With Pierce’s essence preserved in an energon pod and Troy off circumnavigating the world in a sailboat with LeVar Burton, the cast of Community has thinned out. And instead of another madcap theme episode or a special meta-commentary on death or saying goodbye to friends, Community can now get back to its own special kind of normal. Too much philosophizing can get distracting, so it’s nice that this week shifts to the joke-a-minute pace within a plot that explores the Greendale underbelly as a reflection of the real-world political favors needed to accomplish even the simplest task.
“Analysis Of Cork-Based Networking” divides rather easily into three discrete plots with just a hint of overlap; so this review breaks down to follow that organizing principle.
The Corruption Of Annie Edison
Annie has always been the moral, beating heart of the study group. But that doesn’t mean she’s above getting her hands dirty (down, Alison Brie fans) when the cause demands it—see “Debate 109” in season one, and “Conspiracy Theories & Interior Design” in season two. When she sees a task able to be completed, she wants to get it done, which is why she takes up the seemingly simple task of replacing a bulletin board in the cafeteria, after Professor Hickey only makes a “drive-by” attempt at solving the problem with the janitor who plucked Troy out for his destiny in the Good Will Hunting B-plot homage so long ago.
As though an indictment of all the red tape bureaucracy all over America, getting a few screws, a drill, and some cork proves insanely difficult. There are the janitors to put in a work order—who Annie charms simply enough by knowing their names and a bit about families. Then there are the custodians—totally different, Annie learns—who need to be placated as well. The custodial mixer is a hilarious set piece, a schmooze fest that gives off political lobbyist vibes, with guest stars Kumail Nanjiani and Nathan Fillion. It quickly becomes clear that Hickey is turned off by the system of favors, but ever-determined Annie jumps right in on wheeling and dealing, trying to get the custodian’s porn unblocked on computers, giving out better parking space, and worse deals. She compromises her ideals, all in order to obtain one bulletin board.
This entire plotline is riddled with great guest turns, from the returning Eddie Pepitone to Paget Brewster as an IT employee, to the T-1000 himself Robert Patrick as the parking czar who wants an appointment to oversee all bulletin boards in order to end ridesharing forever, making his spots more valuable. It’s a whirling labyrinth—not the fun kind that the Dean so adores—of interlocking deals, and Hickey grows more disappointed with each handshake.
Community is one of my favorite comedies because it seasons the surrealism with a healthy dose of melancholy—provided here by Buzz Hickey. Jonathan Banks has been a standout character actor for decades, and because of Breaking Bad he’s now getting a lot of overdue praise. He’s been a standout performer again on this show, matching Annie’s slowly corrupted optimism and can-do spirit with the deflated experience of a man beaten down by life.
Guest star professors have been a staple since the show’s inception, with Ken Jeong and John Oliver serving in the recurring capacity for the first two seasons and now serving as regulars again this year. Michael K. Williams had a few shining moments in the third season (“Basic Lupine Urology”) and Malcolm McDowell recurred in the shortened fourth season. But Banks has been stellar in every appearance so far, an integral part of the cast this season.
Banks imbues Hickey with palpable regret. Just look at Community writer Tim Saccardo’s behind the scenes photo of the corkboard in Hickey’s office. (And the tag to the second episode of the season, when Hickey makes phone calls while hidden in Jeff’s shared office.) There’s a wedding photo, one glimpse of happiness, and then a foreclosure notice, divorce papers, a dishonorable discharge from the army, an overdrawn bank statement, and news clippings of his failures as a cop. Hickey has collected all of his shameful items that he’s allowed to keep him down, confined to getting by at Greendale by doing nothing.
But it’s ultimately his disappointment in Annie, and his hope that she can rise above the system, that pushes him to take all of that down and take unauthorized action. That final montage, set to Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” is a Breakfast Club-level at of defiance, and Annie’s animalistic defense suggests that this student/teacher mentorship will be something to watch for the rest of the season.
The Fat Dog Dance
If I’m being totally honest, I don’t know what purpose Ken Jeong serves on this show after four and a half seasons. Clearly Harmon found him funny enough to keep Chang around in various capacities, but the fourth season jumped through so many terrible hoops in attempt to ground the character’s continued presence. But now, he’s a familiar face after the departure of a few others, so he’s a member of the Save Greendale Committee.
