(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Here’s a seldom-acknowledged truth: Community has never been a strong starter. Its first season is a textbook example of a sitcom taking a few weeks to make good on a promising pilot; its second and third seasons, meanwhile, seemingly stalled out of the gate. Removed from the black cloud of behind-the-scenes drama hanging over “History 101” and “Paranormal Parentage,” “Has Community lost it?” makes for a familiar refrain. As Todd VanDerWerff pointed out last week, this is essentially a new show—but it’s a new show tied to a past of false starts and shaky beginnings, “Anthropology 101”s and “Geography Of Global Conflict”s.
Bearing that in mind, it’s wholly appropriate that this week’s episode takes place amid a tribute to a character who’s regenerated multiple times in his/her five-decade existence. Too bad “Conventions Of Space And Time” came out a Minerva. To paraphrase Abed, that’s not being sexist—this episode just kind of sucks.
In the spirit of liking liking things, let’s start with the positive: Despite the bothersome intrusion of a misused Matt Lucas, “Conventions Of Space And Time” is a good Troy-and-Abed episode. Their friendship is one of the fundamental building blocks of the show, and the giddy chemistry between Donald Glover and Danny Pudi keeps the increasingly insufferable Inspector Spacetime concept afloat. Qualified statements aside, tonight’s episode re-affirms the bond between these two characters, and Glover especially gets to shine when he exaggerates the emotional rollercoaster of losing a best friend. Sure, the “bromance” button is pushed too hard, and there’s never any actual danger of Abed moving to England. But these two characters and their relationship are Community 101, and in this stage of the show’s regeneration, it’s heartening to see an episode that hits those notes accurately, no matter how flawed the technique.
These first three episodes treat Abed particularly well, and I suspect that’s because there were more Abeds in the season-three writers’ room than, say, Annies, Brittas, or Jeffs. Community has come to reflect his point of view so strongly that it shouldn’t be a surprise that the show might start feeling a little cold and out of touch with the other characters. In Wired’s pre-season-three profile of Dan Harmon, the Community creator explains how he began the show relating more to its ostensible protagonist—Jeff had “all the defense mechanisms that I acquired” Harmon said—but over time found that he shared many similarities with Abed as well. I love Abed as a character and Danny Pudi as an actor—and feel a pull toward the character because I too tend to view the world and my relationship to it through the pop-culture spectrum—but I wonder if tipping the show in Abed’s favor has hurt it in the long run. Did the show eventually attract too many people—viewers and writers alike—who identify more closely to the Abed Nadirs of the world and not the Jeff Wingers?
“Conventions Of Space And Time” even gives Abed the Jeff Winger speech, a monologue that cleverly if not entirely convincingly sums up why Abed needs the study group as much as the study group needs Abed. “He’s an alien, but his human friends keep him grounded and invested in the world,” Abed says of the Inspector—though he’s really talking about himself and Community. (And that’s the second instance where “Conventions Of Space And Time” uses Inspector Spacetime to comment on Community. More on that later.) But that’s a lesson the episode takes too long to learn.
When Abed’s POV becomes Community’s POV—to the point where the show spends an entire episode within the world of the Inspector Spacetime fandom—it doesn’t reflect well on the rest of the study group. Annie indulged a rich fantasy life in previous episodes—including one of the show’s best, “Mixology Certification”—but the lengths to which she goes in “Conventions Of Space And Time” suggest that life with Troy and Abed is rubbing off on the character in a damaging fashion. And though Jeff is the member of the study group who puts up the strongest resistance to playing pretend at InSpecTiCon, it’s all his fault.
One of the most dispiriting facets of “Conventions Of Space And Time” is the fact that much of what goes wrong in Annie’s corner of the episode stems from some of the series’ finest half-hours. Her continued crush on Jeff—or whatever’s going on there, because the Abed-ization of Community has hampered the show’s ability to talk about romantic relationships in open, honest terms—traces back to the kiss the two shared in “Debate 109,” an apt climax to the first truly great episode of Community. But I worry that the kiss stunted the character’s growth. It’s been harder to tell in previous episodes, largely because Alison Brie can act her way through even the middling material she was given here. “Conventions Of Space And Time” stops just short of turning the character into the “sexy Christmas baby” of “Regional Holiday Music,” but Brie still shows admirable commitment and pluck on screen. I like how she gets to let a little bit of Trudy Campbell sneak into her exchange with the bellhop, and in an episode that’s sorely lacking in solid laughs, she gets one of the biggest when she attempts to splash the contents of two empty glasses in Joel McHale’s face. But to mire her in the starry-eyed swamp of Jeff’s unrequited affection does the character a tremendous disservice—especially when the previous version of the show and Annie were capable of driving more complicated, character-and-relationship based storylines like the Annie-Pierce tangents of seasons two and three.
