Community: Season 3, Episode 11
Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts
I could write an entire piece on Community's return as a cultural event (and, in fact, I plan to. Look for a Modest Proposals installment on that in the very near future). For now, however, I will discuss "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" as just another episode of the show. While it did some things I think were essential for the show to do upon its return, we will leave those aside for purposes of this discussion. Because this is an episode of television that sparkles, even absent context. This is an episode of Community that lets each character shine in ways we haven't seen since perhaps my favorite episode the series ever did, "Mixology Certification." In honor of the great work this episode does with each character, I will take them one by one and discuss what this episode tells us about them (there is one exception to this self-imposed rule, as I plan to deal with Troy and Abed as a unit for several obvious reasons).
The character at the center of both storylines, and thus the logical place to begin, is Shirley. From day one, Shirley we have known a few things about Shirley (all of which grew much sharper in season two): we have known she is a kind, deeply Christian woman with thinly veiled rage problems, we have known she was left by here husband, and we have known she came to Greendale to start a business. By any metric "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" is a fine hour for Shirley Bennett. Andre proposes to remarry her, and she plans to start a business with Pierce as her financial backer.
The show could easily have let the remarriage go off without a hitch, and that would have jibed fairly well with the penitent way Malcolm Jamal Warner has always played Andre. Yet that was one of my problems with his portrayal in previous appearances. Before we knew Andre, we knew him to be a cheating, insensitive, moderately sexist and borderline cruel man. Sure, we knew these things from his bitter ex, but still, that none of these characteristics were ever sharply on display irked me. Tonight, we see all of that, as the facade falls away and Andre admits he wants to remarry Shirley to get her back into the kitchen and raising the kids while he gets back to work running his humorously outdated stereo business. Yet the way the story develops shows us how he has changed, as he realizes he loves Shirley enough to let her give business a try, swallows his pride, and marries her.
On the sandwich front, Shirley shows business acumen she has clearly picked up since she tried to sell the "next Napster...for brownies" in season one. I enjoyed The Dean's shock that she actually learned useful skills at Greendale, but more I enjoyed how well Shirley handled herself in the business situation. As I said before, this was certainly one of Ms. Bennett's finest hours, and a great performance from Yvette Nicole Brown.
The sandwich subplot also gives Pierce his moment. My favorite characterization of Pierce has always been the endless failure who just refuses, blindly, naively, or nobly to give up. One of the character's best scenes came in season one's classic "Beginner Pottery" (the one where the group takes sailing classes in the parking lot) where he gave a speech to Jeff about how during his birth the umbilical cord became wrapped around his neck, arms, and one of his legs, and he has never stopped failing sense then. What that failure taught Pierce, though, is never to give up; it gave him a weapon against the world, and one that perhaps hardened him too much. Tonight, after being summarily fired from Hawthorne Wipes, Pierce shows the last few years have softened him as he openly begs Shirley to help him make something of himself. Sure, Pierce is still refusing to give up, and yes it is clear he still has serious father issues, but tonight he let a friend lend him a hand. Pierce and Shirley make for a surprisingly strong pairing, and while Subway wins the day this time out, I hope the show sticks with the idea of these two as business partners.
Perhaps the character that is least well served tonight is Annie, who spends most of the episode in "I am a girl and like planning weddings!" mode. This is perfectly within character, but it is also largely perfunctory. She does get a great moment, though, when she tries to tell Jeff how to write a speech for Shirley's wedding by looking into his heart. It's a speech that could have been incredibly cheesy if not for Brie's solid delivery and the fact that it dovetailed into an incredible site gag in which Jeff tries to determine what his heart wants (which includes Annie, a puppy, Annie's boobs, a car, a puppy again, and finally liquor).
For Troy and Abed, tonight was an opportunity to prove they can be normal, a task that only Donald Glover and Danny Pudi could make hysterical. Obviously their antics to get all of the weird out of their system were hysterical, but I actually found myself laughing more at the two when they were in "normal" mode. The tone of voice, the way they slightly titled their heads, and their every interaction with Andre (who was convinced they were being sarcastic and mocking him) was hysterical, and the fact that Annie's Boobs (the monkey, not the body part) emerged briefly to remind Troy that being weird is awesome was icing on the cake. For those of you who hoped tonight would be a meta-commentary on the show and its state, the episode as a whole may have come as a disappointment, but Troy and Abed's plot line had to satisfy some of your concerns. It isn't a stretch to view their attempts to be less weird as akin to the show's (remember this season's opening musical promise that the show would "have more fun and be less weird than the last two years combined?") efforts to tone down its strange tendencies. Beyond that, I think it is easy to see a hint of the show in everyone's reaction to Troy and Abed's attempts at sincerity; everyone thinks they are being sarcastic, when in fact they are attempting to be completely sincere.
