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Community: "Basic Rocket Science"

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I’ve been hearing about “Basic Rocket Science” for so long now that I had already essentially come up with a version of it that existed in my head. It was Community’s Apollo 13 episode, the episode that sent the characters into orbit – or as close an approximation of “into orbit” as the show could feasibly do within the Greendale setting. It was going to feature an elaborate parody of the movie in question, as well as a sort of story of personal growth for one of the characters (for some reason, I had pegged it in my head as a Troy-centric episode). It would be for space movies what “Modern Warfare” was for action movies or what “Contemporary American Poultry” was for Goodfellas: an episode that took long-dead clichés and tropes and tossed them into a blender together to create something new.

I say all of this to explain why “Basic Rocket Science” didn’t click for me as well as the other episodes this season have (I actually thought about a C+ for a while, but a second viewing of the episode made me feel more secure in its virtues). It’s entirely possible I went into this one with too high of expectations, with a sense that the show was going to be something it wasn’t, and that ended up hurting my opinion of it. This is OK. It happens, especially to TV critics who get hung up on their favorite shows. As stated, the rewatch made me think that this one was better than I initially gave it credit for, and I suspect when it comes up in the syndication package years from now (and please let there be a syndication package, TV gods), I’ll smile and laugh, rather than changing the channel. It’s a good episode. It’s just not an instant classic, like “Contemporary American Poultry” or “Modern Warfare.”

Initially, I thought this might be because the episode gets too hung up on its source material. “Poultry” was a pretty direct Goodfellas homage, yeah, but it was also rooted in conflicts the characters had been building over the course of the season, and it was a great showcase for the Abed character. “Rocket” has some fun visual riffs off of 2001 (or any movie with a demented space computer) and The Right Stuff, but for the most part, it’s a straight-up take on Apollo 13, with key phrases from that movie removed and replaced with funny Community spins on the same topics – “space simulator” for “space capsule.” But I don’t think this hurts the episode as much as I first did; sure, the Apollo 13 homages (both in the visuals and the dialogue) fly thick and fast, but I imagine the episode still works for someone who’s never seen Apollo 13. The underlying structure of that movie – get the astronauts into an impossible situation and get them out of it – is a great one, and that makes this episode perhaps more readily accessible to those who’ve never seen the film it’s based on than “Poultry” was.

No, I think what the episode suffers from is a lack of character focus. The basic idea is this: Greendale is in danger of being swallowed by City College (a new nemesis for the school, but a good one) because City College has begun a space simulation program that will get it more press and allow it to choke out any press for Greendale, which has only its foosball table to brag about. So the Dean comes up with the idea of buying his own space simulator and sending his own crew (which will include Leonard) into simulated space a few days before City College can. The gang has to clean off the simulator – which had been in the local museum and is heavily KFC branded – but in the process of doing so, they get stuck inside. Worse, Annie has collaborated with the Dean over at City College (where she’s thinking of transferring) to get the simulator towed, and the gang – minus Abed, who’s back at mission control and sad he missed the journey – ends up stranded in the middle of nowhere. Will they be able to make it back in time to save Greendale’s face? Will Abed, who knows the simulator inside and out, be able to guide them? And will the Dean be able to withstand the barrage of insults from City College’s Dean?

The answer to all of those questions, of course, is “yes,” since the answer to all of them is also “yes” in Apollo 13. But you might notice something in that summary up above. The character who’s mentioned the most often is the Dean. He’s the one who sets this whole wacky scheme up. He’s the one who has the most to lose if it fails. And he’s the one who has the greatest victory at the end. But the problem with this is that we spend most of the episode with our regular characters, trapped in the simulator, or Abed, stuck at mission control. The stakes for the characters are supposed to be that Greendale will get shut down, and that would make them sad. But these stakes always seem a little too abstract because, well, of course Greendale’s not going to get shut down. Then there’s no show. The stakes, hard to buy as they are, matter far more to the Dean than any of the other characters.

