DVR Hindsight #3 (1/27/14): Community Season Five

Community – “Geothermal Escapism” Season 5, Ep. 5 (NBC)

Greendale Community College makes such an appealing setting for sitcom shenanigans primarily because of its elasticity. Appealingly low rent and desperate (the type of institution Jeff dryly notes is on 911’s “blocked caller list”) with its big shaggy dog heart and innate acceptance of strays, Greendale exists in the real world only up to a point. Its students and faculty all know that reality can and does bend here, and that the best coping method is always to just embrace the madness, even though the slightest push can cause instant, dizzying escalation – say, from Halloween party to zombie outbreak, from innocuous paintball tournament to urban war zone, from 30-second TV commercial to Apocalypse Now, or from a difference of opinion as two best friends construct the world’s largest blanket fort into a sprawling, PBS-worthy Civil War documentary, complete with Keith David narration. Greendale, and thus Community, can be almost anything, and can go just about anywhere (a 16-bit arcade game, a Claymation Rankin-Bass Christmas special) at any time. At its best, Community can make the odd seem normal, and the fantastic feel epic.

Five episodes into a fifth season most fans thought would probably never happen, Community has already found, in the span of two consecutive episodes, a sweet spot of quality (both in terms of joke writing and character) unmatched since “Remedial Chaos Theory”, the season three standout where the simple act of rolling dice to decide which study group member would be drafted to run downstairs to let the pizza guy in unleashed six different timelines of varying levels of humor, horror and personal revelation. In last week’s “Cooperative Polygraphy”, news of a study group member’s death brought with it guest star Walton Goggins (The Shield, Justified) to, in accordance with the dearly departed’s wishes, read the notorious crank and pot-stirrer’s last will and testament. This manifested itself as a lie-detector-aided series of increasingly personal questions meant to lay bare the surviving study group’s regrets and secrets, but that ended up bringing them all closer together and putting an unlikely but highly satisfying bow on the story of Pierce Hawthorne.

In the end, the curmudgeonly multi-millionaire left the bulk of his estate to fellow study group member Troy Barnes, played by comedian and rapper Donald Glover (who planned to leave the show early into season five to concentrate on his musical career as Childish Gambino), on the condition that he circumnavigate the globe via his luxury yacht. As a method of writing a beloved character off a show while still playing fair with the characters themselves, it’ll do. All it really has to accomplish is to feel like something Pierce (always self-obsessed, and the curator of grand delusions) would think of. There’s no credibility to strain otherwise. “Geothermal Escapism” picks up the action at Troy’s going away party, which his best friend Abed (the otherwise inseparable two previously went to war over the aforementioned blanket fort) hijacks and recasts in his singular way as a campus-wide game of “Hot Lava”, that universal kid’s game where players must avoid touching the floor at all costs. The twist this time is that the last student standing wins Abed’s prized $50,000 first edition comic book.

With only this flimsy premise as a base, it is fairly astonishing and, for fans, edifying, how quickly, completely, and delightfully Greendale morphs from the nondescript community college with its one toe in the real world into a dense, multi-layered post-apocalyptic wasteland, a la Waterworld or George Miller’s classic The Road Warrior. Students and faculty alike (the “non-awesome” who were incentivized by Abed “to do awesome things”) lose their manners and scruples almost instantly, turning into dystopian gang leaders (Chang, channeling The Warriors, Prof. Hickey, perhaps channeling Spielberg’s Duel), victimized loners (Prof. Duncan, Britta initially) or Han Solo/Snake Plissken-lite self-styled badasses (Abed, Troy, Jeff, Annie) as the remaining cast of dozens variously staff, attack or defend a ramshackle oasis/pirate cove run by Shirley in the episode’s terrific, action-packed set piece.

The first half of “Geothermal Escapism” is deliriously inventive, and laugh out loud surprising. Had it been merely content to follow this string to the end, it still would be a superior entertainment, but showrunner Dan Harmon has never seemed interested in paths of lesser resistance. Even as Professor Hickey attacks “Shirley Island” behind the wheel of a fearsome, fire extinguisher-powered DIY Zamboni and Jeff and Britta engage in an epic plunger fight, stubbornly debating a knock-knock joke they both refuse to properly finish (a metaphor for their larger relationship), the high stakes game behind this forbidding new world is revealed to merely be Abed’s elaborate attempt to avoid coming to terms with his best friend Troy’s imminent departure. The metaphorical lava is all too real to him, and in Greendale’s elastic reality, it becomes both tangible and deadly.

