In the early days of television, the pioneers of TV comedy added laugh tracks not to tell viewers what was funny, but to recreate the experience of being in a large audience of people who all start laughing at the same thing. Laughter is one of those things that almost always works better communally than it does sitting alone on your own. There are plenty of movies I’ve laughed at in packed theaters, only to later watch on TV and find less funny (though the halo effect of that first viewing carried through), and there’s nothing quite like seeing a stand-up comic or a stage comedy on a night when the comic or actors are into it, and the audience is with them all the way, and every joke seems funnier than the last. When the very early comedy producers were adding recorded laughs to their soundtracks or filming before live studio audiences, they hoped to make a potentially lonely activity less isolating. You were a part of an audience, even if that audience wasn’t technically there with you, and you were all laughing at the same thing.
I say all of this to say that I don’t entirely trust my reaction to this Community for a number of reasons, but the foremost one is that I HAVE seen it with an audience (I’ve seen it three times now). The first time I watched it, it was just my wife and I, and we laughed in many spots, but it mostly seemed like a simple, solid episode of the show, with plenty of laughs, some nice heart, and a few curious story decisions (about which more in a bit). The second time I watched it, I was at Paleyfest, about to moderate a panel featuring many of the cast and crew members, and I watched it hearing the sounds of an audience many hundred strong laugh at every little thing that could possibly be considered funny. Suddenly, even the weaker jokes seemed like the greatest jokes ever written, simply because all of us were there, we were all into the show, and we were digging on what it was serving up. And then I watched it today to collect quotes, and liked it much better than the first time, but not as much as the second.
I say all of this to admit that if a bunch of you think this episode was a disappointment, I won’t be surprised, but I thought it was great fun. Is it the halo of watching it with a bunch of rabid fans taking effect? Very possibly. But I think this episode does a lot of interesting things, most of them centered on my favorite character, Britta, and I like the way that it focuses on a few characters who have been a bit underserved this season. Almost all of the story beats are driven by Shirley, Chang, Jeff, and Britta, all characters who could have used more to do this season, while Troy and Abed provide a fun commentary on Britta’s storyline, as they try desperately to keep her from ruining their new friend Luka. The cherry on top of all of this is that Luka is played by Dollhouse’s Enver Gjokaj, an effortlessly chameleon-like actor who really deserves a series (or six) of his own right about now. Even without the audience, this episode hits too many of my sweet spots to disappoint.
After a baby shower for Shirley, one at which Chang reveals himself to be nothing approaching fatherhood material (as if we didn’t know that), Shirley tries to terminate Chang’s parental rights. She figures his roommate, Jeff, can talk him into waiving his rights and signing the thick contract she produces, but Jeff comes to realize that having a baby might be a good motivator to get Chang out of his house and into his own apartment. So he encourages Chang to mature, and Chang goes a little too far, putting on the guise of a boring, suburban dad but not entirely grasping what being such a person would mean. (I, personally, loved the dad-Chang persona, especially when he asked Andre why he needed to have the VCR on 3 when Bones was on 5.) Naturally enough, he decides to prove he can be a good dad by picking up Shirley’s kids from school and helping them with their Spanish homework. And when he finds out he’s got the wrong kids—not that it would have been OK if he had had Shirley’s kids—he has Jeff arrested for kidnapping.
It’s a surprisingly dark turn, and one the show doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with, backing away from it as quickly as possible. Indeed, in the scene immediately after Chang calls Jeff in to the police, we cut to Jeff finding out he’s free to go because the kids’ mother isn’t going to press charges, at Shirley’s behest. I’ve always admired Community for going to darker places and trying to have a certain amount of heart, but this seems almost too dark for even it. Granted, the show’s darkest character is probably Chang, who’s a failed tyrant trapped in a life that’s rapidly taking on water, but that the rest of the characters end up sucked into his scheme seems like something the show isn’t sure about. There were great laughs in this storyline, yes (I’m partial to Chang spinning around in the corner by himself and his endless supply of saws), but the ending was just a bit weak, setting up something very serious and then undercutting it immediately, in a way the best episodes don’t always do. Still, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Andre’s little speech, considering it was mostly making the subtext text AND delivered by a guest character. Malcolm Jamal Warner has really created a nice little character here, and you can understand why Shirley has been willing to take him back.
The Britta storyline visited similarly dark territory, but it was much more successful. After Britta starts dating Luka, he reveals to her that he lived in the Balkans, and his memories of that fuel his pain. But he wasn’t one of the oppressed people, no. He was one of the aggressors, chasing villagers and burning them to death and making them scream. Gjokaj’s joyfulness at his memories of causing people such anguish is terrific, and the episode is one great, sick joke after another, particularly when Britta tries to figure out a way to push Troy and Abed away from Luka WITHOUT ruining him for them, as she’s done with so many of their other friends. The storyline is full of great physical comedy for Gillian Jacobs (like that shot of her ducking her head into the room and stealing the Kickpuncher DVD) and some great line deliveries, particularly her choice to make the otherwise normal line “Maybe we do” into some sort of bizarre time-lapse video of itself.
