Today was the day I thought VERY DEEPLY ABOUT COMMUNITY. I read our own Matt Zoller Seitz’s interesting piece about why TV recaps can be awesome, and in the article he cites various examples of great episodic writing about television. I’m 99 percent certain he meant to target the piece at all those who watch television and enjoy reading about it — a way to pull back the curtain between critic and consumer in an effort to champion this burgeoning art (?) form. I read it as having been written directly for me with the title, “Do Better at the Stuff, Steve.” Because I, like the characters on Community, hate myself.
So I went back and read as much about Community as I possibly could, in an effort to find the nugget of truth that would allow me to more readily put my brain-nuggets on the page. (Get ready for a six-year-old YouTube video about nuggets!) And I stumbled upon this excellent crosstalk at the AV Club that crystallizes a lot of what’s been bugging me about the show. In the piece, Steve Hyden, who has a really awesome first name and first syllable of his last name, writes, “Community is an airless terrain where nothing is allowed to grow, deepen, or evolve. Even really good episodes have the emotional payoff of a Funny Or Die sketch.”
It’s been three seasons and I still don’t care much about the characters. I mean, I think they’re all awesome, sure. Each is funny in a very specific manner. But there have become two kinds of Community episodes: heavily stylized ones like last week’s that destroy any notion that the show might be “formulaic,” and then there are formulaic episodes. And as is always the case with the latter, last night’s “Origins of Vampire Mythology” spun its wheels, laid a few shticks on thick, and checked back in emotionally just in time for the last 45 seconds of the episode. I mean, not every episode can be “Remedial Chaos Theory,” but is it too much to ask for a little something-something on the side?
Act I: Exposition, comin’ atcha.
We started in the study room with the group excluding Pierce. Dean entered. All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.
He informed the group that the carnival was coming to Greendale, and Britta tensed up. See, her ex-boyfriend Blade is one of the carnies — working the BB gun booth, which is a promotion — and she simply can’t resist his carnal being. The group laughed for two reasons: One, because of course Britta has a carnie ex-boyfriend; and two, because Britta tried to anticipate their mockery by warning the group up front about the ridiculousness of the scenario, which made them laugh even harder. See, because these guys like to make each other feel terrible just so they can make each other feel better later. You know, as friends do.
Recognizing Annie as the only responsible one in the group, Britta had the foresight to give her phone up for the weekend. Her strict instructions to Annie were to hide the phone from her, not allow her to use it under any circumstances, and to allow her to stay in Annie’s bedroom.
Jeff, meanwhile, couldn’t shake a newfound fascination with this Blade guy. How could one man have such a profound effect on Britta, a woman he’s been chasing since episode one? (Or is he chasing Annie? The episode didn’t quite clear that up, what with all the lingering stares. Someone start a Twitter hashtag so I know who to root for.) He secretly pledged to do reconnaissance work during the carnival to satiate his curiosity, and he dragged Shirley along with him as his fake wife. Now, there’s someone I know Jeff has no interest in.
There’s a third braid, too, and I mean that literally. The dean was visited in his office by John Goodman’s character, whom I’ve now dubbed Mullet 2.0. Since the Air Conditioning Repair Annex basically owns Greendale, Mullet decided to finally just ask for what he’s always wanted — Troy’s attendance — knowing full well the dean would be forced to oblige. He hatched his own plan over a sad scotch and soda. And it’s carried out in …
Act II: Random silliness that only incrementally moves the plot forward.
Britta found herself at Casa de TrAnnieBed, outwardly resisting the urge to text Blade but inwardly cutting at her restraints. It probably didn’t help that they were watching the movie Blade and that Abed said the word blade two dozen times in a half dozen seconds. Britta, now unable to contain herself, asked Annie to check the phone for emergencies and promised not to peek at its location. She did, of course, and ran to the DVD drawer to find a banana upon which Annie had written “You are a lying junkie.” Troy let it slip that the phone was in the fridge, and Britta had to be literally carried into Annie’s bedroom kicking and screaming about how these people were worse than Hitlers and the opposites of Batman. Eventually, of course, she emotionally tricks Annie into handing over her phone and she begins to text Blade immediately. (Annie has switched Blade's number with hers, so she gets to read every single dirty, yearning message.)
The last few episodes have prominently featured such plot points as, “Jeff Winger slowly drives himself nuts” and “Jeff Winger slowly drives himself nuts and takes off his shirt,” and last night was no exception. At the carnival, he learned that Blade was just this doofus guy — a simple man with a simple ‘stache who just got off a shift at the sewage treatment plant in Pawnee, Indiana. This infuriated Jeff even more than before, because how can this guy compete with all that Jeff has to offer? After dropping several hundred dollars at Blade’s booth, he still couldn’t figure out the casual charisma of a guy who hasn’t left his carnie post in fifteen years. Anguish! The plot only barely moved forward!
And for pure comic relief, Chang and Pierce became buds, so the show sang a silly song about best friends and ramped up both characters’ desperation for some companionship — Chang asking to play Russian Roulette; Pierce obsessively telling everyone about Chang. It didn’t last long, because the show still doesn’t know what to do with Pierce, and it probably wanted Chevy Chase as far away from the next part as possible …
Act III: Way-too-tidy resolution that almost made me forget how flimsy it was.
Jeff couldn’t take it anymore. He had to know Blade’s secret, so he finally came out and asked him point-blank. Cut back to the apartment (SUSPENSE! No seriously, I liked that this moment happened off-camera), where Troy finally decided to handle the Britta situation by texting something really sweet, knowing it would immediately turn Britta off the hunt. She came out of the bedroom and learned the truth, and on her way out of the apartment to be with Blade, she ran into Jeff, who had some sobering news. Blade was injured a long time ago in a Ferris wheel accident, injuring the part of his brain that feels shame. There is nothing about Blade that can be self-conscious in any way, making him unstoppable in the way Jeff was when he took his anti-anxiety meds.
He also had another epiphany on the drive over, apparently. “We should stop making hatred of ourselves someone else’s job, and stop hating ourselves,” he said. It’s a profound sentiment that spoke directly to one of Community’s core tenets: Its characters are flawed not because sitcom law dictates they be or because they choose to be, but simply because they are. It was an awesome thing to articulate on the show — on any sitcom, really — and it was so eloquent that I almost forgot how little the episode did to earn that statement.
My big problem with Community remains that there’s no middle ground. It can be one of the most fun shows on television, and it can be just as formulaic and predictable as the shows it skewers. And that would be okay if it were not for the fact that Community tries really hard not to be like everything else. When it’s pushing its Ken Burns–ness or My Dinner With Andre–ness, its effort is apparent and appreciated; but when it attempts to do a simple episode about people I ostensibly care about, all that effort gives off a desperate odor.
It’s the little moments, not the grand ambitions, that will write Community’s future. Take that moment near the end of the episode: Britta was going through her text messages, now realizing her friends were the ones who’d written them. She got to the nice one, looked over at Troy, looked to Annie for recognition that Troy was indeed the one who sent it, and smiled. There was more in that moment than in most of Jeff's obligatory speeches.