21
Feb
2013
Community: Season 4, Episode 3
Conventions of Space and Time
Jordan
I've acknowledged that the new regime on Community will take time to find its footing and become whatever it hopes to be in the long term. I've also admitted that I had heard "Conventions of Space and Time" was a subpar episode before even seeing it. But even knowing I should lower my expectations, this is an episode that fails in a number of ways, and I think it's important to talk about why (otherwise, what are we doing here?).

Look, this was clearly conceived as a Troy and Abed episode, and maybe my biggest problem with it is the way it fails to be successful as such. Not only does it fail to use Matt Lucas (as the Inspector obsessed Brit) in an interesting way, it fundamentally flops from its conception. If we accept (and I do) that Troy and Abed's relationship might be strained by Troy's involvement with Britta, I still think this episode was misconceived from the start. The idea of the gang visiting a convention is a good one (so much so that its an idea that I have discussed for over a season now), but it is completely misused here, as the Macguffin behind a variety of stories that never coalesce. I actually think the convention setting is a good place to examine the Troy-Britta, Jeff-Annie, and Troy-Abed relationships; I just think "Conventions of Space and Time failed to do so in an interesting, realistic, or particularly humorous way.

This show is experiencing no less than a "regeneration," so it is hardly inappropriate to lean on the Inspector Spacetime gag right now. It also makes sense to rely on the Troy and Abed bond to cement fan loyalty. Donald Glover and Danny Pudi have legendary chemistry that has been enough to float failed episodes before, so placing that dynamic front and center makes some sense. Yet the stakes this episode tries to establish, namely Abed's moving to England, never feel remotely realistic, so the strain on their bond feels forced, and the resolution overly obvious. If each of these beats worked for you, I can see this episode appearing as an unfunny, but cohesive part of the Community puzzle. But for me, floating abstract stakes and having Abed display faith in Troy he never had any reason to lack fails to work as a true story about their friendship. This episode never offers any true reason why their bond should fail, and thus, fails to give viewers all that much to care about.

That Abed is given the Jeff Winger speech in tonight's episode exemplifies some of my problems with the new world order on the show's writing staff. Season Four, so far, has emphasized Abed as the emotional center of the show, and while I love the character, I'm not sure this makes real sense, and am in fact reasonably sure this hurts the show in the long run. Port and Guarascio, as show-runners, may have identified Abed as the character most super-fans identify with (and I'll freely admit I do as well), but what they fail to see is how Abed was utilized in the show's early seasons. In the Harmon era, Abed was an outsider, a guy who viewed the world through the lens of pop culture and was ultimately worse for it. Abed remained apart because of his tendency to use pop culture to distance himself from his friends, and that made him relatable, sympathetic, and fundamentally flawed. Dan Harmon has freely admitted he related, over the course of his time as showrunner, to Abed more than any other character, but he never sacrificed Abed's separateness as a result. I don't have a problem with Abed realizing that Inspector Spacetime is "an alien, but his human friends keep him grounded and invested in the world," per se, but I do have a problem with how reductively this show treats the revelation.

This isn't a small step for Abed, at least not if handled properly. We have seen him recognize the chasm between himself and others previously on this show, but we haven't seen him equate himself this fully to an alien character, and recognize this clearly that he operates outside of the group, even as he is a part of it. Sure, he's had his My Dinner with Andre dinner with Jeff, but even that was an example of an Abed trying to connect with the way his friends experienced the world. "Conventions of Space and Time" shows us an Abed that recognizes his disconnect, but lacks any clear yearning to fix it. And that's an Abed that is both less interesting and less realistic as a result.

Many of my problems with this episode, and with the Abed-centric view the show seems to have taken on, can be better illustrated by looking at the Annie plotline tonight. We've seen Annie play pretend before, most notably in one of my favorite episodes of the series, "Mixology Certification." But the extent of her fantasy here goes far beyond what we've seen before. In that previous episode, her play-acting was nothing short of tragic--a flawed attempt to escape herself due to self-loathing at her core. Here, we can see how "Abed-vision" has rubbed off on her, and on the show's outlook, and how it has done it for the worse. Alison Brie is an incredibly capable actress, but its disheartening how often in this show (and I'm speaking both of Harmon's run and the current establishment) she has been required to use her ability to wade through weak material. Her romantic relationship with Jeff solidified the character as more complex than she initially seemed, but it has also hampered her growth over the show's last few seasons. This is a character who has shown depths before, as we saw in Annie's relationship with Pierce, and in her complicated attraction to Jeff (at its best; again, Harmon too often squandered this character), but tonight, we see her play-acting as Jeff's partner instead of proving herself worthy as such. This is a development that could work within a realistic evolution of the character, but as handled tonight, it feels more like an unsatisfying restriction than a realistic evolution.

Annie is hardly the only character disserved tonight, though. Shirley and Pierce are relegated to a C-plot that has them taking part in a focus group on the attempt to create an American Inspector Spacetime (again, a clever Doctor Who riff in theory that never gets off the ground in practice), and Britta is left to seem like an elitist jerk. Britta's stubbornness is well-established, and her ignorant attempts to seem informed could provide wells of comedy here. But where the Britta I know would likely pretend to be completely on board the Inspector Spacetime train while loving Minerva for being a female Inspector (this confuses me, as I thought Minerva was a constable in previous appearances), this version of the character seems unrealistically opposed to accepting the whole culture of the convention.

This is an entirely misconceived episode of Community, in that it misuses its characters and betrays its audience's loyalty. There are several fairly clever Doctor Who references here, but nor nearly as many character moments that feel in line with the people we have come to know. I spoke last week of hope that the new Community regime was going to get things right and eventually make a show that was worth watching, and I still think that may be the case. But "Conventions of Space and Time" is not the best argument for that. By disserving the characters in favor of appealing to cheap laughs and obvious references, the episode loses the soul of the show, while also eschewing its basic humor. For the new regime, this is a failure. And while I refuse to lose hope, I openly admit this didn't come close to achieving what I want to see out of an episode of Community. This was a pantomime of the show I love, cast in broad strokes and rendered with little regard to the humor or character development we've come to love. This was an episode that felt beamed in from a different time and place in the show's history, and this season has suffered in my estimation as a result.

Grade: C

Notes:

-"Can't we just tell Abed we're sleeping together?" "No. Abed's fragile. We have to ease him into it, ok. Do we want him to freak out and then we have to rescue him from some world where submarines are small enough to enter the bloodstream? I totally want to do that."

-"Good morning, Britta. I haven't seen you in over twelve hours!" "Haha. Yeah." "I know you two are having sex. I've known it for weeks."

-"Wait, was there a female Inspector?" "Yes. And everyone hates her. Not because they're sexist, because she sucks." "Well I think she's cool!"

-"Troy, I've seen that look. Lots of girls have given me that look. You are not being crazy. That guy is trying to steal your boyfriend."

-"Terribly sorry. This is slightly embarrassing. Seem to have forgotten your name." "Its Troy! You know its Troy! Okay? Its the first word of Troy and Abed! Toby and Abed in the morning? That's ridiculous! I'm not psycho!"

-"Normally, we don't concern ourselves with adultery, 'cause then hotels wouldn't exist. But everyone here thinks you're so nice..."

-We can all agree the whole Thoraxis thing was not funny, right?

-I'm treating this as an anomaly in the new regime, a horrible misstep on the way to a new kind of success. Join me in the land of cautious optimism, if you can.
Tags: Community
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