I had this high-minded goal that I wasn’t going to ever discuss Dan Harmon in these reviews after the review of the first episode. It’s not fair to the people making Community now, and it’s not fair to Harmon, either. Acting as if his era of the show was infallible is just inaccurate, and acting as if this era of the show is unsalvageable because he’s not around also is. The fact of the matter is that there are still a ton of talented writers working on this show, the cast is amazing, and the production is… well, the budget’s been cut, and you can tell, but it’s the sort of thing that would be easier to overlook if the scripts were top-notch. (I’m hoping to do an FOC column on the noticeable shift in production values between the first two seasons and the latest two seasons, but that will require making screencaps and stuff, and I am just too lazy.)
Plus, it’s not as if Harmon’s the only major voice that’s left Community. Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan aren’t around anymore. The Russo brothers left midway through season three. Chris McKenna—Emmy-nominated for “Remedial Chaos Theory”—is over on The Mindy Project. The show saw a huge writing staff turnover between seasons two and three (arguably more of an influence on what could be perceived as a downward turn than anything else). In addition, this is the fourth season of Community, and fourth seasons are notoriously difficult for comedies, about which more in my Archer review later tonight. And, what’s more, going into “Alternative History Of The German Invasion,” I knew the episode had been shifted more than one place out of its initial running order, which usually happens when producers or a network are trying to push an episode that isn’t as strong onto a night with lower viewership (which will likely happen, given the lack of Parks and The Office tonight). What’s more, even if I wasn’t a nerd who looked at production codes, it would be pretty obvious what had happened, since this is the first day of classes, but in the “prior” two episodes, the characters are in the middle of classes.
So! I was prepared for this to be a weaker episode, and I was mostly just hoping for something that indicated that, yeah, the new writers had a steep learning curve, but they were working through it as best they could, and it would lead to better things down the road. We’re optimists here, everybody. That’s what we do. But the fact of the matter remains: You can say that I would have defended this episode with my life if Dan Harmon had still been involved as much as you want. And maybe that’s even true! But I will tell you that the first three seasons of this show, in every single episode, even the weakest ones, I would laugh my ass off a handful of times per episode, and pretty much consistently on the stronger episodes. And I didn’t laugh once during “German Invasion.” I mean, granted, I’m not someone who laughs a lot, but the vast majority of the punchlines were there as jokes that seemed like the kind of jokes Community used to tell. They’re, as I said a few weeks ago, like-a-jokes.
I smirked twice. I smirked when Troy popped out of the cake, because Donald Glover is great at this kind of physical comedy, and his smile was so wacky. And I smirked at the idea of Germans calling Hogan’s Heroes Hogan’s Villains instead, because I’m easy for a dumb TV gag like that. But other than that, I just thought this episode was a complete miss in terms of laughs. And who do you blame for that? The writers, for not trying hard enough? Our own expectations, for getting ahead of what the show wants to do? Me, for being a dumb asshole? I mean, they’re all acceptable answers.
I don’t really like judging comedy on the “how much does it make you laugh” scale, because it’s, ultimately, really subjective. There’s no single perfect joke that will make everybody in the world laugh, because we’re all different people, and we all experience the world differently. But the fact remains that a really funny episode can cover up a host of sins. (I believe Alan Sepinwall calls this the “funny forgives a lot” principle.) When I’m not laughing, I’m more prone to start poking at the other stuff, at story structure and character arcs and the thematic underpinnings of the show. If “German Invasion” had been packed with laughs, I would have been much more amenable to whatever it was trying to do.
Because let’s not mince words here: This episode is one that undercuts some of the very strongest principles this show stood for, and it does so in ways that just don’t work. Initially, I liked the idea of the study group, a band of outcasts that formed together to make each other better, had inadvertently made everybody else on campus feel like outcasts. This was an idea the show played around with from time to time in the Harmon era, and it underpinned the infamous “Todd” episode, one that I liked fairly well that quite a few of you didn’t seem to at all. Getting an alternate perspective on how alienating the protagonists of a sitcom are—who by design have to be all chummy when everybody else around them is a non-speaking extra—can be a fun device from time to time. We even did an Inventory on it. And, sure, the reason no one else wanted the study room in “Cooperative Calligraphy” was because they were at the puppy parade, and, yes, the show is—and always has been—somewhat guilty of disappearing up its own navel, but I was willing to go with this. But Nazis? Seriously?
I get it. Story-wise, it’s an attempt to reverse where we thought the story was going by revealing that the study group have been villains in other people’s stories all along, a reversal that can work but requires a willingness to dig a little deeper than this show wanted to. Joke-wise, ehhhhh. Putting Jeff in a wacky costume does not a punchline make, and the show is now at the point where it’s so actively eating its own tail that it’s caught up to its head. It’s as if the show is actively trying to fool us into thinking this is the Harmon/Russo/Goldman/Donovan/McKenna/everybody from season two era by reliving its own past. (TV Club contributor Rowan Kaiser once said that season two of this show was about other sitcoms, while season three was about season two of Community, and that’s not entirely wrong. I’d quibble, but if we’re following his summation, then season four appears to be about the Wikipedia entry of the first three seasons of Community.)
