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Community Recap: They All Just Fade Away

COMMUNITY -- "Basic Human Anatomy"

Sitcom theme songs reveal quite a bit about their respective shows. The cozy ballad that introduces Cheers lets you know you’re about to watch a Billy Joel song come to life. Kelsey Grammer’s crooning about tossed salad and scrambled eggs at the end of each episode of Frasier reinforces the pretentious and self-satisfied character you just spent 22 minutes with.* Even instrumentals can effectively set a tone: The Office’s folksy intro conjures the feeling of a small town, while King of the Hill’s hard-charging guitars evoke brash, southern Americana.

Let’s take a moment to consider “At Least It Was Here,” by the 88, Community’s theme. It’s a taut pop song, a jaunty trifle that layers traditional harmonies, guitar, and piano over some funkier keyboard effects. Like Community itself, the song is the kind of thing that could have been huge (like the Rembrandt’s TV to radio crossover “I’ll Be There For You,” or the BoDean’s “Closer to Free” for you Party of Five fans) except that it wasn’t. Not only that, with each passing episode, the song’s lyrics become more relevant. They started out as an elliptical reference to the quirky band of misfits making a go of it in spite of their differences. The words now suggest the imperturbable march of time, which in terms of the series, is working against the study group (and all the rest of Greendale, really).

Give me some rope
Tie me to dream
Give me the hope
To run out of steam
Somebody said
It can be here
We could be roped up, tied up
Dead in a year
I can't count the reasons I should stay
One by one they all just fade away

Yeah. That’s what I’ve been saying. The reasons to continue watching the show have trickled away as the season has progressed. Lately, the best moments have drawn attention to how flat the surrounding material appears in comparison. The brief scene of the maintenance workers’ daytime murder mystery party felt weirder and funnier than anything else during “Basic Human Anatomy.” The rest of the episode, as have many this season, felt like a clumsy impression of something familiar (which was a specific motif this week).  As far as I can tell, here are the remaining motivations to continue watching Community, the reasons we should stay.

Jim Rash’s Comic Chops
Out of all this week’s body swappers, Dean Pelton gave the most enjoyable iteration of the character he took on. Troy as Abed was dinner party impression passable (“Mark does a great Robin Williams! Do it, Mark!”). Abed as Troy was, and maybe I’m being oversensitive here, racially weird. Dean Pelton as Jeff Winger, however, layered the perfect amount of sarcasm and narcissism onto the dean’s twitchy enthusiasm. When he’s not written as an outlandishly gay puppy dog person, Dean Pelton gets to deliver some of the show’s funniest lines as well as the silliest physical comedy. It’s too bad he’s often burdened with “Jeffrey was inside of me”–type double entendres, which are about as subtle as an inflatable penis at a bachelorette party. “Look at how gay I am!” is not a funny joke. It’s cinderblock-fisted variant of the much more enjoyable “look how little self-awareness I have” school of comedy, perhaps perfected by David Cross as Tobias Fünke. But, in general, I’m happy when more screen time is Dean Time.

Evolving Friendships
Troy and Abed have taken their absurd codependence to a precipitous altitude this season. Their body-switching stunt, which started out as cloying before redeeming itself in the show’s final minutes, illustrates their bizarre bond. Troy needs to rely on antics and capers to express complicated adult feelings. Abed is just happy to be included in the action. I’m curious to see whether the show can keep finding new ways for their symbiosis to manifest. Really, though, the series should end with a nobody’s-fault, Annie Hall breakup of the two friends. Well, probably it shouldn’t. But that would be the most heartbreaking conclusion possible. They’re meant for each other.

Annie and Shirley are also caught up in a complicated dynamic. Both are too polite and considerate to be traditional frenemies, but by all rights they should be. Locked in a near heat for the title of Greendale’s valedictorian, the two women have a friendship fraught with the tension that only overachievers feel when in competition with one another. It’s a little disappointing how quickly their rivalry turned into collaboration. No one wants to see the Red Sox and Yankees team up against the Blue Jays.

Auxiliary Characters
Professor Cornwallis has become more interesting lately, even though it’s not exactly clear what he wants out of Greendale, or whether he just wants out of Greendale. Garrett is always a delight. The custodial staff is great (Eddie Pepitone in a stole yelling about murder gave this cohort a boost this week). Given the freedom from plot and emotion, the ancillary figures get to be their weird, unfettered selves. They never have to give lectures about the importance of being yourself or the nature of friendship. Not that I’m pointing fingers at other characters.

The Last Minute
Each week’s tag has brought something fun to the episode. The puppet outtakes let us see how much fun the cast has working together. This week’s double-meta outtake bonanza gave the show room to go totally gonzo with postmodernism without sacrificing story. The last 60 seconds of most of this season’s episodes have been more endearing and inventive than the preceding twenty minutes.

But there’s a lot that’s not working.

Most important, the gimmick episodes are more frequent and less developed than ever before. Instead of getting the immersive world of a school-wide paintball tournament, we’re often now subjected to one zany story line among other more standard plot points. Abed and Troy “switching bodies” in the middle of a stressful academic week for everyone else felt like injecting Daffy Duck into an episode of Mad Men. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a show about seven community college students have something to do with seven students attending community college.

What seems like it should occupy the bulk of the episode (making sure the banners help the gang earn passing grades) is relegated to an off-screen fix by the historically incompetent Pierce.

“Holy makes-no-sense-whatsoever,” Jeff says. He’s right. There’s no point in solving the problem at all if the solution can be executed expertly by the team’s least capable member. It’s boring.

The show’s depiction of romance is also all over the map. Annie is turned on by Dean Pelton because he’s acting like Jeff. Duh. But real Jeff is somehow still oblivious. Troy and Britta, whose relationship never made sense to many viewers, had somehow dated for a year without realizing it. Their unawareness makes sense because I had nearly forgotten that they were still nominally an item.

Their breakup rang true and salvaged a messy episode. It took Troy a year to realize what most Community fans could tell right away: He’s not ready for a grownup relationship. It’s strange that Britta hadn’t caught on yet, given his penchant for make believe and refusal to show up at their anniversary lunch. (An anniversary lunch, in many relationships, would be grounds for a breakup on its own.) Their tender hug packed more of an emotional charge than any of the forced intimacy we witnessed while they were together. The dissolution of their relationship and the Freaky Friday façade grounded what was otherwise a manic, frantically paced episode with too much attention paid to things like finding a DVD and not enough time spent on the core problems.

One by one the elements that made Community so compelling have slipped away: The fast pace. The attention to detail. The dazzling stand-alone episodes. We’re left with a show that shows flashes of its former brilliance but the overall impression that the series will be “roped up, tied up, dead in a year.”

* This recap previously stated that the Frasier theme song played at the beginning of each episode. It actually plays at the end.

Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC