The greatest danger with Community’s stunt episodes has always been that the joke will simply become, “Can you believe we’re doing this?!” There’s a point in “Pillows And Blankets”—which is rather impressively committed to its PBS documentary aesthetic—where it seems like the whole artifice is going to crumble underneath the strain of making everything PBS-y. The jokes are fewer and further between, and all the episode has to go on is the increasingly strained device of showing everything through still photographs. A PBS documentary is an interesting way to tell a fictional story, but it’s one that seems almost inherently uncinematic, and you can really feel the show wrestling with the question of how to present this in a way that doesn’t become bogged down, until it almost loses.
Then, somewhere around the midpoint, the whole thing abruptly jolts to life again. (I’d peg it to when Leonard says, “Leonard likes this post.”) The stunt episodes always work best when they come up with some character peg to hang everything on, and I was pleased and surprised to find that the show was going to take Troy and Abed’s feud fairly seriously. The two characters and their argument had gotten a bit lost in the midst of the conceit, but there, at the midpoint, the episode found them again, and it became much better. If you’ve found the whole thing a bit forced, I suspect this wouldn’t have played as well, but I’ve been impressed with the way the show built the feud with economy and speed. In addition, the episode doesn’t resolve the issues underlying the feud—which will never go away—while also giving the two a respite from it that similarly feels temporary. These two will probably always be friends, but that doesn’t mean their lives will always be on the same path. After all, how many of your friends from college or high school do you hang out with every day? Unless you married someone you met there (and it’s hard to see Community going this direction with Troy and Abed), probably not very many.
I liked the seriousness of the scenes where the two fought. Yes, the whole thing was resolved with invisible friendship hats and there were jokes sprinkled throughout to leaven the mood. But, crucially, none of the scenes where the two argued were filtered through the PBS still-photo aesthetic, where many, many of the other storylines were. (See also: Jeff and Annie’s flirtation/text message upgrades and Britta’s incipient photography career, in which I don’t think she had very little—if any—dialogue.) Much of the documentary’s actual “footage” consists of Troy and Abed facing off and Jeff’s attempts to bridge the gap between them—after he’s finished extending the war so he can put off homework. (I loved the way the PBS/found footage aesthetic gave Jeff’s triumphant speech to Troy’s troops that much more hollow remove. The show is fundamentally cynical about Jeff’s ability to change others in any way other than superficially until he, himself, changes.)
Any time you’re in a fight with somebody you know well, you have the option to go nuclear. If you know them well enough, there’s probably something you can pull out that will utterly destroy everything—including your relationship, most likely—and cause the chaos to rain down on everyone around you. Both Troy and Abed go nuclear in this episode—with Abed’s e-mail about Troy’s weaknesses and Troy’s text message about how nobody else would put up with Abed—and what I like is that the pillow fight is increasingly seen less as a gimmick and more as an externalization of the war between the two of them, a war that has much of its roots in the fact that this season has driven a wedge between them that neither will ever be able to remove. Their lives are on different paths. They can apologize and make up—as they do—but they’ll never overcome that central problem, without real compromise and change.
“Pillows And Blankets” doesn’t really force either out of their comfort zone. I’d count that as a flaw, I think, if I thought it wasn’t intentional. I really do feel like we’re building somewhere with this, perhaps toward an acknowledgement that all human relationships have to grow and evolve together, if they’re going to stay strong. Television is founded on the principle that people don’t change, but we know in our real lives that this isn’t true. Granted, change in real life is glacial, and you probably stay roughly the same core person you are from about 10 on. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t open up to people you formerly hated or come to find old friends tiresome or anything like that. You might stay the same, mostly, but you shift yourself in different directions for the people you most care about. That can feel like dishonesty. It can also feel like the nicest thing in the world to do for someone.
While Troy and Abed are busy not changing, Jeff is getting down to returning to the arc he originally had in season one: becoming a better person because he wants to impress a girl. Annie’s upset with him over any number of things, as always, but she’s mostly concerned that he’s exploiting the rift between Troy and Abed for his own gain. This is true, but he also goes out of his way to fix the separation at the end, complete with a scene where we see that he really did go back to the Dean’s office to grab the imaginary friendship hats he tried to use to defuse the conflict in act one. I think the reason this final moment with the hats works is because it plays into the ways Jeff has changed from being around these people and also because Troy and Abed—in the heart of their conflict—take the hats seriously in that act one scene. If they brushed them off as “just imaginary,” Jeff’s later attempt would feel too cynical. Here, however, he’s earnestly appealing to something imaginary, yes, but an imaginary something they’ve all agreed upon to put this mess behind them. (My friend Chris Dole has compared this show to Deadwood before, and this whole idea reminded me of that show’s “lie agreed upon,” a fiction everybody goes along with so that things will run more smoothly.)
