Posted Friday, March 16, 2012, at 1:43 PM
Photo by Lewis Jacobs – © NBCUniversal, Inc.
Last fall, on the first episode of the third season of the TV show Community, our hemi-demi-semi hero, Abed—a pop-culture fan of no little intensity—hears that his favorite TV show, Cougar Town, has been replaced midseason. A strange and painful sound comes out of Abed’s mouth. He knows what a midseason replacement means. It is entertainment purgatory. A show replaced mid-season is a ghost ship, a zombie, a character in a movie who doesn’t even know he’s dead.
Abed’s strangled scream was ultimately placated only when he found a new favorite show: Inspector Spacetime. It’s a Dr. Who spoof, existing only in the world of Community. It has given Abed and his best friend, Troy, many hours of comfort, and it is a fitting metaphor for the travails of Community itself. Why? Because just a few months after Abed feared for Cougar Town, Community itself was replaced midseason—displaced, that is, in both space and time. Would it ever, in fact, come back? We didn’t know.
We couldn’t say we were surprised at this fate, us Community fans. The smartest and weirdest show on TV had a loyal but too-small audience, and we’ve always suspected that it’s only lasted as long as it has because of dysfunctionalities inside NBC stemming from its takeover by Kabletown Comcast.
Us fans love Community because it is a TV show very much about TV shows, and, in a way, the midseason-replacement foreshadowing is itself a mark of the show’s brilliance. It is just such pyrrhic triumphs that make those of us who love Community fear for its future.
For now, anyway, it is back, after a three-month hiatus. Dan Harmon, Community’s creator, makes no reference to the Gethsemane in this return episode. There are no near-death experiences, enticing white lights, or poignant looks back. The spigot of dizzying pop-culture references is turned way down low. There is no bravura self-referential conceptuality here, and it seems to have been done on the cheap.
Instead, we get a goddamn Wedding Episode.
If you’re just tuning in (and apparently some of you are!), Community is the anti-Friends. It’s about seven bickering classmates, thrown together in a study group in an amusingly worthless community college called Greendale. (Greendale’s students would learn more on the streets. And by that I mean, they would literally learn more just hanging out on an average city street.) Tonight, the character known as Pierce, who is played by Chevy Chase, has reinvented himself as a suspendered entrepreneur. His first product is a racist security camera. He’s open, though, to starting up a sandwich shop with Shirley, a mom who went back to school to learn something about business.
This negotiation is interrupted by the musical arrival of Andre, Shirley’s ex-husband, with whom she is now reconciled. The pair met, it turns out, in 1991; Andre makes his second marriage proposal backed by a trio of singers doing Boyz II Men moves.
Shirley avidly says yes, and the Wedding Episode is on. Were we wrong to emit an involuntary let-down sigh? Even Inspector Spacetime has had a wedding episode, we learn. We know what’s going to happen. What should—in traditional TV narrative terms—be a moment for friends to gather around one of their fellows becomes instead a vehicle of destabilization. The wedding pushes everyone’s buttons. Jeff hates weddings; Annie dreams of them; Britta is scandalized that Shirley is shunting her career plans aside. Troy and Abed, meanwhile, see it as a platform to act out.
We might have seen this all on Friends.
Shirley, misguided in so many ways, is nonetheless ready for this crowd when it comes to a wedding. “You are dippin’ and dappin’ and don’t know what’s happenin’!” she cautions Britta. From Troy and Abed she requests mere normality. Agreeably, the pair attempt a “full 24-hour weird-down.”
And… that’s about it. This episode didn’t seem up to par. Jeff gets off one good line about marriage: “Just nut up and die alone.” After that he goes into full “I didn’t have a daddy” mode. Jeff’s father issues, which have been popping up regularly this season, aren’t that interesting; they too melodramatic and reductive. (What is he, depraved on account of being deprived?) Worst of all, they don’t have the pop-culture resonances that give the show its depth. They’re just part of his… character. Ugh!
The way the wedding brings out issues in Britta, too, feels arbitrary. To make things worse, Abed and Troy sit on the sidelines talking about how conceptual these developments all are. Harmon’s so smart it’s possible the comment is meant to underscore how conceptual they aren’t—but that begs the question of why the ideas are so lame in the first place.
The best thing in the episode is how Shirley seems to be the one person on the show who isn’t all that interested in the wedding. (And the ceremony, when it eventually occurs, is genuinely touching.)
The show has somehow found the money to pull off extravagant concoctions now and again. But Harmon’s budget may be getting a little tight. When Annie and Britta visit a florist, the shop seems to be set up inside their study room. Hmm, you say—perhaps Community could make some money with product placements! In fact, Subway makes an appearance here—but only in the form of a big bad chain that comes in and crushes Shirley’s hopes and dreams. (Maybe the next episode could feature the group all getting dysentery from eating there!)
The great moments are few. There’s an odd bit of magic realism when Jeff attempts to look into his heart: We see a spinning set of images (a few of which seem to be Annie!).
There’s Britta, envisioning herself as a proper homemaker: “I’m one of the Steppenwolf Wives!”
And Pierce, looking at the picture of a light-skinned black model: “Let’s say the father is a record producer and her mother’s a Shirelle.”
In the end, the episode almost redeems itself with an ineffable credit sequence. Ladies and gentlemen, Chevy Chase!