Community: Season 3, Episode 13
Digital Exploration of Interior Design
There are a lot of great comedies on television right now. Archer just finished a sterling season (pun not intended, but appreciated...at least by me), Parks and Rec is delivering another excellent batch of episodes (which I can only assume will continue when it returns), Louie will be coming back in the summer, and there are multitudes of other shows I could point out that are just fantastic and funny almost every week. Yet, while there are plenty of amazing comedies around right now, several of which might even be better from a critical standpoint, Community is my favorite. I love this show in a way that transcends the critical and gets at the deeply personal. It often feels (and this is something I do not believe is a foreign feeling for anyone when thinking about their favorite things) like the show is being made just for me, like someone out there knows just what buttons to press to make me feel completely satisfied.
For me, it is probably the fact that, at its best, Community mixes high concept, pop-culture savvy storytelling with an ongoing masterplot, characters I have come to love, and a real, beating heart that isn't afraid to make the show nakedly emotional at times. These are pretty much all of the factors that I look for in a television show, dramatic or comedic in nature, and when you mix in further personal weak spots like the storyline of a group of deeply flawed people coming together to form a pseudo family while each searches for a second chance at life, well, you just have me in your corner. This is all prologue to the fact that I loved "Digital Exploration of Interior Design," an episode that I think many fans of the show might have more mixed feelings about. This was an episode that played with high concept constructions, dabbled in absurdity (another personal weak point), yet stayed ultimately rooted in character motivations. It juggled three storylines and succeeded on every front. It was quite a thing to behold.
I was not a huge fan of last week's episode, but I did love the final scenes, which brought Troy and Abed's friendship to the forefront and examined some flaws at its core. As I said, I think that episode may play better in hindsight, and it seems that is the case, as it set up excellently the main conflict at the center of this two-part episode. I think that the blanket fort vs. pillow fort battle that has begun to unfold is interesting on metatextual, philosophical, and personal levels. And because I am never afraid to overanalyze, I want to look, briefly, at each.
From its opening musical number, season three of Community, a show that has never shied away from the meta, has been about the show's uncomfortable relationship with its own inherent weirdness, a struggle I think has been made more poignant by its hiatus during the season. On the one hand, this is a gleefully odd show that has built a world its fans adore being able to visit each week. Yet on the other, this show and the people behind it probably know on some level that this weirdness is keeping them from a larger audience, and it means that they have to constantly worry about whether they will be cancelled. Each time the show has taken on a storyline like this, it has seemed to allow an undercurrent of this tension to emerge, and the battle between Troy and Abed is in some ways this tension made real. On the one side, there is Troy, who wants to make something that will have an affect on the world, something that will get him noticed, something that will be recognized. On the other, there is Abed (who is, in many ways, a Dan Harmon stand in, as the creator himself has admitted), a man so committed to his personal vision, he refuses to compromise it for what he sees as mediocrity. Troy's plan might be more commercially successful, but Abed's is more artistically pure.
This leads naturally into the philosophical repercussions of their battle, which are laid out excellently by Vice Dean Laybourne (and good god, does John Goodman make every second he is on screen count). On the one hand is the question of whether Troy has been relegated to playing sidekick to Abed (the Reggie to his Inspector Spacetime) and begins to wonder if he has been subjugating his own needs to feed into the fantasies of his friend (a point that is, again, well made in hindsight. That this episode comes directly after "Contemporary Impressionists" makes this point sink in more fluidly). Meanwhile, Abed is wondering whether Troy has been holding him back, whether his vision of the world is being hampered by the mediocrities he associates himself with. Should Abed sacrifice his vision to help his friend, or is that just allowing mediocrity to triumph? Its an interesting question, and one I hope gets greater play in the sure to be awesome second part.
Finally, there is the personal aspect to this battle. A fight has been brewing between Troy and Abed for a long time, and the crestfallen look on both of their faces when war breaks out between their factions is one of the greatest moments the show has done in a while. Deep down, these two have known this is coming for a while, and each is committed to their vision of the world. Yet they have tried to stave off this battle, for it is one that may have lasting consequences on their friendship. The best episodes of Community are ones deeply rooted in personal stakes, and if the show is going for an epic factional feud over the course of this two parter, then the stakes they have set up are appropriately high to grant the otherwise silly proceedings some serious weight.