Season three of Community, then, is shaping up to be a season about change and choice. That’s likely why Britta’s been so integral to its structure. One of the central ideas of psychotherapy is that you will, with time, push past your blocks and make real change. But to do that, you first have to make a choice to do so, and that’s where it becomes difficult. No amount of drugs or therapy will help if you don’t first want to change. Having someone there to help you talk it out or having the right prescription? Those are important things, sure, but first, you need to be ready to take those first steps. When Troy and Abed take those first steps, it leads to war. But when Jeff takes them (for, I’ll admit, what feels like the 15th or 16th time), there’s a sense that all of this might stick, that these people—flawed as they are as a group—might really be better together than they are as dysfunctional pieces.
Oh, and did I mention the episode’s funny? It’s not the funniest episode of Community ever, trusting a bit too much in its central gimmick to carry the laughs in the first act, I think, but once it gets rolling, it’s really great stuff. In particular, the description of all of the buildings and rooms named “North” or “East” or “West” was hilarious, and I also loved the show’s acknowledgement of Jeff writing in his journal, then saying he’d “nailed” it and offering to read his own voiceover if the producers of the documentary couldn’t get Tom Hanks. And if nothing else, we had a great gag for all of you fans of The Cape—as Keith David narrated this episode—and the terrifying appearance of Chevy Chase as Pillowman, a figure that will inspire a million Halloween costumes, I imagine. Plus, don’t forget the pledge drive, one of my favorite tags in quite a while. Once this episode gets rolling, it really gets rolling.
Ultimately, though, I think “Pillows And Blankets” works for the same reason any episode of Community works: It takes the character arcs of these people seriously, but it also admits that change doesn’t happen instantaneously. Sometimes, you go nuclear and walk right up to the precipice of ruining something you really care about. Then, with the help of friends, maybe you figure out a way to go back. The true measure of “Pillows And Blankets” just might be what comes after. Are these people really embarking on a journey, or will we see them simply retreat to the safety of the status quo? Time will tell, but “Pillows And Blankets” is a satisfying starting point.
- More than any other episode I’ve ever graded, I feel pretty tenuous about this score. Ask me about it in a week, when I’ve had a chance to re-watch it and a chance to think about it some more. (It’s rare that I talk myself up on a grade while writing one of these, but I did this week. I might settle back down.)
- One thing that gives me pause while thinking about this: Did the show evoke the PBS style too well? Obviously, it nailed that aesthetic perfectly, but that aesthetic possesses a certain amount of intentional emotional remove from the subject at hand. For a show already drenched in irony, this could be dangerous, and I'd argue that's why the first act isn't as strong as the other two, which set aside the PBS stuff more and more for scenes where the characters directly confront each other. Despite my love for the episode, I also possess a healthy dose of ambivalence toward it that I'm trying to puzzle through. At first, I thought it was because the episode wasn't as funny as others, but the more I look at it, the more I realize it's not trying to be hilarious. It's not like there are a bunch of jokes that bombed or anything. Almost all of the jokes hit perfectly. If I have a problem, it's that that first act can be a little, well, boring (a perfect evocation of Ken Burns-style documentaries!). The second and third acts make up for that, in my estimation, but if you disagree, I'm not going to fight you too strongly on that point.
- The central problem of filming this episode (and I don’t have director and writer credits on my screener) is that making a pillow fight actually threatening is probably never going to happen without some sort of big-budget special effects. I think the episode found an ingenious way around the problem, and I guarantee there’s no way you’ll find another show that will do something like this. Ambition is a good thing, and it’s nice to see the show still has heaps of it.
- David was a fine, funny narrator, and I liked the show’s nod toward The Cape. I have no idea where the show was in the production process when the hiatus order came down, but it wasn’t hard to see that gag (and the gag about funding at the end) as little nods toward that reality.
- One of my favorite consistent character traits is that Shirley has some deeply suppressed rage. This isn’t really her episode, but I liked that it was expressed here and there. I also liked that she watches Forensic Files.
- In case you were wondering for your Wikipedia entry on the character, Leonard fought in the Korean War, yes, but for the North Korean army.
- It was nice to see Fat Neil return as the DJ for Greendale’s campus radio station. Here’s hoping the radio station recurs, if only so I can make entire reviews solely about my college radio days and avoid talking about the episode at all.
- Another really great episode for Jim Rash. I particularly liked his read of, “Does anybody go to classes?”
- The show continues to be solid at incorporating the cast in this back half of the season, something it struggled with in the first half.
- I’m still not sure how I feel about the Changlorious Basterds, but I liked them much better here than in the impressionists episode.
- This week, the story of Chevy Chase and Dan Harmon’s feud broke wide. It was almost impossible to ignore if you were in the Community fandom, and I considered saying something about it to open the piece. Since it seems to be settling down (with both parties having worked out their differences for now), I opted not to. In addition, it’s just not something that interests me. Hollywood attracts people with strong personalities, and sometimes those personalities feud. (I’ve heard of far worse on other shows, including shows I really like, including shows I’d put in my top 10 of all time.) It’s just rare for the feud to become public. I don’t want to suggest this is all “business as usual,” because it’s not, but I really don’t want it to be the focus of the discussion of the episode (though I’m sure it inevitably will be for some). My only hope is that the feud gets a few more curious people to check out the show, which is doing much better in the ratings than it was but could still use a couple extra ratings points. Hey, NBC promoted it on The Voice again! We can dream!