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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Community: “Laws Of Robotics And Party Rights”

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When a television show switches networks, the most tempting before-and-after comparison is that of production value. Dan Harmon has spoken in glowing terms of how generous Yahoo has been to ensure Community looks and feels like itself to the degree that’s possible. But it’s been difficult to quantify how sharply the show’s budget has dropped without context around how much Yahoo would want to spend on this kind of endeavor. “Laws Of Robotics And Party Rights” is the first episode of the season in which the budget cuts are becoming more apparent. Not since the debut season has Community gotten five episodes in without a large-scale pop-culture parody, and most of what we’ve seen thus far takes place in the pre-existing sets.

This is only important because Community’s parodies open up conversations around those episodes that don’t take as much into account such standard considerations as characterization, chemistry, or joke density. To choose an extreme example, an episode like “G.I. Jeff” has to be evaluated as its own thing, not in the way any other Community episode can be evaluated. “Party Rights” is the type of episode that, were it couched in some kind of parody framework, would have come across as more of a success if the parody elements were successful. Without those elements it comes across as a fitfully funny, but middling episode.


There’s much to like about “Party Rights,” beginning with the welcome appearance of Jeff the Community College Professor. It’s been sometime since Jeff has actually appeared in the classroom setting, and it comes as no surprise that he’s the type of teacher who reintroduces his students to Planet Earth rather than introducing them to law. Jeff’s professional indifference puts him at odds with Willy (Brian Van Holt), a prison inmate who takes Jeff’s class via telepresence robot and wants to learn more than the “thing or two” Jeff promises. Willy’s folksy charm drives a wedge between Jeff and Dean Pelton—an elegantly thin wedge because it’s an iPad, but still—and gets Jeff placed on a paid sabbatical.

The A-plot is quirky, funny, and thorough, by which I mean it wrings basically every gag that can be wrung from the inherent ridiculousness of telepresence robots, especially when operated by tattooed inmates. (Dean Pelton warns that the formation of race gangs will result in swift and dramatic contrast adjustments.) The wad of paper that prevents Willy from doing the menacing back-away after his ill-conceived murder attempt is particularly inspired. “Party Rights” approaches full-on parody when Jeff and Willy have a iPrison Brawl over Jeff’s job, though with such a heavy same-sex marriage component to it, the scene is never exactly spoofing anything in particular. Again, it’s funny, but the main plot has the same flaw as “Basic Crisis Room Decorum,” which is that it’s almost too silly to work as a Community episode.

Community is so impressive because of its ability to find emotional truths in even the goofiest of stories, but Jeff’s rift and reconciliation with Dean Pelton didn’t represent the show at its best. Even when the show is being absurd, it can have an emotional underpinning that make the stakes seem important, and “Party Rights” doesn’t have that. The episode comes closer with the B-plot, in which Britta schemes to throw a party at Annie and Abed’s place despite their fierce enforcement of an eight-person occupancy limit on the apartment, a rule enacted to prevent ragers. There are consequences to Britta manipulating Abed’s love of film as an excuse to throw a party, and those consequences feel real, especially as explained by Annie: “You’re going to be punished in ways you won’t understand for longer than you think is rational or possible. But then one day, you’ll do something he likes and he’ll stop. And eventually you’ll either adapt or lose your mind.”

“Party Rights” also demonstrates the peril of a two-plot structure with additional length. Editing almost always makes things better. I’ve watched Parks & Recreation episodes on Hulu, then watched the director’s cut and I’ve never felt like “They were idiots to think they could cut that joke.” It almost seems like the extra length is being used to compensate for the smaller size of the Greendale world, but the new Community has to do more with less, not just make more with less.


Stray observations:

  • Elroy is nobody’s fourth Ghostbuster.
  • I quite liked the cold open. Dean Pelton: “Before you got here, they had two…they had to…often remind themselves that they weren’t one collective ray of light.” Frank’s seamless transition from telepresence to actual presence was nice. And Danny Pudi’s Jerry Seinfeld isn’t bad.
  • Gillian Jacobs’ Seinfeld isn’t quite as good, but nice effort. She didn’t totally Britta it.
  • The tag, on the other hand, didn’t work so well.
  • I’d like to think Donald Glover stopped by so his actual hand could make Troy’s five-finger cameo in Abed’s cutaway gag.
  • Security guard: “You destroyed his device and his heart, sir.”
  • Chang is homeless and poops at Annie, Abed, and Britta’s place. So that’s a thing.