Almost since season two of Community began, a small but vocal group has been complaining that the show isn’t as good as it was in season one. Now, obviously, there are always fans of any show who will complain that the show isn’t as good as it was in season one, because season one marks the beginning of infatuation, the point where you realize that you can, indeed, like this show just that much. Everything after that is an attempt to recapture that experience, and you never, ever can. But some of the people enjoying this season but finding it disappointing have far more specific complaints about how the series has forsaken its roots in favor of outright ambition. When it’s not just a different series every week but seems to take place in an entirely different reality, can you get as invested in the characters? I’ve been arguing that you can, since they’ve remained remarkably consistent and a good foothold for us in the midst of zombie outbreaks and Claymation celebrations. But for some of you, that’s not good enough. Some of you miss the formula.
I suspect “Early 21st Century Romanticism” will be an episode those of you who miss season one will love. In a lot of ways, it feels very much like a season one episode. There’s an event on campus that drives the storylines. The group is split into several smaller groups for those storylines, but they come together at the end (though Jeff pipes in remotely). There’s a hint at the ongoing storyline. Everything else resolves with a genuinely heartwarming ending scene. The action—outside of the Jeff storyline and the final shot—doesn’t leave the Greendale campus. There are pop culture gags here, but they don’t dominate, and Abed isn’t as prominent as he’s been in many of this season’s episodes. Everything feels more… settled than it perhaps has in other episodes this season.
It’s been kind of an open question all season long as to whether Community could even DO an episode of this type again, and I’d say “Romanticism” proves it very much can, even if this episode is, by default, not nearly as exciting as some of the others we’ve seen this year. It’s very much a bridge episode between the conceptual fun of “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (and do check out this wonderful piece on the episode’s portrayal of loneliness and depression if you haven’t already) and whatever comes next. (Based on that last shot, I’m assuming we’re going to get some sort of Pierce-centric half-hour, in which the character, who’s grown ever more isolated and alone this season and has, subsequently, lashed out, gets some form of redemption.) It’s also a Valentine’s Day episode, which means that there aren’t a lot of possible stories to work with here. As such, the show falls back on the reliable old idea of there being a Valentine’s dance and the various characters all encountering assorted love-related mishaps on the way to said dance. This requires introducing a lot of outside characters, like Mariah the librarian and Britta’s new “lesbian” friend, but these characters more or less work as potential romantic foils.
One of the things those who miss season one miss about that season, I think, is the school-based reality of all of the episodes. The show very consciously never left Greendale in season one (just as Cheers almost never left the bar in season one of that show), the better to establish the ground rules of Greendale and how it operates. Looks into the characters’ private lives at home? Visits to the bar? Journeys out into the desert? Those have all been confined to this season, which has been gradually expanding the show’s world from the second episode on. Indeed, there have been whole episodes that had little to do with Greendale at all. Similarly, the show has largely abandoned school-centric plots. The characters rarely take a new class with a new wacky teacher (outside of Betty White’s appearance in the premiere). The stories rarely revolve around a school event or school assignment anymore, and when the show leaves the Greendale campus, it has a tendency to get a little darker, as we see how these characters’ lives are away from the happy, weird place that unites them. (It’s here that I’ll point out that even my three favorite episodes of the season—“Calligraphy,” “Christmas,” and “Dragons”—take place entirely on Greendale soil, though you have to stretch the definition to include “Christmas,” and my fourth-favorite, “Mixology,” takes place almost entirely OFF-campus.) The show’s thrilling ambition excites a lot of us, myself included. But it leaves others of us wondering if there’s anything human in the show left to connect with. No matter how well the characters are drawn, can you take a pregnancy plot based in a faux-zombie outbreak seriously? Some people have drawn the line there.
I hesitate to say these people miss the formula of the show. Even in season one, the series quickly started throwing aside the established formula of the earliest episodes in favor of taking everything to weirder and weirder places. I think what these people miss (and, again, I’m not really one of them, so correct me if I’m wrong) is the sense that even though this is a heightened reality, it’s a version of the same reality we all occupy. “Modern Warfare” is an absolutely nutzoid episode of television, but what grounds it are two things anybody can relate to—wanting to get early class registration and sleeping with a good friend in the heat of passion. The paintball tournament doesn’t break out because of some random event. It breaks out because everybody wants the best classes. So even if where things go from there become something that would never, ever happen, the episode is sufficiently grounded in the reality we’re familiar with to feel comfortable, like it could happen to us. It’s harder to say that about, say, “Epidemiology,” much as I still love that episode. (I actually still have it on my DVR, when I’ve deleted many episodes I liked even more.)
