Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Community: "Investigative Journalism"

Illustration for article titled Community: "Investigative Journalism"

"Investigative Journalism" is simultaneously a sort of attempt to question just how much Jack Black you can take and a sly commentary on the way celebrity guest stars are used in sitcoms. Celebrity guest stars, of course, are the sort of thing a show with low ratings that needs a boost will often turn to. The latter half of the first season of Arrested Development, for example, is pretty much just a giant procession of celebrity guests who liked the show and wanted to do it a solid to help out with the whole low ratings thing. So when I heard Jack Black was going to turn up on Community, my first thought was, good. There are famous people who want to help the show.

Now, it's rare for a celebrity stunt cast to work. How I Met Your Mother was randomly saved by having Britney Spears on in its third season (at the height of mania over how she'd completely left the planet), but its ratings were trending up before that point, largely because it was one of the few scripted shows on the schedule after the writers strike ended. Other than that, there've been a few scattered across TV history, but most celebrity guests just end up in an episode, make the episode all about them, then leave without benefiting the show they were on in any real way, shape or form. The celebrity guest appearance becomes all about the celebrity, even on a very good show. (Again, this is one of the ways that Arrested Development, which always used its celebrity guests very well, differed from most other shows.)

So viewed in one light, Jack Black's appearance as Buddy, the guy who sits in the back corner of Spanish class and has been watching the gang's antics from afar all this time, is a fairly egregious example of a celebrity guest making the episode all about him. But given how much of this episode was dedicated to both celebrating and sending up classic sitcom tropes, I'm kind of inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt and assume that the entire Buddy subplot was simultaneously an attempt to downplay the fact that the show had Jack Black on it and make fun of what another show might have done with Jack Black by turning him into the ultimate Jack Black character. He shouts. He does big, physical comedy. He plays the guitar and sings in a funny voice. Yeah, this was all intentional.

The key, I think, is in that whole opening scene when Buddy first shows up. The gang is reuniting after their winter break, recounting the adventures they've had, catching up any new viewers who might be tuning in just to see Jack Black (in a very amusingly overdone fashion). Jeff pops into the room, acting as he might have in the pilot, then immediately comes in for a group hug (a funny commentary on how another sitcom might hit the reset button in an episode like this), and then after the hug, Buddy shows up. Even as the other characters try to move past him, the entire scene becomes all about Buddy being there, to the point where he says that he doesn't want to mess up the gang's normal … theme song … rhythm. Community is playing with us here, letting us know that it knows just what we're terrified will happen with Jack Black around.

More generally, the episode seems rather obsessed with the sorts of sitcom plot points you see happen over and over. Granted, this is something the series has always been interested in (to the point where one of the characters is mostly there to point out the various sitcom tropes the show does or doesn't buy in to), but here, the entire episode revolves around this obnoxious guest star (intentionally so) and the idea that Jeff is going to suddenly become the editor of the school newspaper and turn into Hawkeye Pierce. The recurrent M*A*S*H references might have been a bit much if they didn't feel like the show trying to respond to some sort of network note. In fact, the whole Jeff plotline - which involves him trying really hard to be a more positive guy and ultimately failing - feels like a scabrous takedown of just what NBC executives might have to say about a show that has a heart but doesn't feel the need to wear it demonstratively on its sleeve. (It feels like I don't have a lot to say about this plot, where I really enjoyed all of the gags around the edges without getting terribly involved with Annie's scoop. That scene where Abed was distilling martinis for Jeff was hysterical just for the set dressing.)

Meanwhile, back in the main Spanish study group, Buddy is increasingly frightening everyone with his odd behavior, to the point where they try to get him out of the group until they realize that it's a study group. They can't exactly kick people out, particularly if they want to study (as Buddy does when informed he has to leave). Again, it's a wry sort of self-commentary on how the central premise of the show is good fun but not especially, y'know, believable, and it makes the episode even more of a winking comment on how a show like this does some pretty silly things at a premise level just to keep us from asking perfectly logical questions.


Of course, all of this deconstruction of television theory wouldn't matter much if the episode weren't funny, and, fortunately, this was yet another really great episode in a very consistent run the show's been on lately. I'd, honestly, wager that I don't laugh at any comedy on TV right now more than I laugh at this one, and this episode is another good example of all of the things the show does well. It has terrific pop culture gags (like all of the M*A*S*H references, right down to the final freeze frame), some really great physical comedy and the character-based stuff the show is already doing so well. There's something about a great comedy ensemble gradually coming together that's thrilling to watch, and the cast here is starting to find ways to play to every individual member's strengths. Just look at how someone like Troy, even though he had basically nothing to do tonight, is so enjoyable just hanging out in the background and reacting to what's going on.

Then, of course, another celebrity guest star - Owen Wilson! - showed up with Starburns to take Buddy away (in an even more amusing deconstruction of how most celebrity guest episodes unceremoniously get rid of the celebrity guest than I thought the show would pull off), and all was right with the series again. Plots where there's another, cooler gang that mirrors the gang we hang out with are a favorite of mine on sitcoms (I love that Seinfeld episode where Elaine starts hanging out with the Bizarro versions of everyone), so I hope that this other study group turns up at some other point. But, mostly, I'm just glad to have this show back. As fun as it's been to watch it grow, it's even more fun to watch it really hit its stride.


Stray observations:

  • "They've got me editing the crossword. Because I'm a girl. And I love crosswords!"
  • "Yo, I need my genitals."
  • "I hope you've got an army of raisins because I've got the scoop."
  • "Annie's pretty young. We try not to sexualize her."
  • "it's just a little nosebleed. I get 'em when it's dry, and my face gets kicked."
  • "I prefer incompetent!"