Alison Brie, Danny Pudi, Joel McHale, Paget Brewster

My mother’s maverick taste in pop-culture is an endless source of fascination for me. Put simply, my mom likes what she likes. People often struggle to integrate what they like into their identities, but my mom has no concern for what she’s “supposed” to be into for a black woman of a certain age. What sounds good sounds good and what is funny is funny. For example, she thinks Tyler Perry’s Madea character is hilarious. She grew up in a small town outside Shreveport, Louisiana around the type of women whose tics Perry exaggerated and synthesized to create that character. She hates Perry’s other movies and thinks he’s a hacky storyteller, but Madea cracks her up. My mom also thinks Nathan For You is hysterically funny. Put on either Madea’s Family Reunion or “Dumb Starbucks” and the result is the same: my mother in tears.

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I say all this for two reasons: to illustrate that my mom is awesome and to make the point that all comedies are different but all laughs are created equal. Community is a truly singular comedy, but what makes it special isn’t that it makes me laugh. It’s special because it’s goofy, emotional, and voraciously cannibalizes pop culture and itself. As a sitcom episode, “Advanced Safety Features” is not superior to “Basic Email Security” or “Laws Of Robotics And Party Rights” because it isn’t as funny as either. But “Features” is the superior Community episode, and that makes it easier to love. It’s far from the funniest episode of the season, and it’s guiltier than any other episode of repeating ideas Community has already conveyed more effectively. But because it captures Community’s themes so perfectly, it’s comforting even when it isn’t bringing the laughs.

“Features” is bound to drive a lot of people batty, and for valid reasons. Much of it irritated me due to the tight focus on Britta and her torrid corporate romance with Rick, the professional shill formerly known as Subway. His new gig involves subtly convincing people to buy Hondas by unsubtly working mentions of them into every conversation, and instead of Britta pulling him out of the walking, talking billboard game, Rick sucks her into it. Rick is the last character I’d have expected to return to the show, but perhaps I should have expected it. Given Community’s new financial realities as a Yahoo production, securing a new infusion of product placement cash is an understandable measure.

But there are limits to how deftly a show can overtly integrate advertising, even when that advertising is massaged into self-referential humor. It’s a joke with a very limited shelf life. Even 30 Rock, which helped pioneer the “isn’t it hilarious that we put advertising in our show” joke, got less comedic bang for the buck over time. Thanks to the good folks at Honda for helping to bring the dream of six seasons and a movie closer to reality, but the Britta and Rick plot never manages to get off the ground. It’s an occasionally funny story, but the laughs have little to do with Britta and Rick and mostly belong to Frankie and Dean Pelton, with Frankie turning the Dean into her lapdog to help take down Rick for his shady salesmanship.

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The Britta and Rick story demonstrates its value by delving into the theme of people’s desperation to connect with each other. Dean Pelton, Rick discovers, is a level seven susceptible, presumably out of seven possible levels. To Rick, the Dean is a walking piñata filled with discretionary income, but ultimately he’s a lonely guy with some weird sexual proclivities and a longing for friendship and human connection. He doesn’t care about the features of the Honda Fit versus those of the CRV, he wants to have a moment of genuine connection with Rick, even if it carries a five-figure price tag.

Greendale is a world made up of people desperately grasping for moments of human connection and working mutually to create them. The show began as a disparate Spanish study group trying to prove to Jeff Winger they were cool enough to breathe the same air as him. But since warming up to the group, Jeff tries just as often to get the others to like him. That aspect of Community is almost like watching athletes playing a really difficult sport. Who the hell knows how to make friends with people who aren’t like you once you’re an adult? The dynamic thrives on diversity, which is why the departure of someone like Shirley, whose lifestyle shares the least with those of the other characters, changes Community’s flavor significantly. Though Dan Harmon and his team have made plenty of jokes about Elroy as the token black guy filling that designated slot, Elroy is basically the Pierce-plus-Troy character the show sort of had to have.

Elroy has to be fleshed out in order to achieve the character balance that makes Community feel like itself. That process accelerates in “Features,” with Jeff struggling to figure out why Elroy doesn’t like him and trying to win his approval. Unfortunately, Jeff chooses the worst possible surprise to curry favor with Elroy: a live appearance at the alumni dance from everyone’s favorite ‘90s Lilith fare, Natalie Is Freezing. Turns out Elroy had a dalliance with lead singer Julie (a delightful Lisa Loeb) and is still heartbroken over it. How does he deal? By defiantly loving everyone around him and putting himself out there even though it could result in him getting hurt again. Then, to drive the point home, Frankie pops up during the band’s performance of its big hit, “Pillar Of Garbage,” playing the steel drums, just as Troy allegedly did during his influential tenure in the group. If you want people to like you, you be as authentic and transparent as you can possibly be and hope for the best. It’s downright sappy, but the downright sappy stuff is baked into the best episodes of Community.

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I certainly wouldn’t call “Features” one of the best episodes of Community, but it’s the first one of the season to completely reveal the show’s core of sadness and sentimentality. Without that core, Community would be an alienating, smarter-than-thou, up-its-own-ass single-camera sitcom, and the world needs another one of those like it needs another Madea movie. Ideally, Community has an equal amount of emotional muck and laughs, but if one has to be sacrificed, I’d lose the laughs.

Stray observations:

  • Britta’s parents were back this week, which is just fine, since Martin Mull and Leslie Ann Warren are kind of delightful even as somewhat generic cheery parent characters.
  • I’m going to go ahead and guess Natalie Is Freezing is composed of production staffers.
  • Loeb for the win: “Why would anyone in the band be Natalie? We’re artists.”
  • I actually have the “Wallpaper Chrysalis” b/w “Weird Blanket” 45. Near mint. Price negotiable.
  • I’d play The Ears Have It and would have an awesome time. I still find Guess Who? genuinely engaging.

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