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Community: "Debate 109"

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"Debate 109" is the best episode of Community so far, and it shows that not only can the show tell funny stories about amusing characters, but it can tell new KINDS of funny stories about those characters. If it figures out a way to harness that ability on a frequent basis, well, it could turn into one of the great TV comedies. Even if it can't, it's still a fine and funny show, but when it came up with a subplot that showed how its characters (and the characters on all TV show) are essentially eminently predictable types and then found a way to both make fun of itself and justify itself within that plotline, well, I was a happy camper.

Or maybe I was such a happy camper because, holy God wow is Alison Brie an attractive young lady. I mean, I should really be grading this stuff on a less puerile scale than "TV just let me gaze at someone more attractive than I am for a few moments," and I get that that whole scene where she let down her hair and took off her scarf and she was suddenly the hottest woman in existence was a parody of similar scenes where the dorky girl takes off her glasses or what have you, but sweet Lord, I didn't care. The whole thing was also helped by the fact that Brie and Joel McHale have what appears to be actual chemistry, which made the whole plot less creepy than it should have been (the age gap between the two characters should be troublesome). I've long thought McHale and Gillian Jacobs had good chemistry, but I stand corrected, because that was some nice smolder there.

And it was actually in service of a plot that was enjoyable all the way through. The idea that Greendale's best squad is its debate team and that they're chronically undersupported when compared to City College's team (complete with the hilarious Simmons as the hero of the squad) was a promising one, and the show followed through on it in pretty much every way. The whole plot - which actually managed to work in a pretty amusing discussion of whether or not human beings are inherently good or inherently evil - took some unexpected turns, the gag that the debate had to be called so the ludicrous basketball team could take the floor was a good way to work around the fact that the episode needed a break in the second act, and Jeff's attempts to win over everyone with his sleazy charm were very funny. Any episode that features McHale singing "Evil Woman" while the crowd gets into it, only to discover that he's scored no points for his team is worth it to me.

One of the things I've liked about the best episodes of Community is how they're pinned around this question of what makes a person good and what makes a person bad. As much as the show is about people getting second chances and realizing their lives aren't exactly where they wish they were, it also has at its heart some real philosophical quandaries about how we behave and how we act toward the other people in our lives. That the series actually dramatized this with a debate over one of the very oldest philosophical questions and yet made it somehow hilarious threw everything into sharper focus than the series often has. Previous episodes of Community have been very funny, but they've lacked the throughline that might have made them really sing. This one didn't have that problem.

That said, though, my favorite thing about the whole episode was the story of Abed's films, which was probably the C-plot, all things considered. All of TV relies on predictability, but comedies rely on it more than anything else. A comedy relies on establishing certain rhythms which the audience then anticipates. The laughs often come from the anticipation just as much as they do from the actual incidents, or the comedy disrupts those rhythms of anticipation and payoff to score an even bigger, more unexpected laugh. The biggest complaints leveled against sitcoms say that they're too predictable, and after a while on any comedy, that's usually true. Community, of course, is not devoid of predictability, since it has a series of characters who behave in a fashion that is roughly consistent in any given situation. What made the Abed plot so great (and unlike anything I've seen on a sitcom, where meta commentary is the sort of thing that goes by frequently but never quite like this) is that Abed turned the show's meta commentary into a plot that was as much about himself and his keen observational powers as anything else. Also, there was a guy in a werewolf costume.

The gag extended even to the credits scene, where the actors who played Abed and Troy received direction from the actual Abed and Troy. But the wheels within wheels nature of the storyline extended its tendrils throughout the episode, offering up moments when Abed was actually predicting the future, such as Troy crying or Jeff and Annie kissing. He was even able to repeat exactly what Shirley said as she said it. "Debate 109" doesn't just argue that sitcoms are predictable; it argues that people are predictable, that if you have a savant-like ability to just sit back and watch them for as long as possible, you're going to be able to figure out exactly what they're going to do. We've all joked about how we're characters in a movie or TV show at one time or another, but Community actually argues that it's characters are people living out here in real life.

The other plot - Pierce giving Britta hypnotherapy to stop her smoking - wasn't as funny as the other two, but it had its moments, thanks to Britta's snarling at everyone in her immediate vicinity early in the episode and Pierce's extended pratfalls. I know that Chevy Chase built his reputation as a funny guy on his ability to do physical comedy, but good Lord, his second fall into the instruments was just amazing. The guy still has the ability to collapse in an amusing manner, seemingly on a dime, and it was great fun to see him utilize it again in tonight's episode.

If I were going to try to convince one of the seemingly many Community skeptics in my life that Community is a show worth watching, I'd turn on "Debate 109." It's not the best episode of comedy I've seen this year, but it's way, way up there, and it's solid proof that Community is finally shaking off some of the rickety moments that held back its early episodes and turning into the kind of show we all thought it could be from the pilot.

Stray observations:

  • So. Jeff/Britta, Jeff/Annie or Jeff/neither and get your damn romantic complications out of this show, dammit?
  • NBC, please update your Community press site. Thanks!
  • "Why am I crying? Will I accidentally listen to 'Come Sail Away' by Styx again?"
  • "By the way, Jeff, I think your shirt's trying to get out of your pants."
  • "This feels so formal. Let's just talk. People are evil."
  • "By zooks. What sort of jackassery is this? We're in the middle of a championship debate!"
  • "Who am I? iCarly?"
  • "No. You're right. My feet are long and stupid. You can't unring that bell."
  • "Mine was just from a simple, desert handyman. Named JESUS."
  • "Oh God, did I just say crossburner." "No you did not."
  • "Let's take this bacchanalia outside. Full moon tonight!"