It’s a great week for these network sitcoms, beginning with Donald Glover’s high-concept swan song on Community.
1. COMMUNITY: “Geothermal Escapism”
Britta, I’ll always remember you…as slowing us down and complaining a lot.
Community continues its hot streak (pardon the pun) with another near-perfect high-concept extravaganza, that doubles as an emotional farewell to Donald Glover. Since his announcement that he would be leaving the show to pursue his music career (as the rapper Childish Gambino, which the show neatly nodded to by naming Pierce’s boat the Childish Tycoon), there has been much hand-wringing over how much the series would suffer in his absence. Troy was in many ways the beating heart of the study group, whether he was freaking out about his childhood in acting class, freaking out about chloroforming somebody, or freaking out about meeting Levar Burton — okay, Glover’s funniest moments were when Troy became unhinged, but he also revealed hidden layers as the series progressed. The surprisingly dramatic Season 2 episode “Mixology Certification” signaled Troy’s maturation, and while he’s always gone all-in on Abed’s shenanigans, it’s because he values that friendship over acting like an adult.
So it makes sense that Troy’s last episode was less about Troy and more about Abed, who — to give Troy a proper farewell — launches another campus-wide apocalypse with an epic game of “Hot Lava.” It’s the kind of chaotic pop-culture pastiche Community does so well, and this was one of the best: in order to win one of Abed’s comic books reportedly worth fifty grand, the ruffians of Greendale (which, we finally confirmed today, is in Colorado…go figure) form alliances and construct safe havens out of furniture, and are quicker to turn on each other than ever before. The only one not committed to the game is Britta, who (not incorrectly) figures that Abed only set this up because he can’t deal with Troy leaving. But after Troy, Abed, Jeff, and Annie abandon her to “die,” she aligns herself with Professor Hickey (who’s made a roving battleship out of a floor waxer, and is hoping to fund his son’s gay wedding) to end the game once and for all. The episode is a showcase for Gillian Jacobs, who is never better than when shouting indignantly — and her extended battle with Jeff (“Knock knock?” “FLOOR!”) had me rolling.
In true Community fashion, it was packed to the gills with gags and references: “Shirley Island,” the massive construction on the cafeteria floor, is tracking the deceased as “Seculars” and “Believers;” when it’s invaded by Hickey and Britta’s game, Magnitude screams “I’m actually British;” the “centipede” and “inchworm” methods of movement; “CHAIR TO DANCE?”; “Troy and Abed in a buuuubble” (the last time we’ll hear that…). But while the jokes come fast, the episode is built around an emotional through-line, that climaxes with Abed’s admission (once he, Troy, and Britta are the only ones left) that it’s true: he wants the game to last forever, because then Troy doesn’t have to leave. He really does see the floor as lava — that’s how his brain is processing it, and he just wanted everyone to see what he sees. He decides that the only thing he can do is “die,” so he (in slow-motion, naturally) drops to the floor. But to Abed, fake dead is real dead, so Troy and Britta have to figure out how to being him back: with Britta’s pseudo-psychology failed (Troy: “No one gets Abed. I only get him a little.”), they give in to the power of their imagination and create a “clone” of Abed, one that can properly deal with losing his friend. A short time later, after some heartfelt words for and from the others, Troy takes his leave (set to “Come Sail Away”), climbing aboard the boat (being towed — it’s a long trip to the ocean from Colorado) with Levar Burton by his side — a Pierce-mandated addition to make sure Troy doesn’t quit. Whether Donald Glover returns for a potential sixth season is anyone’s guess, but it’s impossible not to love how the show sent him out.
2. PARKS AND RECREATION: “Farmers Market”
Tom put all of my records into this rectangle!
I complained last week about Leslie’s unsympathetic characterization in recent episodes, and while “Farmers Market” doesn’t do much to alleviate that, it at least channels her stubbornness in a funnier way. When the market’s chard salesman sexes up his booth by adding scantily-clad dancers and loud music, Leslie is determined to find a way to get rid of him, but Ben isn’t sure he has legal grounds. Worse for Leslie, he doesn’t want to discuss it away from work, enacting a “firewall” at home for the sake of their marriage and his own sanity. And for what it’s worth, I’d never even heard of “chard,” but by all accounts it’s pretty terrible — Leslie alternately describes it as “celery with B.O.” and “like a tree barfed in my mouth” — so Ben doesn’t really blame the guy for trying to bring attention to his product, even after Leslie stays up all night inventing a community rulebook by which to dispose of him. Things come to a head during a chaotic foot chase with Ben trying to get off of government-associated property, and Leslie cleverly keeping him outside the firewall as long he is on a city-paved sidewalk or water fountain filled with city water, but the lovebirds eventually reach an understanding, and allow for the chard farmer to tote his wares in “Farmers Market After Dark.” But, for real, enough of Steamroller Leslie.
