“Economics Of Marine Biology” has issues throughout its running time—and quite a few clustered toward the end—but it also has the joke that made me laugh the hardest this entire season, so I suppose that should count for something. Donald Glover’s delivery of “get your damn hands off my Let’s,” an imagined slogan for the potato chip company in the Community-verse is perhaps my new favorite thing ever, and it’s bolstered by the tag, which offers the episode’s second original song as part of a Let’s commercial, then has an old woman fume as she repeats the slogan. The joke is pretty much just adding the word “damn” to a fairly common advertising slogan, but, hey, whatever works.
I feel somewhat generous to the rest of the episode, too, because it actually feels like Community in a lot of ways. There are still a few too many story elements, but the show manages to have all but one of them (the Troy/Shirley B-plot) stem believably from the central story. It feels, in a lot of ways, like a throwback to the show’s first season, when it was very good at starting with one central conflict that branched off into lots of smaller stories, with a B-story that complemented and commented on the main plot. “Marine Biology” doesn’t quite reach the heights of that season, but it’s at least somewhere in the same ballpark, and that’s no small feat.
This kind of structure can be murderously difficult to make play, because it requires that the story essentially keeps subdividing, like a cell in the process of reproduction. This means that the stories get smaller and smaller and smaller, until some of them aren’t even visible. In this case, that would be Abed’s attempt to start a fraternity—the Delta Cubes—which will do war with the Dean, based on an offhand mention the Dean makes when talking about trying to recruit Archie, a rich young man who has money to burn but no better educational prospects. Seeing Abed run in every so often to pull a fraternity prank or two is fine, I suppose, but it never really does anything or goes anywhere, even as it gets Jim Rash to shake his fist toward the sky and vow to keep the Delta Cubes down, which is fun. I hate to call Simpsons did it for this sort of thing, because Simpsons has done everything, but this joke just can’t compete with the very similar storyline from the “Homer Goes To College” episode and borrows many of the same basic gags.
Fortunately, the Archie storyline is pretty good, if not overwhelmingly funny. (It’s yet another storyline where the jokes seem to be happening around the margins, to the degree that they sometimes get pushed offscreen entirely.) I said last week that Dean Pelton has been the most consistent character this season for me, and this is another good showcase for Rash’s talents, as he gets his first actual storyline of the season. His quest to land “the whale” results in him betraying everything Greendale stands for, bringing in scantily clad women, forcing Leonard to stir a giant swimming pool full of foam (which provided my second biggest laugh of the season), and taking “Pop pop” away from Magnitude because Archie wants it. It’s all a little silly—and is at least aware of its own silliness, particularly in the sequence where Magnitude has covered blackboards with potential new catchphrases—but it’s always a great showcase for Rash, who’s a consummate comic performer throughout.
The ending of the storyline is fairly dumb, what with the way that the Dean’s speech about what really matters about Greendale somehow convinces the overly shallow Archie to stay. It’s a “twist” that’s not really one, because it’s all but required by this particular storyline, and the show doesn’t really bother undercutting it or offering up the sort of quick little melancholy twist that defined much of the show’s first few seasons. It’s as if nobody involved quite knew how to close this off but knew that they needed to get Archie at Greendale somehow, so they just made him act out of character for a bit. (Then again, he’s not much of a character to begin with, for someone who drives so much of the action.) The idea of a rich, entitled person having his every whim catered to by Greendale—sort of a Pierce origin story—isn’t so bad, but Archie never takes on any dimension or life of his own, making the whole thing feel ultimately sort of pointless.
In the other half of the episode, the show finds what is, I believe, a character pairing the series has done nothing with in the past, as Troy and Shirley both sign up for a class called “P.E.E.,” or Physical Education Education. The point of the class is to teach students how to be gym coaches or somesuch, and it’s mostly just there to provide an inversion of what you’d expect, where natural athlete Troy excels in a P.E. class, while Shirley struggles along. Instead, Shirley, who’s raised kids, proves to be an exemplary disciplinarian, while kind-hearted Troy is overwhelmed by drama students pretending to be gym students in a mock locker room. There’s some fun stuff here, and it’s always nice to see Yvette Nicole Brown get to cut loose with some glares, but the story is overwhelmed by how many elements it tries to shove into the story, as if it can compensate for the very basic tale by piling on stuff that’s not especially funny but sort of sounds like it might be. (The constant repetition of “mock locker” foremost among these elements.) On the other hand, Garrett and Vickie are there, and they shove Troy in a locker, so it’s not like it’s deeply unpleasant to watch.