Preliminary talk about “Conventions Of Space And Time” would have you believe that Annie gets the shortest end of the episode’s quantum spanner. But Britta feels off, too, and it’s not just because I’m convinced that’s a stunt double standing in for Gillian Jacobs in the cold open’s big tracking-shot sequence. (On that note: That’s an ambitious bit of direction on the part of State member Michael Patrick Jann, but it also comes off as a flimsy excuse to get Jacobs in her underwear.) The rougher edges of Jacobs’ performance make Britta’s dismissal of the convention harder to swallow—she’s a typically stubborn presence, but she’s written like a jerk for this entire episode. And she’s never called out on it, which steals the humor from a lot of Jacobs’ non-verbal reactions to the sci-fi silliness surrounding her.
Not that this is the type of thing that needs to be justified, but Community’s having a hard time expressing why Britta and Troy are even together in the first place. Maybe that’s setting up something down the line, but it lends credence to the “too many Abeds in the writers’ room” theory—where there was once a real, human warmth to the show, it’s been missing in these first three episodes. And that has an adverse effect on the way it portrays the connections between the characters. Maybe not for Abed and Troy, but I see no reason to keep nudging Annie and Jeff together, other than playing to the deepest wishes of the ’shipping faithful. And if things keep going this way, they may be the only viewers pushing for a fifth-season renewal.
Community being Community, “Conventions Of Space And Time” is acutely aware of this, and comments on it from within Shirley and Pierce’s focus-group plot. It’s the C-story-est of C-stories, but it’s a way to give the two characters who have the least invested in the convention something to do. Chevy Chase’s infamous objections to the show and his character are transmitted from a broad, phoned-in performance. The script (credited to Maggie Bandur, who previously penned “Competitive Ecology”) is smart to play toward Pierce’s tendency to get intoxicated on the smallest traces of power, but Chase’s hamminess makes it unclear whether or not his character is purposely fucking around with the producers of the American Inspector Spacetime. That sets up a lot of hurdles for Yvette Nicole Brown, but she acquits herself nicely, even when she’s baldly speaking on behalf of fans who’ve stuck with Community through thick and thin: “What they like about the show is that it’s smart, complicated, and doesn’t talk down to its audience.”
But only two of those qualities apply to “Conventions Of Space And Time”: The Inspector Spacetime material panders but never condescends, and it is complicated—though not in an entirely favorable manner. Yet for an episode that plays to the show’s “logical Inspector” strengths while holding back its “emotional Constable” side, this may be the least smart Community’s ever been. It’s still too early to definitively declare that the show has lost its magic—though, with only 13 episodes at its disposal, hopefully this fourth season performs its course correction right quick. Otherwise, it’ll end up next to that last season of Gilmore Girls in the annals of TV regenerations no one wants to talk about.
- On the “least smart” note: I’m just going to interpret the pack of nerds who follow Britta around and then scatter with accompanying Three Stooges sound effects as a dig at The Big Bang Theory. Any other interpretation is a joke that Community should be above, regeneration or no regeneration.
- I agree with Britta: I don’t care about Inspector Spacetime. (On a related note, Gillian Jacobs' delivery on that line is spectacular.) It was a clever way of circumventing certain copyright restrictions in the third season, but it’s become a monster that, with any luck, has been chased into a windmill that “Conventions Of Space And Time” then set on fire.
- It’s a thematic tie to the rest of the episode, but Joel McHale is utterly stranded in that Thoraxis digression. That said, there’s a glimmer of the show’s former specialness in Jeff’s declaration that he might “have to call science” regarding hair loss.
- Thanks for reading this far in spite of the fact that the name at the top of this review isn’t Todd VanDerWerff. Todd will be back next week, and hopefully, the fourth episode will inspire him toward more optimistic feelings.