“Contemporary Impressionists” isn’t an awful episode of Community, but it’s one of the season’s weaker efforts, giving in just a bit too much to the wackiness that’s encroaching on the show’s core. There are any number of directions the show can go in to maintain itself, yet add on the extra viewers it needs to survive beyond a season four, and of all of those, “increased wackiness” is probably the one that will hurt what makes the show work the least (since, let’s face it, it’s always been a little wacky). But having the show regularly feature the characters doing things like having cartoon thought bubbles pop up or demonstrating Jeff’s ego expanding via a CGI apple is going to take some time for adjustment. The show has always walked the line between live-action cartoon and traditional sitcom pretty well, and these devices push a little too far into the realm of actual cartoon for me. (That said, I had basically no problem with last week’s inset graphic of Jeff’s heart slot machine, so maybe I’m just a hypocrite.)
There’s been a fairly consistent problem with the show this season where the first two acts are stellar, or at least solid, and then the ending lets them down. The ending’s the hardest part to craft of any story, and that holds especially true for stories that are short, like 20-minute sitcom stories. Most sitcoms on TV have an ending problem nowadays, perhaps because 20 minutes just isn’t enough time to develop a good story. You’ll see any number of narrative cheats on other shows, like ending the story before it’s resolved or wrapping things up with a montage that makes it feel like the story’s ended, even though it hasn’t. “Impressionists” ends its story, but it does so in the broadest way possible—having Jeff end up as a Seacrest Hulk who simultaneously terrifies and impresses the attendees of a bar mitzvah—and that broadness takes an already wacky episode and pushes it over the top.
What brings it all back from utterly falling apart is that the last handful of scenes return to taking the characters seriously, as something more than joke delivery systems. The episode hinges on the idea that Abed’s gotten addicted to utilizing celebrity impersonators to act out famous movie scenes over the holiday break. (In case you hadn’t guessed, this episode was shuffled out of order just a bit and was actually filmed before “Regional Holiday Music,” so far as I can tell.) The others in the group suggest gently to Troy that this might be Abed taking things too far, but Troy insists their lives are better because of Abed, that he makes reality slip away and turns everything into something more fun than it would have been before they met him. Unfortunately, Abed has incurred a significant debt to the impersonator service, one that can only be paid off if the group attends the bar mitzvah and impersonates celebrities. (Of these, I wish I had gotten to see more of Yvette Nicole Brown’s Oprah, which was obvious but hysterical.) Troy alone finds out that if the group doesn’t do well at the party, Abed’s legs will be broken by Ving Rhames and Michael Chiklis impersonators.
As a story, this works pretty well. It plays off of Abed’s character on a fundamental level, and it gets into the fact that—broadly speaking—he’s always going to resist growing up. There’s a real tension at the heart of Community between reality and fantasy, between the idea of giving up on fantasy to exist in “reality,” whatever that is, and it’s one that stretches back to one of the very first episodes. In it, Abed’s father grew angry at the idea of Abed continuing to make films, even though those films were the way Abed dealt with the emotional trauma of his family breaking up. Britta and Jeff pushed him back on the path of pursuing his dreams, rather than working at his father’s business, and what I like is that this season is finally starting to deal with some of the hidden implications of this. Broadly speaking, Abed’s not terribly likely to break into the film industry, the only place he could make any real money at this. At some point, he’ll have to find a job and grow up and stop living in a fantasy world. But, as Troy points out, that would stop making him Abed.
This is a pretty fundamental thing that happens to change people between when they’re about 20 and when they’re about 25 (and again between 25 and 30). Eventually, you realize that your number one dream for life just might not be attainable, and that leads to a slow winnowing down, a wearing away of what you wanted that leaves you in a place where you can make enough money to live, but you might not be doing what you’d always hoped you were. One of the crucial shifts that’s happened in the last 30 years or so, however, is that kids, increasingly, aren’t prepared for this. They are told they can have everything they want and be whatever they want, and then they hit about 25 and realize, abruptly, that that’s just not the case. My grandfather might have wanted to be a professional baseball player, but he also knew he was going to end up working on a farm and getting married. That was the life he was born into, and what he could do to change that was to make sure his children had other opportunities.
But we live in the land of opportunity. If you’re a middle-class white kid, you probably had it pretty good growing up. You didn’t get everything you ever wanted, and you probably had peers who had it slightly better, but you had food to eat and clean water to drink and somewhere to live. And that’s to say nothing of movies to go see and music to listen to and TVs to watch. We take these things for granted, but it hasn’t always been that way. It used to be that the house and food weren’t a given. It still is all over the world, in ways we pretend not to know about. So when we long for the better opportunities, we glom onto the baseball player fantasy, onto the impossible. And eventually, we realize that’s not going to happen.
