10
May
2012
Community: Season 3, Episode 19
Curriculum Unavailable
Jordan
I am a huge fan of serialized television. I think the medium reaches the height of its potential when it operates more like a novel than a procedural, doling out pieces of a larger story on a weekly basis and growing its characters, its plot, and its world over the years. This means that in many ways, season three of Community has thrilled me in ways the first two did not. I've loved the season long arc the show has given us about Vice Dean Laybourne and his plot to corrupt Troy. Unfortunately, that plot line has been placed on a back burner these last two weeks for the growth of a plot line that in a lot of ways doesn't work for me. Last week's episode (which I was unable to review, due to finals and moving for the summer) brought the idea that Chang would attempt to take over the school to the forefront and in a lot of ways, it just...doesn't work. So, with "Course Listing Unavailable" and "Curriculum Unavailable," I find myself in a very strange place: criticizing a show I love for doing one of my favorite things about television. For it seems Community has given in to serialization in a big way, and on a plot line that leaves it floundering late in the season.

The show has gone back to a lot of wells over the course of its run. We've had two documentary episodes, two blanket fort episodes, and two (three, really) paintball episodes. This is something that opens Community up to some criticism I think, but ultimately, it has justified returning to each of the formats, either by topping the original (as "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" accomplished) or by changing the stakes enough to tell a different story (like "Pillows and Blankets), or even by using the same conceit to take on a different genre (like in "A Fistful of Paintballs" and "For a Few Paintballs More"). This time out though, I have to say, the show returned to a conceit and left me feeling underwhelmed by what it came up with. The first fake clip show, "Paradigms of Human Memory" is one of the best episodes the show has ever done, one of those that I will be pointing out and writing about in years to come as a stellar piece of television. It was inevitable that Community would do another fake clip show (if only because Dan Harmon vowed to do so), and I have no problem with that. I'm even ok with the "fake clip show" becoming an annual tradition for the show, so great is the concept in theory. "Curriculum Unavailable" doesn't fail for its conceit, it fails for the same reason that felled each of the show's other high-concept missteps: the character work and the background story do not do enough work here to keep me invested beyond being impressed by the show's cleverness.

I like that Community is a smart show, and I like that it is very often absurd. I am in love with the idea of Greendale as a seriously wacky place where everyone can let their freak flags fly, and the show has given me much evidence that this is the vision it wants to give of its setting. I think the current storyline is very intriguing in at least two respects: I find the idea of a corruptive force sucking the joy from Greendale compelling, and I find the idea of our characters being removed from their sanctuary rich with comedic, and even dramatic, potential. I just do not know why the show has decided to use Ben Chang as the impetus for this. Perhaps the original plan was for Vice Dean Laybourne to be behind this scheme (maybe John Goodman couldn't fit enough episodes into his schedule?), and that makes a lot more sense to me. From early in the season, Laybourne has been a threat to Dean Pelton and has seemed able to snatch Greendale from him at any point. This has been built to, and it would have made sense.

What does not make sense, what reaches too far into the realm of absurdity even for this show, is the idea that Ben Chang and an army of children have been running Greendale for two months. What stretches my suspension of disbelief is the idea that no one has noticed this. What destroys any semblance of realism in the current storyline is the idea that Chang has had Dean Pelton locked away somewhere for two months and not a single person has noticed his absence (is Shadow Dean living in Pelton's house? Is he banking for the Dean? These are the sorts of questions I shouldn't have to answer for myself).

This problem makes it harder for me to get behind the premise of this episode, which has John Hodgman as a fake psychologist hired by Chang to keep the gang from discovering his plot. What starts as a seemingly dark episode about what the group looks like without Greendale in their lives (this, by the way, probably could have been a great episode for the show) quickly becomes a farce that stretches credulity beyond its furthest limits. That the gang believes a psychologist would commit Abed after spending ten minutes with him is silly, but could probably be sold. What is completely unbelievable, to the point that it actually angers me, is the idea that the gang could be convinced, even momentarily, that Greendale doesn't exist and that they have been in a mental institution for the last three years. This leads to a funny montage, sure, but as I discussed in "Basic Lupine Urology" a few weeks back, this show is usually better than sacrificing character and story in favor of a joke.

Don't misunderstand me: "Curriculum Unavailable" is a decently funny episode of the show. The montage of clips showing how insane our main characters are made me laugh several times, and the clips of The Dean showing favoritism towards the study group was funny and heart warming (plus, the Gangster paintball, much like the western in "Paradigms" was funny enough I actually kind of wish it existed as a full episode). Hodgman is always a pleasure, and he makes the reveal that he is a fake work through sheer force of personality (and a pretty funny Lost joke, which almost convinces Troy yet again). This isn't a bad episode of television, but it is a bad episode of Community.

One of the dangers of serialization is that, when a plot line isn't working, it just keeps not working for weeks. Community may be learning that lesson the hard way right now. The idea of kicking the gang out of Greendale remains a good one. The idea of having an evil force take over the school remains a good one. So far, both of these plot lines have been bungled. But there are three episodes left for the show to work out the kinks and stick the landing. If it pulls it off, these episodes might look better in hindsight. And if it fails, hey, there's always season four.

Grade: B-

Notes:

-That's right! For those of you who haven't heard, Community has officially been renewed with a 13 episode order. Earlier in the day, there were rumors that it would be an order for a 13 episode final season, but that does not appear to be the case. No news yet on whether it will be back in the fall (which would improve its chances to get a full 22 episode fourth season) or as a midseason replacement when NBC's new comedies tank (seriously, Anne Heche? Matthew Perry? Ryan Murphy? This isn't going to go well), but either way, there's more of the show we all love on the horizon, which, tonight notwithstanding, makes me a happy camper.

-"Jeff, what did you bring?" "Pack of lifesavers." "Ahhh!" "Sorry. Dead battery." I love the idea of the weekly pot luck and how sad it is. I kind of wish that had been the whole episode.

-"Anyway, walk to your cars in pairs tonight. Rape's up 8%."

-"$60? Hello, rich people. Troy is joining you. Yes, I'll hold."

-"I don't deal in crazy, I deal in help. So, how long has Abed needed a crazy amount of help?"

-"How long does peyote last?"

-"Please Mr. Dr. Psychiatrist, sir, don't send my best friend to crazy people jail!"

-"Vicky to Queen 3." "Neigh."

-"Welcome to Ladders!"

-"No, there's an actual fire. I thought I'd tell you guys first." The Dean's love for the group is really kind of heartwarming. I prefer this version of The Dean to the creepy stalker the show made him back in "Studies in Modern Movement" when he was reading students' emails.

-"Why did you save me, Dean?" "I know how important paintball is to you..."

-Great episode for Garret, both as a deep voiced Doctor, and as a Chang-imprisoned pre-cog.

-"The average community college student attends for five to seven years, many offer four year degrees!" "In your mind, they do." I love this both because I have said that to many friends wondering how the show planned to last long term, and because of how Hodgman tries to use that to make Jeff think he's crazy. This, along with Britta's joke about The Dean fashioning a Patty Hearst costume somewhere were the best lines of the night.

-"Uh, guys, while we were remembering Chang is crazy that fake doctor got away." Funny, but also kind of cheap.

-"Who is this?" "Great question, its us!"
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