I’m a fan of any episode now that can find a way to make Jeff less of the de facto lead and more of an ensemble player in a B-plot. Community works best when it rotates through focusing on each of the characters, with semi-random important supporting roles for the denizens of Greendale. That’s exactly what happens here. Jeff, Shirley, and Duncan—John Oliver, like Banks, is doing some standout recurring work this season—all volunteer to help Annie with the midterm dance, believing her neurosis will lead to her doing all the work. But once she’s sidetracked by Hickey and the bulletin board, they’re left to decorate the cafeteria with Chang, who insists on a bear theme based on a pun stuck in his head.
For the greater portion of the series, the study group (and mostly everyone else at Greendale) hasn’t taken Chang seriously, treating him like a crazy imbecile. So when his idea is met with not only derision but also patronizing correction, he starts to cry and bemoan his lack of humanity, inspiring sympathy. Of course, his “bear with birthday stuff” decoration idea actually stems from seeing news of a bear mauling people at a birthday party, which leads to the typically surreal twist. The assembled decorators shift to a “Fat Dog” theme, attempting to coin a saying like “bear down” and convincing anyone who doesn’t get it (including a defiant Annie) that they’ve missed some bit of well-known slang. As far as climactic dance scenes in Community episodes go, this is a good one. Even though the trope is so well-worn at this point, somehow the show manages to find new ways to twist it, and a pivoting away from a theme in extremely poor taste is a great one, especially with Chang leading a line dance and Garrett’s last-second discovery that the dance originally had a bear theme.
Abed’s Chemistry Of Silence
Last week, Britta was an unsung hero for attempting to get Abed to confront his feelings over Troy’s impending departure, which none of his other friends wanted to step up to do. This week, she’s tearing him down in an entirely arbitrary way—one that expands the fake television show catalogue to include a Game Of Thrones stand-in alongside Inspector Spacetime—but in such endearingly funny fashion that the episode gets away with it. Tasked with re-administering the Greendale census in order to mend a fight over spoilers related to Bloodlines Of Conquest (Professor Duncan: “The really get the incest right.”), Abed wears airport-grade hearing protection in order to prevent Britta from retaliating with spoilers that haven’t made it into his favorite medieval fantasy show yet. It’s a two-pronged attack on spoiler-phobes who catch up with a show too late and the entitled fans watching live who still want book fans to keep quiet about spoilers.
Without Troy, Abed will need others to bounce off of, and not always on the serious level of his scenes with Britta last week, Annie in “Virtual Systems Analysis,” or Jeff back in “Critical Film Studies.” For this week, surprisingly, Harmon took a page out of fourth-season episode “Herstory Of Dance” (one of last year’s few bright spots), and played Abed off of a charming female guest star. He meets a deaf girl (the gorgeous Katie Leclerc, of ABC Family’s underrated Switched At Birth), with whom sparks immediately fly. Their day together is mostly used as a runner, as Abed initially has no idea how to communicate via sign language and fails comically, then gradually grows fluent because of his obsessive nature and need to communicate. Britta’s cynicism (“Are you going to have another intense burst of compatibility with a girl we never see again?”) and thirst for vengeance, no doubt intensified by those books, leads her to pay the deaf girl a giant wad of cash to spoil the final book for Abed. He’s crushed, which in turn makes Britta regret the whole thing. But then, out of nowhere, Rachel the coat check girl (Brie Larson) pops up again, and Abed is fired up enough to ask her out immediately.
This endpoint doesn’t fully work, since the episode ditches the cliché perfect day romance for the chance second-meeting romance. And it’s another example of how this season has occasionally relied too heavily on immensely satisfying moments of fan service. But the two of them are so cute together that Harmon couldn’t resist bringing Larson back—even with an extra dig at the “gas leak year”—and giving Abed some mature agency. For a school-based episode of zany antics and cultural references without an explicit stylistic homage, this is the strong average that viewers have come to expect from a Dan Harmon-run Community.
Two moments from the episode that reward careful attention to detail:
The show Abed and Rachel are watching back at the apartment? Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s excellent Adult Swim animated series Rick And Morty, which you should also be watching because it’s hilariously bizarre.
The news ticker on the broadcast Professor Hickey watches during the Roxy Music montage provides a startling update on the quest of Abed’s other half.
Kevin 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.