Matt Berry, Joel McHale

Complaining about a sitcom repeating itself, when that sitcom is in its sixth season, would be unduly harsh in the case of most shows. It’s not harsh in the case of Community, which Dan Harmon conceived to be an elastic show, capable of taking on different looks, styles, and tones with each episode. Whether or not Community’s audience likes “Virtual Systems Analysis” or “G.I. Jeff,” everyone can agree those are ambitious, meticulously crafted homages to the sources that inspired them. Because Community has set a precedent for taking those kinds of risks, even with something that isn’t a direct spoof like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” it’s a little disappointing when the show covers material that feels too familiar.

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“Grifting 101” is an episode Community has done better. In fact, after watching it, my first instinct was to revisit “Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design,” written by pillar of the Community Chris McKenna. It did with puzzle thrillers like David Fincher’s The Game what “Grifting” does with The Sting, a movie even the Save Greendale Committee admits is kind of boring, with grifts that rely too heavily on construction. “Grifting” is a lesser episode that puts itself at a disadvantage merely by echoing “Conspiracy Theories” without besting it. Even the opening credit sequence is phoned-in by Community’s lofty standards. It’s accompanied by a delightful ragtime piano version of the theme, but played over the standard visuals despite the episode’s basis in a film known for its distinctive illustrated title cards.

But for all its faults, “Grifting” is still a pretty fun episode that frequently works in spite of itself. The laser-focused cold open establishes that the game is grift or be grifted, but in classic Community spoof fashion, the episode never fully settles into a straightforward spoof of The Sting because the characters can’t stop commenting on it. When Professor DeSalvo (guest Matt Berry) arrives to teach a course about grifting, naturally that ignites Jeff’s competitive instincts, which present themselves whenever another man appears to be a bigger con artist or womanizer than he is.

This is a fascinating manifestation of Jeff’s insecurity because of how specific and random it is. It’s one thing to know something sounds like a scam—like $150 for Professor DeSalvo’s “regulation briefcase”—and another completely to turn the tables on the scammer. But as Jeff has proved in “Origins Of Vampire Mythology” and elsewhere, there’s little he won’t do to compete against anyone who threatens his belief that he’s the most cunning and rakishly handsome guy at Greendale. The episode’s best scene comes midway through, when Jeff talks in circles trying to explain why DeSalvo’s discovery of Elroy’s African telegram scam was to their benefit, only for Annie to see through it and realize Jeff is blindly improvising. As a mutiny begins taking shape, Jeff levels with his friends as best he can: “I need this! I need to be better than this guy!”

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At first glance, it seems there could be bigger stakes than Jeff’s ego, but the committee’s plan to take down Professor DeSalvo is about more than that. Greendale is a terrible school but only the people who go there are allowed to say that about it or treat it that way. Just as the dog-diploma scandal at the heart of “Basic Crisis Room Decorum” threatened Greendale’s broader reputation, the school’s good name takes a hit if a two-bit hustler like Professor DeSalvo can make off with $50,000. The story isn’t framed that way as explicitly, but because the subtext is there, the characters are working as a team with a clearer purpose than in “Intro To Recycled Cinema.”

Though it’s still not at the level of “Conspiracy Theories,” “Grifting” is a solidly funny episode with some fun pop-culture references and goofy gags. I loved Leonard as the clumsy bellman who spills a bunch of briefcases identical to the one Britta had already swiped from DeSalvo. Ken Jeong nails his moments, with Chang bringing up his diabetes when encouraging someone to double-check DeSalvo’s “grift blood,” then realizing he wasn’t in on the big sting because he can’t be trusted. Keith David is also handed a gift in Ryan Ridley’s script, Elroy’s miserably failed attempt to explain the group’s origin and Britta’s role in it: “She started it as a fake biology group so she could have sex with, uh…Troy?” Close enough, Elroy.

Stray observations:

  • One of the more fascinating trends in Community’s evolution is how its world has slowly but surely bent towards Abed’s sensibility. It’s hard to believe there was once extensive discussion about why Abed couldn’t differentiate between movies and real life, and whether it meant he could be dangerously psychotic. It now looks like the show is told exclusively through Abed’s perspective, with all of the characters gleefully diving into a film spoof with almost no resistance.
  • Paget Brewster kills Frankie’s reaction to Officer Cackowski’s assertion that she and her developmentally disabled sister “could be twins.”
  • With The Guy From Jeff’s Gym, Community has solidified the tag as “the part where the weirdest stuff is.”
  • I laughed pretty hard at the super loud suitcase swapping in the flashback.

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