Case Study 16: Community, Episode 68–“Curriculum Unavailable”

Original Airdate: May 10th, 2012 on NBC

This is only the second episode of TV that I’m reviewing that I’ve seen before and the first proper sitcom I’ve covered. I think comedies might be a bit harder to review than dramas, because so much of humor is subjective. I also think Community in particular might be challenging since I’m a big fan and I might be too close to the subject to give it a fair assessment. Let’s see, shall we?

Strengths

  • Funny. This is obviously the number one concern with a sitcom, but it’s also the most subjective, as I said. Community is a modern single-camera sitcom with no laugh track and rapid-fire banter rich in jokes and asides. This kind of sitcom is much more likely to be successful at gut-busting since you don’t have to sit in wintry silence through 20 seconds of uproarious canned laughter at each unfunny joke. If the first joke doesn’t appeal, one of the three told in those intervening 20 seconds on a single-camera show probably will. This particular episode returns to an amusing device that the show had previously used in the episode “Paradigms of Human Memory.” From all outward appearances, “Curriculum” is a clip show, but regular viewers of the show will quickly realize that much as in “Paradigms,” all the clips are in fact unique to this episode. This is great for the writers, because they can string together a bunch of jokes with minimal context and without worrying about writing full stories around them. This works reasonably well for “Curriculum.” All I can really do here is point to examples, and it doesn’t help that television is an audiovisual medium and many of the best gags depend on sight gags and the actors deliveries and reactions, but here goes. For me, the single funniest joke fell in a montage detailing the many dysfunctions of the show’s setting, Greendale Community College. Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase, National Lampoon’s Vacation) emerges from a toilet stall. Immediately, jolly music starts to play and party horns trumpet. A banner falls from the ceiling reading “10,000th Flush!” People jubilantly jump out of the adjacent stalls and 20 more celebrants rush in, putting a glittery top hat on Pierce as balloons and confetti obscure the entire scene. It’s about a 15 second clip and it could have been thoroughly half-assed. On paper, the concept of celebrating a 10,000th flush is only mildly amusing–but the execution is perfect and hilarious. Another montage showcases the psychotic behavior of Ben Chang (Ken Jeong, The Hangover), including a shot of him grinding up Doritos and snorting them like cocaine. We’re also treated to a clip revealing that Annie Edison (Alison Brie) feels excluded from the childish, imagination-rich antics of best friends Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi.) Troy and Abed regularly “host” a pretend morning talk show, “Troy and Abed In The Morning.” In the clip, Annie is replicating the setup, complete with teddy bears playing the roles of Troy and Abed and Annie rewriting the “show’s” signature jingle. Of course, Troy and Abed walk in on her. When Annie claims she’s not doing anything, Troy fires back with “Nothing my ass! What are all these cameras doing here!?” He gestures angrily at the empty room. Hee!
  • Excellent cast. Not every joke in this half hour is a shining gem, and while there are few stinkers several so-so bits are elevated by the stellar performances of an impeccable cast with a very fluid and comfortable dynamic. Glover in particular is a treasure, nailing every read and completely selling the audience on the gormless, childlike Troy. The cast breathes life into characters that are unevenly developed. Chang, Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) and Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) verge on irritating and one-note on the page but Jeong, Rash and Brown soften the edges.

