It was a weird little episode of Community tonight. It was also - according to Jaime Weinman - an episode that was significantly out of production order, being bumped to the 19th episode to air after it was the 14th episode filmed. Unlike swapping the last two episodes with each other, this didn't create any continuity problems, but it did suggest the show was somehow a little embarrassed by this one or that the network was embarrassed by it. I, on the other hand, actually preferred it to last week's episode, though I don't think it hits the heights the show is capable of at the same time. It may have pushed a little too far in the direction of Greendale being a weird place where weird things can happen. (Though, at the same time, that image of the students in class watching the sailboat go by was really wonderfully constructed, even if you knew it was coming as soon as that boat was introduced.)
Tonight's episode revolves around the idea that Jeff is going to take a pottery class as a blow-off class. But once he gets there (with Abed and Annie in tow, mostly just to give him someone to bounce off of), he discovers that there's another guy in the class named Rich, who's seemingly just naturally good at pottery and manages to be both the cool guy in the class and win over all of the girls with his skills (even Annie seems impressed). This drives Jeff, usually the cool guy and with a bit of a competitive streak, completely crazy. He loses it, determined to prove that Rich is lying and learning everything he can about pottery - something he was going to blow off - to do so. By the time the show is finally paying off the teacher's (Arrested Develompent's Tony Hale) insistence that he doesn't want to see any Ghost homages, Jeff seems like someone who's so crazy that he's a completely different character.
In some ways, I liked this attempt to get to the heart of some of Jeff's particular psychoses. There's a lot of truth in the moral of this story his imaginary mother shares with him: He is going to be a normal person who will be good at some things but not very good at most of them. It's a message you don't see on TV too often, where everybody is usually assured of their awesomeness. Jeff's journey to being OK with Rich being better than him at something - even if he's cheating - is a neat one, and I liked many of the moments involved (like Abed providing voiceover).
But I'm not sure the show needed to make Jeff quite that crazy. Or if it was going to do so, I might have preferred a slower progression. I get that part of the fun was supposed to stem from Jeff going from pretending to not be bothered by Rich all the way to eye-twitchy madness in a matter of (seemingly) seconds, but there seemed little modulation to the performance here. I like Joel McHale's work as Jeff, but I don't know that the performance or the script in this episode left a lot of room to grow. Jeff was just pretending to be OK with it, and then he was crazy, and that lack of build ended up undercutting some of the later laughs. The Ghost gag, in particular, could have killed had it not seemed like the umpteenth note of Jeff being bugnuts.
At the same time, I appreciated the way this storyline tied together with the other storyline emotionally. That scene where Jeff goes to Pierce and is starting to realize the error of his ways, even as Pierce is constructing a rowboat with wheels so he can pursue the sailboat that left him for dead (I hope this will make more sense in the next paragraph) was a nicely pitched one compared to last week's Jeff and Pierce heart-tugger, which felt a little too broad. Utilizing Pierce as an image of what Jeff could turn into if he's not careful has always worked for this show, and I liked his insistence that he was born screwing up but just kept at it because, well, that's life. Again, not a message you hear too often on TV, and that Community can make it sound so genuine is one of the things that makes me think it's not just another series filled with cynical snark that will burn out quickly. (Creator Dan Harmon seems to really believe that people are genuinely better off doing what makes them happy, and his life philosophy leads to what seems like a broad-based inclusiveness at the show's center.)
The other plot is one I've seen bagged on from various people I know who watch the show. I wouldn't say it's a complete success - again, it might have been just a little too weird for the show to adequately pull off - but I liked the group of actors it utilized. The show rarely does Shirley and Pierce storylines, and this was sort of a storyline that used both of them, and having Troy and Britta be their backup characters was rather inspired. I liked watching the four of these character interact on the boat, and having Lee Majors turn up as the instructor was funny as well. At the same time, it seemed like quite a few of the jokes were mostly relying on the visual of a sailboat in a parking lot being inherently funny, but the camera kept in so tight on the actors that we never got a sense of the sheer weirdness of this image. At only a couple of points did we cut away from far enough out to get the big visual gag here, and while these shots always sold the joke, there were too few of them.
Usually when a show is moved significantly out of its production order in air order, it's because someone somewhere thinks it's not a very good episode or one that needs to be buried on a night when the ratings will be lower. (And, to be fair, the first week after Daylight Savings Time usually sees very low ratings in the 8 p.m. hour.) I get why NBC or the producers or someone was worried about this episode. It's a bit much to swallow for the casual viewer, and the ideas at its center seem to go just as nuts as Jeff does in that pottery class. But there's enough fun around the edges of the show that I didn't care if some of it didn't entirely work. I guess if the show is going to push too far into being busy (as it did last week) or being weird, I'd rather it aim for weird.
- Let us now praise Starburns, who's just a terrific background character, despite having fewer than ten lines in the entire run of the show (so far as I can recall). I love the way this show is filling in the edges of its universe, and Starburns is a big part of that.
- "Your last blow-off class ended up teaching me to live in the moment, which I will always regret and never do again."
- "We don't measure water by hours."
- "How about you, Abed? Wanna sail with us? There's black people."
- "If you so much as hum three notes from that Righteous Brothers song, I swear to God, I will come at you with everything I've got."
- "Abed, what did we discuss?" "No voiceover, sorry. It is kind of a crutch."
- "Cat's pajamas? OK, Pierce."
- "I might be able to reach it. It landed on that Hyundai. I mean … mermaid's … car."
- "I hope I get multiple personalities. I get lonely in long showers."
- "I feel bad for him, but things have been running smoother since he drowned." "Yeah, I bet he gets that a lot."
- "Pierce is the only person who's going to drown in a parking lot. Twice."
- "The teacher said I could stay if I don't have any more Ghost-bursts."