Posts Tagged ‘Community’

You know what’s fun? Community. You know what else is fun? Lists. So this list of all the second season episodes of Community ranked from 24 to 1 is sure to be a blast. It should also have the added benefit of demonstrating just how good the second season of Community was.

24. Early 21st Century Romanticism: So how good was Community this season? So good that a perfectly harmless, generally entertaining, just slightly messy episode is the worst of the season. Everything works sporadically here, but doesn’t really come together in the end. Britta and alterna-faux-lesbian-Britta’s extremely awkward kiss is the clear highlight, though the introduction of the instant party that is Magnitude! definitely deserves a mention.

23. Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples: Maybe the most ambitious episode of the season, “Messianic Myths” just never manages to live up to that ambition. There are those who really dislike this episode, but I’m not one of them, as Abed’s attempt to understand religion–and Shirley’s growing frustration with the film that attempt produces–is both good character work and an incredibly impressive thing for a sitcom to try. It still ranks 23.

22. Asian Population Studies: Though I like the character of Rich a lot, there’s nothing terribly memorable here, and that’s why it slots in so low. It’s just one of those really solid episodes of television most sitcoms would be thrilled to produce on any given week.

21. Competitive Wine Tasting: A class about “Who’s the Boss” taught by Stephen Tobolowsky should probably have been given an episode of its own, not shunted off to a subplot like it is here, where it feels too rushed and not quite fully formed. That narrative unevenness aside, the A-plot is good, built around Jeff’s insecurity and Pierce’s growing sense of alienation.

20. Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy: Shirley’s pregnancy–though an important story throughout the season–was never quite as funny or interesting as the writers wanted it to be. Consequently, the B-plot here is the memorable one, making good use of Britta’s strident liberalism and guest starring Enver Gjokaj in a funny turn as an unrepentant war criminal turned Greendale student.

19. Basic Rocket Science: This episode probably works better for people more invested in the astronaut genre than I am, but even so, its commitment to that genre is undeniable. It also does a fine job establishing the City College-Greendale rivalry.

18. Celebrity Pharmacology 212: This is the part of the list where we move from funny episodes that don’t quite come together to very funny episodes that don’t quite come together. “Celebrity Pharmacology” is around the time when fans really began questioning Pierce’s character arc, as his behavior begins to cross the line from obnoxious to almost unbearably obnoxious. But the way Pierce turns his marijuana leaf villain into the hero of Annie’s play is an instructive insight into his character: like The Office‘s Michael Scott, he just wants people to like him. Unfortunately, he has no idea how to make that happen.

17. Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts: Despite my ambivalence towards Shirley’s pregnancy, the pay-off is quite good, going so far as to make Chang seem something close to human for a minute or two. What it all means for Shirley is less clear, unfortunately. Britta’s attempt to play midwife is one of the funnier gags of the season and continues her struggle to live up to her ridiculous ideals.

16. Intro to Political Science: Despite the general absence of Britta and Shirley, and being a bit too on the nose with Jeff and Annie’s relationship, there’s a lot of sharp political humor here between Jeff’s inane catchphrases and Troy and Abed’s commentary. Additionally, Jeff dresses up like George Micheal and sings “You’ve Gotta Have Jeff,” and the Dean dresses up in “his sister’s” Uncle Sam costume. It’s a good episode for fans of outfit humor.

15. Aerodynamics of Gender: Community did a lot of really bizarre plots this season, but Troy and Jeff finding a magical trampoline is probably the most bizarre plot of all. Abed as a mean girl, meanwhile, does a good job highlighting his antisocial tendencies. Abed must be used for good, not for evil.

14. The Psychology of Letting Go: Pierce’s second-season storyline really begins here, with the death of his mother. The episode manages to depict both the group’s pathologies and the way they genuinely try to support one another. In the end, Pierce is left with a CD of his mother’s last words and a profound loneliness that will feed his own pathologies in the episodes to come.