Again, if this were funnier, I would have been much happier to go along with it. But tainting some of the best, most inclusive episodes of the show—episodes like “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”—as episodes that were actually about exclusion strikes me as a ridiculous inversion of a powerful story trope for no particular gain in terms of humor. At its best, Community has always been about wrapping a bunch of crazy people who had nowhere else to go into an ad hoc family—well, most TV sitcoms are about that, really—and though the study group would overstep its bounds, it usually had the best wishes of Greendale and the other students at heart. And while the concluding Winger speech about everybody trying to band together to make Greendale a better place is nice, I guess, it just doesn’t ring true with the old version of the show, where the characters mostly learned that lesson midway through season one. Repeating it endlessly suggests that the study group—and by extension the show’s audience—has failed to be inclusive enough over the years, and maybe that’s how NBC feels, but Jesus, I sure don’t.
In story terms, this is an attempt to get back to some of the campus hijinks that drove much of season one, but, again, there’s little to no attempt to make it funny beyond repeating things that the show has done in the past and hoping our residual affection for them will carry the day. Maybe that’s enough in some cases. There were certainly times in season three when the show seemed to be doing that, but then it would strike some crazy great gag out of nowhere, or it would come up with some brilliant episode, or it would have some essential moment of character truth, or it would have something human at its core. Now, we just have a bunch of Germans speaking in comically broad accents—a repeat of a joke that didn’t work all that well the first time. We have Chang and the Dean speaking their names to each other in a plot that makes no logical sense whatsoever and doesn’t even make weird cartoon sense. We have some pretty weak sauce, really obvious World War II references. We have the female cast members put into German costumes to accentuate their figures in the same way Jeff’s taken off his shirt in three of four episodes this season. We have what’s, ultimately, an episode that feels like the broad, hacky version of Community the show’s worst critics always accused the first three seasons of being.
Look: I’m an easy grader. I’m going to find it very hard to give this show lower than a C, thanks to the residual affection I have for the characters and the premise of the show itself, and thanks to the sterling talents of the cast that’s been assembled here. And I take it as a good sign that all involved knew to slip this episode to a night when fewer people would be watching, that they knew to put “Paranormal Parentage,” not a perfect episode but an episode that’s at least in spitting distance of my favorite Community episodes ever, second in the run. This is, as I said two weeks ago, a new show in a lot of ways, and that means a learning curve that will hopefully be softened rather soon. I continue to like watching this show and these characters, and I will continue to enjoy that probably as long as it’s on the air.
But I also don’t get the arguments that I “only” don’t like this because Dan Harmon is no longer involved. To me, it’s deeper than that. It’s systemic. It’s a show that’s lost something indelible to what it once was. Laughter is an involuntary response. You tell me a funny joke, and my lizard brain doesn’t think, “Hey, Dan Harmon’s not around, so I shouldn’t laugh at that.” You tell me a funny joke—like Troy saying, “Secret dogs!” two weeks ago—and I laugh. This is a show filled with things that are supposed to be funny, that are supposed to make us smile and remember the good ol’ days, but it’s also a show that often feels to me like people taking these characters and having them spout dialogue they think those characters would say, while waving action figures of them around. If the show doesn’t feel that way to you, that’s fine. In fact, I wish I was in your shoes. But I just can’t escape the thought that this is a ghost of its former self, and it’s running out of time to convince me it could be anything but that.
- What the balls was that tag supposed to be? “We have a thing”? That’s your big closing gag? Ugh.
- I did like seeing all of the supporting players who make Greendale feel like such a fun place. Leonard didn’t seem to be feeling it, though.
- So the study group is confronted with how it’s monopolized prime study room real estate, and the way they fix things is by painting the bad study room, and suddenly, everything is okay? I mean, I guess that makes a kind of sense, but it just feels like a few too many narrative leaps to make actual sense.
- This is the first episode credited to one Ben Wexler. Sorry, Ben! (No, seriously. Sorry. You’re going to get a lot of shit from people who don’t like this episode, and it’s not at all your fault, since this show is so heavily room-written.)
- In theory, I liked some of the stylistic touches, like the time codes over the study group walking wearily toward their study room, but only in theory. They didn’t work as well as visual punchlines as they should have.
- The “it’s like a Darren Aronofsky film” gag was another I liked in theory, but I think it needed a little more directorial flourish to really sell it. Also, Chevy Chase has completely checked out of the proceedings, which is something nobody involved with the show can help.
- Okay, we’re back on schedule next week, with the episode produced fifth actually airing fifth. After that, we get another episode that’s been moved way out of order, though from later in the season to earlier, which is usually a good sign. Let’s stay hopeful, everybody! We’re all in this together!