While Matthew Newlin has been enjoying film festivals, he has been unable to handle the recaps of Community. I, your The Office and Revolution recapper, have agreed to step in and look at the latest two episodes of the retooled-ish Community. This, of course, means I get to start with a rambling diatribe about the state of the show thus far. (Skip to “Alternative History of the German Invasion” or “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” if it makes things easier.)
Season 4 of Community has been a mixed bag to say the least. The very public dismissal of creator Dan Harmon has left a palpable cloud over the antics Greendale Community College. Even before the season began, the show gained a reputation that would be hard to shake. Would liking Season 4 be based on its own merits or be residual effects from the obsessive fandom of the previous three years? Alternatively, would not liking Season 4 be based on the show’s quality or because of devotion to Harmon and knowledge of the behind-the-scenes conflicts?
Five episodes in, and I still don’t know the answer to these questions. Nor do I know how much external factors are affecting my appreciation for this current incarnation of the show. But overall, I find Season 4 of Community to be confusing. (That’s a kindly ambiguous word.) There’s a strange pall over all the proceedings. A feeling of directionlessness; a ship without a rudder; the hazy, dreamlike quality of season 5 Newsradio. Fortunately, it’s a much different and more interesting feeling than a show that’s bad, or lazy, or has just given up. The biggest vibe I get from Community thus far is struggle. It seems to be trying to tap into what made the original so beloved, but unable to find that ever elusive, intangible spark. The core that differentiates Gus Van Sant’s Psycho from Hitchcock’s original or that elevates the original Die Hard above others in the genre.
This attempt to recapture the past becomes both problematic, as it prevents the new showrunners from finding their own voice, and somewhat admirable, as it shows a concern for the fans. The issue is perhaps best evidenced by the amount of callbacks over the past few episodes. Thankfully, I do not feel as if the writers referencing earlier episodes are them going, “that ought to hold those SOB’s,” but more that they are trying to ease us into accepting them as stepparents. Unfortunately, these “presents” have only forced me to wonder when Inspector Space-Time became as important to the show as Greendale itself. Trying to balance between these two masters will only further lead Community to appear as a hollow shell of its former self. Nevertheless, I’m still enjoying this show, like spending time with the characters, and want to see it escape its growing pains.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the last two episodes of Community.
“Alternative History of the German Invasion” had the makings of a good Community episode but probably best showed what is lacking in Com-new-nity. To give an idea about how off it was, Pearce had the best moments. However, I should add that this was technically the second episode of the season, which does give it some leeway.
The plot involved the return of the German exchange students from “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism,” save for sorely missed leader The League‘s Nick Kroll who is off on Comedy Central and probably getting better ratings. In his stead is Chris Diamantopoulos, best known as Brian the Creepy Mic Guy, Pam’s stalker on The Office. After learning from history teacher Professor Cornwallis (Malcolm McDowell) that their assignment is to write about a war from the loser’s perspective, the gang has their headquarters taken over by the Germans.
Exiled to the creepy study room, the Greendale 7 gets their enemies banned from their base through a ruse and the student body rebels against them, which leads Annie to proclaim “We thought the Germans were the Germans but instead we were the Germans!” This leads to a not-so-classic Winger speech where Jeff declares that they owe it to Greendale and the other students to be leaders and part of the family. So they fix the other study room and obtain forgiveness.
Community has used the concept of G7 as the villains on numerous occasions, so this fourth wall idea lacks novelty. However, in previous takes on the theme, the show always managed to put a unique spin on it. “Alternative” doesn’t do anything new; it’s a straightforward reiteration without any cleverness or new angles. Even with World War 2 as its basis, nothing in the episode has the satirical bite that made Community Community.
Jeff’s speech at the end that Greendale is their home and family seems too nice and out of character for him by being so blatant. G7 might “save the school” on numerous occasions, but their feelings for those not in the clique should be somewhat ambiguous. The appeal of Community is that it’s about a gang of misfits who isolate and consider themselves above other misfits. Once the entire student body becomes a giant family, or at least when that element is stated aloud, the show loses its edge. And in all these episodes, the subversive quality that made the first three seasons of Community so great is definitely lacking.
The show’s former subtlety is noticeable in other places. The gang gets the Germans ousted from the study room by having them enjoy an Oktoberfest festival, which goes against the Dean’s rule forbidding people from celebrating their own culture. Conceptually, it seems connected to the show’s long history of mocking political correctness (see: the Greendale Human Being). In execution, it becomes too obvious and lacks the smartness previously present in the show.