So here’s Troy, hoping not to tug Abed back to Earth because he, himself, doesn’t want to have to deal with the fact that he will probably become an air conditioning repairman. It’s something he’s tremendously good at, but it’s also something he doesn’t have a great passion for. (On some level, I would hope, just about everybody can relate to this.) Abed keeps him from having to grow up too fast, but there are problems inherent in that, like getting in over your head financially because you just buy whatever you want and worry about the consequences later. I like that this story is as much about Troy as it is about Abed, and I like that it concludes with the two largely moving scenes in which Troy and Abed talk about how Troy will sometimes need to step in and tell Abed not to do something and in which Abed meets with his dark alter ego, terrified by the thought of things changing around him. (Who’s emotionally malnourished now?) Reality pulls on the rope, and Troy—realizing his destiny—reluctantly complies. Abed flies off into greater fantasy.
I know some of you guys were complaining that the relationship between these two was a little strained earlier in the season, and I could see that point of view. But I think it was necessary to portray Troy and Abed as best pals so that the moments in which the cracks start to show could be that much more apparent. At present, this isn’t a friendship built for the long-term, and unless one of them changes significantly, it never will be. As Troy evolves toward the person he perhaps knows he must be, that’s going to pull him further and further away from Abed, and Abed already knows that he’s got a limited time with these people as his best friends—a thought he expressed in last year’s “Critical Film Studies.”
The richness of the Troy and Abed plot is able to obscure some of the other problems, like that wackiness, but it can’t do so entirely. The end of the Jeff plot just doesn’t work—at least not until he gets into the car with Britta and she points out that he’s out of her league diagnostically—and the long succession of broad Jewish mother types who hit on him is also pretty dumb. Furthermore, while I liked Chang’s early scene with the Dean, his thought bubbles weren’t all that great, and his idea of using children to take down Jeff (and, presumably, take over Greendale) strains credulity a bit too much, at least at present. I assume this isn’t going away, so I’ll give it a wide berth, but it’s not a promising beginning. Plus, this is yet another episode that gets all of the characters into one place, then fails to do anything with around half of them, relegating Shirley, Pierce, and Annie to the sidelines. This is a disappointment, particularly when last week’s episode utilized everybody so well.
There are a lot of different shows inside of Community, and one of them is a very broad sitcom that does things like have Jeff walk along the side of the road as the music from the TV version of The Incredible Hulk plays. This is never going to be my favorite version of the show (though I know a lot of you like it just fine), nor is the broader show that involves cartoon thought bubbles and Chang taking down Jeff with children. But I’m much fonder of the show that treats these characters as real people once the cartoon wackiness wears off, and on that score, “Impressionists” was a win. I’m fine with the show going broader to attract more viewers, and I hope it works, honestly. I just hope the show can keep that solid character core, to make the transition a little easier.
- I don’t know if you heard, but the ratings last week were pretty terrific. If the show can hold on to even 50 percent of that audience bump tonight, I’d say season four is in the bag (and maybe season five). I’d also say that’s pretty conclusive proof the show’s true problem is Big Bang Theory, which attracts a lot of the same audience. (To give you perspective on how huge Big Bang is, a rerun of it on TBS last night outstripped a huge number of programs on all networks in the 18-34 demographic.) This is a terrific victory for this show, and I’m not going to lie: I was pretty damn happy to see those numbers.
- I enjoyed French Stewart as Vinnie, the guy who ran the impersonator service because he could no longer get gigs from his resemblance to French Stewart. The idea of an actor playing, essentially, themselves is a very old gag, but I love it every time I see it.
- Another old gag I always love: Someone gets caught in a lie and has to re-interpret what they see before them to snow somebody else. In this case, that was Troy insisting Abed (as Jamie Lee Curtis) and the Lorenzo Lamas impersonator were acting out scenes from Lorenzo’s Oil.
- I’m told there are other cameos in this episode, but my screener quality was pretty poor. Was that actual Moby, or just the guy who played Moby on How I Met Your Mother back in the day?
- Speaking of HIMYM, there was an eerie crossover gag between the shows when the group started talking about how much the women love interventions.
- Another strong episode for Gillian Jacobs, whom I interviewed recently (look for that next week). I particularly liked her Michael Jackson impression.
- One quote for the night: “I wouldn’t do that! I have a large flashlight for them.”—Chang, over-zealous as always.