18
Apr
2013
Community: Season 4, Episode 10
Intro to Knots
Jordan
I'm on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster with Community these last few weeks. I thought "Herstory of Dance" was a pretty solid episode that got the characters mostly right. I thought "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" was mostly a trainwreck (though listeners of the Review to Be Named Podcast or readers or other television critics know I'm kind of on my own on that one). And I would say "Intro to Knots" is pretty much right down the middle between the two. Its an episode that makes character sense, and also involves at least some jokes that made me smile or chuckle. Yet its also one that is so deeply indebted to the show's history, it becomes kind of hard to appreciate in and of itself. The episode is very conscious of how much it owes to previous episodes (most explicitly "Cooperative Calligraphy," though like last week, most of the jokes here that landed for me were actually callbacks of one form or another), but I don't know how much that excuses it using its own history as a crutch. This is an aging sitcom, and those tend to rely more and more heavily on their own pasts, so this is less a criticism of the new team and more one that I would probably have in either case. Does it feel sort of lazy? Yes. But its the sort of laziness I can understand, even if I find it tough to respect. And where "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" left me feeling empty inside, "Intro to Knots" is at least smart enough to get most of the emotional beats right. We may have seen them before, but when they are executed well, they still usually connect for me.

The show is doing a bit of a Rope riff (disguising its joke about everything occurring in real-time behind a Die Hard gag is fine, though most of Abed's jokes here were distracting and would have bugged me more if I didn't love Die Hard, as every red-blooded American should) here, and that's fine as things go, and actually probably the most subtle homage this season has pulled off. This isn't really a parody episode, but it does have high concept elements, and the show doesn't build a giant neon sign pointing at them, which I appreciated. What's more impressive, though, is that this is an episode that requires a lot of Chang, something that was enough to tank plenty of episodes even back in the Harmon era, and I didn't loathe every second of it. Don't get me wrong. I have no problem with Ken Jeong, and actually think he's a really funny guy. But his character went off the rails a long time ago, and I don't know if the show can ever bring Chang back to a place where his storylines will be anything other than completely insane and deeply grating. His story here is both, but its backgrounded enough that it doesn't really effect the larger episode. I don't care who is on the other end of that phone call, and I don't want this plot point to be as large an element of the season's end game as it is likely to be, but as long as Chang is a minimal presence even in episodes where he plays a crucial role, I'll go with it.

The episode's plot is exceedingly simple, which makes the amount of time it takes setting things in motion a little strange. Basically, the study group failed their paper and invited Professor Cornwallis (Malcolm McDowell) to a Christmas party to get him to change their grade. The plan doesn't go well, its revealed they didn't fail, and Chang ties Cornwallis to a chair. All of this takes up basically the first act of the episode, and it robs the meat of the gang being played off each other of some of its potential tension, but ultimately, it all works pretty well for me.

Ever since its first season, where the show was able to build a lot of stories around the gang's relationship with Change because Jeong was in the cast, Community has struggled with how to handle professors. It had Betty White for literally one episode in season two, and then just ignored things for a while until it could get recurring guest star John Oliver to step up for several episodes. Season three has Michael K. Williams, but only for a few episodes, and was thus pretty much incapable of creating an arc for that character and ended up making him almost completely irrelevant. What the show has done with McDowell this time out is perhaps the least ideal, in that this is only his second appearance and we are supposed to buy him as the villain of the piece, mostly because the characters tell us he is, but its hard for me to blame anyone in particular for the fact that this doesn't really work. If I were in charge of the show, I probably would have moved away from professor-centric storytelling or tried to get the guests for longer arcs, but I'm not, and people who read my reviews of The Good Wife know I have trouble blaming a show for casting troubles that are outside of their control.

Once the show gets its exposition-heavy early minutes out of the way, there's some good material here. Community is often at its best when its just the study group bouncing off each other, fighting and uniting, and sort of doing those two things interchangeably, and while this is stuff we've seen a lot before, it still works because its what the show is built on. The day Community can no longer turn in a compelling "the group is fighting and it looks like it may have to cast someone out" episode is the day it truly dies as a going concern, and I'm happy to say that, for its faults, "Intro to Knots" is not that day.

As much as I enjoyed that second act (and really, I almost wish the entire episode had just been Cornwallis in that chair trying to turn the group against each other), the resolution had its share of problems as well. Jeff's speech was the best Winger-resolution we've seen all year, the sort of thing the show used to nail regularly and that used to give me goosebumps. He says that everyone in the group is selfish, everyone is flawed, and everyone has made mistakes and will again, but ultimately, the reason they stay together is because they know they will forgive each other when they do something awful. Again, this is something built into the core of the show, and its something we know intuitively and that's been said before, but it is so vital to what this show is about that I don't mind it being reiterated. This is a group of people who have all made mistakes in their lives, coming together and trying to be better. But this is also a show that is realistic about the nature of change, and knows that its characters will not become better just because they want to be. So they have found each other, and they know that they are all trying, but they are also willing to forgive themselves and their friends when they fail. It's a beautiful message, and when the show nails it, it is truly moving stuff.

