Do you ever watch old Mary Tyler Moore shows? An opening sequence might see Mary cleaning her apartment silently for a while. Then there’s a knock at the door. Mary walks, slowly, across the apartment to open the door. It’s Rhoda! The two exchange pleasantries, and after some back and forth Mary asks Rhoda about her personal life.
Then, finally, a few excruciating minutes into the episode, Rhoda will finally get off an actual joke about dating a tree surgeon or something.
The modern sitcom—the species of which Community is currently the highest-evolved member—opens, by contrast, with a blistering assault of laugh-lines, asides, in-jokes, pop-culture references and intra-cultural score-settling. The opening last night took on Christopher Nolan, overpriced special-edition DVDs, off-brand-cell phones, people tacky enough to insult others for having off-brand cell-phones, cat lovers, soccer, foosball (“the soccer of ping-pong”), Germans (“I vish der was a word to describe the pleasure I feel at viewing misfortune”)—and finally, the losers who, in the end, are still stuck with off-brand cell-phones. That’s all before the opening credits.
Batman is a guest star in this episode. His quarry—and our primary theme—is the evil that hides behind goodness. Wide-eyed protestations of innocence and chirpy goodwill are the stock-in-trade of two of Community’s main characters: Shirley, the syrupy Christian mom, and young Annie, whose squeaky voice rises in octaves whenever she’s being extra virtuous or extra beseeching. It’s enough to make you want to barf, and Community creator Dan Harmon feels the same way. (He’s said that the character of Shirley is a mystery to him and that it’s hard to write episodes for her.)
Anyone that good, he knows, is hiding something.
Tonight we see the dark side of each of them. Shirley, it turns out, was a bully growing up. One of the recipients of her lash, in one of those odd connections that can only happen in a sitcom, was Jeff—and we see the pair in flashback, as pre-teens, acting out their fateful first meeting. So humiliated was Jeff that he peed his pants. (Says young Shirley, with satisfaction: “I just beat this kid all the way to tinkletown.”) For the morally challenged, defanged lawyer, this incident was his Rosebud. The pair spend half the episode working out the psychic implications of this previous meeting, some of it in anime—and they also face down those Germans. Jeff comes away with new insight into Shirley, but we can still hear Harmon talking through him: “The few times you’ve been a little bad are the times I liked you most.”
Meanwhile, recall that wide-eyed Annie, the show’s other avatar of virtue, is now rooming with Troy and Abed. Annie accidently steps on Abed’s $299 limited-edition Dark Knight DVD, and she won’t confess to what, in this context, is a heinous crime. (That this situation is a time-honored sitcom trope is so obvious that dumb Troy is given the job of explaining it to the audience.) The mystery sends Abed into his Batman costume to solve the case. A not-so-innocent bystander is soon implicated as the caped crusader investigates.
This was only a so-so Community. In the end, it was about foosball, and, to paraphrase Jeff, isn’t anyone who makes a sitcom about foosball a nob? And what’s with all the hugging at the end? I understand that Harmon, contra Larry David, isn’t against a hug-filled denouement as a matter of principle. The reasons David ruled them out in Seinfeld was primarily because they represent the pleasant, upbeat opium that TV feeds the masses. But it was also because they are hokey, and really not all that interesting—as they are here. Besides that, Troy’s performance is annoyingly one-note (as is Annie’s for that matter).
The good stuff: Abed, as Batman, discovering how the physics of the real world do not lend themselves to comic-book crime fighting was a high point. I am not the TV fanatic Harmon is (is anyone?), so I can’t say for sure, but I bet that Shirley and Jeff’s pre-teen flashbacks and the TV theme Troy is whistling is a reference to some old sitcom I’m not familiar with. When Abed as Batman creeps into the apartment of his creepy landlord, we hear a clip from a TV show: “Sam, Ziggy says there’s an 80 percent chance you can’t leave Woodstock until you bone these hippies!” The reference was over my head, but according to a fan of the show posting here, the landlord was watching a porny take on Quantum Leap, apparently involving a trip to the Woodstock fest. There’s a Ray Harryhausen poster in Abed and Troy’s apartment. And the kicker is a YouTube video from Leonard, a bit-player in the series that Jeff hates, doing reviews of frozen pizza. It ends with a Chuck Lorre-style vanity card on which Leonard complains about late fees at video stores.
What did I miss?
A review of the show’s last new episode, “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” is here. Details of the show’s mid-season replacement are here. My piece on the show’s most elaborate concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory,” is here.