Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tonight's TV Talk: 'Community', 'Community', 'Community!'...

Disclaimer: I know there were other shows-- hell, even other season finales!-- on Thursday, May 17th 2012. But after weeks of forgoing this TV Talk column due to crazy amounts of coverage over at the professional sites for which I freelance (read: that actually pay me), I just wanted to sit back and enjoy the shows I watched to wind down at night. With Community airing a three episode, practically full night of entertainment event, though, I just couldn't sit back and be passive. I had thoughts, damn it, and lots of them, and I wanted to share them with all of you.

"Digital Estate Planning" (8pm) - It feels completely weird to air this episode as out of order as they have, considering this is the twenty-second episode for production, but from a story point, it was so long after Pierce's (Chevy Chase) dad died, I...had kind of forgotten it happened. And plunking it into the middle of a multiple-episode Greendale 7 arc, as things were getting super intense with the Rise of Chang was an oddly distracting choice. Watching this episode as a stand alone, in all of its creative and insanely ambitious glory was the most fun I've had in a long time, but it still would have been a stronger statement to come before the madness to not make it feel like these characters really were crazy enough to take such a detour in the middle of something so important. 

In all honesty, though, it didn't really matter the reasons the study group had to play this 8-bit video game, the important factor was that they played. And the episode dove into the world as deeply and as committedly as they did with their stop-motion animation episode-- with a touch of Dungeons & Dragons. And even though this one wasn't a musical, it was even better in my mind because I actually did grow up with video games that looked that crappy, but were still really fun! Stop-motion holiday specials were colored with the air of the past when I watched them in reruns; the original Nintendo tugs at my nostalgia strings, though. The story itself was oddly reminiscent of "Ready Player One," my favorite book of 2011-- a tale about a ridiculously wealthy virtual reality systems developer who decides to leave his fortune to whoever can unlock Easter eggs in his system, basically beating it. Of course, he had philanthropic ideas in mind by handing the keys of his kingdom to some random genius. Pierce's dad was a jerk who designed the game for them to fail-- but not before they turned on each other first. But this group has come so far in three years, they know better to fall into the simple traps, so really what this episode was about was seeing characters' true colors come out in a world where there are no real consequences. Yes, this meant Britta (Gillian Jacobs) still screwing things up-- getting distracted by trying to straighten a painting and "screwing up drinking" after making a potion-- but it also, much to my personal happiness, meant a return of Angry Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) as she hacked at a blacksmith after Annie (Alison Brie) accidentally set him on fire. Even in terrible graphic form Jeff (Joel McHale) worried about how his hair looked and got frustrated with Abed (Danny Pudi) enough to yell and punch but then lost interest almost immediately, as he knew it would never change his ways. Pierce couldn't figure out what was going on; Abed fell in love with a pre-programmed avatar; Troy (Donald Glover) enjoyed randomly jumping just because he realized they could. They were like kids on a quest, and it was glorious. 

What was unfortunately less glorious was the real world stuff. Giancarlo Esposito was underused as a villain, and I didn't quite believe his claim of being Pierce's half-brother. Sure, it sounds exactly like something a Hawthorne would do to sleep with the maid and and deliver an illegitimate kid-- but it came up so out of nowhere and only at an opportune time for him that it was weird. And Pierce giving him the inheritance in the end was even weirder. The other guys, sure; hell, even Jeff had selflessly turned over his paintball prize to Shirley in their first game, but Pierce is just not that evolved. The show has been doing what they can to humanize him more and more, but this time it unfortunately didn't feel earned.  

If it were up to me, I would have spent the entire episode in the video game, as disconnected from the world we know as it was. It was high-concept, and flitting in and out right before the act breaks took me out of the world I wanted to live in as long as possible. I may have always been terrible at video games, and therefore not super into them, but all I want in the world right now is to play "Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne." I probably shouldn't tell Dan Harmon I would give all of my inheritance for a custom game, right?

"The First Chang Dynasty" (9pm) - I swear I didn't know the plot of this episode when I wrote my "dream Community homage" post last month. Harmon and I just share the same brain. I've said it before, and I continue to because the show keeps proving it true. The Greendale 7 took on a heist to prove that Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) had been kidnapped and Chang (Ken Jeong) was masquerading an imposter (J.P. Manoux) in his place. It was either that or have Troy enroll in Air Conditioning Repair, but come on, after all of these C-story plot points about it, the show had to deliver, no matter how dark it got.

