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Community Recap: This Is Where We Begin

COMMUNITY -- "Heroic Origins"

Much to my delight, the New York Knicks, who a week ago seemed invulnerable against an aging, depleted Boston Celtics squad, find themselves straining to hold off a potentially historic Celtics comeback. The series’ result has come into question because the Knicks have strayed from what makes them successful. The Knicks need to refocus on what earned them the No. 2 seed in the eastern conference in the first place. They have to remember their origins. To do that, they should take a lesson from Community’s “Heroic Origins” episode, a clinic in staying grounded in spite of unfavorable circumstances. “Heroic Origins” avoided many of the pitfalls of this season’s weaker efforts and reminded viewers of what had made the show so engaging to begin with: a bunch of misfits learning how to accept themselves and each other at a community college.

Instead of sending the cast off on various tangents and subplots, this week’s episode focuses on how they work together, and how they came together in the first place. “Heroic Origins” succeeds because it sets out a game plan and sticks to it, with everyone playing their assigned role. The episode’s premise is simple: Abed is constructing a prequel to the study group’s time together. As prequels are often disasters, his plan goes awry. Then the force of friendship and camaraderie overcomes the temporary strife. Once that structure is in place, the writers do a strong job of showing us those beginnings. We see Troy’s feigned injury as well as the downfall of “Annie Adderall.” Jeff, Shirley, and Abed’s unknowing interactions both cause tension and bring the group closer together. We also get to witness the genesis of the dean’s obsession with costumes and Magnitude’s “Pop! Pop!” catchphrase. Everything fits within the outlined framework. Even the John Hughes–evoking use of “Don’t You Forget About Me” adds texture without tugging the episode off course.

Like many of the best Community episodes, this one is guided by Abed. Throughout “Heroic Origins,” he is the vehicle for shifting attention between his co-stars. Within the episode’s first few minutes, I leaned forward in anticipation as the show’s premise unfolded. I was especially glad to see the characters reacting to Abed realistically. Shirley believably points out that what to Abed is a plot point may be a source of great sadness to her. That touch is what gives the episode the emotional ballast that keeps it from becoming a disjointed sci-fi riff. Still, Abed is the driving force here, keeping the study group together and deftly shifting focus. He is, in essence, the show’s version of Knicks player Raymond Felton.

(In case you were wondering, the rest of the cast breaks down like this … Jeff, the selfish lawyer who needs to remember the value of teamwork, is Carmelo; Shirley, the study group’s moral center, is Tyson Chandler, the Knicks’ defensive stalwart; Pierce Hawthorne is Steve Novak, who disappeared through long stretches throughout the season; Annie is Jason Kidd, a player who has redeemed himself after legal trouble and added facets to his game as his career went on; Britta is Kenyon Martin, older and experienced; Troy is J.R. Smith, charismatic if spacey at times.)

The episode is fun to watch because each character gets to do what he or she does best. Abed creates the self-conscious framework that structures the action. Britta explores her natural habitat of ill-informed, ostentatious activism. Shirley puts family first. Jeff acts out of naked self-interest. Annie tries to hide her secret anxieties. Troy delivers misguided expressions of confidence. And, of course, Pierce fakes a heart attack (with his face obscured to mask the departure of Chevy Chase). Because of the extended flashbacks, we get to see each character as they were when we came to know and love them. It’s a smart device that practically forces the writers to keep themselves true to the show’s original tone.

The few missteps in the episode crop up when the characters stop being themselves and exist only to serve the jokes. When Troy quotes There Will Be Blood to his high-school friends and remarks, “That will never get old,” I don’t buy it for a second. There is no way that Troy Barnes was a Paul Thomas Anderson fan in high school. And even if he saw the movie, there was no way that he and all of his friends would get it and recite lines from it to each other. The whole exchange is a cheap way to remind us of the 2008-ness of the flashback. As if a time before Harlem Shake videos went viral is comically distant. These forced jokes are J.R. Smith’s 3/14 shooting performance upon his return from a one-game suspension.

A much funnier and better-earned gag is Troy’s assertion that he doesn’t care about math, only statistics. The same goes for Britta’s lament: “What’s an anarchist to do without her organization?” Even Abed’s insular, naïve idea that Unbreakable is an “accessible” film made me smile. (Like Community, Unbreakable plays out like a more cerebral version of standard genre fare, a trait that tends to leave some audiences cold.) These lines let the comedy flow from the characters’ emblematic lack of self-awareness rather than a detatched, winking reference spoon-fed to the show’s presumed audience.

In the end, the study group realizes that in their origin story, each one is both the murder of Uncle Ben and the evolution into Spider-Man. But really, they’re more like the X-Men, a gang of social misfits working together for the common good. It’s a genuinely touching moment when Abed returns to campus to invite Chang out for frozen yogurt. After all, Chang played an important role in the group’s formation. Their exchange is almost enough to make me forget about the maddening, off-message subplot of his attempt to destroy Greendale. The teaser for next week’s season finale promises the return of evil twins, which would make me pull my hair out if I had hair. But for this week, we get to see the Community that we have missed for much of this season: a grounded, realistic peek into the lives of surreal characters. It isn’t nonstop, end-to-end hilarity, but I’ll take an episode that hangs together and lets me root for the characters to prevail in the face of adversity.

By finding balance and returning to the show’s roots, Community delivers one of the season’s most satisfying episodes. By following that same game plan, it’s likely the Knicks can recapture their series’ momentum at the Boston Garden tonight. But, like Community, the team needs to share focus and execute their game plan cleanly. On the other hand, because my own origin story involves growing up in Boston, I hope that while an NBC series seems to be righting itself, the NBA series continues to slide into what Knicks fans might call the Darkest Timeline.

Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC