It can be easy to look too deeply into any given episode of Community, because the show has so often invited us, via its meta-textuality, to look behind the curtain and not just step through what would be our side of the fourth wall, but through what I suppose would be the show’s second wall, as well. Often, the level of “meta” that Dan Harmon and his trusted crew bring to the show are what makes the show so wonderful and unique, because they’ve been able to strike a rich balance: commenting on the show’s very existence through the characters themselves rarely gets in the way of the characters being the characters. However, the show has a reputation for going meta a bit too often, and I always find myself relieved when a classic, straight, two-and-a-half-story episode airs, because it’s a reminder that the show doesn’t always have to be a commentary on itself, or a sendup of classic Hollywood tropes. Sometimes it can just be its own thing, and “VCR Maintenance” is a textbook example — see what I did there? — of just how witty and laugh-out-loud funny Community can still be.
It starts, as so many episodes do, around the table with Annie delegating tasks. I had a good feeling when the first line was “It’s settled: the urinals in the women’s restroom will be turned into planters.” Jeff is quick to volunteer for clearing out an old storage room, and after observing that Annie “always goes from the easy chores to the hardest,” Shirley and Hickey volunteer quickly, setting us up for the Great Textbook Heist of ’14. Enter Abed and Rachel, who I’m so happy the show has not forgotten about, because I just happen to think Brie Larson is the bee’s knees. Abed’s holding a VCR game called “Pile of Bullets,” which is essentially our introduction to our second major story line, the hilarious and ridiculously convoluted Wild West–themed game that ends up being an amazing setup for some Abed-Annie hilarity, as well as some real human interaction between Abed and Rachel. Well, as close as Abed can come to it, anyway. Also? Vince Gilligan. Dude.
Starting with Annie and Abed’s apartment, I’m glad that the show gave Donald Glover’s departure a wide berth, and Annie and Abed’s living situation was something I hadn’t even considered with Troy not in the picture anymore. Both Annie and Abed’s desperation to fill that void is pretty apparent from the jump, and they both played for some hearty guffaws. As soon as her brother fixes the fridge door (uh, without suggesting that maybe the door should swing open on the left; I mean, it’s just a couple of hex bits, it’s not rocket science), she’s pulling a sidebar with Abed suggesting he should move in. Naturally, Abed has other plans, and wants Rachel to, instead, and they’re both so blinded by their own motives that they don’t even consider what the people they have plans for might think about it. So, naturally, they decide to settle it with a 1993 VCR game, which I suppose is about as effective a method as any, but when Abed’s rebuts Annie’s suggestion of Rock, Paper, Scissors with the idea that’s really “just a nine-sided coin,” I actually did a literal spit take. Mind = blown. Also, this: “I ain’t livin’ with your month-long girlfriend, brah.” “Well, I ain’t livin’ with your wack-ass, don’t-know-whether-to-keep-cutting-carrots-or-ask-if-he-can-take-a-poop brother.” Of course Abed kills the conversation because he has to practice his smile. Aw. Or: aw?
Things devolve rather quickly, as they do, and I love Rachel wondering aloud if they’re being bugged by the feds because the conversation has gotten so bizarre. Once the game begins, it’s nothing but hilarity. Vince Gilligan is perfect as the single character “guide” (for a linear-time game with confusing tokens, shootouts, and tornadoes, naturally) and of course Annie and Abed are the only ones who care enough to get it, Annie out of desperation and Abed because … well, Abed. The pacing of this whole scenario was spot-on, from the game appearing to freeze (when in reality, you have to figure a VHS game would have to have a lot of built in pauses to allow gamers to get the hang of the game, as seemingly impossible as that would be with “PoB”), to everyone maniacally “bang bang bang”-ing at the screen when Gilligan shouts “Draw!” And watching Annie and Abed really get the hang of it and perform all kinds of silliness was such a treat. The whole situation was absurd and confusing and hilarious. “Are we sure this is a game and not some art film?” I like Rachel. I hope Larson’s schedule will allow her to come back next season, should that be a reality (and assuming Abed doesn’t Britta the relationship).
Speaking of Britta, she was great with what little the episode had her doing tonight, from her free-spirited fence character she affects once she’s gotten a “taste” of the “goods” (I immediately thought of Steve Zahn’s character in Out of Sight, for some reason; the “textbook” hapless but generally good-natured low-level criminal), to announcing she knows where in the building they are because “it smells like weed. Not my weed.”
Really, the whole situation with the textbooks was also wonderful. I’m always a fan when Community wants to do service to a genre without committing to stylizing the entire episode that way, and since we’ve already had two almost back-to-back dystopian future themes this season, it was nice to see some elements (like the vaguely Middle Eastern music cue they play every time someone takes a whiff of a fresh textbook, and classic heist movie character tropes, like Britta’s fence, Chang’s cowardly and unintentionally involved passerby [with a bong, no less; it is Colorado], and Shirley’s at-first-unsure-but-once-convinced-fully-pot-committed-and-kind-of-scary mastermind) without the whole episode revolving around the theme. Naturally, once Jeff and Chang are tied up, they do the classic play-all-sides-against-one-another captive thing that we’ve all seen a million times, and it’s … well, it’s textbook! What’s not, however, is that somehow Shirley manages to get Hickey and Britta tied up, as well, which is amazing. I love how Shirley is so good and sweet and God-fearing, but I wouldn’t want to see her backed up against a wall. No sir.
Of course the books ended up being misprints; there was really no other way out of the scenario, and Shirley had to get some egg on her face.
There’s was lots to enjoy in this episode. It provided tons of genuine belly laughs, and a little bit of growth for Annie and Abed, but not so much that it was cloying.
Some other highlights:
- I can’t be the only person who thought Britta yelling “EEEVERYBODY” at Chang was a callback to “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” when Annie yells “EEEVERYTHING” at the IT admin, right? Maybe we’re just yelling words that start with “every” this season. Either way, I’m cool with it.
- Abed and Anthony practicing smiles at one another. So awkward.
- Chang flipping a switch and becoming so earnest for his confession video was awesome. Yet another perfect use of the character in a season that has really found the perfect balance with him.
- Hickey wasn’t given too much to do this episode, but what he did have was great, and I like that he and Vince Gilligan didn’t have anything to do together, because I didn’t need Breaking Bad reunion squeals to improve what was already a top-notch episode.
- Hickey’s narco expert character was hilarious, calling the books “mint” and being able to quote a street price.
- The cover of “Intro to Chemistry”? Amazing. That girl looks supremely pumped to learn some chemistry.
- “What do you think happens after you die?” “I dunno.” “You’re lucky.”
- “I guess my knee-jerk concern would be that he’s a viking, and might only use our home as a temporary base before moving inland, where lumber’s more plentiful.” Pudi nailed that line.
- “Abed, I don’t like this side of you, and I do not like that side of VCR technology. I am glad that it’s a dead medium. That was very uncomfortable.” “I don’t really know how girlfriends work, but I don’t think you have one anymore.”
- LOVED Abed’s rom-com third act apology in the rain. I was relieved that he was able to get Rachel back on his side, but mainly I’m a sucker for a good a slip ’n’ fall, and that was one helluva slip ’n’ fall. The sound designer nailed the sneaker squeak, too. “Aw, you hired a stunt person!” “No, I did not.”
- Abed and Annie considering Britta before both immediately suggesting Craiglist.
- The Dean’s genuine shock and horror at how his PayDay rap turned all Lyricist Lounge. That Jim Rash, he’s a good one.