The Smartest Show on TV Mocks Ken Burns

Slate's Culture Blog
April 6 2012 12:52 PM

On Community, War Is Swell

Community, Pillows and Blankets
A still of Ken Jeong and Donald Glover on Community

Photo byTyler Golden– ©NBC Universal, Inc.

When we left Community last week, best friends Troy and Abed were facing off like Bill the Butcher and… whoever the other guys were in Gangs of New York. Abed had built himself a monument that was not more lasting than bronze: a grand pillow fort. Troy had created a Shangri-La of his own, crafted from blankets. These two incompatible creations, built on the campus of the community college they attend, are the embodiment of a pointlessly intractable standoff, just like a fight between, say, a difficult actor and a prickly showrunner.

Sure, sometimes a pillow fight is just a pillow fight—even when it is, as the narrator here tells us, “The largest and longest pillow fight in community college history.” We know this should really be settled between the sheets; instead, Troy and Abed’s long-smoldering resentments have thrown Greendale Community College into chaos.

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This is Community, which some folks think is the smartest show on TV. It’s about a group of seven friends who met at Greendale, whose relationship to actual education is almost entirely theoretical. In the show’s two previous seasons the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, brought the year to a climax with a massive schoolwide paintball fight. This year, confounding expectations, Harmon goes soft—literally.

From Tamerlane to Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus to Prince Harry, Grant to Mao to Arafat to Mandela, leaders of varying distinction have led their people into battle. Since Community is about everything, this fight between Troy and Abed is also about all wars ever. The first relevant precedent is, of course, Biblical: Troy vs. Abed, brother against brother. There are also allusions to the Golden Horde (Abed’s outfit), the intractable Middle East (the utter senselessness of the dispute), the Civil War (internecine carnage), the arms race (unthinkable weapons, both physical and emotional), and passing references to everything from WWII to Vietnam, the Wars of the Roses to the War Between the Sexes, First Blood to Rambo: First Blood Part 2.

Did I mention it’s a pillow fight? In this case, war is swell. And it’s the show’s third brilliant episode in a row, if you’re keeping track.

The tale is told as a documentary. Jeff Winger, the disgraced lawyer who encourages the war so he doesn’t have to go to class, knows what that means: “Disaster.” But our auteur this time out is not Dean Pelton—who nearly ruined Greendale during his Stroheimian descent into cinematic excess in the episode called “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”—or Abed, whose grandiose filmic visions have driven the show’s narrative passim. Instead, we get war Ken Burns-style, plodding and fatuous, complete with shticky, panning camera work, letters from home, personal testimonies, even (atrociously bad) war poetry, read in voiceover. In other words, this sexually charged faceoff between two pajama-wearing boychilds layered against the senselessness of human conflict from time immemorial is really… a critique of PBS, right down to the pledge drives. This is why we watch Community; it’s about things that matter.

The risk when you parody something plodding and fatuous is that your parody may end up plodding and fatuous, too. But Harmon avoids this, concocting a hilarious mix of hokey Burnsian shtick peppered with updated technological and pop-culture references—like this one, intoned solemnly by Abed:

The war won’t stop with First Blood Part II. It will escalate to Rambo III. Which should really be Rambo II: First Blood Part III, but the Rambo titles never made sense. And neither does war.
— Abed Nadir, Facebook Status Update
— Leonard likes this post!

The episode delightedly courses its way through every war and war-movie trope you can think of: soldiers goofing off in the calm, minutes before a raid; wounded warriors in the hospital; escalating super-weapons; scenes of unbridled carnage done in hand-held slo-mo, with legends telling us the footage was obtained from student cell phones.

Abed and Troy plot strategy and rule their armies. Innocent Annie tends to the fallen in the hospital, lovingly removing pillow feathers from their clothes with a lint roller, a scene of hilarious deadpan comedy. Britta tries to be a war photographer; technologically challenged, she sports a bulky old SLR, missing every shot she tries to take. Shirley, the preening Christian, is, as we saw in the second-season paintball spectacular, a formidable warrior; and Pierce has a cameo as an unthinkable weapon—a Pillow of Mass Destruction. (Fitting, perhaps given the week Chevy Chase, who plays Pierce, has had.) But, of course, no one knows a general’s weaknesses like his best friend, and, in the end, Abed unleashes, accidentally, the unkindest weapon of all.

Complaints: The real root of the war seems to be Abed’s fracturing persona, as we have seen during the preceding weeks. Little is made of that tonight, however. The show is hampered by its PBS-doc style in the climactic battle, told mostly through still shots, which aren’t quite funny enough to match the climaxes of the paintball episodes. And we continue to see the soft side of Jeff. Harmon knows and understand the (Larry) Davidian “No hugging, no learning” dictum and is intellectually confident enough to disregard it when he wants to; still, I distrust Winger’s growing sentimentality. First, it’s a violation of the show’s world as it’s been defined. (Shirley’s not going to wake up one day and think, “Gee, the religion I’ve made the center of my being is made up of equal parts hokum and hypocrisy.”) Jeff needs to remain selfish and alone—and in the plot here, he should have brought the war to an end for his own selfish reasons.

Still, these complaints are far outstripped by the episode’s great touches, including:

* Fat Neil’s cameo as a dulcet-toned wartime DJ, signing off with Michael Haggins’ “Daybreak,” Abed and Troy’s favorite bit of smooth jazz. When the two warring friends hear it, each looks off into the distance, as if remembering something.

* As negotiations come to a standstill, Troy offers Abed not an ultimatum but an “All Tomato.” (“It means you give me the whole tomato, or else.”)

* An elaborate homage to Inglourious Basterds, set up over three episodes.

* Pillow-induced casualties: Some kids have their glasses broken, others have their testicles lightly grazed (which of course describes many young men’s experience in high school).

* The narration is done by Keith David, a deliriously pleasurable double-banked joke: David (who played Cameron Diaz’s stepfather in There’s Something About Mary) was not only one of the stars of The Cape, the short-lived NBC TV series much derided by Community, but also Ken Burns’s go-to narrator in Jazz and The War.

* David delivers lines like “Winger’s critics suggest he merely improvised hot-button patriotic dogma in a Ferris Bueller-ian attempt to delay schoolwork” with aplomb.

* The first time the camera rests on Nurse Annie, we see her formidable visage, but not before the camera pans up, Burns-style, from her even more formidable chest.

* Our warring states are the United Forts of Pillowtown vs. the Legit Republic of Blanketsburg.

* The credit sequence seems at first just a funny send-up of PBS pledge-drive hosts pleading with viewers to keep their shows on the air—until you realize Troy and Abed might really be talking about Community itself.

Further reading: Our analysis of the two previous episodes of Community, “Digital Exploration of Interior Design” (and, yes, we did just apprehend the sexual innuendo in that episode title) and “Contemporary Impressionists”; a list of the top 10 Community episodes; and an in-depth look at the show’s greatest concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Or just read all of Slate’s Community coverage.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. More at www.hitsville.org.