In the midst of this somewhat insane build-up to tonight’s episode of Community, I’ve gotten a lot of questions since I said on Twitter that I’d seen the episode and enjoyed it. Was it a big, meta-commentary on the show being gone for so long? What sorts of crazy concepts would the show take on? Would all of the characters talk endlessly in the opening scene about how we haven’t seen them for a while? I can’t help but imagine some of those people were a touch… disappointed by the fact that we got what could be termed a “normal” episode, but I rather loved it, and I think it was the best possible choice to bring the show back. This is the series’ last, best shot to get people who aren’t already in its cult onto the boat, and if the show is going to do that, what better way than with a pop culture-lite, character-heavy half-hour centered on a wedding? Viewers love weddings! (No, really. There’s a documented phenomenon that shows ratings ticking up slightly for wedding episodes. I hope somebody was promoting the wedding within this one. We need everything we can get to beat daylight savings time!)
I touched on this a little in the “Why Don’t You Like This?” piece I did with Steven Hyden earlier today, but this show’s ambition, imagination, and cleverness can be its own worst enemy. In addition, they’ve ended up becoming the worst enemies of certain portions of the fandom, who consume every single portion of news out there and suck it dry for clues, like a juice box emptied of its contents. There’s constant speculation on how the show may or may not acknowledge its situation or its fans or whatever, and even though production on this season has wrapped, I can bet half of you are hoping that somebody sends Gillian Jacobs back into the studio to loop some ADR about how “30,000 fans ain’t bad!” or something. Community is a show that often seems so in conversation with its fans that when it goes away, it’s like when you can’t get a hold of someone you love. You know they’re out there, but, Jesus Christ, can’t they answer the phone? And this leads to endless speculation about which new boundaries will be pushed next.
But sometimes, you don’t need to push boundaries. Sometimes, you just need a nice, sweet wedding episode. And sometimes, you end up with the best non-concept episode since "Mixology Certification."
For a while there, it seemed as if Community wasn’t quite sure how to do these sorts of episodes anymore. They could pull them off with skill, sure, but it was evident that all of the show’s energy was invested in creating the more concept-heavy episodes that have given the series its name. There’s nothing wrong with this, because many of those episodes were amazing. It did, however, make it that much harder to get excited about, say, an episode where Pierce and Jeff chase the same girl or where Annie breaks Abed’s Dark Knight DVD, and then Abed puts on his Batman costume to search for the real criminal when Annie lies about who did it. I liked those episodes (well, the latter much more than the former), but even I’ll admit to a certain degree of impatience, a certain degree of “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?!” I wanted my hyper-specific Apple Dumpling Gang parody, and I wanted it now, dammit.
In some ways, I suspect this recent hiatus has been the best possible thing that could have happened to the show (and, God, I hope the ratings bear me out on this). It is entirely possible I’m reading too much of my own experience into that, I’ll admit. Writing 1,500-2,500 words every week about this show can sometimes feel like banging your head against a particularly rock-hard wall, but it was also getting harder and harder to stay in touch with Community: the show instead of Community: the Internet cause celebre and experience. Taking a while off proved that the timeslot Community is in is murderous, so the ratings for just about anything would be bad there. It proved that there’s an intense love out there, that extends beyond the usual fandoms (seriously, Washington Post blogger and pundit Ezra Klein was Tweeting about the show’s hiatus). It gave the network time to finally promote the damn show, thanks to Jim Rash’s Oscar win and that trailer the show’s producers cut (and what a great trailer it was). There was no begging from the show’s producers to watch the thing, outside of a few fan giveaways on Twitter. There was simply a certain confidence that this was the show’s moment, if ever there’s been a moment for the show.
And all of that gave me a chance to get back in touch with what I love about the show: its characters. When I said that I was “pleased” the show was coming back, a lot of people took that as a comic understatement of how excited I was. But I was pleased. I’d been a little exhausted by the show—and I think that showed in my reviews—and now I had gotten a little break. Hearing it was coming back was like hearing an old friend was in town, and, hey, should we go get drinks? During this time, I watched a few of my old favorite episodes and remembered that before this was a hype machine, it was a show… and a good show! A show I very much enjoyed, but one I enjoyed more when it had a firm handle on its characters and their journey as they evolve together.
I think “Urban Matrimony And Sandwich Arts” works so well because it’s an episode that gives every character (but Chang, who doesn’t appear) a nice little storyline that dovetails with the main story: Shirley and Andre are about to get married, but she also wants to open up a sandwich store in a conveniently empty space in Greendale’s cafeteria. Britta first attacks the institution of marriage, then fears that her only possible end is to be a wife and mother. Jeff can’t figure out what to say for Shirley’s wedding toast because, deep down, he’s still mad at his dad for leaving his mom. Pierce wants to invest in Shirley’s business and sees Shirley’s excitement about her marriage as a rejection. Annie really likes planning weddings (this one could have been sharper, admittedly). Troy and Abed worry about weirding out the people at Shirley’s wedding and decide to “de-whimsify” themselves in time for the ceremony.