Britta is Community's most original creation, a character so unique as to stand in a class all her own. This means she is also its most divisive character (with creator Dan Harmon openly admitting she is by far his favorite character and many of the shows detractors citing her as the show's worst flaw). For the record, I am fervently pro-Britta, even if she occasionally works better as a construct than as an actual character, but tonight was also a fine hour for Ms. Perry. When Shirley announces her plans to remarry, Britta is apoplectic. She thinks marriage is a sham, a way a patriarchal society oppresses women and normalizes gender roles, and she wants none of it. Yet once she gets on board planning Shirley's wedding, she discovers something: she is really, really good at it (and for the record, the version of this show that ends with Britta as a wedding planner instead of a therapist is absolutely fine with me). This forces her into a tailspin, as she fears her DNA and the generations of "wives and mothers" she is descended from will force her to get married. It's kind of a ridiculous leap to make, honestly, but it is perfectly within character, and Britta's "I'm a woman who has to do womanly things" tailspin is so well played by the always hysterical Gillian Jacobs that I was fully on board.
Finally, there is Jeff, who manages to fit an entire emotional arc into pretty small screentime. Joel McHale gives perhaps the best performance of the episode, showing the full range of his character and giving us a peek at the mess inside his head. Jeff begins as cynical and anti-romance, confronts a challenge he cannot surpass, goes crazy trying to get around it, becomes a drunken mess, admits his commitment issues stem from the anger he still holds at his father abandoning his mother, and then almost marries Britta. I think there is a valid argument to be made that the Jeff-Britta "marriage" is a bit of a retread, but I would have to disagree. While I have been firmly in the Jeff-Annie camp since early season one, I love the relationship Jeff and Britta have, and it makes perfect sense to me that these two would get drunk, feel themselves backed into an institution they hate, and then goad each other into getting married. Because this gels so well with their characters, and because it is executed so flawlessly, I was on board throughout.
"Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" is nothing less than a showcase for the cast of Community, and each of them is stellar. This episode manages to present a fairly straightforward story and incorporate each of the characters (with the arguable exception of Annie and the obvious exception of the absent Chang) into it in a way that respects them as individuals and moves their own story forward in some pretty serious ways. Ultimately, what I am trying to say is I have missed Community, and I am very, very glad to have it back.
-Seriously, seriously great to be back. I subsisted in the months between the last episode and this by rewatching the first two seasons...and every single commentary. So if my references to past episodes are more specific in the next few weeks, you will know why.
-And now, for a long list of awesome jokes.
-"Pierce, why do you look like a wealthy murderer?"
-"Wireless racism. The future of the past is now."
-"Baby girl, I loved you ever since there was a Soviet Union and only one Damon Wayans."
-"Somebody tell Britta what an analogy is." "I know what it is...It's like a thought...with another thought's hat on." I don't want to sound too much like Michael Richardson or anything, but jesus christ Gillian Jacobs is hysterical.
-"Its a mutual cop out. Just nut up and die alone."
-"Be sure to get a DNA reading of your prospective mate. Inspector Spacetime ended up marrying himself as a baby."
-"Will somebody please call all the ambulances?"
-"I'm feeling more normal already. Crabwalk home?"
-"Maybe you're misunderstanding? I mean from my butt..."
-"We don't call it pink. We don't call anything by its name. Its like day one floral school stuff."
-"Color me lavender!" Can we all agree to say this from now on?
-"That's me! Where did I get all the money I'm holding?" Though I didn't get to praise him above, Oscar winner Jim Rash (as I shall refer to him from now on) is just pitch perfect.
-"I'm Betty Crocker. I'm Martha Stewart. I'm one of the Steppenwolf wives!"
-"Webster's dictionary defines? That's the Jim Belushi of speech openings!"
-"And how fiscal will the quarterly earnings be?"
-"That was...an odd dot to connect."
-"Don't you dare use your sexy voice on me." "Ohhhhhhh!" I loved this joke. A whole lot.
-"I think you've mistaken us for pirates. We are community college students."
-"Shut up, Leonard! Those teenage girls you play ping pong with are doing it ironically."
-"I promise to earn 70% of what you make while doing the same work!" Amen, Britta. I also loved the line about babies where she called Jeff a dick, but I could not transcribe it quickly enough.
-God I've missed this show.