Things started promisingly enough this week, what with John Oliver’s Professor Ian Duncan choosing to devote anthropology class to watching YouTube videos of laser farts. (“Anthropology is the study of humanity. Nothing is off topic.”) For a meta show that loves to dust off its meta stripes and flash its meta cred (?), Community could have a field day with the fact that “17 million” people want to watch the Auto-Tuned version of “Ski Lift Ninja Crotch Rip” — which is, incidentally, about 13 million more pairs of eyeballs than an average episode of Community garners. But then Shirley had to pipe up about how only “nine people” went to her church last night, and suddenly we were on shakier ground. “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” wasn’t just a Shirley episode (yikes!), it was a meaningful episode. “If farts are fair game, so is God,” says Professor Duncan. True! But the former is also a whole lot funnier than the latter. Especially when lasers are involved.
On the one hand, we get it. It’s a long season and it’s good to rotate the focus around the ensemble now and again. But Abed and Shirley are particularly difficult characters, ones who tend to work best (when they work at all) as reactors to, not drivers of plot. And where we ended up with them this week — with Abed, in the process of making a YouTube film about Jesus, transforming himself into a mustache-less
Yanni Christ-figure, replete with flowing locks, leather pants, and a self-inflating inability to give a straight answer — was somehow less plausible than when the gang launched themselves onto the highway in a Kentucky Fried Chicken space simulator. Even worse? It wasn’t funny. Yes, it was nice that Shirley got to destroy everything with a baseball bat — and why are we not surprised that Dean Pelton is a huge Ricardo Montalban fan? But Abed’s rapid ascent into megalomania coupled with his neat, feel-good admission of being “humbled” by Shirley at the end simply didn’t work. And a few feel-good jabs at Charlie Kaufman weren’t enough to save it.
The B-story — in which Pierce trades the cool-killing confines of the Study Group for the edgy life of a rampaging senior citizen — was better. As ringleader/cookie-thief Leonard, a bullish bully with a backpack full of whiskey bottles who is usually relegated to the background, Richard Erdman (whom you might remember as “Western Union Boy” in 1944’s Mr. Skeffington, or from his two distinct roles in two different episodes of Murder, She Wrote — thanks, IMDb!) killed every scene he was in — and his hooligan-y gang of “hipsters” (so named because of their hip replacements) were aces as well. So what if the story kind of drove, slowly, into a light pole. At least it had laughs and the valuable insight that, in a pinch, Jeff Winger will come through as your emergency contact. (But it’d be better to call Britta, too. Preferably at night.)
Perhaps this earnest episode just suffered by proximity. Last week was Community at its cartoony best. This was the show at its goopy worst. But, hey, it’s a long season, and if Shirley and Abed can be humbled, so can their show. At least it left us with Troy (as rapping Jesus) promising a better world, one in which cats, dogs, and mice get along and “ice cream is everywhere, but not your thighs.” Live to dream.