Worse, it’s as if the show realizes this and spends much of its time trying to toss additional storylines at the characters in the simulator, but it can’t come up with anything that sticks. The idea that Annie is going to head off to City College is just as big of schmuck’s bait (a TV writer term for a plot point that would never happen because the show or a character on it would cease to exist) as the idea that Greendale would get eclipsed by City College. Troy’s stint as captain is, indeed, just because he sat in the big chair, and the show doesn’t really do anything with it. Abed’s desire to head along on the simulation is perhaps the best character thread here, but it gets minimized too often. Jeff going from being too cool to do this to caring is something the character does in seemingly every other episode. And Pierce’s claustrophobia thing is just a little forced.


The thing about “Poultry” is that it was a Goodfellas parody and an episode about how Abed related to these characters. The thing about “Modern Warfare” is that it was an action movie parody and an episode about how Jeff related to these characters. “Basic Rocket Science” – while wildly funny (look at how many quotes there are!) – doesn’t establish this character focus, and it gives us no real reason to think that these characters should either care as much as they do or be as concerned about this whole ride as they are. “Poultry” and “Warfare” featured interior journeys that dovetailed with the exterior ones the characters went through. “Rocket” tries to force the interior via the exterior, and it doesn’t work. The physical journey is fine. The emotional one is not. Furthermore, the whole premise of the episode – everyone’s going to be impressed by a space simulation program, particularly one using a simulator branded by KFC – is just a little too ludicrous for me to buy, though that may be a thing only I am bothered by.

And yet, “Rocket” is so funny in so many places, and there are so many nice little moments – like Britta falling into Troy’s lap – that it runs along fairly well in spite of what would be major structural issues on other shows. The lack of focus would kill most other series, but it merely results in what’s a very good, rather than a great, episode of Community. Part of that is because the show has managed to create such a likable ensemble of characters that it’s fun to watch them do just about anything. And part of that is because, just maybe, the main character here is Greendale, a place none of us terribly wants to see go away. I still don’t buy that we’re supposed to think it would ever shut down, but when the Dean stands there with the butt flag at the end, ever so proud, it’s hard not to get swept up in the moment. This is a place we care about, dammit, and it’s nice to see everybody there get a win.


Stray observations:

  • My comments above should not be taken as a suggestion that no episode centered on the Dean could ever work. Indeed, I’d love to see a Dean-centric episode.
  • I'd say Gillian Jacobs and Yvette Nicole Brown are the winners of the slow-motion walk-off.
  • Moment that made me laugh way more than I would have predicted: Chang saying he'd figured out how to reroute the power, Abed asking, "To what?" and then Chang backing away slowly.
  • I’m sure there will be plenty of you who hate this episode for the KFC moments (product placement does that to people). I don’t mind because the show acknowledged it, and the idea of SANDERS was so kooky that I loved it, even as I knew it was trying to sell me something. Plus, if product placement keeps this show on the air, well, I’d rather have more of this show than no more of this show.
  • And, yes, last week’s ratings could have been better, but baseball – which has a heavily male audience – took a good chunk out of this show in the young male demographic it does so well in. I’d caution everyone to wait until after baseball’s over. If the numbers are still down after that, then you can start up your fan campaigns. All evidence we have suggests NBC is happy with the numbers the show is getting, but getting your friends to watch is never the worst idea in the world. The numbers ARE low, and if they were a few million viewers higher, we wouldn’t have to worry.
  • "I know that this isn't a symbol for the crossroads of ideas. I now know it's a butt."
  • "Keep snickering. Pack yourselves with peanuts and really be satisified."
  • "It's hard to believe I'm not really not really in space."
  • "If you'll excuse me, I have to make this into a butt flag."
  • "You don't know that. It was the '80s. Everybody who made this was on cocaine."
  • "Can we just take a mental step backwards and realize we're simply in a Winnebago?"
  • "Pierce. You're talking to an Atari cartridge. Sit down."
  • "We are 40 light years outside of the buttermilk nebula, although it's possible that … yeah, this is a sticker."
  • "You need to get up to delicious." "That makes sense."
  • "Why do you have star ratings?"
  • "Pierce has got space madness or he's just old or something."
  • "Chicken?" "Yeah."
  • "Here. Right next to the truck stop with three thumbs."
  • "How many schools would let you get a degree in theoretical phys-ed?"
  • "There is a time and a place for subtlety, and that time was before Scary Movie."
  • "If NASA ever needs someone to keep an arrow inside of a moving rectangle, I know who I'd recommend."