Weaknesses

  • Insidery. Anyone paying attention to Community’s fortunes is aware that while it was a critical darling and a cult favorite, it never earned the wide viewership that the network and the distributor had hoped for. That was certainly unlikely to change by the late third season, but for an uninitiated viewer this installment might seem particularly punishing. The plot of the episode and the framing for the cavalcade of clips involves Abed being forced to meet with a therapist named Dr. Heidi (John Hodgman, Coraline) to account for his consistently erratic behavior. Of course, his best friends from the Greendale study group also insist on attending the meeting. This means all the show’s main cast members, with the exception of Rash and Jeong. It turns out that Heidi is not a real therapist but rather a pawn in an insane scheme being executed by Chang. Heidi momentarily succeeds at gaslighting the group into thinking that Greendale is a collective delusion, and this is really the comedic climax of the show–we’re shown a montage demonstrating that this is well within the realm of possibility based on the crazed antics depicted week to week on the show. Unlike the fake clips preceding the montage, the gags here are all grounded in past incidents on the show. You’d have to be a somewhat regular viewer to appreciate and enjoy what’s going on here. Of course, it works on a meta level–this is Community, after all. It suggests that the viewers of the show are also delusional to suspend their disbelief to the extent of believing that a community college could play host to epic and cinematic annual on-campus paintball wars, secret trampolines and protracted musical numbers. Even this observation is half-hearted, though, because it ignores the fact that part of the magic of the show is its ability to provide genuine emotional grounding to the gratuitous ridiculousness on display–for instance, “Paradigms” doesn’t feel like an excuse for context-free clip show gags since the actual plot is devoted to the show dealing with the ramifications on the group of an affair between Jeff Winger (Joel McHale, The Soup) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs.) The upshot here is that people who aren’t regular viewers wouldn’t be able to connect the dots between the cast’s unhinged renditions of these activities in a mental asylum and what’s actually transpired on the show, and it doesn’t help that the show has been inundating you with clips of things that didn’t actually happen on the show. This might be helped by the overall show’s biggest strength–the delirious innovation frequently on display. The show is constantly willing to break new ground for the half-hour sitcom and often it works gloriously well. But this isn’t actually all that innovative, since it had been done rather more deftly in “Paradigms.” There, you could appreciate the wacky clips and be blissfully unaware of the top-level payout–that the clips were all fake, even though some had been expertly presented as multiple excerpts from full-blown stories. But the hook this hangs on is the Greendale Asylum scenario, which would totally fall flat for a first-time viewer. It may be unreasonable for a viewer to expect to be able to drop in on a long-running serialized drama and appreciate depths and nuance, but they should absolutely be able to do that with a sitcom. Part of me feels uncharitable in making this criticism because it would be impossible to break the mold weekly in a 22 episode production cycle and this format is clearly meant to be easier on the writers, who were surely exhausted by this point in the year, but this still could have been handled in a more accessible way. The show is insidery in another way, as well–it’s saturated with less-than-obvious pop culture references thanks to obsessive culture vulture Abed. We’re shown a clip where he won’t suffer Shirley’s praise for Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist. He shows off an amusingly undercooked Don Draper impression. Another clip displays his dramatic dismay upon winning a prize in a paintball match consisting of tickets to see Chicago at the Greendale Civic Center starring George Wendt and Stefanie Powers. Again, I understand that the writers have a hard line to walk here–Abed’s pop culture fixation is a central part of his character and it’s far from unreasonable to expect a baseline cultural familiarity from the average viewer. And it’s possible to take this criticism too far–consider Dan Harmon’s justified frustration that the producers doubted whether or not viewers would understand references to Pulp Fiction in “Critical Film Studies.” On the other hand, Tower Heist is asking a bit much of your average Nielsen family. Even Mad Men is no guarantee in an exceedingly fractured media landscape. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to build jokes around obscure pop culture references–Abed’s obsession with 2011’s short-lived The Cape works perfectly well even if the viewer doesn’t realize that Cape is sadly a real thing. For a master class in the ability to integrate pop culture references without alienating the viewer, check out The Simpsons. In “Whacking Day” when Lisa is desperately searching for a bass-intensive volume in the family’s music collection, you don’t have to be familiar with the specific music in question to know that “Tiny Tim,” “The Chipmunks’ Greatest Hits” or “A Castrato Christmas” obviously don’t fit the bill. You don’t need to have heard a note of hip-hop to realize that Homer’s proposed rap jingle in “Mr. Plow” is truly atrocious.
  • Part of a dumb storyline. This episode is part of a distinctly unrewarding and asinine storyline involving Chang’s scheme to usurp the Dean by kidnapping him, replacing him with a lookalike and getting the study group expelled. It’s over the top with no narrative payoff other than abundant lulz. Even as the show lampshades its tenuous grip on reality,  this storyline suffers from a distinct lack of grounding. It’s also not like the show would have been hard-pressed to find a way to get the deeply eccentric Abed in front of a therapist if the writers wanted to run with this particular format regardless.

Motivation: Since this show is at its best when allowing the excellent dynamic between its principles to thrive, its strongest installments center on friendship, as seen in “Paradigms.” While certainly entertaining, this isn’t one of the strongest installments and the big payoff is the knowledge that Abed’s theory about the existence of a “doppeldeaner” is in fact correct.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. I’m hard-pressed to think of any episode during Dan Harmon’s run on Community that isn’t worth watching and while it’s not perfect, there are plenty of good laughs to be found in “Curriculum.”

Final Series Judgment: 8/10. While on the grand scale, Community is marred by a deeply shitty fourth season, constant cast changes in the final three seasons and uneven character development, its bravado, high-wire innovation, crackling wit and stellar dynamic among its initial cast members means that it comes highly recommended by me.

NEXT TIME: I cover Powerhouse! What the hell is Powerhouse, you ask? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see! Or you could look it up on Wikipedia, but where’s the fun in that?

Case Study 16: Community, Episode 68–“Curriculum Unavailable”