Sunday, May 13, 2012

Community 3-18: Course Listing Unavailable

This episode of Community begins where so few do: directly where the last episode left off.  That episode ended with longtime supporting character Starburns being killed off in an off-screen meth lab accident, a surprisingly dark ending for a joke character.  It seems to presage a deeper shift.  As I mentioned in my last post on Community, much of the third season has been about the central characters facing or not facing adulthood, which comes with the realization that there are consequences to your actions -- even actions meant in jest.  For the past couple episodes, especially in the Troy/Abed story arc, it feels as though the show has been coming down on the side of childish naivete -- but in "Course Listing Unavailable" (a title that directly suggests the failing of usual modes of understanding) things swing around dramatically to the other side.

We begin with one of Community's trademark round-table scenes, where as usual the jokes are flying fast and furious.  The main question at stake seems to be how to react to Starburns' death, and more generally to the death of an acquaintance.  Jeff's everybody-dies refusal to mourn at all seems a little harsh, and a not entirely genuine application of nihilistic philosophy into real life (as Jeff so often does), but the insistence of Annie and the rest of the group on reacting to it as a major tragedy seems also a bit disingenuous, given that they hardly knew Starburns, referring to him entirely by a nickname.  They seem to be more upset by the idea of death intruding on their happy fantasyland than anything else.

And then comes the Dean in a silly outfit to give them more bad news.  This is a familiar comic beat, but interestingly enough we see the moment before it: the Dean receiving the news himself and trying to decide what to wear.  We see his closet full of costumes which, while fabulous, is nowhere near the comic dimensions it could have taken in one of the show's more surreal episodes.  One of the series's most outlandish, over-the-top characters is connected, at least notionally, to real life.

The plot then unfolds pretty directly from there.  What's most notable about it is that it's driven by the only instance in the episode of someone behaving like an adult and taking responsibility for their actions, the Biology professor resigning for letting Starburns steal his equipment.  (Once again, Community riffs off Michael K. Williams' iconic Omar character, who is often said to be the only one in The Wire who took responsibility for their actions.)  This quiet, off-screen act is a strong contrast with the hysteria we see on screen, and the overreaction and the denial of responsibility from both the study group and Chang and his minions.

Because, after all, what the study group does at Starburns' memorial is basically a textbook example of inciting a riot ("Let's burn this mother down!").  Of course, inciting a riot is kind of a bogus crime, but that's neither here nor there.  It's a funny segment, involving lots of one-liners, a pinch of meta-commentary and a call-and-response rap, but it doesn't hide the fact that the study group is basically turning a memorial service into a binge of whining about having to go to summer school.  And the riot, crucially, starts before Chang and company swarm in, making the issue of causality more complicated than the group later admits to.

There are obvious political resonances, of course, from the crackdown on the Occupy movement to the Patriot Act (the piece of crayon writing that Chang makes the Dean sign to authorize force).  Perhaps this is a kind of apology for the cavalier dismissal of protesters in "Geography of Global Conflict", which coincidentally aired during the peak of the Occupy movement.  But if it is, it still rests a great deal of the blame with the study group -- and, by analogy, protesters.

What comes as a surprise is the characters having to face realistic consequences for their actions.  Greendale has disintegrated into much worse conditions before, such as during the pillow and blanket fort wars few episodes ago, or any of the paintball mayhem.  But the smaller scale of this episode's riot almost makes punishment seems more acceptable -- we're no longer entirely in the land of whimsy, as we are in the concept episodes.  Of course, there's still a good deal of silliness here, such as Chang producing an impostor Dean to get him off the hook, but it's firmly in the less surreal register of Community's "normal" episodes.

Community has become fairly notorious for ending its episodes on a big speech, usually by Jeff, a trend that the show itself poked fun at in its fake clip show last season.  (To be fair, it goes to this well less often than a lot of other shows that shall not be named here).  Here, we have Troy giving a much shorter speech, which basically amounts to "we're together, so everything is going to be alright".  This is, in the end, what the series has the most faith in: connection, as well as good humour.  The sentimentality of this moment, accompanied by treacly music and a mise en scene that might have come out of a Boston Pizza ad, could be easily mocked, but for viewers that have been watching from the beginning it uses their familiarity with the characters -- their TV friends, as sitcom characters are designed to be -- this is a tender, genuinely affecting moment.  The "we" in this scene seems to implicitly include the viewer as well as the characters, and could be read as a sign of appreciation for Community's loyal cult audience.

And as far as the good humour goes, we can see that in Annie's reaction to the heavy drink she poured herself in a moment of desperation just a few minutes ago.  She scrunches up her face and shakes her head, as though laughing at the foolishness of her previous angst.  More than anything, this final shot suggests that the ability to laugh at yourself is just as important as togetherness.

This ending calls back repeatedly to one of the series's most high-concept episodes, and one of its best, "Remedial Chaos Theory".  This is the same type of whimsical episode that "Course Listing Unavailable" so decidedly sets itself against.  But the comparison only makes the current situation look more dire -- there is no more gimmick, no reset button that can make this go away by the end of the episode.  As much as the sentimental moment of togetherness may bolster the group's spirits, the fact remains that they're expelled, and as the episode closes there's no solution to that problem in sight.  Once again, we return to the title, and the breakdown of Community's standard approaches.

"Course Listing Unavailable" is directed by Tristam Shapeero, who has become one of the series's go-to directors (having done about a third of this season) and has a script attributed to regular, non-standout-ish writer Adam Countee[1], although once again this doesn't mean much given the collaborative nature of American comedy writing.  Shapeero has previously done a lot of the gimmickier episodes, but here he does similarly well with the gimmick of the complete loss of gimmicks.  Even the "normal" episodes have a distinct look, involving bright colours (although not to the extent of something like Suburgatory), clean lighting, and a lot of quick cuts.  There have been a lot of "normal" Community episodes, even if they aren't the ones that grab the most attention, so there's a definitive stylistic template that Shapeero employs well here.

And that, in the end, makes "Course Listing Unavailable" a bit paradoxical.  It's a "normal" episode, but it threatens to destroy the prospect of future normality entirely.  It fully explores the fear Community has been playing with all season -- that sometimes normality is the most terrifying thing of all.

Next week: "You're about to see something that you've never seen before."

[1]He doesn't have a Wikipedia page, so I'm assuming he's a schlub.

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