This Week’s ‘Community’ Recap: Paranormal Parentage

By and

Co-written by Nathan Savin Scott.

Nathan: So for those of you who missed it last week, I wrote a recap of Community where I lamented the impending death of the show, said it lacked all heart and soul, and was a hollow shell of its former self. This happened after NBC dismissed former showrunner, Dan Harmon, thus sentencing the show to a future of corporate sell-out doom. Another Thought Catalog writer, Ben Branstetter, came to the show’s defense, telling me I needed to chill the hell out and give it a week or two. In the interest of this weekly write-up not turning into “Nate’s Three-Month Funeral Dirge for Community,” I’ve invited Ben to join me and hopefully add some balance to the weekly recap.

This week we had a bit of a bizarre episode, in that it was clearly filmed for Halloween, but it aired on Valentine’s Day. This could have been taken as some deep commentary on the ghoulishness of a national holiday celebrating monogamy… but it’s far more likely they thought this show would air during Halloween until the higher-ups at NBC pushed the show back several months. So: we got a Halloween episode.

Ben: Hi, Nathan! This week, the Greendale Seven are called to visit Hawthorne Mansion, the denizen of Pierce and his forebears. Upon reaching the house and finding Pierce locked in his panic room (because of course), the gang suffer through a hilarious if somewhat pointless collection of haunted house tropes, all tied together by the usual psychological underpinnings.

Thus far, I’m beginning to understand why Chevy Chase was getting so upset (not that he doesn’t have an extensive history of being an on-set asshole). His feature complaint was the little story development they give Pierce, and in the first two episodes he’s either a) spending the entire 22 minutes trying to make a gay joke or b) locked in a room even though the central conceit of the episode is the emotional toll the events of last season have taken on him (something they probably should have done last season). That said, all the joke deliveries have been dead-on and the Dean as a ring girl reminds me of Laura Linney. Thoughts?

Nathan: Pierce has always been a problematic character for this show. He’s an old, racist, self-involved narcissist with almost no redeeming qualities. This was done by design, I think, but it’s still tough. Harmon keeping Pierce around was one of the times I least liked him as a showrunner — he seemed to be doing it to spite the audience and, frankly, to spite the actor who plays him. By giving Pierce less to do, a tactic these new showrunners have clearly decided to employ, it actually frees up the show in a way.

To get to the whole recapping part of the recap, what happens next is your standard spooky house fare. The group breaks up, each getting their own little subplot as they navigate the tackily-furnished mansion. (One of the funniest jokes of the night was that Pierce decorates his humongous mansion like it’s a party house from a bad 80s movie.) Britta and Jeff go off, with Britta doing her best to psychoanalyze Jeff and compare his daddy issues with Pierce’s. I actually thought this bit worked. You?

Ben: The show’s new head writers (David Guarascio and Moses Port) have made it clear they wanted to introduce Jeff’s dad for some time, even if they were unwilling to score the Bill Murray casting Dan Harmon had envisioned. Britta as the Holistic Psychiatrist is a fantastic bit, and Jeff’s come-to-Jebus moment was excellently constructed (although I’m not so sure why he kept his long-gone father’s phone number in his boxing costume). I’ve also always been a big fan of the dueling storylines between Jeff and Pierce, Jeff being who Pierce believed he was at that age and Pierce being who Jeff fears to be at that age.

Throughout this episode we see Peirce’s ongoing attachment issues to his spiteful (and dead) father, as well as Jeff pretending he’s come to terms with his entirely absent father. Pierce’s and Jeff’s vulnerabilities are blatant and they both deal with them by being crude to the people who actually make an attempt to care about them. Pierce does so because his relationship with his father is so combative and he’s ready for anyone to do the same (one can imagine a father who has his son compete against his lawyer and half-brother for his will in a video game duel has probably been bent on competition as a whole). Jeff, however, keeps a harsh emotional distance from the group presumably to escape from the pain he suffered as a child when his father left (as a child of a broken home I feel comfortable telling you 8-years-old is old enough to feel and remember that pain). They are both fairly unlikable characters and both their issues extend from their estranged relationships with their father.

That said, the storyline that interested me the most was the seeming evolution of Britta and Troy’s relationship — and what appeared to be some stage-three flirting between Troy and Annie. Did you catch that as well?

Nate: I did. I was glad the new showrunners decided to bag the impending six weeks of Troy and Britta will-they-or-won’t-they and just had them dating in this episode. Semi-problematic: when the show began, wasn’t Troy supposed to be a jock/ladies man? And now he doesn’t know what sex is? I know he’s childish, and I know his character has changed dramatically since the show began, but this seemed a bit of a stretch to me.

I did like the Troy and Annie dynamic while they were off together. Even though Harmon, I think, purposefully flew away from the original “pairings” that the show promised, it’s pretty clear to everyone that the real chemistry was always between Jeff and Britta and then Troy and Annie. This episode hinted at that a bit, and if this show (as it has promised) is going to be run more conventionally, I think they’ll eventually return to that for the finish.

