Class is back in session, people! And all seems to be going extremely well in Greendale as the second semester dawns. There are hugs! Abed and Troy spent weeks playing a video game that sounds suspiciously like “their lives,” Britta “thinks” she vacationed in Amsterdam (she’ll know for sure when she finds her camera), and even Pierce got some cool (not cool) new T-shirts. Did we mention the hugs?!? Things are even percolating offscreen, where a second-season order seems likely (thanks for the disaster, Zucker!) and even notorious crank Chevy Chase seems to be enjoying himself again, as evidenced by his carefree (and bewigged) appearance on Jimmy Kimmel this week. In light of all these good vibes (and hugs!) it seems downright grinchy to harp, yet again, on Community’s maddening inability to find a workable balance between meta and mawkish. But harp we must!
Winger: Let’s talk about him. It’s notoriously hard to build a show around a jackass: inevitably you’re going to have to soften him, which threatens the jokes. The writers are, predictably and occasionally quite amusingly, playing with this looming challenge in enormously self-aware ways. Dig Jeff’s first appearance here: shades on, all in black, playing a caricature of himself who … instantly melts and hugs everyone (note: ENOUGH WITH THE HUGS!). Then the writers (who have clearly been Googling the crap out of “history of antiheroes in sitcoms”) tweak our expectations further by having Jeff’s main story arc this episode be about how he’s really like Hawkeye. Ya know, from M*A*S*H, a show that went off the air 27 YEARS AGO. Do you know what else happened 27 years ago, people? ALISON BRIE WAS BORN. So as much as we love Trapper John and seeing Joel McHale crack wise while rocking a turquoise Hawaiian shirt, we’re thinking maybe this was an idea that should have stayed in the writer’s room. (You know what else can stay there? Jokes about Abed wetting himself. We’re all set with those. Thanks.)
Jeff’s attempt to be laid-back and Alda-esque played out against the usual backdrop of high-velocity one-liners, some of which landed (Annie: “No one will care about my time in rehab if they think I’m a writer!” Truth!) and some of which whiffed (the ones that made us groan rather than take notes in order to reproduce them here). The wrinkle was the arrival of Buddy, a beefy childlike guy with zero self-control and a penchant for over-the-top, annoying acoustic balladry played by — wait for it — the beefy, childlike Jack Black. Buddy’s setup was legitimately hilars: The montage of early-season scenes with Black inserted into the background killed, as did the memory of Britta and Annie wrestling in a bubble bath that probably was just a dream (“I sleep a lot in class”). And the idea that adding a new member would disrupt the show’s timing actually disrupting the show’s opening? Nailed it!
Furthermore, jamming a newbie into our little, ahem, community was a good idea! Our Spanish study group is remarkably cliqueish, and a show that has such fun sending up high-school tropes should have had a field day with this — and it did, for awhile. But it kind of devolved into being about Jack Black doing predictably Jack Blackish things (singing, kicking Jeff in the face) and then got weird when a no-longer Hawkeye Winger physically dragged Buddy, screaming and pantsless, out of the room.
Awkward as that scene was, at least it restored Winger to his previously dickish highs, right? Wrong. Because what it taught him, in fact, was that Buddy’s only “crime” was thinking the study group was cool. Cue the goopy music! Line up another group hug! Begin to gag and …
Wait! Just when things are getting too sloppy for words, the meta returns, as Buddy is stolen away by the actually cool study group on campus, fronted by a shaggy Owen Wilson. This was funny! Also funny: that Owen Wilson’s posse consists of a Harajuku Girl and a massive ponytailed dude with raging starburns (ya know, sideburns in the shape of stars). Good get! Good ending! Good times.
Look, we like Community. Really, we do! And it’s possible that we’re just grumpy: We laughed when Dean Pelton said, “My best friend when I was 6 years old was a black man” and again when Troy announced “Yo, I need my genitals” because, really, who doesn’t. It just seems too often that the writers are afraid to let the situation part of the term “situation comedy” shine. Too many good ideas are rushed off the screen with either cheap jokes or group hugs. But we’re not bailing. A lot can happen in a semester. And as long as next week’s episode isn’t a 28-minute tribute to Benson, we have faith the writers will eventually get the balance figured out.
Agree? Disagree? Excited to meet Shirley’s Finnish friend Gary next week? Have at it in the comments!
At EW, John Young also would have “cherished a Jack Black who played someone other than a Jack Black caricature.”
Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club knows the show is playing with us, and seems to mind less than we do.
At TV Squad, Jason Hughes agrees that this “wasn’t one of the stronger episodes.” Sad face!