13. Anthropology 101: Two great scenes bookend the season premiere. The first is the opening montage, which is one of those iconic scenes that successfully encapsulates the characters in just a few short moments. The second features Betty White rapping before breaking into Toto’s “Africa.”

12. For a Few Paintballs More: The season finale, meanwhile, had one job it had to do: It had to pay Pierce’s character arc off. And “For a Few Paintballs More” did so in a way that seemed to redeem the storyline even in the eyes of its harshest critics. That last scene, with Pierce addressing the study group before leaving, and the group waiting for Pierce to return only to realize he’s not going to, is a thing of beauty.

11 and 10. Epidemiology and A Fistful of Paintballs: Great for the complete commitment to their genre aesthetics, neither of these are the funniest episodes, but they’re both an awful lot of fun. “Epidemiology” is important for introducing Shirley’s pregnancy storyline with her and Chang’s apocalyptic tryst. “A Fistful of Paintballs,” meanwhile, ably sets up the conclusion of Pierce’s second season arc and features a really enjoyable guest turn from Josh Holloway.

9. Accounting for Lawyers: The second episode of the season features maybe the funniest scene on television all year, with Annie’s deranged chloroforming of everybody around her. Drew Carey also guest stars as a lawyer with a hole in his hand that he can drop a quarter through. You don’t really need much more than that.

8. Cooperative Calligraphy: The bottle episode, in which Annie holds the group hostage and demands the return of her stolen pen. As a result, they miss a puppy parade. Turns out it was Troy’s monkey all along. (I now blame Troy’s monkey for everything.) As with most of the remaining episodes on this list, it’s great because of its focus on the individual characters and how they each fit into the group as a whole.

7. Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking: As if to illustrate that (I only sort of did it on purpose, I swear), the focus here is very much on the characters and the way they view themselves and one another. Interestingly, it’s maybe the best defense of the documentary-style sitcom ever produced, as it really plays up the strengths of the format, especially in regard to the talking head interviews and the quick cutting to pay off jokes. My only complaint is the end of the episode, as it’s the only time I ever really felt Pierce’s behavior went too far.

6. Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas: As if the careful examination of the world as seen through Abed’s eyes as a Rankin-Bass Christmas special weren’t enough, the climax of “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is a Lost joke. I have to be honest: I’m not entirely sure I didn’t dream this episode.

5. Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design: Well, most the episodes at this juncture of the list are great because of a strong focus on character dynamics. This one’s great because of the brilliantly elaborate conspiracy theory parody. And the Kevin Corrigan. And the giant blanket fort city.

4. Critical Film Studies: The best Abed episode, “Critical Film Studies” hides an obscure movie parody within a popular movie parody. Abed and Jeff play the audience roles, with one of them aware of what’s happening and the other in the dark. By the end of the dinner, Jeff has become emotionally invested in Abed’s role, only to get angry when he discovers that Abed staged it all. The episode asks, broadly, whether it makes any sense to get emotionally involved with fiction–be it television, movies or literature–and, specifically, whether it makes any sense to get emotionally involved in a show so meta that it intentionally leaves a large portion of its audience adrift. And then it puts Pierce in a leather bodysuit.

3. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Much of the latter half of the season was devoted to expanding the world of the show, but this episode in particular is important because a recurring character is actually at the center of the story, which opens up a lot of possibilities for world-building going forward. Also, Chang wears drowface. And then there’s this little bit of brilliance, for all those Abed-Annie shippers out there.

2. Mixology Certification: For all of its half-smirking, the second best episode of the season plays a few old tropes completely straight, taking the gang to a bar on Troy’s 21st birthday. Jeff and Britta argue over which bar to go to, only to discover they each had the some one in mind. Abed again displays complete and utter social ineptitude. Shirley tries to hide past transgressions under a thick layer of piety. Annie gets a false ID and tries out a new identity. Pierce is stuck in the entryway, not exactly excluded from the group but not quite a part of it either. And Troy discovers that growing up isn’t really all that great.

