Community: Season 3, Episode 12
If last week's episode of Community was an example of everything the show could do right to win over viewers with its increased exposure following the hiatus, then "Contemporary Impressionists" is in many ways its opposite number. This week, the show went wacky, and not in the adorably absurd way it sometimes manages to pull off. Both of the stories this week were probably at some point in their existence great character ideas, but they were dialed up to 11 on broadness, to the point that the character beats often failed to land and the jokes were more obvious and less humorous than I've come to expect from the show. In short, this was an off-week for the show, which is exactly the kind of thing it doesn't need if it hopes to keep any of the ratings it garnered last week (when it did very well) in the future.
"Contemporary Impressionists" takes suspension of disbelief to a whole new level for the show, asking us to accept two premises that just don't fit into any conception of the show we've been fed before (and for a show as diverse and adaptable as Community, that's hard to pull off). The first is the idea that Abed has become addicted to hiring celebrity impersonators to reenact movies. He has a pretty sizable debt, and the gang can only work it off by coming to a bar mitzvah as impersonators (because apparently all it takes to be an impersonator is to be a human being?). They do this, after Troy gives an affecting speech about how much better Abed makes their lives, yet no one except Troy knows that if they fail to impress, Abed's legs will be broken by a Ving Rhames impersonator and a Michael Chiklis impersonator.
There's a level on which this story works. On a character level, Abed has always resisted reality and refused to grow up; its something that does make him whimsical at times but also makes him difficult to connect with. Since its early episodes, the show has followed Abed as he journeys to express himself through film, the only way he can communicate, and Abed's child-like approach to the world is well documented. A story about how, at some point, Abed will need to grow up, and about the way Troy, as his best friend, has to tell him that even if it creates a rift between the two sounds great on paper, and parts of this worked well. Yet centering the story at a bar mitzvah full of impersonators meant that most of the well-earned (over the course of the series more than tonight) emotions this story was dealing with drowned in broad comedy and a Jeff-as-Hulk setpiece that didn't come close to working.
There is a way in which "Contemporary Impressionists" may, in hindsight, appear much better (though not, sadly, much funnier). If Troy does end up giving in to the Vice Dean and becoming an air-conditioner repairman, this will in hindsight seem like the moment he realized this was the "grown up" thing to do. The subtle arc that runs through this episode is Troy's--at the beginning, he defends Abed for his whimsy and for the way he enables the group to forget reality, but by episode's end, he is forced to confront the fact that we all have to grow up some day, that at some point our dreams die and we have to take responsibility for ourselves. This is why the final two scenes of the episode work so well for me (well enough, in fact, to almost make me forget how much I disliked almost everything that happened at the bar mitzvah). Troy sitting Abed down and telling him that sometimes he will have to trust that Troy has his best interests at heart is great, as is the way he worries he has ostracized his best friend, gets overjoyed at how quickly Abed forgives him, then realizes the rift he has created may go deeper than he initially thought when Abed goes to the Dreamatorium alone, leaving Troy hanging on their signature handshake.
The emotional impact of those scenes almost obscures how terrible the Jeff storyline is here. Tonight, Jeff is on anxiety medication that turns him into an egomaniac. There are some great results to this (ok, maybe just one: The Dean's reaction), but mostly its an excuse for Joel McHale to play douchey Jeff, for some Ryan Seacrest jokes, and for a lot of Jewish mother stereotypes I really could have done without. I like Britta's recognition at the end of the episode that Jeff is seriously messed up, but when Jeff's very real psychological problems are played for laughs this paltry, I find it more problematic than resonant.
The Chang runner was also a mis-fire, on at least two levels. I appreciate that it is well established that Ben Chang is an absolute maniac, and I'm willing to go along with that, but the thought bubbles that accompanied him tonight were too cartoon-y for my liking, and his idea of recruiting children for his own private army is so ridiculous that I hope it is completely abandoned by next week. I should also point out that, in spite of the fact that the gang was all there at the bar mitzvah, Shirley, Annie, and Pierce got next to nothing to do (which is a shame, since Shirley as Oprah, Annie as Judy Garland, and Piece as Fat Brando or Fat Burt Reynolds were all pretty promising ideas, on their face).
I am a fan of weird Community. I am a fan of high-concept Community. I am a fan of the version of this show that has a master arc and treats its characters as ever-evolving over the course of the series. But Community as a broad, cartoon-y show that glosses over emotion for over-blown jokes? Well, let's just say that isn't my favorite iteration of this show. This wasn't a bad episode of television by a long stretch, but it was a weak episode of Community. Here's hoping the show bounces back in a big way next week:
-"Oh my god, even his shadow! Look at his shadow!"
-"Wow. That is rare. Both versions of Michael Jackson."
-"Can you believe that jerk brought a scalpel to a bris?"
-"This is really crazy, and inaccessible, and maybe too dark." "Maybe to them, but not to us." A nice moment of Community talking to its fans.