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Friday, May 18, 2012

Community: "Digital Estate Planning/"The First Chang Dynasty"/"Introduction to Finality"

Last night's tripartite Season (Not Series!) Finale showed off all of Community's finer points, in three disparate but equally enjoyable episodes. Every element that the show's fans love so rabidly, and everything that would immediately confuse or even repel anyone just checking in with the show, was out in full force.

Take "Digital Estate Planning", with its absurd premise, designed solely to maneuver the study group into a barely plausible alternate reality. One of the strengths of the Community writing team, and something which I am sure frustrates the bean-counters at NBC, is their ability to work backwards from an insane idea and make it fit into the mostly-realist world they've envisioned. From the Paintball wars to the zombie outbreak, there's nowhere they can't go. An elaborately structured, appallingly racist 8-bit video game designed by an unloving father to mock his disappointing son? Sure, why not?

And while we're at it, let's have sweet innocent Annie brutally murder a digital blacksmith just to get what she wants, and have super-Christian Shirley kill the witnesses and set fire to the home. Abed finds his perfect woman in a programmable, endlessly-adaptable villaige maiden, and Britta gets to (for once) save the day by Britta-ing her strength poison so that it kills Gilbert (a very good guest turn from Giancarlo Esposito.)

Not only can Community construct a video-game episode that makes logical sense, they can tie it to an emotionally resonant plot-line. Gilbert's revelation that he is Pierce's half-brother spawned some fine dramatic acting from both Esposito and Chevy Chase, and gave the episode the uplifting victory it needed.

Because of the high amount of animation that this episode required, it is pretty clearly not in the right place from a continuity standpoint. No glaringly obvious tells, but it just seems parachuted in when the last few episodes have dealt with Chang's takeover. But with the final two episodes, we're back to the main arc of the season.

"First Year of the Chang Dynasty" follows in the proud Community tradition of homage episodes like "Contemporary American Poultry" or "Basic Lupine Urology." Here we get an extended riff on the heist movie. What works best about this set-up is the plausibility of the actual caper. The study group's plan is remarkably well-thought out, and features one of the greatest of all heist-movie cliches, the turnabout when the plan being foiled turns out to have been part of the plan all along.

There was so much to enjoy in the visuals of this episode, from the quick-cuts and familiar camera angles, to the spectacles of bearded-caterer Shirley, Brooklynese speaking plumbers Troy and Abed, "Mindfreak" Jeff Winger, and of course, Goth magician's assistant Britta, an image I am sure will be featured as many a Reddit commenter's avatar for the next few weeks.

Community proves the effectiveness of its character-based humor by again going to the emotional well within the heist. The moment where Troy silently consents to joining the AC-repair school in a time of need is legitimately sad. Donald Glover, who gets so many laughs by crying, manages to convey so much emotion with just a nod of his head. Glover is a superstar talent.

With the Dean restored, Chang on the lam, and a grateful schoolboard drinking away their sorrows, "Introduction to Finality" speeds ahead to the end of the summer. Jeff is trying to get the gang to focus on their make-up Biology exam side note, I always find it hilarious how simple the show keeps the group's classes. Jeff is trying to learn about mitosis, a subject most high school freshmen are familiar with), but as usual he gets dragged into some petty disagreement among the group. This time Pierce and Shirley are fighting over who gets to be the signee for their joint sandwich-shop venture. Eventually this will of course wind-up with Jeff using his fake-lawyer skills to help resolve the situation.

Meanwhile, Troy is suffering through AC classes, and getting tired of Vice Dean Laybourne's talk of him being the True Repairman ("who will repair Man" intones John Goodman.) Of course, when Laybourne dies after ingesting poisonous freon, Troy becomes suspicous of his professor and Laybourne's successor. Interrupting the coronation with the Crown of the Five Winds ("East, West, North, the one we keep secret, and South") Troy challenges the successor to a duel in the sun chamber.

This is Community at both its most inaccessible and its most outrageously funny. It helps when the show winks and the preposterousness of its plots. I loved the unhinged arena-style announcer for the Sun Chamber duel, but I loved it even more when a colleague asked him if he was on coke and then calmly recited the rules.

Also on the out-there scale was Evil Abed's take-over of "Lame" Abed, and his subsequent deconstruction of Therapist Britta. People who only like traditional sitcoms probably wouldn't get past one character completely disabusing another of their cherished delusions. Evil Abed wasn't my favorite thing in the world, but it was worth it if just for the sight of fake-bearded Evil Abed strutting down the halls at Greendale and being a dick to everyone who crosses his path.

Of course, the episode ends with a classic Winger speech, this time about how much better it is to help others than to help ourselves, a lesson he learns from Shirely when she gives him permission to throw her case to save his future legal career. It's also a lesson Troy didn't need to learn, as he spares the life of Laybourne's killer by fixing both AC units in the Sun Chamber.

Community ends its third season in a very interesting place. Having restored order to the AC-repair school by becoming their messiah, Troy is free to both pursue his ability and remain part of the study group. It's becoming clearer and clearer that Troy is the moral center and the best leader for this group. Britta seems really into him too, and it will be interesting to see how the show handles a real relationship between two of its characters, something it really hasn't tried before. (Jeff and Britta were a friends-with-benefits type thing, and Jeff-and-Annie hasn't gone much past that first kiss.)

Pierce ends the season on an upnote, conceding that the business is a true joint-venture with Shirley, and even remonstrating someone else for using "gay" as a slur. It's still not clear whether Chevy Chase will be back next year, and his frequent "sundowning" gives the writers an easy out if he bolts, but if so it's nice that he went out on a relative high note.

Abed admits he needs help, and demonstrates some more of that empathy he's still learning about by agreeing to let Britta try and help him. And Jeff seems to not only accept Greendale for what it is, but to admit that he's better off for being there. The moment where he thanks his former colleague for ratting him out was an amazing example of how far the show has taken his character.

Whether there are really only thirteen episodes left, or whether we get those wished-for six seasons and a movie, I'm damn glad to know that there's more Community to come.

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