The Smartest Show on TV Nails Law & Order to the Wall

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 26 2012 9:14 PM

Community Nails Law & Order

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A still of Danny Pudi and Donald Glover on Community

Photo by Justin Lubin – © NBCUniversal, Inc.

Tonight’s episode of Community is called “Basic Lupine Urology.” Hold that thought. Then consider the new platinum red-and-blue logo for the show. Over it, a voice intones:

Greendale Community College is represented by two separate yet equally important groups of people. The goofballs that run around stirring up trouble—and the eggheads that make a big deal out of it.
These are their stories.
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Yes, it’s the long-awaited Law & Order episode of Community, a show that, more often than not, makes us very, very happy, and no time more so than with tonight’s episode, in which seemingly every line is a gem. The show’s creator, Dan Harmon, and his writers seem to be on a mission—a mission to what, exactly, we can’t know. But even when the episodes suck they are generally going after something big. Tonight, while this or that Community writer (or maybe even Harmon himself) is sure to protest their affection for Law & Order, make no mistake: This is a full-frontal assault on the most gigantic, most formulaic, and lamest franchise in the history of television. Law & Order’s creator, Dick Wolf, found a usable format—the one-hour cops ’n’ DA’s procedural, with the plot often drawn from recent news events, and with little in the way of ongoing narrative, making it all the easier to syndicate—and ran with it for decades, creating two, three, four offshoots, and garnering untold riches along the way.

We waited for the collapse of the franchise for years. Sooner or later, people were just going to get sick of it, right? We wanted to see it go down and take NBC with it, sorta the way ABC nearly destroyed itself by running Who Wants to be a Millionaire four nights a week.

But it never happened, and some variation of the show will apparently continue into eternity, along with the various CSI’s, NCIS’s and so forth.

But I digress. The title of tonight’s Community is, as noted, “Basic Lupine Urology.” Lupine, of course, relates to the word wolf, and urology has to do with the male urinary system.

In other words, it’s Wolf piss.

And this episode is a finely wrought jewel. From the cold open in which a not-so-terrible crime is discovered to its last-minute plot twist (a Law & Order specialty, of course), from the hilariously consistent hand-held camerawork to the cast of highly clichéd characters doing highly clichéd things, from the dialogue (seriously, virtually every line is a delight) to the plot (rigorous throughout), this is a fine piece of work. There’s even a chase sequence!

Indeed, the biggest joke of all is that, even putting aside the writing and acting (we know that Community is bravura in those departments), tonight’s episode, viewed purely as a police procedural, is streets ahead of any Law & Order episode you can give me. It’s better plotted, more engrossing, has better surprises, cuts deeper, and says more about the human condition.

All this, when the main victim is a yam.

The study group’s biology-class yam has been squished on the floor with what seems to have been malice aforethought, and Annie, horrified at the prospect of losing an A in the class (this is the one taught by Michael K. Williams, aka Omar from The Wire), is determined to see the perp in court. (Or class.) She asks Shirley to investigate; the latter turns, delectably, to Abed and Troy for the legwork:

“You boys canvass for witnesses, establish a time frame and motive, and bring me a suspect,” she barks, with pitch-perfect intonation. “You’ve got 48 hours before the trail runs cold, so start with the last person to see that yam alive.”

Off Troy and Abed go, running through the beloved flotsam and jetsam of the episode: Leonard and Pierce caught in an illegal arm-wrestling gambling den; Magnitude, whose “Pop! Pop!” here conveys volumes; Starburns, louchier and douchier than ever; Todd, the hapless Iraq war vet, brought back to the show to be emotional road kill again; and, finally, Fat Neil, a too-genial office boy with something to hide. Almost every scene of the 22 minutes is an exquisite piece of parody. There’s Britta, wearing glasses, displaying a dimwitted command of computers: When she looks up to say her psych background can help with the investigation, everyone walks away and the show cuts to a commercial. There’s Annie, grilling a witness: “Is that why you hit your wife? Withdrawn! Is that why you smoke pot and pop pills? Withdrawn! Are you a virgin? Withdrawn!” And there’s a brilliant throwaway scene in the school office, with Fat Neil pointlessly moving file folders around as he carelessly delivers his lines—itself a small masterpiece of mimicry.

Along the way, no one pretends to be anything but what they are. Says Troy when he captures a suspect: “You have the right to do whatever you want. Nothing you say or do can be used against you by anyone, but we’d really like it if you’d come with us.” The biology teacher, presiding over the yam inquiry in class: “I’d like to remind you that this is not a courtroom.”

Among the many subtle delights of the show are: Troy and Abed riffing on cop-show tough-talk, with just enough of a beat between each line to show that they’re struggling to come up with new ones; the credits, a moody, Mike-Post-like electric-piano-driven version of the Community theme song; and a street scene that features construction workers, passing traffic, and Garrett selling hot dogs.

And the episode’s most fulfilling attribute is just how persuasively plotted the story is. Granted that the victim was a yam and the scene of the crime a school science project, still, the logic of the narrative is unassailable; a key piece of evidence is on display for all to see; the plot twists are rational and genuine; and virtually everyone involved in the case is operating on understandable human motives.

Note the guest appearance by actor Michael Ironside, a tough-guy staple from a slew of Abed-friendly movies—and note, too, innumerable clever exchanges and one-liners:

Jeff: “She got me here on a very misleading text message.”

Annie: “Jeff, technically you are about be screwed in the biology room, because our final project has been destroyed.”

“He’s the bad cop. I’m the good cop.”

The suspect in a chase: “Kiss me, I’ll explain later!” Woman: “Explanation isn’t the issue!”

“Walk it off!”

And as for that twist, all I’m going to say is, live by the meth lab in the trunk, die by the meth lab in the trunk. 

Further reading: Our analysis of the previous episode of Community, "Virtual Systems Analysis"; 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.

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