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Community Recap: Set Phasers to Levar

When last week’s generally great episode ended with one of Community’s rare — but usually earned — flashes of darkness it set up certain expectations. While the rest of the gang was learning, yet again, the value of friendship and togetherness, Pierce — by far the show’s most problematic character — was passed out on a park bench without even Drug Hallucination Andy Dick for companionship. And so we couldn’t have been alone in buckling up last night, ready for a squishy half-hour of intervention, warmly felt emotion, and a gradual but insistent walking back of Pierce the Dickish, the generally monstrous persona that Andy Dick drugs had created. Boy, were we wrong!

Like Troy saying “COOL!” when he meant “cool,” Dan Harmon did the opposite of what anyone could have reasonably expected last night: He doubled down on the dickish. From his hospital bed (which he claims to be a deathbed), Pierce manipulated the study group like a turkey-necked Jigsaw, expertly playing with their most vulnerable insecurities with each individual bequeathment (gross!). First Shirley is given an alleged CD of everyone talking smack about her behind her back. Why? Says Pierce: “We both know you and I are the most hated in the group.” (No — that’s Chang! Doesn’t he read our recaps?!?) Britta receives a $10,000 check to be made out to the charity of her choice — or, ya know, to herself. Troy is given his worst/best nightmare — a visit from hero Levar Burton — while Jeff is also promised an unexpected, complicated arrival: his long-missing, “two-bit con man” dad. (Annie? She gets a tiara because she’s Pierce’s favorite.)

Everyone agonizes over defeating their dilemmas until Jeff — actually at peace with the idea of seeing his father — calls Pierce’s bluff. (This wasn’t the best called bluff of the episode — that was Britta offering to share Dylan Thomas’s thoughts about death without actually knowing them in the first place.) Jeff then drags Pierce’s pill-ravaged, elderly frame from a retreating Town Car and pummels him. Uh, lesson learned? It depends on the lesson. If we’re to accept that Pierce is a horrifically self-centered, reckless, and cruel person — drugs or no — then mission accomplished. Bravo to the writers for making him consistently horrible and not blaming it on a temporary addiction! (Classic complisult!) But if we’re to accept that the gang will keep hanging out with this jerk because he had a legitimate ax to grind about being excluded, well, then: You lost us. There’s a lot to admire in theory about how Community has handled Pierce this season: crafting a long, actually dramatic arc about his mother’s death, his injury, subsequent pill addiction, detour into D&D-driven dementia, and potential redemption. But in practice it was ham-handed and off-putting. Let’s leave it with this: If we were Jeff (those abs!), we wouldn’t be curled up with a pillow next to Pierce’s hospital bed; we’d be using it to suffocate the miserable goat.

But believe it or not, we’re not feeling particularly negative here. We’ve seen far worse in our lives (really, have you seen Bruce Willis’s Surrogates?). Pierce was the focus of “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” but not at all the focus of what we want to say about it. Because every other aspect of the episode — from the clever mocking of the mockumentary format (“It’s easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people explaining things to the camera,” Abed says. Ya burnt, The Office!) to Troy’s catatonic scene work (“set phasers to: Love me!”) with the remarkably game Levar Burton (“more fish for Kunta!”) — was aces. Britta and Shirley’s moral gymnastics with their bequeathments were the best of all worlds, funny setups that also allowed for some honest character development. (Shirley does use guilt as a weapon — not to mention that weirdly judgey Muppet voice — and Britta is both generous and stupid with money. Britta FTW!) And we really need to carve out a little space to applaud writer Megan Ganz for the bravura scene between Britta (as Jeff’s dad) and Jeff (as Britta’s dad) that started huggy and quickly degenerated into a hilarious game of insult-chicken touching on Oingo Boingo and undercover gay cop flirtation in the green zone of either Iran or Iraq.

Community is fearless in all things: jokes, set pieces, stunt casting. But we can’t help but wonder if they haven’t overreached with Pierce. There’s comedy jerk and then there’s jerk-jerk (there’s also delicious-jerk), but that’s not important right now). Finding a balance for Pierce may be the show’s toughest challenge yet. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be in the bathroom singing the theme song to Reading Rainbow. While weeping.

Photo: Jordin Althaus/NBC