I’ve frequently made no secret of my love for Britta in this space, and this episode offers a good example of why I think she’s the best character on the show (and certainly its most unique). Sure, the idea of a character whose own good intentions are frequently destroyed by their ability to get in their own way isn’t a new one in comedy, but the show’s ability to marry that to Britta’s ridiculous self-righteous streak AND her deluded nature about herself (which only gets cut through every once in a while) is a fertile place for the show to build comedy from. Granted, she’s a much harder character to write for than, say, Troy, but when the show is able to come up with a storyline like this one, the writers and Jacobs almost always make it work perfectly. And in a season where Britta stories have been few and far between, it’s just nice to get a reminder that the show knows more or less what to do with her when it wants to.
Again, there are problems here and there, mostly in that scene meant to wrap up the Jeff and Shirley storyline. But this episode works almost perfectly as one of those quieter, less complicated episodes of Community, the ones that all made us fall in love with the show in the first place. Figure out another way to end that Jeff and Shirley storyline, and this just might be the best episode of that type since season one. (Also, the show seems to have settled into something of a pattern, where the genre-bending episodes come every third or fourth episode, a better balance than earlier in the season.) There’s a lot to love in “Custody Law,” and the few small missteps are easy enough to forgive. This feels like the show settling in for its end run for the season, heading toward a final stretch of episodes that promises as much excitement as the series has been able to come up with yet.
- Highlights of Paley, with some spoilers: Pierce’s arc is not over just yet, and the question of whether he can be redeemed will come up again. The show will be doing a fake clip show in a few weeks (from the looks of it, it’s the April 7 episode), which featured 75 different scenes, an astounding number on television. The season finale will be about paintball, yes, but will also carry a heavy Sergio Leone feel to it. Yvette Nicole Brown has been working on her chemistry with Malcolm Jamal Warner since she was 11 or 12 years old. You’re welcome. (Also, if Shirley’s baby is born yet this season, how can Chang POSSIBLY be the father, unless it’s a premature baby?)
- I don’t think enough has been said about how Brown is playing Shirley this season, and she’s doing so very well. The character has gotten backed into a pretty serious situation, and everything to do so has happened in ridiculous fashion. But she’s always played things in an emotionally true fashion. I also think that she and Warner have surprisingly nice chemistry.
- I realize it’s unlikely, but I hope Gjokaj comes back at some point in the future. He seemed to have a lot of fun with his festive tales of genocide.
- I like that Britta doesn’t just ruin Catfish for Troy and Abed; she probably ruins it for most of the audience, too. Also, her rendition of a Britney Spears song is officially the greatest thing ever.
- It does seem interesting that the show feels no problem with essentially writing out characters like Annie and Pierce for the whole episode. Granted, Annie and Pierce have gotten lots of focus this season, but it’s nice that the show doesn’t try to force it when characters don’t naturally fit into a storyline.
- I really liked Troy and Abed’s riff about Shirley’s baby wandering the wasteland. Sawed-off shotguns ARE already expensive!
- Random thing I noticed: Jeff and Abed both seem to live in apartment 203. (At the very least, 204 is across the hall from Jeff's place.) No idea if this is a coincidence or some sort of X-Files-esque important number.
- Nice touch: Jeff is wearing the "It's all downhill from here" paintball sweatshirt in jail.
- In case you didn’t hear, Community got a third-season renewal today. Yay!
- "And there's a very nice letter from the manufacturer promising to expand their selection."
- "We're talking about Joe Kennedy, right?"
- "We like him a lot, so you're not allowed to bone him."
- "Who am I kidding? I should be putting this right on my thighs."
- "Exactly like Britney Spears! Hit me with your genie's bottle…"
- "You mean Jeff 'Nipple Play' Winger? No! As you can see, we're still hanging out with him. Hi, how's it going, Jeff?"
- "The corpses stacked like firewood, the rivers red with their blood. I miss it so much."
- "I'm tired of confiscating saws."
- "Parental rights? You're adopting me?!"
- "Between you and me, I don't Chang a lot of chicks."
- "You're not giving him a perm, Jeff."
- "I can almost hear the pitter-patter of little Chinese feet across the treetops."
- "Oh, hey, is that a reason to leave?"
- "Why do I have to put the VCR on 3, if Bones is on 5?"
- "Though your flirtation technique is hilarious, it's distracting."
- "May… be… we… do?"
- "Wait? Kickmuncher 3?"
- "It's mostly footage of me watching dailies, but every once in a while, it comes in handy."
- "In what war is he a criminal? In the battle for our affections."
- "You guys have to believe me! He's so much worse than Tall Kyle!"
- "If we put our heads together, we could be rid of him for 20 to life."
- "Our school motto is 'Lower Your Standards.'"
- "You. You. Officer Baby."
- "There's a difference between telling us a guy likes nipple play and a guy makes hats out of babies."
- "It's cool. Thought it was about catfish."