28
Feb
2013
Community: Season 4, Episode 4
Alternative History of the German Invasion
Jordan
It isn't an unusual occurrence for a network to shift episodes around in a show's early going to ensure that it puts a strong foot forward, or to make sure weaker episodes are slated when viewership is thought to be lower anyway. This is somewhere between mildly irritating (as it was in the first season of Happy Endings) and flat-out infuriating (think about the initial run of Firefly, which was often rendered incomprehensible by the network's propensity for airing episodes out of order) for fans of a show with even hints of serialization. Plot point happen all out of whack, things that haven't mattered in weeks seem suddenly and randomly relevant again, and momentum is killed. All of these would be minor problems for "Alternative History of the German Invasion"; its not particularly continuity-heavy, and while its obvious that in the last two episodes, the gang was already in classes and here they are about to have their first day, its not like that alone would take me out of the episode. But its clear this episode was shifted to a night when neither Parks and Rec nor The Office would be new for a reason: it is likely the worst episode of season four so far, and NBC was probably smart to try and get it in a place where it would reach fewer eyeballs than the average episode.

I have tried in this space to be as fair as possible to the new showrunners. I have pointed out that Dan Harmon's run was far from flawless (in fact, the back half of season three had a lot of problems to my eye), and I am trying to give the new show room to find its feet. But "Alternative History of the German Invasion" is worse than just a bad episode of Community: its an almost entirely unfunny one. This show is increasingly leaning on joke structures where it used to have actual jokes. Think about it: how many times last night did the characters say something that sounded like a joke this show would do, except the part where it wasn't humorous at all?

When I write about comedies, I try to avoid making my reviews long lists of "this was funny" or "this was not funny." Humor is really subjective, and ultimately, it just isn't that informative or thought-provoking for me to use this space to tell you what I think is hilarious, when you can easily disagree. It's like arguing over which ice cream flavor is the best: we may disagree, but its so obviously a matter of taste, we won't be able to have a meaningful discussion on it. At its best, laughs are almost incidental to what Community is doing as a show; it is a strong, character-based storyline about people coming together and trying to make the best of a second chance. I can write endless, long reviews on the way the show pulls this off, and on the way its structure, sense of humor, and setting all play into this. But in an episode as devoid of thematic resonance as this week's, none of that exists to discuss. And that only leaves a series of banal almost-jokes to look at.

What's even worse, and more disheartening from a big picture perspective, is how utterly "Alternative History of the German Invasion" fails to do what it seems to think its doing. At base, this episode is pretty much a retread of last season's "Competitive Ecology," when the gang is forced to work with Todd on a biology project and comes face to face with the fact that much of the rest of Greendale hates them. This is actually a great idea for a sitcom episode, and I always appreciate when a show calls out its main characters for being insular, self-involved, and convinced of their own place at the center of the universe. By its very nature, a sitcom focuses on a fairly small group of people and renders even recurring characters as less complex, interesting, or important to the stories its telling. That's just the way a TV show has to work. It isn't the way life works, though. In real life, you may have a group of friends that hangs out together all the time, but you still probably have other things going on in your life, you are still (hopefully) aware of your surroundings, and you still recognize other people as living, breathing, feeling creatures with desires that do not match up with your own. Sitcoms (and really, most of television) kind of breeze over their inherent artificiality by nature, so I love when a show takes a step outside its main cast to reveal how they appear to the rest of the world. When Justified has a Marshall complain about how Raylan's propensity for shooting anyone who gets in his way because it generates a ton of paperwork and makes the people trying to do real police work look bad, I eat it up. When Happy Endings sends Penny to hang out with Pete's friends and finds her confused that they talk about the fiscal crisis instead of getting involved in hijinks and bringing a teacup pig to a car dealership to make a point about gender-roles, I am very happy. And when Community reminds us that our seven main characters are coddled by the Dean, given passes by professors, and generally hold a place above all others at Greendale, it should be a moment the show handles well.

But then the show decided to call the study group Nazis, and it pretty much completely lost me. This could easily have been an episode about how, as Jeff puts it, "one man's hero is another man's villain" or about the subjectivity of historical accounts. In fact, it pretty obviously thinks it is that episode. But it isn't. For this to work, the show would need to have done more character work than it seemed willing to tonight. I can't think of a single moment in this episode when any of the cast felt like themselves and not just a person doing a thing because someone wrote a script (that's not entirely true. The Dean had a pretty Dean-y episode. But otherwise, everyone was just kind of there).

