Brownies from a mix are fine. There’s nothing wrong with brownies from a box. They’re maybe not as fudgy as you’d like, but if you throw some ice cream on them, they’ll do in a pinch, especially if you’ve gone a while without having brownies from scratch. The longer you consume only Betty Crocker products, the easier it is to convince yourself that they’re as good as the real thing. Then you go home for your father’s 60th birthday party and you taste a real brownie, and you remember how vast the difference actually is. You understand from the first bite that you’ve been lying to yourself. Your last several brownie-eating experiences flash before your eyes one after another, like you’re Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense. You immediately understand that you haven’t really been living. “Alternative History of the German Invasion” is the first “real brownie” of Community’s fourth season.
It’s the first episode that feels both familiar and like it’s made from fresh ingredients. For three weeks, I’d become accustomed to subpar Community, and I’d forgotten how sharp the show can be at its best. I’d convinced myself that maybe my curmudgeonly writer’s brain was manufacturing flaws in the season’s first three episodes, especially the second and third. (I did enjoy the first episode as a response to the show’s off-season turmoil, but I don’t think it will stand as an all-time great episode.) I worried that maybe the show’s unflappable boosters were right last week when they tweeted that I was “half a tard” for criticizing the season’s recent installments.
Well, suck it, jerks! This week, I get to have my cake and eat it too. I feel secure in my recent critiques, and I got to enjoy a half-hour of quality programming. “Alternative History of the German Invasion” is the season’s best episode by a mile and a half. Watching it was a pleasure not only because of the bayonet-sharp writing and immersive plot, but also on account of the fact that it restored my sanity. An episode this good allowed me to contextualize the fact that the previous ones kind of stunk.
The first major improvement in this episode was the density. Like a homemade baked good whose thickness slows the penetration of a knife, this week’s Community possessed a saturation of jokes that defied casual viewing. Scenes started with jokes (Britta entering the demonstration against the Greendale 7 saying: “Sweet! What are we protesting?). They ended with jokes (Dean Pelton promising a refund on tuition if he failed to provide a receipt). Everything in between was a joke. Not every bit was a home run, but I was happy to see the show taking some healthy cuts. (Sports metaphor included to offset the calories of the pastry imagery.)
The gags came from all angles. Sight gags cropped up in unexpected places. History puns abounded. Pop-culture references came in bunches. A riff in the first scene tagged a joke about Troy thinking Game of Thrones is factual history with one about him confusing the real world for The Real World. The playful Who’s on First–iness showed just how many punch lines are possible when the writers are on their game. A month into the season, we finally got back to watching a show about a bunch of misfits who go to community college together. Oh, right, I thought. At its best, this show is very funny. I had actually forgotten that fact. I’d been watching Community from a box for nearly a month pretending it was the real thing.
Because I’ve already written 500 words of baking metaphor, we’ll take this thing wire to wire. In addition to the density of the jokes, “Alternative History of the German Invasion” possessed a flavorful richness of plot. For the first time this season, all the story lines worked perfectly together. Professor Cornwallis’s rant about viewing events from the loser’s perspective gave way to the events on the Greendale campus. “We thought they were the Germans, but really we were the Germans,” Annie moans, realizing the student body had gathered to protest the study group’s tyrannical hold over their Study Room. Even Chang’s reemergence (which originally caused both Dean Pelton and myself to shriek in horror; I was kind of hoping he’d wandered off forever) tied into the episode’s theme of atonement and forgiveness. Too many episodes this season have felt like parfaits of unrelated ingredients. Peanut butter and strawberry. Coffee and pineapple. (The more disjointed episodes were more like caramel and balsamic vinaigrette.) Finally we get a single, deep flavor to enjoy, one where all the ingredients work towards the same goal.
Most important, the episode maintained the show’s weirdness without alienating the outsiders. The goofy Hogan’s Heroes plotline was explicitly outlined. The pop culture references whizzed past without calling too much attention to themselves. Greendale got weirder and more specific (no religious or national group is allowed to celebrate its own holidays!) while still becoming a more caring and friendly place. Everything about the episode felt unique, but not painfully self-referential. Your grandmother’s brownies don’t need to remind you of how great it was when you ate them in the past. The enjoyment of tasting them in the present does that on its own.
When it came time to choose an Oh, Go Fuck Yourself, Community moment this week, I couldn’t. I was almost ready to pull the trigger at Troy’s line: “I don’t understand any of these puns. I think I need to learn history.” Amid lesser material, those words would stand as an indictment of the public’s indifference toward the show’s cerebral bent. But then it’s immediately followed up with the: “You want to see our papers? I thought this was America, not Arizona,” joke, one of the season’s sharpest. I nearly jumped up and down on my couch screaming: “YES! SHOW DON’T TELL!” but for the first time in recent memory I was worried I would miss a joke.
Instead of calling the show itself out for self-righteousness, I’d like to take a moment to address the Community apologists of the last few weeks who blasted me for hypothesizing that the show was perhaps substituting applesauce for butter in its recipe:
Dear Community Apologists,
Over the course of Community’s fourth season, you’ve called me lots of mean names for insisting that the show may have lost a step after the departure of Dan Harmon and several other tenured writers. It appears that you were right. Rumors of Community’s demise were premature. “Alternative History of the German Invasion” proves that the current staff has plenty of wit and skill.
On the other hand, the quality of this episode shows how lackluster the previous few really were. So, in reality, where it looked like I was admitting defeat just now, I was actually claiming victory. It was a ruse the whole time. You thought I was the Germans, but really it was you who were the Germans. Suck on that, jerks!