Community: Season 3, Episode 14
Pillows and Blankets
To begin with, a nitpick: I am not sure that radically shifting structures for the second part of a two part episode works on a functional level. Between last season's "A Fistful of Paintballs" and "For a Few Paintballs More," the show shifted from a spaghetti western parody to more of a Star Wars parody, which worked because both were still comfortably within the action movie send-up the show was going for, and after so artfully nailing spaghetti westerns in 21 minutes, it seemed right to move on. The shift here, which throws us into "Pillows and Blankets" as a PBS documentary after setting us up for a "feuding families" riff, is less artful and thus a little more forced. Community has always been incredibly adept at selling its high concept episodes as fitting perfectly into the world of Greendale, and while "PBS documentary" hardly stretches believability comparatively, it is pulled off with less panache than the show tends to exhibit. As a result, "Pillows and Blankets," an episode I like many things about, falls a little flatter than it might have.
Part of this might come from the fact that I expected this to go much differently. I love it when Greendale changes, nearly instantaneously, into a completely different place as its denizens become insanely committed to whatever is going on. It was a post-apocalyptic war zone for "Modern Warfare," the wild west for "A Fistful of Paintballs," a NASA control center in "Basic Rocket Science" and so on and so on. I looked forward to tonight's episode because I was excited to see how the campus being divided in half, at war with itself over pillow forts and blanket forts, would change things. Most of this color is left to the edges of the episode in favor of a lot of jokes about voice overs and still photographs which, while funny, do not do justice to the concept of a Greendale Civil War the way other conceits might have.
However, the stunt episodes usually rise and fall with the character work that underpins them (this is why "Contemporary American Poultry," with its stellar Abed story, and "Modern Warfare," with its Jeff-Britta work, are both Community classics, while "Basic Rocket Science," with its forced Annie storyline is less so), and the character work here is uniformly stellar. I spoke last week about how well the feud between Troy and Abed had developed, and it continued to work well here. All of the scenes of the two of them fighting worked well, and the resolution of their dispute, while unlikely to solve the problems that started it, was appropriately whimsical and heart warming.
The real heavy-lifter here, though, was Jeff. Since the beginning, Community has been about Jeff's potential to become a better person (though it subtly became about second chances for all of the group over the course of its first season), and Jeff's story here seemed a natural outgrowth of both his long-term arc and his subplot from last week. I enjoyed the idea of Jeff perpetuating the war to avoid doing homework, and love that the show continues to refuse to let Jeff change people (except in shallow ways) until he himself improves. Jeff might fuel the fire of both sides of the war with his rhetoric, but of course he does, as the Greendale student body, like the citizens of Springfield on The Simpsons are always a few seconds from forming an angry mob. But he cannot solve Troy and Abed's fight until he changes himself.
There are three moments the end of this storyline that work to elevate the episode as a whole in my mind. In the first, we see that Jeff actually returns to the Dean's office to get the imaginary hats. This might seem silly if it wasn't so heartwarming, and might seem trivial if it wasn't such telling evidence of how Jeff has changed over the course of the show. Many viewers may have found the "Jeff trying to become a better person, only to succeed, in a small way, at the end of the episode" structure here redundant, but I disagree only because this moment acknowledges that all those small changes have begun to have a cumulative effect. Community has always been smart about the fact that its a show about change in a medium built to resist it, and has solved that problem well by reminding us that real, lasting change is incremental at best, with plenty of backslides along the way. Three seasons ago, Jeff would have made a shallow, but persuasive speech to get Troy and Abed back together. Two seasons ago, Jeff probably would have stood outside before returning with the imaginary hats. But now, he runs to the Dean's office because he has realized "I would do anything for my friends" (more on that in a moment).
The second moment is when Annie, beaming with pride, remarks on how Jeff waited outside for long enough to convince Abed and Troy he went back to the office. This is exactly what we think Jeff would do, and it is still an improvement on who he used to be. Jeff Winger started this series trying to improve himself to impress a girl, and now it seems, he may end up actually improving himself to impress a different girl. The Jeff-Annie text message storyline was the highlight of the episode for me, but capping it with Annie's pride at how Jeff improved was very nice.
The final moment, though, is probably the best. Jeff stars writing a diary, which Annie told him to do to work on expressing himself for reasons other than to get things from people. What appears to be great progress turns out, unsurprisingly, to be evidence that while Jeff has changed, he isn't a totally different man yet. This is easily the best use of the episode's PBS documentary conceit, as it quickly becomes clear Jeff wrote his "deep, thoughtful" diary entry to seem like both of those things to the makers of the documentary. He then comments that he nailed it and offers to do his own voice over, if, of course, the filmmakers can't get Tom Hanks. The best part about this, though, is that not even Jeff realizes what he wrote is true. He may think he wrote "I would do anything for my friends" in order to impress the filmmakers (or maybe Annie when she sees the thing), but we have seen the footage of him returning to Dean Pelton's office. We know that statement is true, even if Jeff himself isn't sure yet.
When "Pillows and Blankets" works, it is for the same reasons Community as a series works: it takes its characters seriously, it knows them well (see: Britta's attempts to be a war-time photographer, Pierce's side-switching, or Shirley's ass-kicking, all very nice character touches relegated to the side of this episode but utilized well), and it admits that change is a slow process. What I didn't like about the episode ultimately pales in comparison to what I did, and in the long run, I imagine "Pillows and Blankets" will come to be an important episode of the show, in terms of character growth, even if, from my perspective, it never reaches the heights of the show's classics.
Grade: B+ (I would also like to retroactively give last week's episode an A. Because yeah, I can do that. As a cohesive story, the two will clearly average out to an A-).
-Pierce's book: Make Your Wars World-ier
-Also, Leonard fought in the Korean War...for the North Korean Army. He continues to be my favorite of the ancillary characters.
-Fat Neill seems to be doing well, having recreated himself as "Real Neill" a DJ for the campus radio station. Truly a face for radio, Neill.
-I loved the sub-title for Harry Jefferson: Very Old Student. Its a gag many shows have done before, but it always works for me.
-"Citizens of Blanketburg, I ask you to prepare for war. And Garrett, I ask you to fix the microphone on my laptop. It's doing that thing again."
-"Amanda Johnson, poet by choice, lesbian by birth."
-"'The Rambo titles never make sense, and neither does war.'-Abed Nadir, Facebook status." "Leonard Likes this post!" This was a great joke, as was Jeff and Annie reading their text message symbols. They really made the most of the voice over.
-I also really enjoyed the bit about how confusing the names for everything at the school are. This should come back.
-"I heard from the Guinness Rep. He's not coming. He's been fired, in what he described as the World's Biggest Mistake. I doubt that will make the next edition." Jim Rash is a God.
-Other Greendale Television Productions: Craig Pelton: A Year in Paris, and From Rags to Riches: The Annie's Boobs Story