After last week's bottle episode, Community again takes things down a notch, by returning to something that worked very well for it in the first season: the deliberately small-scale pop culture parody. In this case, the show is tackling conspiracy thrillers, but it's doing so in a way where, say, the big scene where the heroine's car blows up only looks to have cost about $15. The episode draws laughs just from which characters it casts as which players in the fake conspiracy storyline, and it ingenuously ties in the B-plot, which involves Troy and Abed constructing the world's largest blanket fort, in a fashion that few will ever see coming but in a way that makes for one of the best comedic setpieces of the year. Honestly, the section where the "chase" enters the blanket city, mimicking a similar sequence in every conspiracy thriller ever, is so inspired that I have literally nothing to say about it. It was great. It made me laugh. It's another great example of the show topping itself.
On the other hand, I wasn't quite as big a fan of the ultimate conclusion of the conspiracy storyline, which started out funny and then tried to incorporate a few too many levels of deception. It wasn't impossible to follow or anything, but when the joke is that there are layers of deception that plunge deeper and deeper, until the whole thing eats its own tail, then I'm not sure essentially repeating that joke five or six times over is the best way for all of this to pay off. That said, I don't see another way out of it, since the show can't actually have Jeff or the Dean die or have either of them kill someone else. Don't get me wrong; I admire the ambition of the scene, and I like the fact that it brings the story to a suitably epic close using one location and just four actors, but the scene didn't quite have the elegant construction of, say, the "That's why you always leave a note!" scene from Arrested Development or the willingness to follow the gag so far that it becomes unfunny then wraps around to being funny again, like the rake gag in The Simpsons. (Yes, I get that this is making fun of the idea that, ultimately, a conspiracy will seem pretty nonsensical at its core, which is why it's ultimately not that big of a deal.)
At the same time, the rest of the episode was so funny that this essentially doesn't matter. (And before I make it sound like I hated the entirety of the conclusion, I liked most of it, especially Jim Rash's reactions as the Dean.) And even when the whole thing was becoming so complicated that it required endless levels of exposition, the show remembered that what makes it so successful is the bond between the characters, and it had Annie chew out Jeff for just how much he hurt her by acting like their kiss never happened when he came back to school for the fall. The shipper stuff isn't really why I watch this show, but I'm amazed by how quickly the series can turn on the chemistry between just about any pairing of the actors. Jeff and Britta have been having some fun chemistry the last few weeks, but Jeff and Annie smolder nicely in this episode. I suppose that's one of the benefits of opening yourself up to the idea that anyone on the show could be a potential romantic partner for anybody else, as Community has. (Well, I can't imagine Pierce being in a relationship with anyone, but besides that …)
So the ending of the episode finds a nice emotional core to keep the craziness from going too far over the top, which also helps with any issues that arise from following the structural insanity of a conspiracy story to its logical conclusion. And the rest of the episode is a very smart run through both the weird little Wonderland Troy and Abed live in (complete with a new friend who lives just down the hall) and through the standard beats of the conspiracy story. Kevin Corrigan is great fun as Professor Professorson, the man teaching Jeff's conspiracy theories independent study … or is he? OK, no, he's actually a professor in the night school … or is he? (And so on and so on from here, in a gag that does get funnier the more times it's repeated, particularly as Corrigan pops up every so often to play a new side of the joke.) And as far as ideas for a grand conspiracy go, the idea that Greendale is infiltrated by this weird, shadow night school is a lot of fun, particularly when Jeff and Annie find the list of classes that all sound incredibly, incredibly fake.
Another interesting thing is how this episode essentially eschews four cast members, one entirely. (I actually sort of think Ken Jeong may be off filming The Hangover 2 right now, which would explain why he hasn't been in the last two episodes.) Shirley, Pierce, and Britta are all present for the episode-opening study group scene, but then they mostly disappear (though there's a great sight gag with Britta inside the blanket fort). Generally, I prefer the episodes that use the entirety of the ensemble well, but in this episode, the others would have just gummed up the works, I think. This was an episode that had a lengthy chase scene get interrupted by a Latvian parade inside of a blanket fort. In general, it couldn't have utilized Pierce very well, in his wheelchair, and Shirley and Britta are the two characters who remain the most reality-based, for lack of a better term, which would make it harder for them to just go nuts with the rest of the characters.
Or, honestly, maybe it's the fact that this episode seems devoted to the sheer joy of playing make believe. A lot of Community has the giddy feel of kids playing a game and making it up as they go, and while we sort of expect that from Troy and Abed, we don't always from Jeff and Annie. So while Troy and Abed take something that's very kid-like and then turn it into something weirdly adult (by building a microcosm of society out of blankets), Jeff and Annie go in the opposite direction. By the end of the episode, it becomes clear that just about everyone "in" on the conspiracy was playing out an elaborate storyline for what they perceived to be the benefit of everyone around them, trying to teach them a "lesson," sure, but also getting lost in the game and coming to really enjoy it. Community is basically about people who find themselves in a school setting that occasionally infantilizes them, and it's also about people who try to seem cool finding themselves when they let the inner nerd out. To that degree, Britta and Shirley wouldn't make as much sense in this storyline because it's harder to imagine either abandoning reality to this degree, just to have fun.
Or, y'know, maybe none of that matters at all. Maybe all that matters is the idea that Jeff and Annie can pursue Professor Professorson (it used to be Professorberg) into that blanket fort and suddenly find themselves lost in a world with a Turkish district and a Civil Rights Museum. And when the two come upon Troy and Abed and ask for their help, Troy and Abed are right there to help them find the quickest route to cut off their prey (and to admonish Leonard for farting inside the fort). Sure, Community works so well because it's full of fascinating characters and well-played emotional moments, but it also works well because on some level, it's made by people who just love getting to play with all of the cool toys they can dream up. Whatever minor issues I had with this episode, they were more than made up for by the fact that the toys were really cool.
- Great touch: Annie's car on her diorama fritzing out is shot from three different angles.
- It's also nice to know that NBC's green week now consists solely of characters on their shows making throwaway gags about the environment. (I also liked how Annie's elaborate diorama was basically the writers saying, "Yeah, alternative energy is the best. Can we build a blanket fort now?")
- Depending on where you check, this episode is alternately called "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" or "Conspiracy Theories and Soft Defenses." I went with the former, as that's what the NBC press site called it, but who knows, ultimately?
- This is really a standout episode for Rash. When he enters the room after the old Lenny and Squiggy-esque gag of having someone say "Who would want to do this really creepy/disgusting thing?" followed by the Dean saying, "Hello!" it's very, very funny. The show makes good use of this type of joke. (Now let's hope they do some Stan Daniels Turns.)
- I would read a book called Time Desk. I would also read a book featuring a character called Dean Dangerous.
- "Enjoy eating fiber and watching The Mentalist."
- "I have always dreamt of playing charades with you, Jeffrey. Just not like this. And not on dry land."
- "My family name was Professorberg, but we changed it when we were fleeing from the Nazis."
- "That is gonna be the worst book I ever read cover to cover."
- "Looks like someone sent us a message. A tiny, underwhelming message."
- "This one just says 'learning' with an exclamation point."
- "Welcome to Fluffytown. No smoking, no farting, no pillow fights."
- "Be sure to check out our Civil Rights Museum."
- "Would that this desk were a time desk."
- "Of course. We just did a modern retelling of Macbeth set in Gangland Chicago."
- "We cooked up this whole conspiracy thing to illustrate the slippery slope of academic fraud."
- "You're just doing random crap."
- "Would that this hoodie were a time hoodie!"
- "We've started looting."