The seriousness with which Harmon and his staff treat this development, and the care with which the characters take Abed, is a tribute to the fact that Harmon loves the study group as much as Community’s fans do, and is the ultimate validation of his unprecedented return to run the show after a year in corporate exile. The solution Troy and Britta (Gillian Jacobs, though a crack comedienne, has never gotten quite this kind of emotional and physical showcase before, and she shines throughout) arrive at is quintessentially Harmon-esque, and Troy’s goodbye to the study group is properly emotional without being sappy. For a show that seems sometimes to be nothing more than pop culture-mined creativity run amok, Community’s first responsibility is consistently to its characters. Oh yeah, and its jokes are both clever and funny as hell…but, yes, character first, always.

Pierce was a useful, amusing but ultimately problematic presence, and Breaking Bad alumnus Jonathan Banks is doing fine work so far as his irascible proxy, Professor Buzz Hickey. Here’s hoping he continues to gain both traction and personality and becomes a permanent cast member for the increasingly probable season six (and, of course, in the inevitable movie…if Veronica Mars crowdsourced almost $6 million for its upcoming screen debut [yay!], I imagine Community’s Kickstarter campaign would equal or maybe even top it). Losing Troy is, of course, another matter, one I feel might have proven deadly if not fatal on almost any other show. I had all the cause for concern going into Community season five I needed, thanks. If David Guarascio and Moses Port, the unfairly put upon showrunners of season four, ultimately failed in their task to elegantly work around the absence of not just Pierce but also Harmon (now inarguably the show’s most critical element), then Harmon’s task with season five has been to find a reason for Community to exist at all, even as he grooms an eventual replacement for Pierce and finds a way to write out what, in Troy, is one of the show’s most beloved characters.

That last hurdle has yet to be fully cleared, but my doubts have significantly faded. “Cooperative Polygraphy” and “Geothermic Escapism”, as full flowering examples of this flawed, goofy, deeply human cast of characters set loose by its resident mad scientist to work in the best laboratory on TV, make a real case for hope across the board, and harken back to the quality of the show at its most uncompromised. Perhaps Dan Harmon just loves a challenge as much as he loves his own opinion, bristles at authority, and enjoys proving people wrong. Whatever is going on here, it’s working. I have fallen in love with this show’s dark eccentricity and strange alchemy all over again.

Miscellaneous debris (and awesome jokes):

*Professor Duncan isn’t afraid to push a girl into make-believe lava. Money is a powerful motivator. “My self-published novels aren’t going to publish themselves!”

*Traversing a lava-strewn landscape via a single chair (a.k.a. doing “The Centipede”) might not be the most efficient mode of travel, but once you gather more chairs, you can upgrade to doing the “Inchworm”, the “Scootenanny” or even the “Reverse Danny Thomas”.

*Chang answers Abed’s tough talk with some of his own: “You’re in no position to make threats, Floorstrider! Our truce ended when you banished us from the payphone bench!”

*”Is that Britta?”
“She’s alive?”
“Why would you think she’s dead?”
“We kinda left her back there.”
“Left her? For dead?”
“When you say it that way, it sounds bad. Can you say it in a way that makes it sound good?”

*An increasingly unhinged Britta mocks her fallen friend: “I can’t hear dead people, Annie. I’m in a world of imagination!”

*“Troy and Abed in a bubble!” (which fits perfectly alongside last week’s pre-will reading callback: “Troy and Abed are in mourning!”)

*”Britta’s work was sloppy. I’m not a perfect clone of Abed. I have all his abilities and memories, but I’m missing his wild emotionality.”

*Pierce’s boat is named the “Childish Tycoon”, because of course it is. The identity of its first mate, and Troy’s interaction with him, is yet another nice treat for longtime fans of the show.

*Abed, saying goodbye in his inimitable way: “By the way, when I cloned you, I patched in parts of your DNA with that of a homing pigeon, so you might experience some side effects, like a compulsion to come back.”

*”Starting a sea voyage from landlocked Colorado might not have been the best idea.”
“We’ll drive to the river and take the river to the ocean.”

*Chang’s same-sex celebrity crush is Firefly’s Nathan Fillion, but then, isn’t everybody’s? Okay, we’ll also accept Firefly‘s Gina Torres if you’re female.

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