“Modern Espionage” could have been the triumph of Community’s sixth season, or its biggest letdown. Not only is “Espionage” the third part of the Paintball Trilogy, forcing comparisons to two of Community’s most beloved episodes, it’s the most elaborate spoof in a season woefully short on them. News of a third paintball episode circulated early in the season, and as the episodes rolled out, many of them with a clearly pinched production budget compared to the NBC days, the hope was that Dan Harmon was holding his powder for the paintball episode. Had “Espionage” failed to deliver, the disappointment would have been compounded by the notion that resources had been diverted from other episodes (for example, the standard credit sequence in “Grifting 101”) to a lackluster paintball episode.
Luckily, “Espionage” more than delivers. I won’t damn it with faint praise by saying it’s as good as season six gets, even though that’s true. It’s as good as Community’s spoof episodes get, and that’s coming from someone who likes but doesn’t love “A Fistful Of Paintballs” and “For A Few Paintballs More.” The spoof episodes can be deeply polarizing because the viewer’s reaction to them has more to do with whether or not they like the premise or the source material rather than how well it’s executed in the world of Community. How smartly the show incorporates Logan’s Run or the G.I. Joe cartoon is irrelevant if you either love those things so much you can’t evaluate the episode rationally, or are too indifferent to those things to know or care how well the homage is done. The paintball episodes have a wider margin of error because they take the general idea of a genre and plug Community’s setting and characters into it, so all the audience needs is a general knowledge of pop-culture tropes.
“Espionage” takes its inspiration from the spy-action genre, with the Greendale Gang turning into Community’s equivalent of Mission Impossible’s Impossible Missions Force. The mission of Dean Force One—one of several cool, dean-centric names Dean Pelton toys with—is to take down “Silver Ballz,” a paintball assassin bent on reducing the campus to colorful chaos despite Frankie’s efforts to force Greendale to grow up. The gang has to unmask the mastermind before he can ruin the Cleaner Greendale Gala, the requisite black-tie event where danger is lurking around every tray of prosciutto-wrapped melon. (“I’ll measure Jeffrey,” says Dean Pelton after learning Jeff will need a tux.)
Like Dean Pelton’s tailoring joke, many of the best jokes in “Espionage” are standard Community jokes placed in a new context. When Abed has to mingle in Club Club to uncover the underground paintball dealer known as “Cool Dad,” he thinks he spots one of the creators of MeowMeowBeenz in the DJ booth. “We need clean intelligence, Abed,” says Jeff. “No references, no callbacks.” There’s been an abundance of Abed’s meta-humor in season six, arguably an overabundance, but it works perfectly within the spy-thriller conceit. The joke gets better when a callback immediately shows himself: Mitchell Hurwitz’ Koogler, who first appeared when MeowMeowBeenz turned Greendale into a dystopian caste system. Hurwitz gets a great scene to work with, and for a guy without many acting credits to his name, he’s a surprisingly skilled comedic actor. No wonder the Koog is a legend around campus.
The real fun of a Community spoof comes from the loving approximation of the spoofed genre’s visual qualities. “Espionage” continues in that tradition with Rob Schrab (who also directed “App Development”) behind the camera. There are a ton of fantastic sequences, but the best of them is an elevator shootout between Dean Pelton and a gang of would-be assailants. The key to such a scene is a cavernous elevator, and the outsize dimensions of the elevator become their own visual joke.
If there’s a quibble, it might be how predictable the outcome is, which might irritate viewers to whom such things make a difference. It’s obvious the moment Frankie introduces Deputy Custodian Lapari that he’s the double agent from City College, so his reveal isn’t much of a surprise. That would be an unreasonable criticism if not for “Basic Lupine Urology,” which not only mimicked the look and feel of a Law & Order episode, but also followed its rhythms, with a trail of red herrings leading to the dramatic reveal of the actual culprit. But such a little thing is excusable when an episode is as fun and as sharp as “Espionage,” which despite the revamped cast, feels remarkably like old-school Community.
- The cold open with Vicki’s tag wasn’t my favorite thing, and Garrett’s tag was funny up until Vicki reappeared. I’m starting to fear I feel about Vicki the same way Pierce felt about her.
- Starburns: “I’d call him Silver Ghost, but that’s probably already taken by an indie comic book or a terrible tequila.”
- Loved the reappearance of The Ears Have It. Jeff: “Do I use echolocation to navigate?” Elroy: “Why would you ask that after learning you’re not a bat?”
- Great bit of physical comedy by Jim Rash as the Dean tries to maneuver around a janitor’s cart.
- Elroy was on fire this week. To Britta: “Why did they pair us together?”
- Dean Force One uses Batman actors as codenames: Jeff is “Keaton,” Britta is “Clooney,” Dean Pelton is “Voice of Dietrich Bader.”
- Damn, Keaton shot the guy on crutches dead in the eye. With a paintball. That might have literally been a kill shot.
- Club Club has a sign-up sheet in the back for Club Club Club.