The Jeff and Annie story is less of a cohesive plot and more of a way for the show to ruminate on the relationship between these two. Jeff discovers Greendale has lockers (he missed orientation and the Diversity Fire dance, so he never knew) and that has contains a hate letter from Kim, who wants him to know he is a very inconsiderate person. Even if the "twist" of Kim being the guy who tells him that Kim is dead was pretty obvious, this storyline still landed because it worked to show us the subtle ways in which Jeff has changed. When this show started, Jeff was only concerned with how people perceived him (as he makes clear tonight, he viewed, and still largely views, apologies as a chance to persuade people to like him, not as a chance to atone for a mistake), but now he actually wants to be a better person. That doesn't mean that Jeff learns a big lesson and improves himself, only to backslide next week (that is the sort of trick most shows would pull); no, he still can't remember Kim at the end of this episode, but he has become the sort of person who wants to be better, and that is a huge step. That Annie was the one to help him get there is of course further evidence of how perfect these two are together, and that she really treats the whole "Kim" thing as a way to needle Jeff for how he kissed her and then ignored her ever since shows that she too has room to grow. Jeff may be self-centered and inconsiderate, but Annie is not entirely self-less either, and she has some maturing to do before she can actually be in an adult relationship.
As for the Britta storyline, that was just an absolute blast, a chance for Gillian Jacobs to flex her considerable comedic muscles and for the show to remind us that it can be excellent at satire, not just parody. In fact, the whole Britta-Subway romance felt in a lot of ways like the sort of plot 30 Rock would have tried in its golden age (it reminded me of the Cooter story that show told with Matthew Broderick and the pen shortage, but may actually have worked better), quick, clever, and funny on multiple levels. See, for Subway to open on campus, it must be at least 51% owned by a Greendale student: enter Subway, a "corpo-humanoid" formerly named Rick who has become the embodiment of the corporation to represent its interests in the public sphere. This is a joke about the whole "corporations are people" controversy, sure, but that the show takes it to the Orwellian extremes that thinking in this way necessarily implies is a real treat. Plus, like I said, this plot line let Gillian Jacobs be hysterical in a way the show hasn't in a while, and she is a very, very funny woman. Pierce drank ink, Shirley tried to keep things under control, Britta screamed "I LOVE YOU SUBWAY," there was a heinous sex act in a pillow fort, and Subway was replaced by "Big Brother," to become a new, slightly less human incarnation in a way that was both a great 1984 joke and effective in the way that novel was. What is most impressive, though, is the way that this tied back into the philosophical underpinnings of the Troy and Abed conflict at the episode's center, as well as the metatextual ones. Is the show compromising its integrity by whoring itself out to Subway? My instinct is no, especially when it does so this humorously, but it is a question worth asking, and I really respect the show for doing it.
I always struggle to grade the first installment of a two part episode: calling it near-perfect sets the bar unreasonably high for the conclusion, but lowering the grade penalizes a great episode just for being first. "Digital Exploration of Interior Design" is a great episode of Community, and if next week can keep up this level of quality, I think this storyline will go down in the annals as an all-time classic for the show. Until then, in the words of Abed, "To be continued..."
Grade: A- (this grade is meaningless until next week)
-"Dean, I assume you are familiar with the Greendale bylaws." "I am not."
"Come on, Subway, there is no way you are 5'10"." One of my favorite things about Troy is how quickly he is willing to buy an absurd premise.
-"Did you know Greendale students are technically in the Army Reserves?"
-"It's not a blow off class, Jeff. You're only allowed to bring ONE stuffed animal."
-"Contest Dance? Oh come on!" I love the running gag about how many dances Greendale has. The show originally used this due to Harmon's decision that season one should take place entirely on Greendale's campus, but it has blossomed into an excellent joke.
-"Save Garrett. What's wrong with Garrett?" "Nothing now. We saved him."
-"Look, I was just Googling record lengths of stuff..."
-"Reggie is trained in zero gravity martial arts, and he has a whistle."
-"Top notch whoresmanship, Britta." "Pierce!" "Sorry, whoreswomanship. I forgot it was the '90s."
-"Who were you, Subway, before you were Subway?"
-"Pop pop, Captain."
-"You're really mean!" "Put it in a letter, Jane Austen!"
-"I know we have very strict rules about romantic entanglements with our corpo-humaoids, but at this point in time, we can't stop them from having hearts..."
-"You know, I was raised in the Bay Area, but I'm a father now..."
-"Corporate America has destroyed love." "Again?"