Kevin McFarland reviews the latest episode of Dan Harmon's beloved television series.
And here I thought Community would ease itself back into wild theme episodes. I expect combinations of previous standout episodes are going to get rather common this season—next week features another plot that lends itself easily to comparison with two classic episodes—and “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” has strands of both of “Epidemiology” and “Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design,” which happen to be two of my favorite second season episodes. It opens with a rainy celebration of Shirley reopening her sandwich shop in the cafeteria. But once her boys start to sing Radiohead’s “Creep” a cappella, it immediately brought to mind the first trailer for David Fincher’s The Social Network, featuring that beautiful choral rendition of Radiohead’s biggest radio hit by Scala & Kolacny Brothers. Combined with the rain, that implied a full-on Fincher homage.
The Fincher visual homages are fantastic. Community doesn’t get enough credit for not only adjusting to plot conventions of various genres while executing emotional plots involving the study group, but swinging wildly between many different styles of cinematography. “Repilot” had a lot of dull grey, as if a lot of dust still needed to be cleaned out of the old study room, and “Introduction To Teaching” had a brighter palate. But “TONIGHT” feels much more cinematic, with washed out blue-gray color and harsher shadows. Director Tristram Shapeero has been behind the camera for several of the more visually ambitious episodes of the series first-season benchmark Goodfellas homage “Contemporary American Poultry,” clip show “Paradigms Of Human Memory,” and the therapy session twist of “Course Listing Unavailable.” I don’t think Community gets enough credit for wildly swinging between distinct visual styles, and Shapeero has directed some of the most dynamic episodes in that regard.
Everything about the Ass Crack Bandit case feels correctly tuned to Fincher’s films. The detective team feels at times like the old/new partnership in Se7en, the attack on Troy plays out like a scene from Zodiac, and the final scene with Professor Duncan (a returning John Oliver) is straight out of the serial killer film playbook. The Dean asks Abed to try and do that thing where a “special” person just looks at crime scene, to take advantage of his social difficulties that clearly grant him powerful observational skills. But Abed only gets overloaded by tropes from Hannibal, The Mentalist, Psych, and others, and shorts out, walking away without joining in to help the case like everyone did in the Law & Order case that affected the study group's grade on a Biology project."
Troy’s part is dicey, mostly because I’m not quite sure what the episode is making fun of with his part. Troy’s affinity for “butt stuff” early on in the series makes him the easy choice to be the victim from the study group. And all of the crazed letters from the Bandit make it seem like just a silly game instead of something more sinister. But this is in the style of Fincher’s films, where people die grisly deaths, and it was a little uncomfortable for the show to be comically employing the “victim comfort” trope of a blanket and coffee or wheel Troy around in a wheelchair. I think the point is to make fun of the way films and television shows use the victim character in these stories, but that’s a difficult thing to accomplish in such a short time. Either way, Donald Glover is once again hilarious, fully committing to his part and dutifully earning laughs with very little screen time.
But the central thematic question at hand here is whether the Fincher oeuvre parody is the right tack to approach this question: “What’s going on with Jeff and Annie right now?” Yes, I laughed at pretty much every throwaway line here, and a lot of what was swiped from Fincher’s filmography, right down to the Se7en constant hard rain. But the shift about halfway through the episode to asking what was going on between Jeff and Annie, and whether they partnered up in these sorts of deliberately writer-contrived genre scenarios in order to make their interactions more acceptable smacked just a bit too much of meta-commentary invading the narrative. I know that seems like the status quo on Community, but I think what tipped this over the edge is something like the Dean’s direct-address attitude when bringing up the issue.
So, why use the Fincher homage in tandem with the Jeff and Annie connection? I don’t really think there’s much of a point beyond the visual style looking cool, all the little touches being played for laughs, and then adding the idea of dealing with the tension between Jeff and Annie on top of that. I really liked that the episode didn’t go full-throttle into that question with the two characters, staying rooted in the genre homage enough to see the plot through instead of deviating for a sitcom define-the-relationship conversation.
And then there’s the big reveal I’ve buried down here: Pierce dies. Chevy Chase’s cameo appearance in “Repilot” was a big surprise, but he quit the show at the end of last season, and it makes a lot of sense to kill the old guy off and just remove the possibility of his return. But ultimately I think “Numismatics” lurches into that reveal as a way to jump through to the conclusion. It’s the “shocking character death” from these kinds of thrillers—though not necessarily Fincher’s films, making the plot point ring false in the homage. There’s too much to process, with the Fincher allusions, the Jeff/Annie dynamic, and Pierce’s death, for all of it to coalesce around something definitive. In that way, this episode is a lot like “Conspiracy Theories” and Law & Order homage “Basic Lupine Urology,” both expertly executed stylistic experiments with small character beats—and both Annie/Jeff team-up episodes, but ultimately too busy with the genre fun to punch home a message at the end of a complex arc like “Cooperative Calligraphy” or “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.”
It’s a good sign that even in an episode this convoluted and messy with plot in the third act left me feeling so elated. I laughed consistently throughout “Numismatics”—at the characters, the throwaway lines, a bunch of sight gags like Star burns trying to get cats to drag him in a red wagon like a dogsled team. This isn’t Community at its tightest and most controlled, but the big-swing stylistic episodes have always traded a bit more on style than character advancement. But this did introduce two of the big things Community has to deal with this season: Chevy Chase’s departure and the uncomfortable nature of the undeniable chemistry between Joel McHale and Alison Brie. That it also featured some stunningly astute takes on David Fincher’s style only makes it more worthy of multiple re-watches and deconstruction.
• Starburns lives! It was so great to see that character return, especially in the way he did, as a red herring suspect.
• My favorite aspect of the Fincher/crime film: the final montage highlighting all the potential suspects, with all the little hints provided as circumstantial evidence to make a case. That was just beautifully executed.
• So Jeff likes Dave Matthews Band but rags on Barenaked Ladies? Not cool man.
• John Oliver’s re-introduction was stellar, from saying he “put in his time” taking care of his sick mother to mistaking Buzz Hickey for Pierce.
• “Las Noticias Hispanica De Greendale: will this affect soccer?”
• “You can’t stop me, because what are you going to do, not have butts?”
• “Craig Pelton, Dean and assistant water polo coach.”
• “Add some doilies and a footbath and this is my mom’s house.”
• “Oh excuse me for being alive in the 90’s and having two ears connected to a heart.”
Published 1:43 pm Fri, Jan 10, 2014
About the AuthorKevin McFarland is a Contributing Writer at The A.V. Club and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.
More at Boing Boing
Walt Disney's "It's a Small World." The "Carousel of Progress." Billy Graham's religious film "Man in the 5th Dimension." Full-scale models of the engines of a Saturn V rocket.
Theresa DeLucci on the latest complication in the stylish serial-killer show: the Verger siblings, ready to be entangled with our antiheroes.