More than just failing to tell its own story, though, "Alternative History" actually goes out of its way to taint moments from the show's past. And that's what really worries me. I can understand the new team taking a while to find their feet. I can even see them going in brand new directions. But I begin to lose faith when they make it clear they don't understand some core things about how this show works. "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" is an episode about inclusion, about how the group realizes they are occasionally insular, selfish, and mean, and opens themselves up to help out another student in need. Its an episode about most of the group (Pierce excluded) at their best, and "Alternative History" turns it into an example of exclusiveness for a three second punch-line. This is a trend I have noticed in the new run and tried to ignore. Port, Guarascio, and the current writing staff often seem more interested of late in appearing attuned to the show's former tone and continuity than in actively engaging with it. Its like someone in the writers room said "Well, there are jokes about Inspector Spacetime in season three. Maybe fans want a whole episode?" or "They'll trust us if we make it clear we remember the Dungeons and Dragons episode!" but never put in any effort to think about what these things mean in the context of the show. Inspector Spacetime is a Doctor Who riff, yes, but that isn't really the main purpose it served within the narrative of season three. The gang has played paintball before, but a cut scene involving Jeff getting shot in the testicles by a paintball wouldn't serve any purpose except to demonstrate that the new showrunners only have a surface level understanding of the show they have been put in charge of.

Maybe this episode can be read as an indictment of the former series for being too insular and exclusive, for living in its own bubble and being oblivious to the outside world. Maybe its a criticism of the show for having low ratings and being unable to attract a wider audience. These would be valid messages for the new showrunners to try to convey, but they are messages I want no part of if they are done in this way. Dan Harmon played with these ideas throughout season three of the show, returning again and again to the idea that his show was weird, and to the struggles he had as a creator between compromising his vision to be more inclusive and just making the show he wanted and hoping it would connect with people. These are valid things to struggle with, but what Harmon seemed to get that Port and Guarascio are missing is that for a lot of people, Community was the most included they had ever felt. Yes, it was weird. Yes, it was insular. But it was a show that made people feel like they were less alone, a show that understood their loneliness and alienation, a show that loved them for their weirdness, and asked them to love it in return. And while a lot of people didn't, what "Alternative History" gets wrong, gets seriously wrong, is the fact that considering the message, a whole lot of people did. And those of us who love Community probably don't want to be villainized for that love. At least not if the show isn't saying something interesting about the flaws at all of our cores in the process. And "Alternative History" wasn't. If anything, it was being smug in its dismissal of its own fanbase. And that's the sort of alienation that won't draw fans closer.

The more I think about "Alternative History," the less I like it. I have often in the past ended up grading something upwards during my review as I discover more things I like about it; thinking about this episode, on the other hand, has just made me realize more things that don't work, and that contribute to my growing sense that the people running this show don't know what they are doing, or even how to do it in anything more than the most shallow sense. The "military style code" that ran across the screen as the group tried to sign out the study room each time felt like it was trying to reference something for reference's sake. It seems like the show thought it was doing a war parody, at least for that montage, but it wasn't. Making Germans antagonists does not a WWII-film parody make, and throwing in that one reference to films from that genre makes me feel like the show thought that is all it needed to do to make a "classic" episode of Community. Again, they pretty clearly though wrong.

Virtually everything about this episode is misconceived, and like "Conventions of Space and Time," it leaves me feeling less confident that Port and Guarascio will ever find their footing with this show. There's a chance these two episodes are the season's only missteps. There's a chance that this will all be righted and everything will get figured out. But the errors I'm seeing in these episodes do not inspire confidence. They instead paint a picture of show-runners who fundamentally don't understand what was great about the show they have been hired to run. What I love about Community may entirely dissipate under these two, if only because they never knew what I loved in the first place. For me, at least, and for a lot of Community fans, I expect, that means a show that once invited us in and gave us a place by the fire may well be leaving us out in the cold.

Grade: D+

Notes:

-"If there's one thing Germans don't do, its hold a grudge." "Unless we're talking about Die Hard 3." "Or the Twentieth Century."

-"Its not inappropriate for victims of memory loss to experience some syntactical errors. Thus the insertion of his name into inappropriate areas." "No, he's always Dean that." This is a perfect example of a joke that sounds like its funny, until you think about it. What is the premise here? That the Dean has amnesia? There is almost no way that is what the show intended to be saying, but they just never took the time to figure out the joke.

-"Hey Karl." "Hi, Abed!" This, I liked.

-"It's like a Darren Aronofsky film." This is a joke that could have worked, if it had more confident directing behind it. But just saying its like an Aronofsky movie doesn't work unless it is in fact somewhat similar to an Aronofsky movie.

-"And that failed ventriloquist's name, was...Slobodan Milosivec."

-"That must be nearly 100 luftballoons!" Luftballoon jokes always get me.

-"That's why I keep a detailed record of every student's race and nationality. To avoid racism!...Its not like you're expelled. You're just banned from certain campus amenities. Water fountains, swimming pools...most of these are water-based..."
Tags: Community
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