But the reason this Ocean's heist was so fun to watch was, again, because of how deeply committed everyone involved was to taking it seriously and making it feel real. Sure, Jeff taking the Clooney position was a little obvious, but Troy and Abed as the Casey Affleck/Scott Caan banterers was a good look for them, and Annie passing as a prepubescent boy was just bananas. The "plan is designed to fail" aspect may have been doomed from the get-go (come on, look at this group!), but the fun was in seeing how or why they got tripped up. It wasn't anything dynamic, and that's what made it all the more real to me. They didn't even get overly cocky; they just weren't quick enough. And isn't that the epitome of community college anyway?

It was a little weird to see nothing happen to Chang as a result of keeping the Dean locked away for months-- or for admitting his full plan was to burn down the school. Sure, this is a comedy, so I didn't expect to see him hauled off to jail or the Dean hauled off to therapy (though both of those things might be good for those characters), but I didn't expect it to go so traditional sitcom with the "Aw, shucks!" shoulder punch. No one-- not even new therapist (sort of) Britta or logical Annie or infuriated-with-how-ridiculous-Greendale-can-be Jeff questioned it. Remember last week when they were trying to be convinced they had a break in their sanity? Troy's acceptance of his own destiny with Air Conditioning Repair was treated with a severity that should have seemed a little over the top (he's just going into a vocational program; he's not enlisting in the army!), but book-ended by the scene where everyone just shrugged and moved on from the actual serious things that occurred tonight-- and for weeks of episodes beforehand-- and the one with Dean at a rave, it certainly seemed like that break was real.

"Introduction to Finality" (9:30pm) - So, if Troy is such a prodigy with all things Air Conditioning (and Plumbing), why does he have to sit in classes at all? And if Community wanted to do another courtroom episode so close to Law & Order, why take on a simple suit over sandwich shop ownership instead of, oh I don't know, how to best punish Chang for his crimes against Greendale? These are the questions I went into this episode with, and though I don't really think I received answers, very quickly I realized they were moot points anyway. None of it really mattered; things at Greendale have never been logical. And there were so many story and character moments in this episode to focus on instead that I just got sucked into the, well, finality of it all. After this episode, there would be no more until the fall, so it better be one hell of a ride, right?

And it certainly was. "Introduction to Finality" showcased the best moments of all of its players while utilizing a great guest star that served as a series callback, too. It was certainly not "the Britta" or "the Jim Belushi" of episodes. It served to remind everyone exactly why we love this show and why this show deserves the fourth season it was thankfully granted. It brought back favorite elements and threads (Dreamatorium) while still evolving the characters (Jeff once again deciding not to do the selfish thing), and of course, offered visual gags like Dean Pelton's Blind Justice "I walked into the corner. It was a fresh tattoo." And in the end, it may not have closed the chapter on the semester as completely as it has in the past, but it eliminated the darkest timeline and perhaps a little bit of Abed's issues with it.

A part of me was bummed to see the season finale split so many of the characters as far apart as they did. I was against Troy joining the A.C. school to begin with, so to relegate him there, however heroic he got to be, for the majority of this end of the season made me sad. Even though he ultimately got to step up as the hero and the leader as the "Ultimate Repairman," it felt like something of a hollow victory since it was done so far away from his friends. He may have put on the Inspector Spacetime chapeau, but without his Constable by his side...well, I kind of attribute it to a tree falling in an empty forest, I guess. I wanted one last wacky adventure with Abed! Especially since when this episode was shot, it wasn't guaranteed to not be the series finale. How could you go out splitting your study group apart like that!?

Well, as it turns out, it probably has something to do with the overall biology theme of their own year. We take such a class to understand what makes us work. The Greendale 7, as I will forever call them, even if it had negative connotations in the show, have taken a few classes together now, but the only thing they have really even tried to learn was how to get along with each other. Britta is probably the best example of this since she is literally studying her fellow Human Beings in her quest to become a therapist, but Abed certainly embodies it well, too, as he is a people-watcher just to learn how to react. And therapize (that's not a word, but Jacobs used it in one of our interviews, so I feel fine repeating it) Britta. They have learned a lot about each other in these three years, is the point, and we should feel confident they will continue to do so. Thankfully, we'll be able to watch some more of that, though, even if it means there will be a new level to maturity next season. With Troy being the voice of reason about actually prosecuting a murderer and Abed miniaturizing his Dreamatorium and Pierce calling someone else out for being offensive, the tide certainly seems to be turning, which makes complete sense considering three of the show's EPs may not be back next year. I don't know what stories the show will tell week to week or even how, but if it continues to take risks and make you feel as much as you have, it will continue to be a success in my book.

It became clear to me tonight that the message of Community is a lot like the message of LOST. These seven (and you know, Dean Pelton and even Chang, too) are the ones who have changed each other the most, and therefore mean the most to each other. I'm not saying Community will, or even should, end with its characters helping each other pass through to the afterlife, but I am saying that if this had been the series finale, it would have been an equally beautiful and poignant way to go out.

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