Every so often, a TV show will come up with a gimmick to build an episode around, an hour or half hour that is entirely constructed to exist in some other sort of framework. Much of the time, these gimmick episodes fail horrifically, but every so often, you get a "Once More With Feeling" or a "The Interview," episodes that use the gimmick to enhance the normal contours of the show. It's definitely an episode of Buffy or M*A*S*H, but it's also a musical or a documentary. The one comments on the other, and you end up with a hybrid that somehow combines the best of both worlds.
Ever since I first heard about it, the big fear I've had about Community's action movie episode was that it would be completely devoured by its conceit. And the promotional materials for the episode - which played heavily off of the episode's superficial resemblances to an action film - didn't do anything to decrease this worry. At the worst, I knew we'd still have an entertaining episode, because that's the way this show and these characters roll, but I didn't want to be stuck in an unending parade of action movie cliches that didn't do anything to grow the show or shed light on the characters. Should I have been worried? Previous experience with gimmick episodes suggested yes, but previous experience with Community suggested no.
Let me just say, then, that "Modern Warfare" is not just one of the best episodes of Community so far but one of the best episodes of TV of the season so far. It's a big, bold, ridiculous episode of television, and yet it so completely commits to its vision of Greendale as a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the midst of a giant paintball war that it feels both very funny and very serious in every moment it portrays. Furthermore, the episode doesn't just lean on the gimmick too heavily. There are big character moments here, and there are big laugh moments here. There's even an extension of Community's lonely feud against Glee into the world of Greendale. This is an episode that pulls off pretty much everything it tries and does so without a sweat.
Now, to be fair, just how much you like this episode will depend on just how much you like seeing action movies getting smacked around. There are a lot of references to specific films here, down to individual shots and lines of dialogue, but the majority of the episode plays around with the larger tropes of the genre in general. I mean, sure, The Warriors is quoted directly in the scene with the battle with the roller disco crew, but how many movies like this have featured the lonely soldiers huddled over a fire, talking about what they're going to do when they get out of this situation? The parody works on both a specific and a general level.
At the same time, though, the episode finds a way to root all of this in the characters and their situation. Sure, the idea that all of this has erupted over priority registration is a little over-the-top, but only just a little. The characters' fantasies about what they'd do with that priority registration are all dead on, and the suggestion that they'd be this worked up over such a thing makes sense for who they've been so far. Furthermore, I like how the episode eventually whittles itself down to a Jeff and Britta episode, slowly removing their friends and associates out of the picture through paintball destruction. The episode plays a little fast and loose with who gets zapped out first - I don't know that I would have predicted Troy would be the first of the main cast to get dropped - but it's always obvious that this is going to eventually work down to an episode about Jeff and Britta and their relationship.
Now, that's going to be the thing that stops this episode from working for a lot of people. I know there are folks out there who just don't think Jeff and Britta work as a couple or even a suggested couple. But what I like about what happens in this episode is that the two just have sex. There's not really too much more to it than that. I honestly believe that if the two decided that was going to be that, it would be the case. In the real world, people have stupid sex with other people they know and are attracted to when they're under duress or over-tired or drunk or whatever. On TV, though, sex is supposed to be a constantly meaningful and mystical thing that makes people feel all gooey inside. Sometimes in life, sex is just sex, and I like the way Community suggests this is the case here, even if it was pleasant enough that Jeff and Britta just might, maybe, someday, consider having it again.
What's more, I think the show has nicely prepared us for this moment. After the first five or six episodes pushed the Jeff and Britta attraction so blatantly that it could seem a little forced, the show dialed it down, making the two become good friends and subtly playing up the ways they were compatible with each other without necessarily suggesting that the two were perfect soulmates or anything. Again, real life is a place where people have idle attractions to each other, become friends, then eventually act on those attractions. Or it can happen all in reverse. TV rarely lets characters have the sort of diversity of relationships that exist in real life, and I hope that the opening sneer at will-they/won't-they relationships suggests the series is going to play around with those tropes but also figure out ways to subvert them when it can.
But that's a lot of heady talk for an episode that is, ultimately, just as much about Annie popping out of a trash can with two guns in her hand or Chang walking into the study room with his giant paintball machine gun, laughing maniacally and lighting the room up with paint pellets in slow-motion. Or it's about Pierce and Starburns trying to get a bunch of candy out of the vending machine. Or it's about Jeff's initial encounter with Troy and Abed or him taking off his shirt when he says that groups shouldn't stoop to cheap ploys. The action movie in this episode of Community pushes all of the show's relationships to a breaking point and examines them in that context. The Community episode in this action movie makes sure that things are funny throughout. The two work together and comment on each other, and that makes the episode one of the best of the year.
- OK, I'm sure a lot of people thought this episode was going to turn out to be a dream Jeff was having. But by keeping all of this as things that really happened, the show both expands the kinds of stories it can tell and forces the characters to deal with some messy emotional fallout.
- If I thought the Emmys would pay any attention to this show (I don't), Justin Lin's direction of this episode would be a shoo-in for a nomination.
- "What it is, soul brother!"
- "Want my advice? Pork her and move on."
- "He said, fully erect."
- "Come with me if you don't want paint on your clothes."
- "You could schedule all your classes on a Monday, and then take a six-day weekend!"
- "I am not an ambassador. I am a gladiator."
- "Write some original songs!"
- "I thought it was paint, but I'm just bleeding. Talk about luck!"
- "Everybody out there is shooting each other for nothing while you sit there in your ivory tower."
- "Could be me. I'm sporting a man thong."
- "Hey, Abed. Your girlfriend will meet you at the flagpole in ten minutes. Goodbye."