For many, last year’s “Modern Warfare” — a.k.a. “The Paintball Episode” — was the deal-maker. Arriving, as it did, near the end of Community’s promising, if uneven first season, it was the show’s Checkers speech, its magazine coming-out cover, its dopey Ke$ha song: the moment it announced to the world exactly what it was and what it planned on doing. “Modern Warfare” blew out the walls on the typical workplace — or schoolplace — sitcom as Greendale was quite literally torn to pieces by an out-of-control paintball contest that managed to be part-homage, part-parody, and yet entirely Community. Some of the best character work in the show’s brief history occurred in a pitch-perfect fusion of neon splatter, broken alliances, and chicks hiding in trash cans.
And so, of course, in a move that would surely please the cinema-obsessed Abed, this year brings a sequel. And grab our guns and call us Christina Reachy if it isn’t the best sequel since Kickpuncher 2: Codename Punchkicker. Rather than repeat last year’s well-trod terrain of action movies, “A Fistful of Paintballs” was a full-on cowboy epic, a Sergio Leone–aping, meta mini-masterpiece that was pop-culture saturated and yet richly satisfying: call it a Spaghetti-O Western. The setup was simple: To celebrate the end of the school year, local business/black-ops armada Pistol Patty’s Cowboy Creamery is sponsoring a “hoe-down” picnic and friendly paintball match. But unlike last year’s “out of control” prize, the stakes this time (to the horror of the Dean — who probably ought to consider changing his name from “Pelton” to “Pelted") are even higher: $100,000. Cash.
And so faster than you can say “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” Greendale is once again transformed into a dystopic hellscape, where pantsless cowpokes like Annie stay alive thanks to their six-shooters, wits, and a large supply of baked beans in the Chem lab. And, of course, when given a wide-screen opportunity like this to play with, the notoriously ADD show-runners don’t skimp on the details: There’s an entirely new credit sequence and each character gets a perfectly timed zinger and playing-card-themed nickname. This particular flight of fancy is serious. As Annie tells a begging Fat Neal (“We played Dungeons & Dragons together!”) just before dispatching him to the great canvas in the sky: “That was a game. This is paintball.” (Our only minor complaint: We missed the experienced, ludicrously unsubtle hand of Fast Five director Justin Lin behind the camera. Regular helmer Joe Russo did his best, but the episode lacked the over-the-top, balletic bullet-time finesse of an action-movie pro.)
So our gunslingers are forced to maneuver in this new reality (as with most dystopic episodes of Community, a lot can change in five hours!), watching as Chang double-crosses first Jeff, then his fellow Asians in the math club, and then a gaggle of armed cheerleaders plucked straight from Todd Palin’s most fervid fantasies. Worst of all, there’s a new sheriff in town: Pierce, the cowardly Al Swearengen of Fort Hawthorne, a safe zone carved out of the cafeteria where Leonard tickles the ivories, Starburns collects guns (and drugs), and Vicki and her nerdy beau are forced to dance on tables for the amusement of the masses. (And particularly for big-foreheaded Jeff who, as a crudely drawn poster informs us, is wanted “Gay and Alive.”) Hot on their tail (in Annie’s case, quite literally) is the mysterious, spur-wearing
Smoke Monster Black Rider, played to gravelly, jut-jawed perfection by Lost’s Josh Holloway (“I get paid to shoot paintballs, honey. Not the breeze”).
As Jews say at Passover: dayenu, all of this would have been enough! But what really impressed us was the fact that there was an actual episode of Community happening amid the burning oil drums and secret weapon caches. Once again it came down to the season’s dominant conflict: Is Pierce a bad guy or not? (Says the group: “YES!”) The flashbacks throughout the episode weren’t showing us
an alternate reality where Flight 815 never crashed a poker game: It was a vote on whether to invite Pierce back to the group next year, and Annie was the lone "yes" holdout. Yet Pierce’s ammo betrayal tests our heroine’s kindness — just as yet another Pierce fake heart attack (this time to escape a paint-filled pickle) tests our patience — and the resolution is put off until the season finale. As the amusingly evil anthropomorphic ice-cream cone floods the campus with elite, stormtrooper commandos, we’re left with nothing but questions: Can Pierce change? (Or can we continue to support a show that seems to insist its characters are incapable of change?) Is Josh Holloway really that much better looking than the suddenly insecure Jeff Winger? And will Sawyer make it to the Coldplay concert on time? How quickly did Shirley recover from childbirth, anyway? Is it really possible to be allergic to beans? And will there be any more shots of Annie running in slow motion? (As Abed rightly observes, “She’s pretty awesome today.”)
Answers, friends, are only a week away.