Another Thursday night, another Community episode that has come unstuck in time, as Billy Pilgrim might say. This week, the study group celebrates Christmas. In April. Thanks, NBC! This is what happens when you move a show from the fall to the spring. As a cross-promotional effort, zeebox.com ran a game of Community bingo that gave the viewers the chance to win prizes by playing along in real time. It seems like the network is ready to try anything to get the show’s vocal following to actually sit down and watch the show during the exact half-hour when it airs live.
The bingo game is a strange choice, though, because it incentivizes watching the show at a set time at the cost of paying full attention. An audience concerned with filling out a bingo card is probably not doing an especially thorough job of actively watching the show. Comedy is about timing and surprise. Those are two things that are tough to achieve when the people watching are more focused on a digital scorecard that is tipping the show’s punch lines. Any Community episode that’s more concerned with pleading for viewers than it is with delivering fast, consistent laughs makes me wary from the onset. It feels like a going-out-of-business sale.
“Come on down to wacky Greendale! With story lines so ridiculous, you’ll think we’re insane! Plus, we’re giving away prizes!”
I won the bingo game, which was pretty much the highlight of the episode for me. I still don’t know whether I won a prize or how I would claim it if I did.
Aside from possibly winning electronics, I did like a few other pieces of the episode. Most notably:
- The pun “Hans Grouper.”
- Annie delivering some laugh lines.
- The motif of Shirley, the devoted mother, being underestimated by the study group and surprising them with her intellect and humanity. I’m always happy to see her out of full-on Church Lady mode.
- Malcolm McDowell getting serious screen time as a bitter, manipulative professor.
The rest of the episode, though, plays like a list of Community gripes that have come to life and are now dancing around the room like the brooms in Fantasia. Maybe this bingo game was designed to distract us from the fact that this episode made no sense. Here are some of the major flaws:
Sloppy, Incomprehensible Plot
If you missed this episode, here’s a recap as best as I can muster:
The gang fails a group paper. But really they get a C-minus. Which is an unacceptable grade. But then it becomes an F. Which is worse. Then there is a kidnapping. Or there isn’t. And one of the study group betrays the others. Or don’t. Psych. Professor Cornwallis is just lonely. But that’s okay because we learn some kind of nebulous lesson about forgiving and being flawed people. Because Jeff read the book. But still can’t muster a quantity of critical work as long as the lyrics to “War” by Edwin Starr. Don’t worry, though! They get a C-plus after all. Great! Great?
Ill-Defined Troy-Britta Romance
Professor Cornwallis quickly ascertains that Troy and Britta are in romantic relationship. WHAT? HOW? I wasn’t even sure, and I’ve spent much more time with the study group outside of class than Cornwallis has. Is he psychic, or was I not informed that a total lack of chemistry with someone is a tip-off that two people are dating? Also, Troy is nervous. But don’t worry about getting to the bottom of why he feels that way. Next week’s episode I’m sure won’t even feature the two of them in the same room.
Half-Baked Pop-Culture Abed Story Line
This week’s tepid set of Die Hard references harkens back to the Shawshank debacle of “Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations” (or as I call it, “Shanksgiving”). The episode seems to be building toward a thrilling Nakatomi Plaza–style conclusion. One by one, the dominos are set into place. Abed plants the Die Hard seed. Troy gives him the John McClane tank top. Annie shatters glass across the floor. Then, instead of knocking down that row of dominos, the gang wanders off to play with another toy entirely. It turns out they weren’t playing dominos after all. We were really watching a game of Connect Four (Totally Unrelated Plot Points in a Half-Hour).
A good, thoroughly executed Abed story usually means that an episode is on track. A scattershot series of references with no payoff bodes poorly for the episode as a whole. He’s such a compelling character that it’s really disappointing to see him reduced to a one-dimensional throwaway gag. I wish we got to see more of him interacting with his new love interest, but I guess we’re supposed to assume she left him after he asked her to do a makeover montage or have a sex scene that’s just fifteen seconds of toes curling under a blanket and then a match cut to the next morning.
We don’t have universal health care yet. The Senate couldn’t pass a bill strengthening background checks for buying guns. The least the government can do is vote to end this totally inane character arc once and for all. The approval rating for such an action would be damn close to 100 percent. This week, Changnesia was the source of two pretty strong jokes (“Is this a card?” and “Ohh … no gifts means bring gifts.”) Other than that, it was another week of frustrating, unresolved nonsense.
“Kevin” ties up Professor Cornwallis in an attempt to fit in with the gang. But wait, the professor was never tied up because Kevin doesn’t remember how to make a knot. But remember, he’s faking his Changnesia. So he does know how to tie knots. He just chose not to. But how did he know that Professor Cornwallis would be so lonely he’d stay there anyway draped in ropes? If he were really trying to get the study group expelled, wouldn’t he have put forth a better effort? Who is he talking to on the phone? At this point, I’m not even asking out of curiosity. It’s more like … furiosity. I am actually mad that I don’t have answers to these questions yet.
Community isn’t Lost or Mad Men. It’s not enough to present a mysterious situation and trust that the audience will wait around from week to week in hopes that the slow burn becomes a fire of actual story development. Especially after the show has squandered so much viewer goodwill by pelting its audience with red herring after red herring all season long.
Ugh. I hope I win a TV at this bingo thing. Or a time machine. So I can go back in time and pay less attention.