Adam Scott (who plays Ben) actually directed this episode, so it’s no surprise that the B-story is for once more memorable and engaging. Ann, monstrously pregnant and miserable, can’t handle Chris’s unwavering positivity, so she crashes Tom, Donna, and Ron’s “Whine and Cheese” club — an excuse for the first two to vent and drink while Ron puts his headphones on and listens to Willie Nelson — to complain about Chris. It’s a LONG-overdue return to the ensemble for Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe, who have their own emotional exits looming over next week (yet another casualty for NBC’s Thursday), and Jones in particular, so often stuck as the straight woman in a group full of weirdos, has never been funnier. Her epic, Pac-Man-infused rant about how much being pregnant sucks (which, let’s be honest, isn’t exactly uncharted sitcom territory) is a thing of beauty, leaving Donna speechless and Ron annoyed. After banishing her from the club, they go to Chris and challenge him to stop fixing everything — Ann just wants to be heard. Those two little words, “that sucks,” might just save their relationship. Meanwhile in the C-story, Craig (who might still be too broad a character for this show) hires Andy to play for his nephew’s birthday, and when Mouse Rat abruptly breaks up, Andy is set adrift with a catalog of songs much too racy for six-year-olds. But April pushes him to improvise, and his natural ability for juvenile humor quickly has the kids cracking up — even the first-grade social maven Craig is desperate to impress. With the police academy a dead end, Andy may have found a new path as “Johnny Karate” (alongside April Karate, his manager and wife). With the recent announcement that Parks is getting a seventh season, one may start to wonder if there’s any new ground for the show left to cover (some have already been wondering for a while) — but hey, ANY excuse to bring back Burt Macklin, FBI is fine by me.
3. ENLISTED: “Randy Get Your Gun”
THAT LAMP DOESN’T HAVE A FAMILY!
On the one hand, I’m surprised it took this long for a network sitcom to use Toy Story 3 as a key plot point. On the other, I can’t think of any better — or funnier — way to reference it than what Enlisted did last week. Since Randy is the only dude in the platoon who has yet to pass his marksmanship test (he keeps anthropomorphizing the target dummies as actual people with lives and hopes and dreams), Derrick takes it upon himself to toughen the kid up, and turn that hyper-emotional wreck into a stone-cold warrior. He makes Randy recite the entire synopsis of Toy Story 3, which is at first impossible, as Randy stops every minute or so to get bogged down in the story and cry about what’s happening to the characters (at first, he can’t even make it past the Pixar logo without breaking down. Parker Young just kills this whole sequence.) But Derrick’s drilling pays off, as a newly-sociopathic Randy aces his test…but at what cost? Was it worth it, if the empathetic, sensitive, great-with-the-families Randy is gone forever? As Derrick wonders, should Randy even be here if it might “break” him? It’s a fascinating question for a comedy show to ask, and even though in this case Randy is shown to still be Randy — no harm done, and as Cody says, Derrick might have just saved his life — the fact that Enlisted is willing to address these issues bodes well for its future. (That, and being moved from 8:30 to 8:00. Do us all a favor and watch it!)
In the rare B-plot involving the main character, Pete and Jill — who both finished first in that marksmanship test and both want to claim that half-melted bust of General Murray — engage in a series of tiebreaker challenges. After raising the degree of difficulty on the firing range, treading water, disassembling weapons with lightning speed, and even engaging in a Top Chef-esque challenge that Jill would easily win were it not for Private Dobkiss’s decree that neither dish is better than a Calzone (paging Ben Wyatt!), the two are still no closer to determining the winner. Even after Cody lays into them for using their competitiveness as an excuse to flirt (a charge they vehemently deny, but, you know…), the final challenge is a good ol’ “stay awake” game. Ultimately Pete wins, gets to draw a “2” on Jill’s forehead, and any “will they/won’t they” is brushed aside for now. They’d be a terrible match, anyway. I hope Enlisted doesn’t think it needs to make that happen, because they don’t. It’d actually be refreshing if they don’t.