All of these stories are in service of a strong A-story, which is often how this show operates at its best (at least in the more obviously formula-based episodes). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the best Shirley story the show has ever done—even if the climax is a little abrupt—and I think that’s for one simple reason: Too many Shirley storylines on this show have made her a character whose major life events are used as ways to give the other characters something to do that gradually take over the story. The birth of her child became about everyone but her, and too often, the character has just been a way to get some easy digs at Christians early in this season. But even though everybody gets a storyline here, those stories are always reminding us of the real reason we’re gathered here together: Shirley’s getting remarried to a man she’s had a hard road with. The show’s constant reminders that Shirley’s a good Christian try to paint her as the very worst sort of that thing: judgmental and unable to loosen up. But in the way she lives her life, she’s often the best version of what we’d hope a Christian would be: forgiving and loving and understanding. There’s been no better suggestion of this than her renewed courtship with Andre.
It’s too bad Malcolm Jamal Warner hasn’t been more available this season, because he brings out a real warmth in the other characters, and he radiates that warmth back outward. When he starts yelling at Shirley about how her place is in the kitchen, it’s the one big false note here, a conflict forced onto their relationship simply to give the third act a bit more punch. Theoretically, I can accept it, since we know that things were bad in the Bennett marriage even before Andre stepped out on his wife, but it’s one thing to know that theoretically and another thing to have a previously warm and friendly guy calling his wife, “Woman!” out of nowhere. Is this something that occasionally happens in real life? Sure. But usually, fiction prepares us better for these turn-on-a-dime shifts.
I’m willing to mostly forgive that, however, because it leads into the genuinely sweet moment where Andre and Shirley essentially exchange vows while trying to talk Jeff and Britta out of what they see as an inevitable sham marriage to each other (which, let’s be honest, is totally going to happen if this show gets those six seasons and a movie). This was the hoariest kind of cliché—these people are talking about themselves when they’re talking to the other people about to make a big mistake!—but it was a cliché in service of a character who doesn’t often get a chance to be simple and heartfelt. Creating a situation where Shirley is back with the man she loves but on better terms than she had the first time around and in a situation where she’s pursuing her business dreams (Subway be damned) is a strong idea for the show, and it’s the kind of arc that will give both Shirley and Pierce (the other most traditionally problematic character) interesting things to do.
What I love about this episode and what I suspect will make it a good gateway drug for new fans is that all of this is instantly understandable. You don’t need to know in jokes or pop culture references to feel like you’re getting the humor. You can just relax and watch two people get married and another two people become convinced marriage is the only possible end for them (to their horror) and an old man struggle to remain relevant. All of that is instantly understandable to anyone, and I hope the show’s gamble of slotting this one a few episodes earlier pays off in ratings numbers.
Plus, for those of you who are super-fans, you’ve got Troy and Abed. There’s always Troy and Abed. And in a way, their plot functions as that meta-commentary everybody wanted anyway. The two’s attempts to make themselves less weird might as well be the show’s attempts to appear less weird and more broad-based. The way that they boil themselves down into “normal” people suggests the way the show has tried to do that as well. And in the scenes where they’re trying to be sincere, but nobody quite gets if they’re being sarcastic and putting everybody else on, there’s a strong sense of how a lot of viewers aren’t quite sure how seriously and sincerely to take this show’s emotional payoffs. But Troy and Abed are still pleasant people when they make themselves entirely “normal,” and this is still a wonderful show when it focuses on things other than switching genres or doing wild, stylistic departures. This show works so long as its characters work, and tonight’s a triumphant welcome back for every single one of them.
- Hello, everyone! In the time since we’ve hung out here together, you’ve created an Internet within the Internet, I’ve been subsisting on Archer and Sun Chips, and Jim Rash won an Oscar. I know it was a nice break for me, but let’s never do this again. I DEMAND A GROUP HUG. (I’ve now learned I can get whatever I want just by asking for it. This is madness, people.)
- Goddamn do I love Gillian Jacobs playing broad comedy. As Erik Adams asserts in today’s review of Cheers, she’s underrated at playing drunk, and here’s another great example of how good she is at it.
- I hope a few of you learn how to do the Lindbergh Leap from tonight’s episode. The ladies are really into it.
- Needless to say, I’m pretty optimistic about this show’s chances of renewal. But I’m also hopeful that all of this attention (and airing opposite basketball, instead of Big Bang) will create a situation where the show can boost itself up to a consistent 1.7-1.9 in the demo. Those would be Parks And Recreation numbers, and it would all but guarantee that six seasons and a movie. My wife (who liked this episode more than I did and has been less impressed with this season as a whole than I have) and I podcasted a bit about this here. It’s the start of the episode, so you don’t have to listen to anything else if you don’t want.
- I’m told I’ll have screeners for at least the next few weeks, so expect immediately post-air reviews for the next month or so. Then, we’ll see. Good to be back.