Community Confuses the Heart and the Jugular

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 13 2012 12:32 PM

Community Gets Relationshippy

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

Photo byMichael Desmond– ©NBCUniversal, Inc.

In many ways, the keenest commentator on Community, the many-layered NBC sitcom, is one of its own characters, Abed. He’s a young guy with an obvious inability to understand or participate in certain social niceties. (In the first episode he was armchair-diagnosed with Asperger’s.) But he knows what he likes, and what he likes are TV shows that infuse the innate restrictions of the genre with a sense of wonder and potential. He’s keenly aware that too often TV shows take refuge in less-interesting tropes, too many of them of the boy-meets-girl variety.

Community being Community, Abed is allowed to vocalize his feelings about reality, TV, and Community itself. “I’m hoping we can move away from the soapy relationshippy stuff,” he said last season, “and into bigger, fast-paced, self-contained escapades!” The last word was said with relish.

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The two souls of Community went eye-to-eye last night: soap vs. grit, relationship vs. escapade. For the first half, it’s a standoff. But in the end, escapade blinks.

Community follows the friendships—ever-shifting, often cracking—among seven underachievers at the even more underachieving Greendale Community College. The more self-aware of the students understand their situation. (Said Jeff, a disgraced lawyer: “I used to run full speed through the boundless wilderness, and now I’m in the zoo.”) But as a mark of their lowered ambitions, they choose not to fight back—opting, you might say, to sing in their chains like the sea. The less aware just enjoy themselves.

As long as escapades come into play now and again.

The sense we have of Dan Harmon, the show’s creator, is he wants to encompass worlds, multitudes. Community’s greatest episodes—mind-blowing, escapades-laden concoctions like “Paradigms of Human Memory,” “Remedial Chaos Theory,” “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” episodes built around GoodFellas, Dungeons & Dragons, My Dinner with Andre… I could go on—announce their own superiority with their ambition and technical prowess. But Harmon also wants to master the basic good old-fashioned sitcom tale as well, even while exploding its premises and refusing to bow down before its superficiality and obviousness. And so he has a love-hate relationship with shows focusing on sentimentality and reconciliation—what Larry David contemptuously referred to as “learning.” He’ knows he shouldn’t do them, but he does, picking at the issue like a scab. Shirley’s wedding episode from a few weeks back is a good example of this sort of episode. They tend to be flops.

Last night, again, he confused the heart and the jugular. We’re in the end not really sure what it’s about.

The first few minutes of the show are pure pleasure. Abed and his buddy Troy work on a new handclap routine, with no hint of the fractures in their friendship lately seen (which culminated in last week’s tour de force, “Pillow and Blankets.”) Annie and Shirley demonstrate how many meanings a wordless squeak can have. The dialog crackles as the setup of the main storyline unfolds. Enter Dean Pelton, in his most fetching outfit yet, which is saying something. The dean’s new sublimating focus for his sexual frustration is trains, subtly enough.

This bravura opening concludes with an excuse to have Jeff change his shirt in front of innocent Annie, who practically needs smelling salts after she sees his sculpted torso.

The plot tonight stars Britta, the wound-up, contradictory gal-with-guy-trouble. An ex-boyfriend is coming through town—an emotionally dangerous one. He is working a carnival, of all things, which coincidentally will be occupying the school’s grounds that very weekend. His name is Blade, which excites Troy and Abed, fans of the comic book and the movie of the same name. “He’s the worst man on earth,” Britta tells the group. Annie agrees to confiscate Britta’s phone and keep her close over the weekend. Annie, you will remember, is currently rooming with Troy and Abed; the four do their best to keep Britta from a tawdry carny hookup. Hijinks ensue.

The side story features Jeff, with Shirley as his sidekick, visiting the carnival to get a glimpse of the guy Britta can’t control herself over. Turns out he’s not a rough-hewn denizen of the midway. He’s a genuine, self-effacing guy with no issues that Jeff can see—at first.

Meanwhile, Pierce and Chang go off to the carnival, too, and become BFFs, at least for a while. John Goodman, the terrifying head of the college’s air-conditioning repair school, browbeats the dean into trying to convince Troy, a preternaturally talented AC mechanic and plumber, to join his school. Meanwhile Annie …

… well, mostly, Annie just waltzes around in an ensemble that, to a degree we haven’t noticed yet on Community, accentuates her intriguing décolletage. More on that in a minute.

There are a number of troubles with tonight’s episode.

One is that the setup of Britta’s boffing buddy Blade is that he’s very bad for her. In the end, he seems to be a nice guy. The twist is that Jeff tells us that Blade literally has some brain damage, has “no shame,” and doesn’t care what people think about him. This, in his telling, makes the guy attractive to people. It’s not clear why this would be so, what in Blade triggers Britta’s self-destructive impulse in the first place, or how a hookup with him would be self-destructive. (After all, in “Chaos Theory,” we saw, in the form of a remarkably unappetizing pizza-delivery guy, just how bad Britta’s taste in men can be.) Even as Annie, Troy, and Abed try to keep Britta caged up for the weekend, the theme is that Blade is being mean to her and that’s what drives her to him. But that doesn’t square with what we see of him.

