The Smartest Show on TV Returns to Form

Slate's Culture Blog
March 23 2012 12:04 PM

Community Sends up Celebrity Worship, Brilliantly

community312
A still of Gillian Jacobs,Donald Glover,Alison Brie, and Danny Pudi on Community

Lewis Jacobs– ©NBCUniversal, Inc.

Last week, Community returned after its unwanted, unwelcome, deplorable hiatus. (Curse you, Kabletown!) But the first episode of Community Redux was a disappointment. Shirley got remarried to her ex-husband, Andre. It wasn’t an arch enough endeavor. It was a Wedding Episode, not a “wedding episode,” wink-wink. It was sort of sweet, but in the end it was about characters, and feelings, and stuff—all the TV things we watch Community to see picked up, signifier-ized, and pureed. Worse, it seemed like the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, was missing a chance to brandish his chops after an unwanted absence, to remind us all what we’d been missing.

The good news is that Community’s episode last night was a rip-roaring return to form. It was ambitious, dizzying, mean-spirited, and fun. It was about celebrities, and fake celebrities, and fake fake celebrities; about addictive personalities and friends who enable them; about quack shrinks and our pharmaceutical-drenched culture and celebrity egos and award shows and nouveau riche bar mitzvahs. Pop-culture references whizzed by, many of them not nice. (Among the unexpected figures on the firing line: Danny Thomas, Renée Zellweger, and people who say “Hello!” meaning “Hey, what about me?”)

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Stretching his narrative muscles a bit, Harmon gives us a framing story that is a nod not to a sitcom trope but TV drama one: The character who gets in a little too deep. This time it’s Abed, who, we learn, has become addicted to a celebrity lookalike service. He’s taken to hiring people to help him act out scenes from movies, and he has run up a bill he can’t pay. The celebrity-lookalike wrangler is a tough guy named Vinnie who tells Abed’s friend Troy that he’s going to send over a guy who looks like Ving Rhames and a guy who looks like Michael Chiklis to break Abed’s legs. He makes it clear they wouldn’t just be going through the motions, too.

Now, the classic formulation of this scenario is about a guy who’s run up too many gambling debts—but there are interesting prostitution overtones as well. If hiring a fake celebrity to play with is like hiring a hooker, then what is typical celebrity worship? Something clean and pure, like dating or marriage? And if so, what does this say about those geeky fans who maybe don’t hire celebrity lookalikes but nonetheless get a little too into it all (like, you know, writing sitcom episode recaps and such)?

The show opens with a (bad) Tommy Lee Jones impersonator showing up in the group’s study room and pulling a gun on Abed. “I didn’t kill my wife,” Abed says fiercely. “I don’t care,” the guy says evenly. (You’ll have recognized that bit from The Fugitive.) Once the extent of Abed’s problems has been made clear, the group decides the best way to help Abed is to work off his debt en masse. Turns out that the wrangler has a big bar mitzvah that weekend and needs a lot of fake celebs. And looking over the study group, he sees gold: There’s a Ryan Seacrest (handsome Jeff), a Judy Garland (wholesome Annie), and Michael Jacksons both young (Troy, who’s black) and old (Britta, who’s white). As for Pierce, he’s a passable Fat Brando.

Given that the group is actually dealing with an addiction issue, this non-solution is precisely the wrong thing to do. (Shirley, whose religiosity is the butt of many jokes, actually gets to make sense here, after a fashion.) But Troy convinces them otherwise, reminding them all of Abed’s generous spirit: “Pierce, who came over in the middle of the night that time when you’d forgotten how to fart?”

There are two subplots. In the first, Britta, a strident headcase continuing her psychological studies, has found an intriguing subject in Jeff, the narcissistic disgraced lawyer. His new shrink has (mistakenly) put him on anti-anxiety pills. Britta knows (as do we) that Jeff’s self-regard is already too high: “What little self-doubt you have is the only thing keeping your ego penned in!” she says. In the other, Señor Chang, now a security guard at Greendale, continues to go off his rocker—but the hapless dean, who’s running a community college with no money, is helpless to stop him. It’s all an elaborate setup to make a somewhat cruel joke at Zellweger’s expense.

The show’s centerpiece is the bar mitzvah, a whirl of excess. A trio of women—operating in a zone just this side of the offensively stereotypical—drape themselves on Jeff-as-Seacrest. Walter Matthau, Cher, Jamie Lee Curtis, Moby, and many others make (fake) appearances. (Shirley’s braying Oprah is a small masterpiece.) The climax is a monstrous awards show, in which the fake celebrities dispense statuettes Oscars-style, complete with bad patter. All of the awards, of course, are won by the boyman of honor, a state of affairs that in the end pushes an egomaniacal Jeff over the edge.

None of this helps Abed—the group was in fact just enabling him. Troy ultimately has to confront his friend. A riot of filmic walk-ons—referencing Patch Adams, Popeye, Risky Business, and maybe even Annie Hall—disguise a pretty cogent discussion of personal responsibility, free will, and friendship. Abed then goes off into a real dreamscape, talking, warily, to his evil twin. “This is really crazy, and inaccessible, and maybe too dark,” he says to himself. Compare that line—the climax of a genuinely crazy, inaccessible and perhaps too-dark episode—with the rather more wishful one (“There are so many layers!”) in the shallow wedding episode from last week.

I thought the celebrity lookalike angle resonated deeply. All celebrities are two people, of course: the actor and the persona. We, the audience, respond to the façade of the latter, which, in a way, dehumanizes the actor. Here, real people basically purchase the façade, just to experience one part of that duality—a potent send-up of fandom (the aggressive, sometimes too aggressive, pursuit of a simulacrum) and the TV audience (a passive observer of that simulacrum). Both are problematic constructs.

Best gag: The name of the celebrity lookalike service Abed uses is called the Doppel Gang. French Stewart (from 3rd Rock from the Sun), plays, with no little aplomb, the improbably tough fake celebrity service’s owner, a guy who used to be a French Stewart lookalike.

Weirdest new Community tic: Last week, you’ll remember, we saw Jeff’s heart turn into something like a slot machine. This time, there are odd apple graphics to represent his expanding ego. (The fact that a balloon would have made a better representation of this is discussed on the show.) Some of Señor Chang’s crazier thoughts, too, are given graphical treatment.

Sexwatch: The show keenly tracks its own toying with the sexual tension between as many people as possible (Pierce, of course, not included). Annie’s kissed Jeff and Abed but not Troy; Britta has kissed Troy and Jeff but not Abed. Here, Jeff and Shirley finally kiss, a hat trick for him after his friends-with-benefits boffathon with experienced Britta (referenced here) and his periodic smooches with semi-virginal Annie (also referenced here, albeit more subtly; there are several deliberate cutaways to an intrigued look on Annie’s face when Jeff is posturing). After a decidedly unsubtle reference to Jeff and Annie’s relationship in this season’s first episode (they sang “We’re going to sleep together” in the opening musical number), I assume Harmon & co. are setting the stage for some sort of fireworks in this area as the season winds down. 

One of the great things about Community is that it doesn’t vanilla-ize the unappetizing undercurrents in the TV tropes it plays with. The show has gone to some trouble to maintain Annie’s status as the child of the group. (An early episode made clear her sexual inexperience.) The news that Jeff had kissed her at the end of the first season brought a hail of genuine recrimination on his head. But Annie’s growing sexuality has been hinted at off and on (there was even a story arc in which she had dated tiny-nippled Vaughn), and in one of the strains of the bravura “Chaos Theory” episode, Jeff and Annie kiss again—at which point she tells him he reminds her of her father.

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