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It’s taken all of three weeks, but even after this episode – probably the weakest the show has done yet – I’m starting to really fall for Community and fall hard. It’s been a long while since I’ve fallen for a new comedy in its first handful of episodes (well, OK, it’s been since Party Down last spring), but here we are in the fall of 2009, and I’ve fallen for this and Modern Family, like it’s the 1980s and sitcoms rule the airwaves or something. Will wonders never cease? What I liked about this episode of Community was that it continued its pattern of sending the characters into odd pairings with each other, pairing up Troy and Pierce and Britta and Abed, and that those pairings made sense, while the characters stayed true to themselves. Comedies are built both around the characters in them and the relationships between those characters, and Community is already testing out a large number of permutations of its cast and finding most of them successful.

As always, let’s start with what I didn’t like. I thought the episode’s messages were a little – OK, a lot – heavy-handed. John Michael Higgins’ accounting professor who imagines he’s in Dead Poets Society was a really great character, especially as he challenged Jeff to seize the day, but his speech in act two (meant to be a turning point for Jeff, I think) hit the nail on the head a little hard, and even though both Higgins and the script tried to play it off ironically, it was too obviously the show’s actual philosophy to make that wholly work. I love that Community is, by and large, a comedy about a cynic surrounded by people who aren’t cynics and aren’t afraid to tell him that his point-of-view is largely self-defeating, but having him be all, “Or you will fail at LIFE!!!!” was a little too underlined for even me.

That said, the show knows how to have a heart and keep it funny, as evidenced by that final sequence, where Abed showed everyone his film about his mom and dad (“Well, it’s not exactly Citizen Kane,” said Jeff). The film was queasily hilarious, mostly for the bargain basement production values and the shots of Abed’s head bouncing around a series of, uh, needles or the crude footage of his parents’ faces pasted over Jeff and Britta’s heads. And even as the sequence was strange and offputting and weirdly funny, it took a left turn into actual poignancy when the film brought Abed’s dad (played by the principal from Glee) to tears, leading him to tell his son that it wasn’t his fault his mother left. Considering most of the episode hinged on Abed’s dad being mad that he was taking a film class instead of preparing to take over the family falafel business, it was a surprisingly moving end.

The Jeff subplot didn’t work quite as well in that regard. It made for some wonderful sight gags – like Jeff wearing the rainbow suspenders (and when he yelled “Shazbot,” this show won me over for life) – but the overall arc of the storyline, which mostly seemed designed to give us another chance for the show to beat Jeff over the head for the wrongness of his lifestyle. This sort of storyline mostly works when the character who’s being taught a lesson’s life seems sort of charming on the surface, and it’s only gradually revealed how empty that life really is. Having a professor – no matter how wacky and off-the-wall and how much a parody of previous college-set movies – tell him this outright just felt like too heavy of a hand on the sentimentality button. On the other hand, it led to a lot of great moments between Jeff and Britta (whose chemistry is surprisingly smoldering even at this early stage) and a wonderful final kiss where Britta got one over on Jeff again.

Meanwhile, Troy, it was learned, sneezes like a girl. As far as stock sitcom plots go, this was a new one to me, and while it was kind of slight, I liked seeing Troy and Pierce hang out together, since it once again managed to make Pierce simultaneously clueless and cognizant of ways to blend in in society. Maybe it’s because Pierce is such a dolt much of the time, so he knows just how to patch over these sorts of things, but seeing him turn up as a trusted advisor, but not in the way you’d think he might, has been kind of a nice role reversal without ever actually being a role reversal.

The other characters got sort of a short shrift, but they all had at least a funny line or moment or two (I’m particularly taken with Allison Brie, who’s nailing a certain type of Type-A Personality with her Annie). That was OK, though, because the A-story was surprisingly strong. Abed’s home situation managed to deepen a character who could have turned out to be just a stereotype, and while the idea of a person using movies and TV as a filter to deal with the real world because their lives at home suck could be sort of a cliché one, everyone involved here is playing it with a refreshing rawness that you wouldn’t expect on a show that prominently features Joel McHale running around with a rainbow-colored kite.

It was also nice that the episode seemed like it was going to turn into a lesson in cultural relevancy and then just wasn’t, as the issues between Abed and his dad didn’t stem from some sort of conflict between the Muslim world and the Western world but, rather, from a conflict between the two over what happened in Abed’s parents’ marriage. I like that Community zigs to more personal stories when it seems like it’s going to do some story where everyone learns a big lesson about how everyone in the world is just peachy keen when you think about it real hard. There’s some real pain here, and that makes the storyline and the show work.

So, yeah, not everything in “Introduction to Film” worked, and it didn’t make me laugh as hard as last week’s episode, but it still convinces me that this show is going places. Any show that’s willing to slow down and do the sorts of character work that this episode did and still not miss very many beats in the humor department is one worth keeping up with, though it’s a bit amusing that the greatest pitfall a college-set series would have so far would be that one of its storylines had a little too much in the way of lecturing.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • I can’t decide if my crush is on Gillian Jacobs or Britta. It’s problematic how often I fall for fictional characters.
  • I can’t wait for the first extended scene between Chevy Chase and Allison Brie. I think that’s going to be fantastic.
  • "9/11 was pretty much the 9/11 of the falafel industry."
  • "How about I pound you like a boy that didn't come out right."
  • "I want you to swim in a lake. And tell ten people that you love them."
  • "This is no way to teach accounting!"
  • "That's right. I'm a woman. With rights. And you can see my whole face."
  • "Why are you dressed like an '80s rapist?"