The climax is one of Jeff’s courtroom summations, this one about the importance of having “no shame.” I’ve watched his little speech three times and I still don’t understand the point. The catalyst for it was apparently that Jeff thought Blade was a lowlife for working at the carnival, but Blade was lacking any issues about it. Logically, Jeff would say to Britta, Hey, he’s a nice guy, go hook up. But instead, he insists that she not “go to him.”

At that point, it’s only Jeff who has issues, it would seem to me, but his peroration shows no indication that the writers of the episode get that. “We need to stop hating ourselves!” he intones. The rest of the cast looks at him, nodding at this meaningless profundity. The sequence may be the single worst writing Community has ever aired.

Indeed, after that jazzy opening, the writing and editing of the episode is extremely lax overall. There’s all sorts of folderol at the apartment with Britta’s cell phone. Little of it works as TV comedy. Some plot point having to do with something Troy texts to Britta and doesn’t let Annie see is handled clumsily. The subplot with Pierce and Chang goes precisely nowhere—even the song the show apparently commissioned for them isn’t funny—as does the air-conditioning repair story.

And finally, the show ends with one of those rounds of meaningful glances among the cast that Community has parodied so well in the past. My standard caveat when noting the relatively minor percentage of stuff on Community that doesn’t work is that Harmon & Co. are so smart that it’s always possible we’re missing something—an overarching twist or reference of some sort. (The only thing I can think of is that the episode is a riff on some infamous Lifetime Channel movie about a carnival worker who gets hit in the head with a bolt.) So maybe the sequence of meaningful glances is meant to be a double-reverse whammy—so deeply ironic and referential that it actually seems blandly unironically unreferential, which only underscores how deeply ironic and referential in the end it is. But if that’s so, it’s over my head, and since Jeff’s accompanying speech is so off-point, I found the episode singularly ineffective and the end a major anti-climax.

And one more thing. I think the very premise has a whiff of musty sexual mores about it. Britta’s an adult woman who can have a one-night stand with an ex if she wants to. Why does she need to be protected? Now, I will concede that the setup of Britta’s crisis has some depth. “Sometimes a woman meets a man she just can’t shake from her system no matter how much she knows better,” as Shirley puts it. The real story of the episode is that youthful Annie seems not to have grasped what the other two women accept as a truism of life, and it may be that the key narrative development we’re supposed to apprehend is Annie’s beginning to go down that road with Jeff.

That prominent décolletage, for example—which gets a remarkable amount of screen time tonight—might be the manifestation of her desire.

Or Harmon & Co. are doing the chest shots ironically.

While the main story seems like a thematic mess, there are enough of the show’s signature touches that it was still fun to watch:

* I can’t think of a TV character who does more with his or her limited screen time than Jim Rash as Dean Pelton. He’s doing something amazing virtually every second he’s in a scene, whether touching Jeff just-this-side-of-inappropriately (twice tonight, if you watch closely) or squirming in discomfort at real and imagined threats. His line readings are hilarious; check out the brief wan look on his face after he says, “The name rings a bell, but with me that could mean anything.”

* The dean’s new train fetish manifests itself with a big new train setup in his office. His large tableau is populated, it seems, entirely by tiny plastic Dalmatians, an animal the dean has an unarticulated but deeply sexual interest in, particularly in the furry demimonde he habits.

* His outfit is a skimpy yet wholesome short-pantsed train engineer’s ensemble that is a wonder of comedy wardrobe design. I’m comfortable enough with my own sexuality to say that he’s kind of adorable in it. (That man’s going to make someone a good cranky bottom some day.)

* The dialog tonight occasionally snaps into place: “Left unattended, I will end up doing him like a crossword,” says Britta of Blade.

* We see more glimpses of life in the apartment belonging to Troy, Abed, and Annie. Annie has a poster of the Zac Efron film Charlie St. Cloud. It’s a great example of drive-by assassination via pop-culture preference. (The Wikipedia account of the film’s plot, which begins with the premise of Efron being a championship sailboat racer and then slips into the implausible, has to be read to be believed.)

* All this talk of Blade drives Troy and Abed to watch the film of the same name, not without pleasure. (Its star, misguided tax-dodger Wesley Snipes, now in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, is not mentioned.) When Britta talks too much during the movie, Abed says, “Annie, subdue your guest.”

* The credits sequence is breathtaking; a 58-second riff on the nature of comedy, comedy clubs, audiences, criticism, fandom, the symbiotic relationship between entertainer and viewer, and, I don’t know, the human condition.

Further reading: Our analysis of the two previous episodes of Community encompasses the Great Troy and Abed War, parts one (“Digital Exploration of Interior Design”) and two ("Pillows and Blankets"); here's a list of the top 10 Community episodes; and here's 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. Read him at hitsville.net and follow him on Twitter @hitsville.

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