1. Paradigms of Human Memory: Even at their worst, clip shows are pretty good at two things: nostalgia and character study. They remind viewers of all the good times they’ve had and demonstrate how the characters have evolved over the years. They’re also a hackneyed money-saving device ripe for parody, and several shows have offered up clip show parodies, some that still manage convey that sense of nostalgia and evolution. “Paradigms of Human Memory” adds to all of that a deconstruction of the clip show and of Community itself, ripping apart its characters, themes and narrative motifs in such a way that only makes us love them more. It is everything that Community is, for better and for worse. But mostly for better.


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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.

Loose Ends:

  • 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.

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Most stories about college are about characters reinventing themselves, breaking free from the castes to which they once felt beholden and becoming the people they’ve always wanted to be, about individualism and the triumph of free will. Community, however, isn’t about any of that. Community is instead about people trying to become the people they’ve always wanted to be, but failing miserably. And Community is about being better off for it, because actually the people we’ve always wanted to be kind of suck, and individualism and free will are overrated anyway. Because all those things we think we want pale in comparison to a makeshift family formed around a Spanish 101 study group.

If that sounds sentimental, it is, but in an odd sort of way, which is how the show gets away with it. Community gets to claim its edgy bona fides for a whole bunch of stylistic reasons, but it’s also edgy for rejecting that traditional college narrative. Really, though, it’s just trading one type of sentimentality for another: it ditches the traditional college narrative in favor of an even more universal family narrative.

This is one of the show’s dominant themes, showing up in some incarnation almost every episode. The more rickety than usual “Early 21st Century Romanticism” of a couple weeks ago was almost entirely about this. That episode sees Britta hanging out with a girl she thinks is a lesbian, not because she likes her, but because she just likes to think of herself as the sort person who hangs out with lesbians. Jeff, meanwhile, snubs his friends at the Valentine’s Day dance to watch some football (the European kind) with John Oliver’s Professor Duncan, while Troy and Abed compete–literally–for the affections of a hot librarian.  In each case, it turns out that what the characters think they want is less than what they already have. Britta’s lesbian isn’t even a lesbian, and was in fact only hanging out with Britta because the fake lesbian thought Britta was a lesbian; the kiss they end up sharing is even more awkward than this sentence. Jeff’s quality time with Professor Duncan gets crashed by Senor Chang and kind of sucks even before Chang shows up. And when the hot librarian lets Troy know that she thinks Abed is a little weird, Troy can no longer find her attractive. In the end, Britta winds up back with Annie, Jeff winds up at the party (with Chang asleep on his couch) and Troy winds up with Abed, and they’re all better off for it.

In “Intro to Political Science,” it’s Annie who gets to go through this cycle when she decides to run for President of the soon-to-be newly reformed Greendale Student Government. This all comes about when Dean Pelton receives correspondence informing him that Joe Biden will be paying Greendale a visit as part of some sort of education initiative, during which the student president is to shake Biden’s hand. The only problem is that Greendale has no student government. The Dean addresses this issue by holding impromptu primaries to select some presidential candidates based on an applause-o-meter that is actually just the dean’s arm.  (I’m pretty sure this is how the national primaries work, too.) The Greendale mob is easy to please, and votes in just about everyone who steps on to the stage, even poor Garrett, who was just looking for some ice cream. Also nominated are Vicki, who never gets to actually finish a sentence; Pierce, who’s only running because he has a vendetta against Vicki; Leonard, the hipster; and Magnitude!, who can only be described as the greatest politician this country has ever known. The only candidate rejected by the crowd is Britta, whose calls for anarchy perhaps come off as a little desperate or maybe just crazy. Annie and Jeff round out the field, for reasons that are mirrored in the Pierce-Vicki originally one-sided feud.

