“Modern Warfare”, last season’s paintball spectacular, was such a huge creative success that it cannot have been easy for Dan Harmon and his staff to willingly invite comparisons by doing another paintball episode. The law of diminishing returns is as lethal in comedy as it is anywhere else, and the more you listen to the crowd asking you to “do that funny thing you did again” the more you risk losing the magic of the thing itself. Irony is a bitch.
For this reason I would not have expected the show to go to back to the paintball well again, but I am shamed today, because I did not give the people at Community nearly enough credit. Rather than simply coast by on the brilliance of the original premise, “A Fistful of Paintballs” maintained the framework of the original but changed everything else, creating a sequel that, through last night’s first half anyway, matched the original blow for blow.
The choice to parody Spaghetti Westerns was highly appropriate. There’s just something inherently humorous about a pistols-drawn standoff ending with someone covered in paint. And the decision to make Annie the star of the show paid dividends as well, and not just to those lucky DVR-owners who could replay Annie’s run through the halls of Greendale in slow-motion.
Of all the nods to the western, from the wardrobe (Abed’s poncho, Jeff’s black hat, Shirley’s frontier preacher outfit) to showdown music ripping off Ennio Morricone, the best had to be Pierce Hawthorne as Gene Hackman in Unforgiven. I loved the way the script explained away his seemingly inexplicable rise to prominence. (A cowardly Pierce hid in the men’s room stall, acquiring bullets in trade from those who needed to use it.) That just about sums up Community’s greatness right there. At its best, Greendale is an absolutely absurd little world that still adheres to its own brand of logic and order.
And even with all the business necessitated by an all-out paintball war, Community found time to maintain season-long plot arcs, with Pierce’s outrageous behavior being partially sparked by the alienation he has felt all season, and the group’s frustration with his behavior boiling over at last, with even Annie against him at the end. This commitment to doing more than is strictly necessary is what accounts for all the critical fawning Community receives, even when its laughs-per-minute ratio falls behind some of the other Thursday night comedies.
“A Fistful of Paintballs” was just pure fun, in a way the show hasn’t always been during its sophomore season. I wouldn’t say sophomore slump, by any means, but episodes like “Critical Film Studies”, aka “My Dinner with Abed” have focused on character relationships at the expense of fun. It’s nice to be shown that the show can still do both at the same time.