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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Community: “VCR Maintenance And Educational Publishing”

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I’ve always pushed back against the idea that reviews of Community should solely be about what in the episode was funny—or suggest that the episode only succeeded or failed based on how often it made me laugh. I’ve always skewed more toward analyzing the show’s story development and character arcs, and if that means I occasionally get lost a bit in the woods, I’d rather be there than trying to explain to you exactly why I thought something was funny. That’s a fool’s errand, too often based on the idea that there is some objectively “correct” way to watch things or understand them. What’s funny to me won’t always be what’s funny to you, because humor is really hard-wired into us based on individual experiences and the lives we’ve lived. For instance, I find Community riotously funny at its best, but there are plenty of people who find it a self-indulgent wankfest. Those people aren’t “wrong”; they’re just looking for something else out of their comedy and might find it in Parks & Rec or Trophy Wife or It’s Always Sunny or any one of the many, many great comedies on TV right now.

For instance, does it do you any good for me to tell you that I laughed the hardest I’ve laughed all season at the sequence where Abed and Annie play the VCR game. There are a lot of reasons for this, mostly having to do with my love of unrestrained weirdness and an affection for those old games, which never worked as well as they purported to but were still sort of entertaining all the same. But I don’t know that outlining them in exhaustive detail is going to help you understand the episode any better—or even understand my reaction to it. And yet at the same time, laughing so hard at something can only make me feel favorable feelings toward the episode as a whole, so even though I can poke and prod at it and find things wanting, I keep coming back to that singular scene and remembering the episode as being a really solid one in a very good season.

The episode exists primarily for that last scene where Abed goes to Rachel’s locker to offer her up an apology scene straight out of a romantic comedy. I have a handful of issues with the episode’s treatment of the character of Rachel, but I liked the way that the episode revealed itself to be almost entirely about how Abed feels in the wake of Troy’s departure in this moment. I mean, granted, the show had already said as much when Anthony pointed out all of the photos of Troy hanging around the apartment and by having Annie and Abed compete to fill the empty spot in the rent check since Troy’s departure. But when Abed ventured a tiny, tiny emotional response by telling Rachel that people have been leaving him his whole life, a lot of what the episode was trying to do snapped into place for me, and I felt all the more worried about what will happen when Rachel leaves for her movie career. (TV made you, Brie Larson! TV can unmake you! Okay, that’s not really true, but pretend it is! Also, Brie Larson is to this show as Amy Adams was to The Office. Think about it.)

I found the Annie and Abed story to be a step up over the other, which had some funny moments but also struggled to be anything other than yet another chance for the characters to go a little crazy. (It’s gotten to the point where now, when Hickey starts tying up Jeff, Britta immediately jumps in to help out with the hogtying, so comfortable is everyone with the chaos.) I liked that the storyline offered Shirley quite a bit to do—and Yvette Nicole Brown’s playing of the moment when Shirley turns on a dime from being concerned about the contraband textbooks to, “OKAY, HERE’S WHAT WE’RE GONNA DO” was beautiful—but it also felt like it wandered into a cul de sac of its own making. It was playing out the story of what happens when a group of people comes across a stash of money or drugs or something, then that group splinters apart because it can’t handle the stress of criminal behavior. (Look, just think of A Simple Plan, okay?) Yet because every other Community story is “the group almost comes to blows, then realizes that everybody should stay friends,” there was less room for the show to play with this story type than you might have expected. There were good moments sprinkled throughout, and I loved the resolution with the books being misprints, but even now, shortly after watching the episode, this storyline is beginning to fade.

Yet I liked the apartment storyline well enough to compensate for what I found wanting in the episode’s other half. I think it was a smart move to pivot away from Troy’s departure in the immediate wake of “Geothermal Escapism,” because the show needed to display that it could function without both Donald Glover and Chevy Chase. I’d argue it’s done so quite well in the last three episodes, so now it’s time to bring back the absence the group is now feeling and the absence that Abed is feeling at his very core. My major concern here is that Rachel becomes just a replacement for Troy or something. Now, granted, Larson is never going to start delivering the same types of jokes Glover can, and she’s also not a regular. But where Rachel was a pretty fascinating sketch of a character in season four, she’s been basically just a love interest in season five so far. I don’t want an entire episode to be taken up by the idea of Abed in a romantic relationship or anything, but it would be nice if Rachel felt more like a character than an objective. (The show kind of got at this with her line about how she just didn’t want to be manipulated, but it was too little, too late.)

However, the rest of this was great stuff. I have no particular attachment to Spencer from Harmontown, because I’ve never listened to Harmontown, but I thought he made a weird amount of sense as Annie’s younger brother, and he handled his latest moment in the spotlight with a quiet aplomb. He was funny but never tried to make himself too funny, instead just sort of showing up like he was supposed to be on Community tonight and would be having a sandwich afterward. Similarly, Vince Gilligan’s role as the host of the VCR game had the potential to go disastrously wrong, but he seemed to be having a lot of fun as this over-exaggerated version of a low budget actor in the ‘80s. (My favorite joke: The moment when he switches hats and says it’s time to go to the city. What?) As mentioned, this made me laugh at length, and almost all of that was the sheer weirdness of Gilligan’s character, along with the way Annie and Abed got so into following his completely bonkers instructions.


But, again, I don’t know what good that does you. At its best, Community has so many jokes flying around at any given time that something you laugh at might be something I completely missed and vice versa. “VCR Maintenance And Educational Publishing” probably isn’t an episode that anyone is going to think about fondly in years to come, when recalling their five or 10 favorite Community episodes, but it has moments—both humorous and emotional—where the show attains everything it’s capable of. There’s a lot of loneliness at the core of Community, and even in its happiest moments—say, a guy telling a girl he’s sorry and realizing she still likes him—it’s a show that realizes good things are never too far from bad.

Stray observations:

  • I laughed slightly more at the VCR game, but I would not argue too strenuously against you if you laughed even more at the Dean’s rap. That was some fantastic stuff, as was his realization that he had no idea where it came from.
  • Things Annie and Rachel have in common: They both have Waterpiks. Things Anthony and Abed have in common: They both like to play games, I guess.
  • It’s best not to flip any coins, because you never know when a coin will create a parallel universe. And it’s best not to play Rock, Paper, Scissors because that could spawn nine parallel universes.
  • Another big laugh for me: the guy slipping and falling in all of the water that had been spread on the floor because of Abed’s grand romantic gesture. He hired a stuntman!
  • Now, don’t feel bad for our host. He might have quit a job at Apple to pursue his acting career, but he also got to have Gina Gershon as his wife/girlfriend. (Vince Gilligan looked so uncomfortable in this scene. It was great.)
  • I do like that the handful of photos of Annie and Abed together on the apartment’s walls all appear to be press stills from the show’s publicity materials.
  • Chang has just randomly and out of nowhere turned into a very funny, perfectly used character again, and I’m not sure why. Anybody have any good theories?