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Community, “Critical Film Studies” (2.19)

Abed (Danny Pudi) throws his arms out in welcome, walking through an expensive restaurant.

A review of the most puzzling comedy on television’s most difficult-to-penetrate episode yet, written by Sona Panos and directed by Richard Ayoade, after the jump…

“So… this wasn’t a real conversation?” – Jeff Winger

Community season two is not the show I fell in love with in season one.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something it’s taken me nineteen episodes to really get, and I’m beginning to make my peace with it. The number of episodes I can count this season so far that have impressed me comedically is, of those nineteen, only four: “Epidemiology” (2.06),  “Cooperative Calligraphy” (2.08), “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2.11) and “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (2.14). Each of those contained enough pure laughs that allowed them to compare with the average season one episode. In fact, of season one, using the same measurement, a full sixteen of the season’s twenty-four episodes rate.

Because this show isn’t just less funny and more dramatic, it’s an entirely different show, merely populated by the same characters. I could not see any of my favourite season one episodes fitting in with this crowd, except for perhaps the pop culture savvy “Contemporary American Poultry” (1.21) or  “Modern Warfare” (1.23). Heartfelt episodes like “Football, Feminism and You” (1.05) or even “The Science of Illusion” (1.20), my favourites of last season’s run, seem quaint and naive compared to the darkness, emotional complexity of this season.  Last season was a simpler show, and it was also a comedy, whereas this season the show has become something that doesn’t quite fit into televisions generic categories. Which is definitely impressive for a network show, particularly a comedy, to transcend these borders and still earn a third season renewal.

Instead, we have episodes that fall roughly into a few categories:

  • TYPE ONE: Homage episodes, whether effective like “Epidemiology” (2.06) and “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (2.11), or ineffective like “Basic Rocket Science” (2.04).
  • TYPE TWO: Episodes that look like season one episodes, but either end on a more depressing note, or generally just leave you feeling sadder and heavier by the end, like “The Psychology of Letting Go” (2.03), “Asian Population Studies” (2.12) or “Early 21st Century Romanticism” (2.15).
  • TYPE THREE: Episodes that toss both the season one format, and the genre of ‘comedy’, aside to tell darker stories with much more emotional complexity, like “Mixology Certification” (2.10). Sometimes still bring the funny, like personal favourite “Cooperative Calligraphy” (2.08) or “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (2.14).
  • TYPE FOUR: Episodes that feel a little madcap and crazy, and definitely appeal to the comedic side of the show, but are often hit-or-miss, ranging from the good (“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”, 2.09), to the mixed (“Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples”, 2.05) to the outright bad (“Aerodynamics of Gender”, 2.07).

Pretty much every episode this season conforms to the above chart, and each type is defined by how it doesn’t look like what the show started with. It’s something I’ve had trouble with every week, carrying it like a burden because, though I still enjoy the show and love the characters, I still feel like it changed when I wasn’t looking. Which doesn’t make sense, becuase it’s still the same cast and crew, which means it’s the goal that has changed, for whatever reason.

The above wasn’t meant as a chance to get on my soapbox about the changes we’ve seen this year, at least not wholly. It’s a preamble I needed to go through before discussing “Critical Film Studies”, because we’re looking at a show that, like Glee, has changed very rapidly from what it once was, and the changes are making an ambitious episode like this one much more difficult to read. It also means that discussing this show is difficult, because it’s not really somethin that can be easily framed in typical television terms. It’s different.

This episode really is an intense look at the complexities of Abed (Danny Pudi), as it unravels a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Abed sets up a fake dinner based on My Dinner With Andre, but only does so as a way of making it real, because he has no other way of creating this situation. And that’s great. As a dramatic story featuring these two characters, it really works, and is a great love letter to the friendship between a complex character who seems simple on the outside, and a seemingly-complex character who is, after all, really simple on the inside. And the dinner scenes work really well as a narrative.

