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Community: “Basic Human Anatomy”

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“Basic Human Anatomy” is the funniest Community episode of the season. Granted, that’s not saying as much as it might have in the past, but this still has more funny jokes than you’ll find in many other shows, and once things get rolling—right around when the Dean is trying to convince everyone he’s switched bodies with Jeff, but nobody’s having any of it—there’s a lot of great stuff going on. The storytelling is a little weak, in that it leans heavily on one of the season’s weakest elements, but this is also an episode for people who wouldn’t mind seeing Donald Glover impersonate Danny Pudi’s Abed performance (and vice versa) for a half-hour, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Let’s get out of the way the fact that this is a body-switching episode, something that shouldn’t really work, even with a Community-esque spin on it. But Jim Rash’s script immediately switches up from “Did Troy and Abed switch bodies?” (which they didn’t) to “Why are Troy and Abed acting like they’ve switched bodies?”, which makes the whole thing go down more smoothly. Glover and Pudi are both committed to the bit—and both have bits of playing each other that are absolutely hysterical (I particularly liked Pudi’s take on Troy’s default smile)—but it wouldn’t work if it felt like the show were trying to suggest something impossible had actually happened. That the show almost immediately has everybody realize they’re doing a bit saves the storyline from getting too precious, too quickly, and even if it’s all a bit gimmicky (which it is), it’s almost worth it just for the performances.


One thing that makes the episode work is that it’s almost entirely set at Greendale. The show has been heading off campus quite a bit this season, with varying degrees of success, so it’s nice to see an episode that just takes place on the familiar Greendale stomping grounds (okay, and at Señor Kevin’s). In particular, it’s great to have an episode that features large sections that take place just around the study table, and I liked how the episode began with an incident that sent everybody off on their own adventures. See, the group has a final history project due, and Annie and Shirley are battling to be valedictorian, so they’re not just going to let everybody half-ass it. (If they do, then Leonard might be valedictorian, and who wants that?) This season has really returned Joel McHale to the center of the show, and I enjoyed watching Jeff’s growing consternation with all of the bullshit standing in the way of him getting to do a “doable, passable” history project.

The episode’s biggest weakness ends up being that it places so much emphasis on the Troy and Britta relationship. I can accept that the show’s writers were handled something they didn’t entirely know what to do with in the montage from the end of “Introduction To Finality,” but the choice the writers made didn’t work at all. For the first few episodes of the season, there was a distinct emphasis placed on the two as a couple, and then the show mostly seemed to forget about it, sending it all the way to the background of what was going on. Now, apparently, it’s the one-year anniversary of their first date, and that’s not just hard to believe but also seems chronologically impossible. (If last week was Christmas, then this episode seems to have caught up with where we are in late April. I demand to see the missing tapes!) They haven’t even realized it’s their anniversary, which prompts some soul searching about whether either member of this couple even wants to be a couple anymore. Hence, the body swap bit, which allows Troy a “safe space” to work out some of his feelings, while also having Abed be the one to break up with Britta.

Practically speaking, though, that ends up being a bit of a mess. The episode ends with Britta giving Troy a big hug in the study room, because they’ve talked about how they know how to be each other’s friend and blah blah blah. But I just don’t buy that, no matter how crazy this group gets, Britta would appreciate having her breakup with her boyfriend initiated by somebody else. Yes, Troy comes in and completes the conversation, but the whole thing doesn’t work when it comes to recognizable human behavior, even for this show. Theoretically, this is supposed to be a story about Troy and Britta’s relationship, but it becomes yet another story about Troy and Abed, which means that Britta becomes a passenger in her own storyline. I liked the ultimate reveal that Troy asked Abed to do the bit, and I liked the way that it was used for the two of them to skirt around some uncomfortable emotions, but it still runs the risk of infantilizing essentially everyone in the vague proximity of the storyline.

But, also, weirdly, I liked it. Some of that was Glover and Pudi’s sense of playfulness, but some of it was also the ending, which doesn’t make sense on a logical level but ends up making sense on a weird emotional level. When Britta goes in for that hug, it feels earned, even though it has no right to. I think some of this is just the fact that the show has been on for four years and can coast on some of those character relationships, and some of it is just that this is a potentially potent area the show hasn’t bothered harvesting, and some of it is just the sheer forward momentum from having Gillian Jacobs and Donald Glover present and in that moment. I can’t put my finger on why I ended up liking this storyline, despite finding so much of it logically unbelievable, but I found myself weirdly moved by it. (Oh, there it is: I think that Jacobs played Britta’s ultimate moment of sympathy—when she realized that the “body swap” was Troy’s coping mechanism—just about perfectly, allowing me to overlook the logical problems with the story.)


Now, that’s a lot of stuff to dissect for an episode I liked quite a lot, but that’s because that central plot didn’t work as well for me as the other stuff did. In particular, I loved Jeff’s tour through Greendale as he tries to just find this DVD so he can get back to his “real” life, and every time that the Dean impersonates Jeff—and gets Annie a little excited by doing so—it’s a tremendously funny moment for Jim Rash, who essentially stands alone as the season MVP at this point, so far as I’m concerned. The Annie-and-Shirley storyline could have done with an extra scene or two—they pretty much just forgive each other because the episode runs out of time for them to do anything else—but this is a frequently fertile character pairing that the show should utilize more often, and they play well off of Rash’s delirium.

Is “Basic Human Anatomy” the finest episode of Community ever produced? No. But it’s an episode that takes a potentially insipid and unbelievable premise and finds something strangely heartfelt in it. The back half of the fourth season is piling up a nice number of episodes that I would classify as, “Episodes I wouldn’t change the channel for, if they came up in the syndication package,” and “Anatomy” is another one of those. It captures just enough character nuance and has just enough great jokes to succeed both on its own terms and as an episode of the show. Furthermore, it suggests a version of the season that had 22 episodes and gave the Troy and Britta relationship time to flesh out, a season that might have absolutely nailed that dynamic and made this episode all the more heart-breaking. Instead, we get a Cliff’s Notes version of something that looks like a story, and thanks to some deft acting and some good jokes, it all comes together well enough.


Stray observations:

  • I trust you all caught the October 19 reference on the whiteboard in the study room. That was surely for you.
  • This is pretty clearly one of those episodes where Pierce was just left out of the action so Chevy Chase couldn’t cause any wackiness on set, which makes the conclusion—where he finishes the group’s project by making a bunch of Revolutionary War banners in a little under a half-hour—all the more poignant, in a weird way.
  • The tag was one of my favorites the show has done in a while. Troy and Abed acting out outtakes, then the Dean plowing into the door, makes for some funny stuff.
  • When the Dean is pretending to be Jeff, is he texting on a calculator? My screener was too small to make it out, but it sure seems like he is.
  • The scene where the Dean says, “When Jeffrey was inside of me” over and over again is a great example of repetition killing a joke, only to bring it back around to where it’s funny again.
  • Leonard’s had plastic surgery? Who knew?! It would explain why he looks so youthful, wouldn’t it?
  • I liked the bizarre, random gag of the janitors all having a murder-mystery night during the daytime. It was just weird enough to make me laugh.

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