(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won't be all that different. It's Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
I find Community very funny, though I don't look forward to it like I do Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, sometimes even The Office. In fact, I often watch it last of the four, many days later. To be clear: Community makes me laugh often more than the other shows in the bloc (though less so than P&R), but it's sort of an empty laugh, born from the show keeping me at a healthy distance. Its characters have settled into a rhythm with each other that sometimes strikes me as mean-spirited, even if the show tries to stick the landing with last-minute character bonding (that lasts until the beginning of the next episode). And despite the fact that it's a show that plays to the top of its intelligence, there are weird moments where I feel like Community muddles its message.
"Critical Film Studies" was ostensibly the most heartfelt episode in the show's history—where Abed, in an attempt to reach out to a friend he feels slipping through the cracks, goes out on a limb and tells him (Jeff) the most personal and vulnerable way he knows: By constructing an evening's recreation of My Dinner With Andre. It was a really captivating episode (Abed opening up to Jeff; watching Jeff relax and for the first time in his life let his guard down) until Jeff figured out what was going on and called Abed out for "doing another movie," at which point I deflated. "Doing movies," "doing references," whatever you want to call it—these things have become common occurrences that require being called out. It's sad that Abed can never have a genuine human interaction and must couch it in an elaborate movie homage; what bothered me is that Community couched that realization in its other characters' self-awareness.
What I liked most about "Applied Anthropology And Culinary Arts" were the moments when Community got out of its own way and let Shirley deliver her baby. Like a lot of recent episodes, this one started as something else: It's the last day of Anthro class, and Professor Duncan is toasting his students with shots and A-grades for enduring his blow-off class. Suddenly the Dean arrives with a reporter from Dean Magazine in tow, which means Duncan fabricates a test that sounds pretty epic (it's got a performance element), then disappears into the hallway under the guise of picking up the exams. Then, suddenly, Shirley's water breaks and everyone forgets all about Duncan, including the reporter and the overzealous Dean.
This becomes the last hurrah for Chang. He's a character so desperate to be included in just about anything, and for the first time he has some authority on a stressful situation, even if it's pretty messed up authority. His comments about "Chang Babies"—they're better at getting nutrients and thus come out faster; they like the sauce, both alcohol and duck—start off as a silly way for Chang to shoehorn himself into the conversation. And as long as he's in the know about the baby, people will keep listening to him. The show allows these to build nicely, from the comical alcohol/duck thing to stories about how the Changs have been born under the worst conditions, but survived. Suddenly, Shirley is not only listening to what Chang has to say, his words are comforting, and she's faced with the very real possibility of delivering his baby.
Chang had a completely genuine episode, with no one making snide comments about anything he was saying. Community is so often a show where characters introduce ideas, then are chastised for those ideas until they prove themselves, or resolve to not take such a strong stance next time. Britta and Jeff's storyline this week felt like that: Always the faux-crusader, Britta is happy to pester Shirley about the joys of natural birth as long as there's no need to put those ideas into practice. Then when it came time for push to come to shove (hey-o!), Jeff forces Britta to make good on her crusade for natural birth by putting her face down in Shirley's possibly cresting special area. Britta sees something she cannot unsee, and suddenly her views on the matter are completely turned around. I found it hard to get behind this storyline even though it did lead to an eventual turnaround (plus tossing Chang away from Shirley in ridiculous fashion), mostly because Jeff felt the need to pester Britta about her fake moral high ground. Community is a show where characters start off with strong beliefs and traits, and much of the episodes involves those beliefs being challenged. The snarky comments by Jeff make it hard to invest in Britta's "journey"—even a small one.
Community has a hard time letting things simply be. Thus I also had a bit of a problem with the Abed/Troy storyline—wherein Pierce pays the boys to learn the secret handshake they use when they encounter something awesome, then he uses it on something the boys would never deem cool in any way, thereby ruining it. As soon as Pierce offered up the cash, though, Abed muttered, "Indecent Proposal." There's not much room for surprise when we can see where the show is going (by its own admission no less). A lot of that annoyance was saved by the always stellar Donald Glover, who gleefully goes over-the-top in every single scene he does—a vibe that works well for Community. But it was a reference that, frankly, didn't need to be done in this episode, let alone be called out so blatantly. The story was so short, and the pay-off of the rest of the episode (Shirley, Andre, and Chang hover around little Ben Bennett; Jeff and Britta share an ooey-gooey moment) so satisfying, it was more distracting than anything.
Fellow A.V. Club-er Ryan McGee has an excellent essay on his personal site about how TV watchers are eager to categorize critics based on what shows they like and don't like, and in it he touches on the backlash he's received for merely liking, not loving Community. He writes at one point, "I sit there, watching the show, and I keep thinking, 'I see what you did there'…Here’s the thing: I don’t want to 'see' it. I want to 'experience' it." In a lot of episodes, Community is a show to be experienced once it establishes just what it is we are meant to be experiencing, which is far too calculated of a vibe. It's no wonder I push off the show in favor of other NBC comedies, which are slightly warmer and more cohesive. "Applied Anthropology And Culinary Arts," though, did have enough moments where the show shut up about itself, and drew me in. And as far as laughs—Community's undeniable strong point—some of the gags might be empty, but they're still great gags.
Such as: Bringing back the fact that Abed delivered a baby already, and that everything else in that episode happened in his "background." Okay, Community, I'll give ya that one.
- "And that is what Jews do at weddings."
- "Better than whites."
- "[Whispers] pig saliva."
- In reference to "sugar boots": "That hurts, Shirley!"
- "I don't want the baby's first memory to be Star Burns."
- "That's like a million bucks in dog dollars."
- "I did not know there was a difference between North and South Korean BBQ."
- "All Changs are born with tails."