Per all the stuff about Jeff — my biggest concern with watching this episode (which I must admit, I thought was a LOT stronger than the first of this season) was that this new iteration of Community is simply going to turn into a show about Jeff. He’ll be the character who has the major emotional journey, the one who has the most to learn/develop/grow. Everyone else will be there to have fun in these silly adventures and make jokes.

Ben: Community going more “conventional” makes it seem it would return to more of the mood of the first season, which was far more a simple, single-camera sitcom as a vehicle for a great ensemble, centered around Jeff Winger. You can even notice it in the use of the OST — that quirky, piano-and-whistle jingle that comes in at the shows more cutely emotional turns. While Harmon mostly abandoned its use after the first season, we’re seeing it here in full force. I know it seems like a trite detail, but it presents the show as a bit more typical, perhaps best compared to 30 Rock.

Troy’s evolution from dolted high school jock to full-on naive nerd can feel awkward at times (though we saw it done best in “Epidemiology 206,” wherein we see Troy choose Abed-level nerd-dom over picking up woman). However, Britta’s transformation from worldly if over-rambunctious hippie to barely-functional maroon is far more stark, which is why I was glad to see the hinting at her past sexual escapades. Troy, after all, is a Jehova’s Witness, a teetotaler, and someone for whom it would be easy to believe had never left his hometown. It’s fairly easy to assume his achievements as a ladies’ man were probably more braggadocio than actual accomplishment, and here we see him confronting the first real relationship within the show’s characters. But I wouldn’t say he doesn’t know what sex is — he just doesn’t know what all those collars in Pierce’s S&M dungeon were for (“Secret dogs?”).

Nathan: That was one of the best bits in the show: Troy discovering the sex dungeon. (“He’s hiding the indoor swing and I’M the one who’s childish.”) I also really liked Annie telling Abed she doesn’t watch scary movies so he can stop scaring her because “I don’t get this homage!” Most of the jokes, in fact, were pretty good in this episode.

You compared this new Community to 30 Rock, but actually I feel like it’s drifting more towards a show like Happy Endings. 

Ben: Where David Guarascio last worked before being picked up along with Port for Community.

Nathan: See? Look at that. The episode premises are perfect on Happy Endings, and the one-off jokes are as good as any on TV. The main problem with the show is the characters are more-or-less one note. They each have their defining characteristic, and no more depth beyond that. Community has more going on than Happy Endings, but I can feel some of the characters (Shirley, Pierce especially) slipping into 2-D world. That might be necessary on a network sitcom…not EVERY character can have a rich backstory and emotional development when you’ve got 21 minutes each Thursday night. I understand that, but I’ll also miss a showrunner who took such an obvious idea — you can’t have a huge backstory for every character in an ensemble sitcom — and laughed in its face. Even if the results were sometimes disastrous.

Anyway, I’m lowering my Community disaster alert from Defcon 4 to Defcon 2. The world isn’t ending here. And because, as Abed put it this week, “I remember when this show was about a community college,” I think it’s only fitting we give these episodes a grade. For me, I’m giving it a solid B+. The premise was wonderful, there were some solid jokes, and we got some nice development with Winger and Britta. Plus we got to see Troy cry, which is the number one thing you can watch on a Thursday night. (Hear that, NBC? A half-hour sitcom of Donald Glover crying every week. You got one viewer right here.)

Ben: I’m also a bit sad to see Shirley pushed to the margins so strongly, especially since Yvette Nicole Brown can often steal a scene with her. Here’s hoping they give her more to do than say “awwwwww” in unison with Annie. Let’s also remember the show was given a significantly shorter run than the past three seasons, going from 22 episodes to a meager 13. And I can imagine the mood on-set stunk of Chevy Chase’s impending exit, encouraging the writers all the more to keep him mostly in the background (a so-so decision given they’ll need a believable way to have Pierce leave the cast).

Although we’re supposed to be fighting over the shows future, I’ll have to agree with you on a B+. The joke delivery was spot-on, reminding us this is still one of the best ensemble casts on television. It brought to mind a lot of past iffy theme episodes (“Basic Rocket Science” or “Basic Lupine Urology”) but also set the emotional arcs of the shows characters nicely, something past “homages” haven’t always felt the need to do (another reflection of the seasons abbreviated length).

And I’ll second the idea of the “Donald Glover In Tears Comedy Hour,” chock full of him becoming upset at the most daily of mishaps. “Why would you put onions on a burger when I specifically said not to?! I thought you said I could have it my way?!”

That’s all for this week’s recap and review. Join us next week as the gang visits an Inspector Spacetime convention, in which I’m sure your obsessions about a fictional show will not be mocked at all.

Also, for those interested, Grantland put out a fantastic profile of Dan Harmon, network television’s most famous alcoholic pariah. 

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