What’s more, the story sort of redeems itself with an ending that more or less works, roughly the inverse of the A-story (though it might have played better if this episode had aired before the Chang-centric documentary episode, as originally planned). In the first of the episode’s two original songs, Shirley teaches Troy how to be a coach by helping him teach the unteachable, and there are some good physical gags in the midst of Troy and Shirley helping Chang learn how to throw a Frisbee and swing a golf club among other things. It’s not the greatest thing the show will ever do, but the stupid song really sells it, and Ken Jeong has a lot of fun with the “Chang can’t drink out of a water fountain” joke.
Meanwhile, in the C-story, Jeff is tasked with keeping Pierce away from the school, where he might learn that Archie is being courted and may take his place as Greendale’s most important student. He doesn’t look forward to the task, but this being Community, he ends up having fun hanging out a barber shop with the old man. Again, there’s not very much here, and the ending is sorely predictable. But Joel McHale continues to do some of his best work this season, to the point that he’s able to sell some weaker material, and Chevy Chase seems to enjoy playing a side of Pierce that’s not actively malicious. I do really miss the Jeff and Pierce relationship from the show’s first two seasons, and this was a good, if minor, return to that dynamic.
Looking at this season as one that’s still disappointing—if not actively an abomination or anything—it’s possible to see the show lurching back into a sort of fighting shape. The stories are still over-busy and crammed full of elements, but unlike in earlier episodes, those elements all proceed at least somewhat logically from the central storyline. The jokes aren’t yet funny enough to leave me laughing consistently, but they’re slowly but surely getting slightly better, while the characters might still be their season one selves but at least seem vaguely consistent with those depictions.
What the show is really missing, though, is some of the emotional depth it had in its first three seasons, particularly that second year. There was a kind of melancholy sentimentality that pervaded the show in those days, and episodes would end with moments that allowed for both silver linings and grey clouds in ample supply. In those days, all of the best episodes’ storylines would revolve around common points or comment on particular themes. “Marine Biology” isn’t an actively awful episode of television or anything, but I do miss the way that the show felt more strongly constructed in those days. This feels the most like an episode of classic Community that any episode has all season, but it’s also curiously hollow, without any thematic weight, unless you count “liking people” as a theme, and I’m not sure I do.
- I was really looking forward to the Shirley and Troy storyline, too. Any time that a show this old can find a character pairing it has yet to exploit, it’s fairly surprising. I hope the writers return to it at some point.
- Pierce is really correct about how great it is to go to an old school barbershop. For all you men out there, go and have a haircut and shave. It’ll be a little expensive, but it’s well worth it (particularly if you have a barbershop that will give you a beer, as my local one does).
- An example of the show’s weird direction this season: When the Dean is saying that he’ll pretty much allow any student to do anything, a student creeps into the background of the shot, then sits at the counter of Shirley’s Sandwiches and does absolutely nothing. The old Community would have found the perfect background gag for this moment.
- Another weird story point: What gets to the Dean is Archie taking away Magnitude’s catchphrase? I was all but certain we were heading for a situation where Archie did something horrible to Annie, and the Dean realized things had gone too far. Instead, Annie just kind of hangs out at the edges of the story and doesn’t do much of anything.
- But Britta is funny when she refuses to wipe off Archie’s “kicks” with her scarf. And also funny when she eats her Pringles knockoffs in bed with Troy at the episode’s end. (Gillian Jacobs really sold how dry and gross that chip was.)
- Speaking of which, I’m still not buying the Britta and Troy thing, though at least it’s been so far backgrounded that the tag featuring the two of them had a vaguely obligatory feeling to it. “Might as well!” somebody in the writers’ room said.
- I do like that the two board members have remained consistent in all of these episodes and seem to be developing their own personalities. I don’t want to see an episode about the two of them or anything, but it’s a development I never would have predicted in the slightest.