Community Recap: Advanced Formalism in Contemporary Recapping

Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC
Episode Title
Economics of Marine Biology
Editor’s Rating

When I got the e-mail that Vulture needed someone to sub on the Community recap this week, I wasn't sure how it was going to go. Did I have anything left to say about this show? I'd already gone through the roller coaster of loving it, then being exhausted by it, then being turned off by the Dan Harmon cult of personality, then watching with detached fascination as the fan base reacted to the new show with the new showrunners, finally landing on not feeling incredibly strongly about it either way. I wondered how that would come across in a recap. Recapping, after all, is how I've experienced television for seven years now. I can't even watch a TV show now without recapping it in my head as I go. Is this a curse? Am I isolating myself from the shows I love? Missing out on a genuine experience? I wouldn't know. This is just how I'm wired.

Starting the recap out with a digression is seldom the way to go. It certainly doesn't tell the reader anything about the episode they came to read about. Better to start with the news that the Greendale gang is split up into thirds this week, with Troy and Shirley taking P.E.E. class (that's Physical Education Education — not a typo in the course cardalog); Jeff spending reluctant — and then not-so-reluctant — quality time with Pierce; and Annie, Britta, and Abed in the main plot with Dean Pelton, helping him land a "whale," a spoiled fuck-up named Archie with rich parents who will keep pumping money into whatever college houses their son choses for however long it takes for him to graduate. I realize now I should have said the gang was split into quarters, because Abed almost immediately breaks off into a runner wherein he establishes Greendale's only fraternity, the Delta Cubes. (Using the television term runner really establishes my bona fides as a recapper, don't you think?)

Jeff, as I mentioned, is spending time with Pierce, hanging at a barbershop, learning the pleasures of an old-timey shave. Originally, Jeff is sent there to keep Pierce away from the whale hunt (a pretty significant whale himself, Pierce would only get jealous of the attention Archie was getting; don't even ask about the time Kerri Strug came to Greendale). But then there's a lot of talk about Jeff's daddy issues and Pierce constantly being left out of things, and if it feels like we've been going through the same thing with Pierce for four seasons, WE HAVE. So Jeff learns to like Pierce again, though more sincerely this time than at any point previously, so there's that.

Still, it's hard not to imagine that Jeff wouldn't be having a better time in Abed's story line. It's interesting, the eagerness with which Abed jumps into the role of Delta Cube ringleader in the absence of Jeff, who would be a much more natural choice for frat leader. The relative brevity of the Abed stuff makes it one of his better plots in a while, but it must be mentioned that the parody of Animal House–style frat comedy is BEGGING to be called out as derivative of The Simpsons. I realize that a recapper claiming "Simpsons did it!" is probably as clichéd as actually cribbing from The Simpsons. Am I misstepping by even bringing it up? I can probably make it more relevant with a quick link to the Sitcom Smackdown brackets, where The Simpsons triumphed. No recapper ever went broke by linking to site content too much.

It's at this point in my recap that it's become painfully obvious that I've been writing a meta-recap this whole time. I guess it makes sense, recapping TV's most metatextual show in a metatextual manner. But is this the right episode upon which to take this approach? It's probably the least meta episode Community has done in years. Observe as I offer some supporting evidence of my claim: After Britta refuses to lower herself to groveling, Dean Pelton and Annie proceed in wooing Archie in all sorts of demeaning ways. They offer him Greendale on a platter, everything from tricking out the cafeteria into a poor man's Señor Frog's to obliging Archie when he brattily requests that he be able to appropriate Magnitude's "Pop-Pop!" catchphrase. Annie — and eventually the Dean — realizes they've gone too far, and when they finally stand up to Archie, he unexpectedly respects them for their honesty and enrolls in Greendale anyway. That's, like, textbook sitcom! Is this really the episode to break out a gimmick as showy and potentially divisive as a meta recap? Then again, maybe the meta recap of such a disappointingly pedestrian episode is just what we all need to keep things interesting.

It's a pretty obvious gimmick, though, right? "Oh, Community is such a meta show! I'm gonna be all meta, too! How post-post-ironic of me!" But I'm not sure if "too obvious" is a dealbreaker on Community this season. I could have walked through the entire P.E.E. story line beat-by-beat from minute one. The expectation (that Troy will be good at gym and Shirley will reexperience the last-picked trauma of her youth) is upended by the twist that it's Physical Education Education, i.e. training to be a gym teacher. Suddenly, Shirley's parental bossiness makes her the star, and Troy's inability to handle conflict (or dodgeball storage) makes him the worst. Would you believe that Shirley eventually helps Troy to find his inner P.E.E.? Even the training montage (complete with song) has been done to death, in everything from South Park to Wet Hot American Summer. And while it's nice to watch Troy and Shirley share a story line (they're one of the show's more underutilized pairs), it's incredibly strange watching Community play it so safe. All three of this week's major stories ended both predictably and unmemorably. Community has gotten me so trained to expect some elaborate reference-based parody that I kept waiting for all these pat happy endings to resemble a movie. IS THIS HOW MILLER'S CROSSING ENDED???

I guess in the same way that I've lost all ability to discuss Community without resorting to a showy device, Community can't quite seem to remember how to be a regular sitcom without resorting to being a typical sitcom. There's a difference, I think. And since all good recaps tie things up with some kind of summarizing statement on the state of the show as a whole, this seems like as good a place to end things as any.

Oh, hell, I forgot to mention Let's! Troy's preferred brand of potato chips that serves as both an amusing non sequitur and also a recurring joke that carried the post-credits tag! Is it too late to go back and weave a quick, pithy reference to Let's in an earlier paragraph? Perhaps cleverly drop the fake Let's slogan? "Get your damn hands off my meta gimmick!" maybe? Aw, man. I really blew it.