Annie’s running because she’s young and idealistic and believes she can make a difference. Jeff’s running because he’s old and cynical and thinks all that stuff’s stupid; he just wants to prove Annie wrong. Annie starts off her campaign as the only candidate of substance, vowing to free the school from the horrible tyranny of the Asscrack Bandit, clean up the black mold growing in the hallways and eliminate administrative redundancies (to which Dean Pelton replies that he’s sitting right there.) Jeff counters with empty, but crowd-pleasing platitudes, like:

I’m no politician. I’m just a fella. I think beer should be cold and boots should be dusty. I think 9/11 was bad. And freedom, well, I think that’s just a little bit better.

In the face of stuff like that, Annie’s rhetoric grows less and less substantive, eventually morphing into little more than an easily chantable catchphrase: “No matter what you’re told, we have to clean the mold!” But even this is no match for Jeff’s faux-folksy nonsense. So Annie finally abandons policy altogether and goes negative, digging up an old copy Jeff’s 1997 audition tape to The Real World: Seattle, which is just as gloriously embarrassing as it sounds. Apparently dressing up as George Michael and singing “You’ve got to have Jeff, Jeff, Jeff” is not a winning strategy for breaking into reality television, though it sure seems like it would work. Jeff, mortified at having his insufferable bubble of detached coolness popped in the cruelest imaginable way, runs off, leaving Annie seemingly victorious.

On a show genuinely uninterested in sentimentality–say, a Chuck Lorre joint–this is where the episode would end. At this point, Annie has achieved the traditional college narrative of transformation, but the transformation has been bad. The show has skewered that narrative with biting political satire. In this way, Community really is edgy in the way that edgy shows are edgy: it takes familiar, sentimental tropes and renders them unsentimental. It does this all the time. The difference is that it never just stops there.

After Jeff runs off the stage, Annie realizes that she’s gone too far. She goes and finds him moping in the supply closet, and lets him know that she’s dropped out of the race:

I withdrew my candidacy. Nobody who treats a friend the way I did is fit to represent the student body … I was just another jerk trying to win a contest. You were right the whole time. I just couldn’t admit it until I saw you running away crying.

Or in other words, that the person she thought she wanted to be was in fact kind of terrible, and she’d rather just keep what she has. It’s a sweet scene. And it illustrates what makes Community so good: it’s not just edgy, and it’s not just sentimental. It’s consistently both edgy and sentimental at the same time.

Loose ends:

  • After Annie and Jeff drop out, the only two candidates left are Leonard and Magnitude!, who go head-to-head in a battle of meaningless catchphrases: the increasingly funny “Pop-pop!” on Magnitude’s part, countered by an Archie Bunker-esque raspberry on Leonard’s part.
  • Comedy Central’s South Park ends up winning the election, garnering seven out eleven votes. This is why Greendale can’t have nice things.
  • I somehow went through that whole thing without mentioning Dean Pelton’s amazing Uncle Sam costume (or, ahem, his “sister’s” Uncle Sam costume).
  • The only thing that really kept this episode from being an all-time great was the lack of Shirley and the relative lack of Britta.
  • Despite not being an all-time great episode, it was nonetheless very funny. I laughed frequently. Granted, I enjoy political humor, but my wife generally does not, and she laughed frequently as well.
  • The debate plot really dominated the proceedings here, but Abed’s B-story romance was delightful, if not especially hilarious.
  • Relatedly, I am at least a little in love with Eliza Coupe, and I don’t really understand why she’s not a huge TV star yet.
  • American political coverage would be better if Troy and Abed provided commentary for all national elections. They put Wolf Blitzer to shame.
  • “That guy’s just a mess. It’s like God spilled a person.”
  • “According to our polls, the campus is almost evenly divided. Now keep in mind, the margin of error on this thing like 98%.”
  • “Before this election stops being about the issues, I have a question for my opponents. What’s your favorite color? Mine’s a three-way tie. Red, white and blue.”

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