"Romantic Expressionism" is one of my favorite episodes of Community so far, and I like it so much because it indulges in something that few other comedies on TV do: its ensemble cast. Practically every comedy on TV has an ensemble cast, but very few of them utilize those casts particularly well. Most of them send all of the actors into a bunch of barely connected plotlines, mostly designed to make sure that everyone gets something to do. Talking about what makes a good comedy into a great one is a hard thing to do, since the line is so subjective and so hard to pinpoint precisely, but I'd say that all of the truly great comedies have one thing in spades: chemistry.
The nice thing about a show like Community is that it's proved remarkably willing to play around with its character dynamics. There's no guarantee that any given week will feature a Jeff story and a Britta story and a Pierce C story, as you might have predicted from the first few episodes. It's just as likely that the show will have an Annie A story (as it did tonight) and a runner about Troy's athletic pursuits coupled with several scenes of Pierce falling over things. Jeff might recede into the background. Abed might have nothing to do outside of large cast scenes. And so on. In a way, this reminds me of the way one of my favorite comedies, Newsradio, started to define its cast early in its second season. (Since its first season was only seven episodes, that was roughly the same point at which Community finds itself now.) That show went through a similar process of figuring out which relationships worked in which ways, which relationships that didn't seem natural fits actually worked perfectly (Joe and Matthew was sort of the proto Abed and Troy) and which kinds of stories they could tell with different characters pushed to the fore.
Newsradio, like Community, also had the benefit of an absolutely ace ensemble with no weak links. The reason Community can do an Annie episode when she's mostly been a background player for a few weeks now is because Alison Brie can do whatever the show tosses at her. And, more critically, so can everyone else in the cast. When you know you've got actors this good, it frees up the writers to not have to worry about having to write stuff that can play only to the actors' strengths, and that frees up the actors to have more fun on set, and that frees up everyone to build the kind of chemistry and harmony that marks a good ensemble.
Casting is kind of an underrated skill on TV, since it might be the most important thing distinguishing a good series from a great one. Weaker actors often become actors who are relegated to one-joke characters or hanging out in the background of scenes, making the better actors walk away with the show. A lot's been written about how The Office filled out its ensemble with people who looked like they might actually work at your office, but not a lot's been written about how those people who looked like they might actually work at your office also could knock any given joke out of the park. Community has the same thing going on, where even the recurring players are so damn good that they elevate any material they're handed. (And it's already pretty great material.)
So, all of that preamble out of the way, what actually happened in tonight's episode? Well, it's pretty simple: Annie fell for Britta's ex, Vaughn, and Jeff and Britta decided they needed to split the two up to protect the pure and innocent Annie. That Jeff and Britta view themselves as the "parents" of the group is slyly meta (and not as bald-facedly meta as some of the gags the show has been tossing at us in recent weeks), and the whole storyline plays off of things that have been developing in the show throughout its entire run, from Britta and Jeff's relationships past to Troy and Britta's time in the world of tap dancing to how no one really wants to be around Pierce. (Also great? Shirley asking about Abed and Troy's "thing," and the two saying to each other, "They're just jealous.")
All of this climaxes in one of the funniest scenes the show's ever done. Any time the series gets the entire cast around that big table, you know it's going to lead to a great scene, and this one manages to top almost all of the previous ones, as secrets come out and everyone tosses sarcastic putdowns at each other and then the characters all make kinda creepy eyes at each other. It's almost perfectly executed, each joke rolling off the top of the previous jokes, calling back on the show's short history and establishing that these people really are as weird of a little group as they seem to be. (I also liked Vaughn's insistence that the study group is evil earlier in the hour. I like any time the show deals with how the rest of Greendale must see these characters.)
The B-story, involving all of the characters who weren't Jeff, Britta or Annie (including, amusingly enough, Senor Chang), hanging out and watching the movie Kickpuncher with Abed and Troy was a good plot as well, particularly for Pierce, who hasn't had as much to do in recent episodes. His idea of hiring the local sketch comedy team to write jokes for him so he wouldn't seem as lame when watching Kickpuncher 2 led to the fantastic scene where he rattles off a long series of only sort of funny jokes when the movie begins. I hope the sketch comedy troupe comes back, and I liked the fact that the jokes everyone was telling weren't actually THAT funny but were made funny because everyone just liked being in each other's company, that Pierce only became funny once he realized the whole point was to just hang out. (And, OK, once he did a pratfall.)
The conclusion of the episode may strike some as a little saccharine, but I like that the show still wears its heart on its sleeve. I don't know that it would work as well if it couldn't pull off something as simultaneously sweet and stupid as Vaughn showing up and singing his simultaneously sweet and stupid song to Annie. The scene isn't the greatest conclusion ever, but it keys in to one of the things that makes Community work thematically: the sense that all of these characters are occasionally trying just a little bit too hard, that there's more to life than their ironic detachment. "Romantic Expressionism" never makes that point so clear that you roll your eyes, but it needles away at it in the background, nonetheless.
- I was totally going to check and see who played Kickpuncher, but then I forgot. Help me, Internet!
- "He never wears a shirt; he never wears shoes. Why hasn't he died from lack of service?"
- "Kickpuncher, starring Don 'the Demon' Donaldson as a cyborg cop whose punches have the power of kicks."
- "You think I'm too old to make monkeyshines at a picture show?"
- "The other day after Spanish, I thought he was trying to hold my hand, but he'd just mistaken me for Abed."
- "Yes, we can see both of them. It's like a constellation on your face."
- "Let's not confine ourselves to your wheelhouse. This problem won't respond to tap dancing or casual revelations that you spent time in New York."
- "I have the weirdest boner."
- "Everyone is my bro in the whole entire universe because everything is connected. Rocks. Eagles. Hats."
- "Like Britta swore she didn't like Jeff and then gave him a copy of my poem so he could laugh at me with that Sherri Shepherd woman."
- "Hey guys! Thanks for eating all the macaroni!"
- "And Tom Selleck just stood there ... just stood there and watched him die."
- "Yeah, but you're doing it with the speed and determination of the incomparable Robin Williams."
- "I'm not, Juno, OK, homeslice?"
- "That kiss wasn't for pleasure. It was strategic and joyless."
- "We haven't even kissed!" "That doesn't mean you're not having sex."
- "Vaughn wants to show me a cloud that looks like a pumpkin."