So, I had the good fortune to attend the Community event at the Paley Festival last night, and while you can read my full report here, I got to see this episode before the panel, and it was interesting to see just how great it was to watch this show with a room full of fans. The jokes all landed better, some of the throwaway gags got swallowed by the laughter, and the whole room was electrified with the fact that everyone was going to get to see most of the cast and many of the producers in a matter of minutes. But it was even more instructive to see "Physical Education" in that environment because the panel discussion that followed talked at length about just what was or wasn't too weird for Community.
I've been thinking about this today because the Chicago Tribune's terrific TV critic Maureen Ryan wrote a piece that I think rather unfairly dismisses the show as being a series where the majority of the gags are pop culture riffs. Considering Community has rapidly turned into one of my favorite shows (not just favorite comedies) on TV right now and considering just how much I dislike spot the reference styles of shows, I sort of felt like Ryan was watching a completely different show from the one I've been watching all these weeks. And it feels unfair to single out Ryan here, because she's just the latest writer to make this point about Community. There have been plenty of broadsides directed at the show that seem to be writing it off as little more than a live-action Family Guy.
I mean, yeah, if you get that "Werewolves of London" also played in the film The Color of Money, it makes that entire sequence with the rapidly escalating lack of clothes slightly funnier, I suppose. But the vast majority of the joke - these men are having an insane argument over a pool match and they're taking off their clothes to prove how little they care about how cool they look and how much they care about "the game" - requires basically no understanding of the broader pop cultural universe. I've gotten some comments from friends that I only like this show because of its status as a sort of pop cultural omnivore, like The AV Club, but, to be honest, given my complete lack of knowledge about most '80s pop culture, I'd wager I don't get half the references on the show to begin with. (My wife had to point out to me that Abed and Jeff were doing the Breakfast Club dance in the drunk dialing episode.)
I think this is the important distinction the show makes between being an empty pop culture gag spewer and becoming a heartfelt ensemble comedy that puts me in mind of some of the strongest ensemble comedies ever, shows like Taxi and Newsradio and WKRP in Cincinnati (shows about radio stations seem to do well at this sort of thing for some reason). Harmon said at the event that Greendale is a place where crazy stuff can happen (comparing it to magical places where weirdness can explode for comic effect in literature and prior cinema), but the people in it need to be real and need to have real warmth and affection built up for them.
\That's where I think "Physical Education" crosses the line from just being a weird episode about a guy who wants to beat the strange coach at a game of pool that involves the both of them eventually getting naked to a very good episode about what the best way to live your life is. Community has always had an oddly philosophical bent, but that's getting more pronounced as the series goes on. Most comedies have very small stakes, and while Community's storylines are mostly pretty small, the stakes in them couldn't be bigger. This is a show about whether it's better to live your life trying to please other people or whether it's better to figure out a way to carve your own path. It's not the world's most original view, but in a time when it seems like most sitcoms are about things that have very, very small conflicts at their center, the philosophical differences that drive this show feel downright revelatory at times.
The show's detractors often write it off as a series about a bunch of types who interact with each other in utterly predictable ways. And while that was true of some of the earliest episodes of the series, I don't think it's true anymore. As the series has slowly given every character in its ensemble showcase episodes that show them off, it's found the human beings behind the types. Take a look at how the show treats Abed tonight (in what's probably the best showcase the series has come up with for Danny Pudi). Abed's been the typical TV character who's detached and sort of aloof, an outsider who hangs out with our cast. (Harmon compared him to a wide variety of TV characters, including Mork and the Fonz.) But this episode shows that that's just a level of comfort with himself that the other characters lack, a level of comfort that they envy in some ways. Just like Britta is not an ice-cold bitch but, rather, a girl who's only beginning to realize how little she understands the way she gets in her own way or like Troy is not just a dumb jock but also a guy who's always leading with his heart (but is easily swayed by others), Abed's revealed to be something more than what he appears.
And that's a good thing, I think, because the ensemble on Community is the best-cast and best-utilized since Arrested Development's ensemble. Even in episodes that don't work as well, the cast is usually able to pick up the material and run with it. I usually have a pretty easy time of telling where detractors of shows I like are coming from, and while I'll defend my favorites, I can usually at least understand that other point-of-view. But I feel like the Community detractors are missing out on a series that blends a ton of different ideas and different concepts into something that feels like it's turning into the Next Great Sitcom. It's a big show that pretends to be small. All the best sitcoms are.
- I have to say that the series hasn't been utilizing Pierce as much as the promotions featuring Chevy Chase prominently might have suggested. But he had a lot of very funny things to do in this one, and I'm hopeful this means the writers will finally turn the focus on him a little more.
- "Strictly speaking, Troy, the Bible condemns this level of friendship."
- "It's just like the Notebook, only instead of Alzheimer's, Abed has … someone who likes him."
- "Might as well be Gravy Jones."
- "Oh, he wants us to Love Don't Cost a Thing him."
- "A different version of me. I think it was a vampire."
- "I can't think of anything more frightening than a half-Polish, half-ARab virgin in his thirties. One way or another, that ends with an explosion."
- "Don't be Mike Brady. Mike Brady's not sexy. You should be like Jo from Facts of Life."
- "You should be like Calvin. His best friend was a tiger, he always went on dope adventures, and if anything stood in his way, he just peed on it." "Calvin Coolidge?"