When clashed up against the B plot, with Jeff’s attempts to throw Abed a Pulp Fiction themed birthday party, it seems even more off-tone for a comedy than it would normally. That subplot features a number of very clear jokes (although even the clearly delineated jokes, like the manager’s evisceration of the idea of Britta getting tips, are on average meaner this season than last), and centres around a fairly jokey scenarion: growing jealous of the tight bond the party and gift represent between Jeff and Abed by Troy (Donald Glover), he gets plenty of chances to show off his great ability to make funny expressions before finally opening Jeff’s gift. Even though it also has characters’ feelings behind it, it in and of itself is a funnier situation than the one Jeff and Abed are in. The subplot, even when connected later, at no point feels like it belongs in the same universe as the more dramatic “Dinner with Andre” scenes. And when we retire to the tag, which has an even more madcap energy to it, this episode ends up feeling like a complex mess tonally, even as it is pretty brilliant in its individual plotlines.

Was “Critical Film Studies” funny? Not really. But, unlike the more conventional “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” (2.18) before it, it wasn’t attempting to lean on its comedy, and thus survived when that element didn’t carry it. The work done by Danny Pudi and Joel McHale (Jeff) in the dinner was excellent, giving Pudi the chance to play an entirely new version of Abed and McHale the chance to fall apart in front of our eyes. Jeff thinks he’s much more complicated than he is, going on about calling phone sex lines under the guise of an overweight guy to soothe his insecurities, because everything is on the surface with him. He’s a vain, sarcastic lawyer who cares more than he wants to. That is as far as it goes for him. Meanwhile, in order to even access his emotions, Abed must put on an elaborate homage to a movie to try and communicate with Jeff, because that’s the best way he can really communicate what he actually feels. That works, even if its largely the only part that does.

But just as Glee is having trouble reconciling its parodic use of bullying / high school culture in early season one against its serious look at it in season two, Community is struggling to really define what exactly it is. It’s not precisely a network sitcom; the season’s weakest episodes were its attempts to most approximate season one’s formula, from the dull “Intro to Political Science” (2.17)  to the outright unfunny “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” (2.18)*. The episodes where it really feels at home, now, are when it ignores the madcap energy and cuteness of season one to focus on the darker, sadder nature of their lives, even when it leads to laughs: episodes like “Cooperative Calligraphy” (2.08), “Mixology Certification” (2.10),  “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (2.14) and “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” (2.16). Those episodes felt consistent and comfortable in their skin, even though tonally they feel like they’d be more at home on HBO. Episodes that pay homage to season one (types 2 and 4 on the above breakdown) just feel messy, even in the rare occasion they work: the only really strong example of that being “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” (2.09).

I’m not ready to say I’d like a show that devoted all of its time to Type Three (and the occasional Type One) more than the mix of sweetness and hilarity that was season one… but I have to think I’d like it better than the messy, confused animal that we’ve got this season. Still, as long as we’ve got these characters and this crew, I’m in for the ride.

* “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” had exactly one good joke: “Hit Me With Your Genie’s Bottle”. Thank me later.

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Comments
2 Responses to “Community, “Critical Film Studies” (2.19)”
  1. Loc Nguyen says:

    Great analysis of a great TV show. I totally agree with you on the fact that season 2 lacks something that Seasons 1 had. blah i wish i had more to say but i just stumbled upon this site at 4am. I guess what i enjoy most about season 1 was:

    – Jeff’s witty lawyer talk thats found when he was on debate team, editor of the school paper, running for student president etc.

    – Abed’s pop culture scenarios embedded into school situtations like the time of the paintball war, the chicken fingers, the spaceship program, dungeons and dragons, and of course my favorite episode ‘Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design’

    – Troy’s overall exaggerated dumbness that was just out right funny in season 1. his steady growth away from that was a nice too.

    – and i just feel like the rest of the character are just fillers to formulate a group of archetypes that can clash and mesh with one another (the sit-com formula). not taking away their importance of to the show, the show of course needs an Annie, Shirley, Breta, and Peirce.

    i guess now all the characters are less one dimensional and more mature that the writers can’t find better scenarios to put them in. not many season 2 episodes we find Jeff being lawyer Jeff and there is no overall story arc to connect the episodes to the overall season. my bet is that the season finale might suck.

    oh yeah, Glee’s season 2 completely sucks and i think its because they really have no great story arc to connect the season. just a bunch of singing and overplaying of certain characters. anyways, once again, great analysis.

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