Because I am vain and because God gave us the Internet, I have one of those Google alert things set up on my own name. (You're not supposed to admit this in public, I think, but the rest of this story doesn't really make sense unless I do or unless I spend all of my time Googling myself, and I'm not sure which is worse, so we'll just go with this.) Every week, after I post this here Community review, it's linked to in any number of reviews, and they always say, "Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club liked this more than we did, and he thinks the show's heart is great!" or some variation on that phrase. Every time I click on one of these links, it seems to take me to a piece where the writer bemoans the show's increasing employment of things like group hugs and hyper earnestness and the like. So this has gotten me to thinking: If everyone else thinks Community's a pretty good show but not one of TV's best and I, indeed, do think it's one of TV's best, why am I so much more OK with what's bugging everyone else?
I think "Interpretive Dance" is a pretty good example of why I'm OK with the show's increasing employment of things that could seem hokey, like the fact that the characters at the show's center increasingly seem to treat each other like a family because they, like the best sitcom ensembles, are truly becoming a family (of laughter!). It also helps that "Interpretive Dance" is a pretty good episode, but not one of the show's better ones at the same time. I didn't think it was a failure or anything, but I didn't laugh at it nearly as much as some of the other episodes, and much of it had the curious feeling of trying to move the plot forward, as though this show were suddenly Lost or something.
And yet, much of "Interpretive Dance" relies so heavily on the sort of comic chemistry that can't be faked and can only be grown organically that I still liked it in spite of myself. Even as I could pick out that way too much of the episode relied on silly dancing (a sitcom crutch that somehow doesn't irritate me), I still liked scenes where the whole gang hung out together. All of these actors have an impeccable rhythm with each other, and the writers are figuring out that all of the characters have different relationships with each other. For example, I'm not sure just what a Shirley and Abed subplot might look like, but I rather trust that these writers would figure out a way to make it funny.
But at the same time, the episode suffered because there was probably too little of all of that. Troy and Britta would head off into their storyline for long periods of time, while Jeff would head off into his own storyline (with a non-regular, natch), and the show suffered from not having some of those big scenes around the table where the actors all play so perfectly off of each other and every punchline tops the one that came before. While I like the character of the statistics professor Jeff is dating, it's obvious that she's just there to push Britta and Jeff toward each other (in a fashion that still feels a little early and non-organic, frankly), so that takes some of the fun out of her, even as the devil may care attitude she spouts and the way she seems to completely disarm Jeff are charming.
I liked the way that Jeff bristled at the fact that she wanted to place a definition on their relationship, at the way that he seemed to be stifled by the thought of being someone's boyfriend, but I also liked that he was able to move past it. For some, Community's been moving way too fast past the "Jeff is a casual asshole" days of the early episodes of the show, but I rather like that the series is having even him be surprised at how quickly he's becoming something of a better person. And Shirley's right. Britta has a lot to do with why he's heading in that direction (as do all of the rest of the supporting characters). Jeff and the professor's relationship probably should feel more like a perfunctory speed bump. The fact that it didn't really occur to me that it was one until I sat down and started writing this article probably speaks to the chemistry between the actors and the way the show built it up.
On the other hand, Britta and Troy's dancing subplot was a little more hit and miss for me. That whole scene where Britta revealed that she was a dancer and the gang mocked her didn't have the snap it probably needed to crystallize Troy's fear more prominently. It was as though the writers put in a bunch of placeholder jokes and then never really found anything to replace them with (it happens). And the rest of the plot relied really heavily on the actors being good physical comedians. Donald Glover, of course, is terrific at this kind of stuff, and that scene where he was dancing with his class apropos of nothing was hilarious. Gillian Jacobs, for all her charm and skill as the female lead, mostly just looked a little uncomfortable (though, granted, she was dressed as a giant watering can/tea kettle). And big, quirky dance recitals as the final comic setpiece? A little overplayed.
Still, though, Community is settling so nicely into a sense of what it does well that I almost don't care when it turns out an episode I just don't like as much. It's hit a place where I just like spending time with the characters and seeing how they play off of each other. The reason I have so much faith in this show is because of how obvious it is that everyone involved with it loves it dearly when they get into one of those scenes mentioned above, the ones that seem to turn into a long game of comedic tug-of-war, where every line and delivery pushes things just a little bit farther. "Interpretive Dance" isn't a great episode of the show, but the show has built up so much greatness at this point that what's merely an average episode feels better than it is because of all that goodwill.
- I talked to Alison Brie today for a feature that will run here sometime in the upcoming weeks. It's easy to think that single camera comedies are heavily improvised. I'm not sure why this idea became so prevalent in the first place, but improvisation claims have been foisted on everything from Arrested Development to 30 Rock, despite the fact that single-camera comedies are usually heavily scripted. Anyway, Brie told me that the show does stick fairly heavily to the script, but the actors are also given a chance to play around with what's on the page in certain takes. It's probably the best way to handle this sort of thing, and I'm sure it's contributed heavily to the way the cast seems to be gelling.
- "The last thing I said to him was 'Suck it.'"
- "Can't I be the friend in the group whose trademark is his well-defined boundaries like Privacy Smurf, Discrete Bear or Confidentiality Spice?"
- "I am spending a lot of money on breakaway clothing."
- "As soon as we touch, the blinds will open, and six annoying but lovable misfits will be staring at us."
- "I feel like if you need to explain it, it's not just like this."
- "Tea for two? There are five people up there."
- "Culturally, it's unacceptable, but it's theatrical dynamite!"