The point I’m trying to make is this: “Romanticism” is a very good episode of Community, but it feels so small-scale at this point that it’s hard to give it the very highest praise for me. I’m sure some of you will, but to me, it feels like a very funny throwback to what the show was, not necessarily a funny melding of that approach with the show’s new, expansive approach. Now, this isn’t entirely true. The Jeff storyline takes place almost entirely in his apartment, as we get the look into his private life this week, with his attempts to watch soccer with Duncan, attempts that turn into an impromptu house party with Chang, Starburns, Leonard, and someone named Magnitude. What’s interesting here is that Jeff doesn’t HATE the party. Indeed, he seems to be having a pretty good time in the scene where Chang is doing his laundry in Jeff’s dishwasher. It ties in to one of the season’s more subtle themes: The members of the study group don’t NEED each other to be happy, but they have CHOSEN each other. Of course, he eventually chases everybody out, but he finds Chang living at the bottom of the trash chute and tucks him in on his couch, instead. Chang and Jeff as roommates? That might be an even better way to use Chang than putting him in the group. (It’s also worth pointing out how aggressively Dan Harmon and his writers have configured this season to be about the three characters no one was quite sure fit last season: Pierce, Shirley, and Chang. Smart writing, unless you absolutely hate those characters.)
The stories at the dance amount more to very amusing comic sketches, but, hey, they’re still very amusing. In particular, I enjoyed Britta’s slow descent into being a fake lesbian to prove how cool she was to a girl who, just like her, wanted to be cool by having a lesbian friend. Gillian Jacobs doesn’t get a lot of praise for the physical comedy she does on the show, but she’s inspired when she gets tossed bits like this, and the scene where she and her friend awkwardly kissed in the middle of the dance floor, looking around to see if they were shocking their fellow students, was maybe the funniest part of the episode. Similarly, Troy and Abed trying to co-date Mariah, the cute librarian, was very funny, though I don’t wonder if the resolution there was a little swift. (On the other hand, I love the idea of the two finding someone for “them,” which is just creepy enough to work.) Shirley mostly sat out the episode, but Annie got in some good moments as Britta’s sidekick (and I loved that the Britta counterpart had an Annie counterpart as well).
I’m less certain about the Pierce subplot, which was funny in places, but relied a little too much on wacky, aggressive humor for my tastes (though putting Chevy Chase and Andy Dick in the same subplot probably guaranteed this). Still, I’m impressed that the writers seem to have built naturally to a point where Pierce is going to end up in need of the group, just when they’re probably growing ever more tired of him. It’s a nice call, and I’m interested to see how it plays out, assuming it ends up being one of the main stories of February sweeps, as I think it might. That final shot of Pierce passed out on the park bench, Jeff’s text to him going unread because his phone is on the ground, is enough to almost make you feel sympathy for the guy, who’s been a little brutish of late.
So, sure, you can quibble here and there. Maybe Jeff’s final message was a little treacly (though I generally like when the show goes in for treacle). Maybe the stakes of the story were a little low. Maybe the whole cast could have been used better. But at the same time, the series needs breather episodes like this one, episodes where the characters have a chance to recharge and reset before the next big blowout episode. And unlike the two January episodes, both of which had some pretty major flaws, this one was solidly constructed, with great laughs throughout. I doubt this will go on my list of all-time favorite Community episodes, but it’s nice to be reminded the show can still DO episodes like this when it really wants to.
- What do we need to do to get John Oliver as a regular on this show next year? He and Joel McHale have such wonderful chemistry, and I love the show’s vision of Duncan’s England as some sort of bizarre funhouse mirror version of the real one.
- NBC sent this episode out on a screener with Perfect Couples and The Office. Myles will dig into The Office later, but I thought it was a very funny episode (it made me laugh out loud at The Office for the first time in ages). Perfect Couples, meanwhile, was… OK. It’s never going to be a great show, but I like some of the cast, and there’s an occasional joke that makes me grin. Still, it’ll always be stuck in the C-show ghetto.
- This was almost certainly changed for broadcast, but the temp score on the screener relied heavily on Badly Drawn Boy’s score for About A Boy, perhaps giving some idea of the influence on the show’s score proper.
- Because I watched on a screener, I don’t have writer or director names for this episode, but I thought it was very well-paced. So good on them?
- Also, I don’t know who the actress playing Mariah was, but she is almost certainly going to turn up on some inferior sitcom wedged in between two better ones next fall.
- "I wanna be a book. She could pick me up. Flip through my pages. Make sure nobody drew weiners in me."
- "Well, I don't believe in dibs or love at first sight or love or friends or doing things."
- "What I do have is a prepared statement."
- "And, in summation, good luck and bon appetit."
- "Many, many paragraphs of that were oddly supportive." "Wait till you hear the one I have for you."
- "Pierce is our friend, and the Barenaked Ladies are triple platinum! Are you?"
- "I am a stylish American, professor. I've been forcing myself to be into soccer since 2004."
- "I'll see you at precisely 6:30, or as the English call it, gravedigger's biscuits."
- "Charmed, I'm sure."
- "We need to get something straight first. This is the cutest thing that's ever happened to me."
- "If you have to ask if it's homophobic to ask questions, haven't you already answered your own question?"
- "Don't mind if I Chang."
- "In England, we call them Italian fannies."
- "Go. Go. Go. Go. Go."
- "There are no white women here, Leonard!"
- "Don't tell that to Magnitude!"
- "I would love to be his friend." "I know you would. It's incredible."
- "For the record, I never thought you were cool. I only thought you were a lesbian."