But to get there, you need two things about this episode to make sense, both actually and emotionally, and neither really does. First is the joke about Chang not knowing how to tie knots. This works if Changnesia is real, but we have established it is not. Chang is pretending, and "Intro to Knots" has him trying to use his faux innocence to get the study group expelled. Setting aside for the moment that this is pretty much exactly what he did in the last stretch of episodes last season, it doesn't make any sense that he wouldn't tie Cornwallis up in this situation. How would Chang (not the study group) not tying up a professor possibly get the study group expelled? Its a dumb joke in the first place, and it completely derails the episode's plot if you spend three seconds thinking about it. Even beyond that, it completely undercuts the episode's supposed message about the group forgiving even one of them who has betrayed the others, because no one did betray the others. This isn't like Annie's Boobs stealing the pen in "Cooperative Calligraphy," a story which worked because it was about the gang coming up against a problem it could not solve and each of them deciding to just love everyone else until the problem disappeared. I laughed when Troy asked "Couldn't we just say a ghost did it again?", but I have to recognize this is something else entirely. Jeff's speech (which, again, I loved) only works if someone did betray the group, so the fact that Cornwallis was never tied up in the first place actually undercuts the message the episode is trying to impart.

And that brings us to Cornwallis, whose motivations make some sense, but are just incredibly lazy at the end of the day. The idea that the mean character in a Christmas story (and even though this actually never feels remotely like a Christmas episode, it ostensibly is) is actually just lonely is so overdone it has to be leaned in to pretty hard to work for me, and this episode just tosses it off as if to say "well, obviously he's lonely because he's mean, so let's not spend any time with this." Additionally, this complicates the plot of the episode in ways it never bothers to comment on. Did Cornwallis and Chang conspire to pretend he was tied up? Was Cornwallis ever planning to actually fail any of them? If he was pretending to be tied up because he secretly wanted to stay, why did he get up at all? His getting up makes sense if you think he was trying to convince the group someone had betrayed them, and he might have been. But that motivation is at cross purposes with the one he states seconds later, which is that he wanted to stay at the party. Either he anticipated Jeff would tie him back up (which a) makes no sense, and b) is actually kind of sexually creepy in ways that I'd rather not think too much about) or he thought no one would find it odd that he chose to stay at a party after he had been physically restrained by literally everyone else there, theoretically against his will.

Some of you will say I put too much thought into this, or call some of these criticisms nitpicking, and you may be right. I liked "Intro to Knots" on the whole, and definitely more than last week's episode. But I refuse to consciously ignore lazy and nonsensical plotting on a show that at least pretends it wants me to care about its plot. When something doesn't make sense on, say, Doctor Who, I mostly shrug my shoulders, or I nitpick without it effecting my views on the quality of the episode, because this is a show that literally says "its a timey-wimey, science-y thing, don't worry about it" to get past anything it needs to in order to put on a good show. When something doesn't make sense on Community, especially when what boggles the mind is basically the core of the episode, I think its a problem and one worth identifying.

"Intro to Knots" is ultimately a fine episode of the show. It worked for me emotionally, even though it did its damnedest to undercut that by making pretty much zero sense. It made me laugh here and there, though again, mostly by leaning hard on gags from better episodes. It was 22 minutes of my life I'll never get back, but it doesn't feel like I wasted them. The episode has its strong points, and its flaws, and in a lot of ways they are so intermingled its hard to decide where exactly I come out on things. If you were more moved by Jeff's speech than I was, you may have liked this episode more. If the plot inconsistencies annoyed you more than they bugged me, you probably liked it less. As for me, I'll put this one right in the middle between this season's high points and its nadir. It doesn't make sense, but it is a story about characters I love (who mostly act like themselves, tonight) remembering how much they love each other. And for the moment, that's enough for me.

Grade: B

Notes:

-"I tried to get you 'Taking Off Shoes,' but I didn't know how to wrap it."

-I wasn't sure if I made up the Rope thing in my head because I wanted to give the show a little more credit. But according to Todd Vanderwerff over at A.V. Club (he's an amazing television writer you should all be reading), the episode was conceived as a Rope homage until production complications lead them to sort of junk the concept after the first act. It's a shame, because I was enjoying it.

-I wonder if this episode aired out of order, or if the decision to make Cornwallis lascivious and creepy with female students is just being applied with wild inconsistency. We learned last week that Annie rubbed his feet for a higher grade, but everyone here seems shocked to discover he is more interested in spending time with the women in the study group than the men.

-The darkest timeline bit didn't really work for me. But then, my TiVo cut off the ending, so maybe something hysterical happened that put a button on the whole thing. Maybe if the pizza guy has showed up to say "There are other timelines?" again...
Tags: Community
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