Part ones get off too easy. The first part of two-part episodes are usually light on action and weighed down with dull exposition. They also tend to be padded, as television writers accustomed to telling stories in 42 minutes struggle to fill 84 minutes of air time. Despite these problems, fans and critics alike generally let them slide, providing the episode has a strong enough hook at the end (and sometimes even absent the hook).* It’s as though we’ve been conditioned to not judge part ones on their merits. And I think that’s both a mistake and somewhat odd.
(*Both Fringe and–to a much lesser extent–Doctor Who have suffered from part-one-itis in the last few weeks, for example. And viewers didn’t seem to mind.)
Part ones operate by somewhat different narrative rules, of course, but those rules are not so different from the rules under which episodes of serialized dramas operate. They still follow certain rhythms and have to achieve certain goals. Part ones are, by their very nature, always going to spend a fair amount of time setting up the episode (or episodes) to follow. This set-up has to account for both plot considerations and character conflicts. Though this set-up will generally lack the traditional narrative payoff, it should still be expected to entertain. It’s not enough to merely promise entertainment next time, though the promise of further entertainment is important, as this is what replaces the normal episodic conclusion. All part ones need some sort of cliffhanger to hook the audience for next week. And it’s perfectly reasonable to judge a part one on its ability to meet these criteria, just as we judge episodes in serial dramas on their ability to do the same. And “A Fistful of Paintballs” is, in fact, pretty much excellent on all these counts.
One of the things that made “Modern Warfare” (this episode’s spiritual predecessor) so great was how radically unique it was. If Community’s basic tone is one of self-aware satirical seriousness, then “Modern Warfare” took it to its most extreme conclusion. A normal episode of Community, as established throughout the first season, both makes fun of and employs sitcom tropes. “Modern Warfare” did the same thing, only it mocked and used action movie tropes instead, presenting a mash-up of action cliches in an inherently ridiculous setting that nonetheless managed to also be as fun as a regular action movie. Upon realizing they could pull this off, Dan Harmon and company started using this method all the time, and it’s led to a second season that’s featured almost as much genre-hopping as traditional sitcom plots. People sometimes refer to the genre-hopping as a gimmick, but they don’t actually depart from the regular language of the show–they just import that language into different genres, all while maintaining consistent and evolving characterization. At this point, it’s less a gimmick than simply a thing Community does.
“A Fistful of Paintballs” applies the standard Community half-smirk to the Spaghetti Western. This isn’t a genre I’m terribly familiar with–I haven’t even seen The Good, The Bad and The Ugly all the way through–so it’s hard for me to say for certain haw well the episode represents the genre. But I do know enough to say that it was very enjoyable not just because of the way it mocked certain aspects of the genre, but also for all the way it played it straight. For instance, it’s funny when Josh Holloway’s mysterious mercenary reveals that he has tickets for Coldplay because it undermines the archetype’s swaggering masculinity. But it’s no less enjoyable for the twenty minutes of the episode that Holloway actually is a mysterious mercenary with a swaggering masculinity. On the one hand, all of that is set-up for the punchline at the end. But on the other hand, all of that set-up is darn fun. So fun, in fact, that it would have been fine even if there hadn’t been any punchline at all.
And the episode as a whole can be judged on the same merits. It’s unclear as of yet how the second part is going to pay “Fistful” off, but regardless of what happens next week, this is just wildly entertaining. It sets up multiple conflicts between the characters, including the reintroduction of Pierce’s storyline. And it features a very solid twists, in which the ice cream cone mascot is revealed to be the leader of a vast conspiracy. Given that it’s a part one, you really couldn’t ask for much more that that.
Impressively, though, “Fistful” actually does deliver a little more than that. The thing that makes part ones hard challenging as single episodes of television is that aforementioned lack of a traditional conclusion. They don’t feel like complete episodes, in part because they usually aren’t complete episodes. Serialized dramas also have this problem from time to time, their episodes losing their own narrative identities as they get subsumed into the larger narrative. This doesn’t have to happen as a matter of course, however, not even with part ones, and it doesn’t happen with “A Fistful of Paintballs.”
It’s true that the character conflicts here are all left dangling, but the episode has a very clear closed-off plot construction that revolves around Holloway’s mysterious mercenary. The larger story is about the paintball tournament, but within this episode, Holloway is the problem our heroes have to overcome. And when Pierce shoots him after faking a heart attack, it concludes that particular plot, while at the same time introducing the next episode’s threat. It actually plays a lot like an episode of serialized drama, in which the ongoing story and character threads frame and inform the procedural plot that gives the episode its definition. And it’s what makes “A Fistful of Paintballs” a step up from even well executed regular part one.
- Maybe my favorite part of the episode was the reveal of the source of the playing card nicknames. I wasn’t expecting those to have a point.
- I haven’t disliked Pierce’s arc this season like some people have, but next week will go a long way in deciding whether it was a good idea or not. It’s the sort of thing that really does need a decent payoff.
- This wasn’t the funniest episode, but a lot of Community’s best episodes aren’t the funniest episodes. It was an awful lot of fun, though.