In other matters, Chang returns to Greendale with “Changnesia.” Dean Pelton, crossdressing again because he used to do it I guess, agrees to take him in, with a little pressing from the Board. Chang seemingly reforms by handing himself over to the authorities because of his kidnapping of Pelton last year, so the dean pawns him off on G7. The show is doing a decent job at making Chang’s motives ambiguous, and even though Crossdressing Dean seems more from a checklist of his characteristics than a natural part of the character, Pelton is still a welcome presence.
Also positively, McDowell did a fine job with Cornwallis, a former distinguished professor exiled to Greendale after a tryst with a co-ed. The pacing in the original classroom scene seemed a bit off, but I liked his shock when he realized G7 legitimately thought the student animosity was part of a lesson arranged by him.
“Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations,” thankfully, ends up being the best one so far this year, but for unconventional reasons. Set around Thanksgiving, “Escapism” is based around two storylines: Jeff and Britta at Jeff’s estranged dad’s (James Brolin) house and everyone else at Shirley’s. This also marks the third of five episodes taking place primarily outside of Greendale. Although previous seasons took us beyond the bounds of the campus, it never seemed this common. Or, as in last season, there was a reason for it- G7 were expelled.
Regardless, the strength of the episode came solely from Jeff reuniting with his father and meeting his man-child half-brother. Britta is there to serve as a therapist, which generally means she misunderstands psychological concepts and offers comic relief while Jeff’s resentment towards his old man simmers until it boils over. Although Jeff and his father pretend that everything’s cool at start, eventually Jeff puts it all on the line and tells off his dad. It’s a good scene and features some of Joel McHale’s best acting in the entire series.
I’ve been hesitant about the idea of including Jeff’s father in the show. I always thought he worked best more as a spectre than an actual person. It was a well that they shouldn’t have tapped into until either a) they had a really good reason or actor for it (Brolin was decent, but not remarkable) or b) they were completely running out of ideas (I’ll just let that sit there). Additionally, it’s weird when a comedy pulls off an intensely blunt and dramatic scene, especially when it can’t handle its humorous aspects. I’m also often conflicted about whether such emotions should be played more subtly and introspectively or if they should be stated openly. However, divorced from everything else, the scene was terrific and easily the high point of the this year.
The Shirley, et al. scenes don’t fare as well. Not liking Shirley and her husband’s family, Abed, Troy, and Annie decide to hide in the garage while Pearce, who is enjoying himself, entertains the guests. This leads to a Shawshank Redemption spoof that makes me realize that the show might be unable to pull off parodies anymore. Abed does a voiceover in the style of Morgan Freeman, meaning that he pretty much says/thinks, “I am doing a parody of The Shawshank Redemption. A Morgan Freeman-style voiceover would be good right now.” Although they paraphrase some lines from the movie, the pacing and cadence don’t match. Maybe the problem was that Abed did the narration, not the Morgan Freeman impersonator you know lives in Abed’s mind.
Finally, Jeff continuing on his season-long apology tour sets up a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone in the study room and praises the “the real family, the one we chose.” And thus ends another episode with the G7 = Family verbally expressed. They really don’t trust us to pick up on one of the show’s most obvious elements since its beginning, do they?
• Episode 4: The War stuff isn’t nearly as well done as in Pillows and Blankets. In fact, there’s nothing really war-y about it. Just the word war. I’m not saying the show needs to be constant movie spoofs, but referencing a movie or a genre should mean something on this show, not just copying a font. (Compare Community‘s take on Apollo 13 in “Basic Rocket Science” to its take on The Hunger Games in “History 101.”
• Episode 5: I liked Britta’s glee as she realized she was successful as a therapist, but as comic relief, she didn’t work for me. She felt shoehorned in and the broadness of her humor seemed more like a chainsaw than a scalpel when trying undercut the dramatic tension. However, she and Jeff share a nice scene in the car at the end.
• Episode 5: After Britta says there are no accidents, Jeff responds with “What about car accidents, Tara Reid, or the Hindenburg?” Tara Reid seems like a dated reference. Though strangely, the Hindenburg does not.
• Episode 5: The Dean also joins them for their Thanksgiving dinner. It’s never a good sign when the villain/fool becomes an ally. Jerry never accepted Newman.