You know what’s kind of weird? The way Season 5 of Community has more than once seemingly borrowed plot elements from Season 4 as though demonstrating it could pull them off without them being total crap. There was already “Cooperative Polygraphy” which had echoes of that puppet episode with everyone coming clean about stuff they’d hidden from each other. And now “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing” goes with a concept not at all unlike Season 4’s “Intro to Knots” with a plot about tying people up and the group turning against one another.
Look, I know it might sound like a stupid coincidence to note: “Duh, hey, this episode had people getting tied up with ropes just like another one did!” But it’s actually kind of a big deal. The thing is, in “Intro to Knots,” there was no logical buildup to the study group going insane and tying up a professor so they all just came off as nuts. Yes, they’d done crazier stuff in the past like destroyed the school with a paintball fight over the chance to score priority class registration, but the smartness of Community is that it can go to these ridiculous places where everyone acts like nutcases because it knows how to establish and build to a tone where that behavior feels somehow believable. Community can only be something different and new in every episode because it’s able to do this and Season 4 repeatedly proved it had no idea how to pull it off.
So, in this new episode, when Chang stumbles upon Jeff, Shirley, Britta, and Hickey working out a black market book deal and is promptly tied up, did it work for me?
Yeah, pretty much. Ultimately, I’ve felt that Season 5 has (perhaps rightfully so) done a little more shorthand. For example, after the first commercial break in last week’s “App Development and Condiments,” we jump ahead 8 days to the campus in full-on seventies-sci-fi crazy mode. Or then there was the Lava World episode in which everyone almost instantly goes along with Abed’s “the floor is lava” game. A big part of the reason these leaps work at all is that we’ve been here before. We know Greendale and the people in it are this mental, so it’s not a surprise to see stuff go down like this. So when Hickey, Shirley, and Jeff find a hidden stack of mint condition textbooks and immediately all start talking like shady dealers on the black market, it’s a little silly, yeah, but it’s also okay because, well, it’s Community.
But it’s still a little silly! Just because this is a Dan Harmon-run season doesn’t mean it does everything with flawless aplomb. Again, the buildup is minimal and this textbook outlaws plot is constantly skirting the line between being believable and not. But there is still the matter of consistency in tone and that’s the other thing Community episodes, including this one, typically get right. Once it’s decided that this is going to be a plot where all the characters talk to each other like suspicious backstabbing types in a crime caper film, they don’t waver from this. It just gets more and more extreme and by the time Shirley has tied everybody else up, it all feels pretty plausible (aside from the unresolved issue of how she was strong enough to subdue both Britta and Hickey on her own).
The other plot is more grounded and takes place almost entirely in Annie and Abed’s apartment, making me recall Season 3’s “Origins of Vampire Mythology,” which I found to be one of the better episodes of that season. And also like that episode, the stakes feel pretty low and it takes on the vibe of a more conventional sitcom, but not in a bad way. It’s just these characters dialed down to a level where they’re all pleasantly personable and it works fine.
That said, it feels like some shortcuts were made here, too, to jump into the semi-hokey plot of Annie and Abed taking a competitive 1993 VCR game, “Pile of Bullets,” way too seriously. This is because the stakes are that, based on who wins, they’ll decide who their new third roommate will be (either Annie’s brother or Abed’s girlfriend), now that Troy is gone and they’re getting too poor to pay rent. But the plot ends up being basically functional, if nothing else and, as I said, I like the comfortable, homey vibe of everyone hanging out in the apartment.
I also think it’s great that the wound created by Troy’s departure is one that won’t heal over quickly. I feel that many other sitcoms would be content to brush this under the rug, but that they aren’t doing that is completely true to this show. And I’ll add that I’m happy that I found Abed’s girlfriend, Rachel—played by Brie Larson in her third appearance in the series—to be working okay within the show’s world as, up to this point, I hadn’t seen enough of her to decide if I cared about her existence at all, let alone liked her.
Speaking of Brie Larson, this was another star-studded episode (which is becoming something of a theme with this season). Vince Gilligan, another Breaking Bad alum is the “Pile of Bullets” guy and he gets to be in a very sweet and sad tag with Gina Gershon as his wife. Paul Williams (who I last saw being an asshole doctor in the rather bad but weirdly not-completely-hateable Rules of Attraction) also gets a funny, brief moment as a mumbling Chemistry teacher. And finally, Annie’s brother is played by Spencer Crittenden who you’ll only know if you keep up with Dan Harmon’s podcast “Harmontown” as he’s the dungeon master of Harmon and Co.’s continuing Dungeons & Dragons campaign. He’s clearly not a fantastic actor, but it is a pretty great idea to have Annie’s brother be a weird, funny-looking, awkward nerd—basically the opposite of everything she is—and they also work him in well as he doesn’t have to emote that much, since he plays, a largely emotionless nerd who mostly just says “Yeaahhh” a lot.
This episode was fairly pleasant and basically functional. I didn’t have any huge problems with it and I do appreciate Shirley being center stage (and more than a little evil once again), but I didn’t laugh a lot either. I’m sure I was supposed to find the absurd complexity and confusing nature of “Pile of Bullets” funny in and of itself, but I mostly didn’t. Incidentally, I have committed the ultimate TV sin by not yet seeing a single episode of Breaking Bad and I bet Gilligan’s appearance would be a lot funnier here if I had watched that show, but, er, I liked the tag anyway!
Of course there were, as there always are, some great, laugh out loud lines here and there, most of them coming from Britta, who knows what section of the basement she’s in because it smells like weed, “not my weed.” She also does her own Gary Oldman in Leon the Professional impression (which I guess Community has decided to turn into a running gag) and hers is better than Annie’s because Britta does everything more awkwardly than Annie, which is why we love her. Britta for the win!
Next week is a new Dungeons & Dragons episode. Funny to watch NBC big it up like it’s an awesome sequel to an awesome thing when in reality, behind the scenes, they completely hated the original D&D episode and chastised Harmon for making it. Anyway, it should be, like the original, one of the best episodes ever (assuming they don’t screw it up)!