Gilbert decides to abandon his new family, first letting Pierce know there’s a load of clean socks in the dryer, but, of course, Pierce decides to forgive his half-brother and try to launch a new relationship with him, one that will hopefully involve Chevy Chase making occasional guest appearances on Revolution. Yet I thought this emotional beat was really well done, particularly when coupled with the ending of Jeff calling his dad, which cut off at just the right point. Structurally speaking, this was a strong episode of TV.
The question many of you will have, of course, was whether the thing was funny, and in that regard, I found the episode more of a mixed bag. Don’t get me wrong: There are more great jokes packed into this episode than in either of the other two I’ve seen, and I particularly liked Troy and Shirley’s visit to Pierce’s secret sex room and Britta’s glee over getting Jeff to open up. There are also some jokes that will always be enhanced by being in costume, like how great it is to see Gillian Jacobs run in a ham outfit, and the episode has also just the right amount of meta-commentary, particularly when Abed watches Jeff and Britta arguing about his daddy issues, shakes his head, and says, “I remember when this show was about a community college.” The best TV jokes rarely try too hard, and there were plenty of nice, conversational gags in this episode, unlike some of the flopsweat last week. (Also: How weird is it that we haven’t had a “regular” study room scene yet this season? So far as I can recall, there’s not one next week either. If the characters are in the study room, they’re either going to or coming from someplace, rather than sitting at the table and joking around. It feels wrong, somehow.) One other positive: The episode did a good job with Shirley, a character who seemed to get a little lost last week.
On the other hand, other portions of the episode were lacking in strong jokes. The Abed/Annie storyline, in particular, kind of became a black hole with very little funny in it. There was some discussion last week of if the show has taken the characters back to their season one selves, rather than working with the versions that have been established over the two seasons since season one, and it’s a point of view I can rather see. If there’s one character who’s really been hurt by this move, it’s Annie, who’s essentially gone back to her season one self—with few of the added layers she got in seasons two and three (particularly the latter half of season three). She’s back to being the sweet, innocent, naïve girl, and while Alison Brie can certainly play that well enough, it also seems to go against everything that’s happened to the character since. Also: Troy and Britta are a couple, but it sure sounds like Jeff and Annie are, too. I realize that this is the sort of thing this show prefers to keep in the background, but it feels almost too backgrounded at this point, as if the show wants to convince us the characters have chemistry with occasional exposition.
Not everything yet works here. There are still kinks in the characters that need to be worked out, and the jokes could be better. (The show seems to lean more on “like-a-jokes” now, jokes that sound like jokes and have the rhythm of jokes and are delivered like jokes, but aren’t actually funny. This tends to happen on older sitcoms, which lean heavily on things they already know the actors are good at.) There’s also the weird choices to move some characters—like Jeff—forward from where they ended season three, while also dialing some of the other characters back a season or two. But the hardest thing to get right in a TV comedy is the story structure, and “Paranormal Parentage” doesn’t try too hard or force anything too much. It’s a strong story, well told, and if the jokes aren’t all there yet or if the characters still feel slightly off, well, that’s easily fixed as the season progresses. There have been many better episodes of Community, but never one I’ve been as relieved to watch and mostly enjoy.
- I asked Megan Ganz on Twitter if the ham costume was a To Kill A Mockingbird reference. Sadly, it was not. Though I’m going to continue pretending it was. Because I can.
- I don’t really like the “No (rhyming phrase), (rhyming famous person’s name)” joke construction, and I hope it stops soon, please.
- Another weird reversion to type: The Dean now just seems to always be dressed as a woman. I get that he does lots of wacky costumes, often female costumes, but there were some nice character notes for Jim Rash to play with in season three, and I hope we get back to that.
- Jeff’s dad was a boxer? I mean, I assume he just had a pair of gloves because he worked out a gym from time to time, but I’m just going to pretend he was Jake LaMotta in the witness protection program. (Also: A really nice acting moment from Joel McHale as Jeff called his dad.)
- I suspect this is all we’ll see of Gilbert this season, but I hope not. I’m surprised how well Giancarlo Esposito fits into this universe, and I would like a bit more, please.
- I do love when TV shows call attention to how ridiculous their plots are, so Annie hanging a lantern on how weird Pierce’s relationship with his dad and Gilbert was made me laugh.
- Troy and Abed being Calvin and Hobbes was a little easy, but it still made my “born in the 1980s” heart weep with joy.
- I actually watched this episode live, due to not having a screener. It’s nice to see NBC has jumped on the, “Here’s what you need to tweet about” bandwagon. And could Zach Braff and James Franco have less chemistry? (Also: I was informed by the South Dakota NBC affiliate that this exists. I hope Community does an Edge Of Farming episode.)
- Another joke I liked: Pierce had the panic room installed the day Do The Right Thing opened. It takes Troy a minute to figure out the significance of this.
- Okay, Annie was funny when she asked why you’d have a swing indoors. Someone could break a lamp!
- That sounded nothing like Cougar Town. Get it together, Cougar Town references!