4. NEW GIRL: “Birthday”
You know who didn’t graduate high school? Einstein. Bill Gates. Anne Frank. [beat] I’m going to take back that last one.
This was a rock-solid episode, primarily focusing on Nick’s efforts to give Jess the best birthday ever by first giving her the worst birthday ever. Jess has a self-admitted tendency to expect too much from people (Flashback: “You’re taking me to China?!?” she asks Cece after reading the manufacturer’s tag of an a ordinary shirt), so she wakes up on her big day awaiting equally magnanimous and romantic things from Nick. Nick, however, is just killing time until the big surprise party later that night, so his “birthday plans” consist of breakfast, napping, blood pressure exams, moving rocks from one place to another, and other improvised mundanities. Jess takes it as long as she can, but things boil over when they go for a walk in the park and discover a birthday cupcake setup that Jess realizes belongs to a shade-throwing preteen — after she’s already eaten a few. Nick, who still doesn’t want to ruin the real surprise, lets her run off to the movies alone and in tears (which is how she usually celebrates her birthday), only to reveal what he’s been secretly working on for weeks: a special video with all of her friends and family (well, if you include Tran and Bearclaw as “friends”) wishing her a happy day, capped off with Nick himself, who still has that coin that was in his pocket the first time they kissed. It’s incredibly sweet (while still being quite funny; see: Schmidt walking away from a slow-motion explosion), and marks an impressive course-correction for New Girl in these first few episodes of 2014.
The rest of the episode had its own comic highlights: Winston and Coach, tasked with finalizing the details of the party while Nick is keeping Jess distracted, channel their male competitiveness (going back to their basketball days) into a “bake-off,” and when they’re not constantly shouting “BEHIND!” at each other as they flurry around the kitchen, they’re desperately removing traces of the celebration when a teary Jess shows up and crashes on the couch. This is actually the first time since Coach’s return that he’s shared his own subplot with Winston, and they make a natural team in physical comedy. (Not to mention insult comedy. The only thing we were missing was one of Winston’s infamously terrible pranks.) Meanwhile, Ben Falcone guest-stars as a taunting fellow bartender alongside Cece, who senses (quite rightly) that she’s completely untrained, and goes after her like shark to blood. Fortunately, Schmidt comes to her rescue and walks her through how to make an old-fashioned, and there’s an unusual maturity to their interactions that hints that maybe we shouldn’t give up on that coupling just yet. But next week we’ve got a post-Super Bowl slot and an appearance from Prince, which will certainly overshadow pretty much everything.
5. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: “The Ebony Falcon”
“Gymfiltrating.” I think it’ll really catch on if more people start infiltrating gyms.
B99 is also hoping to benefit from that post-football glow next Sunday, and continues to do a great job of filling out its world (this week’s addition: Private Investigator Leo Sporm, which is impossible to say without laughing — give Andre Braugher an Emmy!), but it’s still short-changing its main character. The “Wife or Dog?” cold open was a thing of brilliance, but even latter-day Office could pull that off. How about the other 20 minutes? Jake Peralta hasn’t done a whole lot of growing and changing since the series began, aside from some softening when it comes to procedural stuff and working with the team, but this episode was just the latest in another long line of plots where his puppy-dog enthusiasm gets the better of him and nearly wrecks the case. This also marks the first time that he’s worked directly with Sgt. Jeffords, who has been more or less in his own orbit as the show has tracked his inevitable return to the field. And Jake doesn’t seem to get what everyone else already knows — that Terry, the “Ebony Falcon,” is more than ready — because he hasn’t been on the shooting range with Gina, or building Terry’s daughter’s dollhouse with Boyle, or spilling the beans to his wife like Holt. But Jake’s squeamishness is at least coming from a place of honest concern, even if he nearly blows the operation by arresting their suspect before Terry can collect any evidence. (Boyle, on the other hand, may have found his true calling as a gym manager. Cloud-based record-keeping? Water bottle pyramids? Wow!) But once Terry lays down the law — and punches Jake in his “lucky face,” a line no one can sell like Andy Samberg — they pull off the sting without another hitch.
The rest of the team is helping Gina deal with a break-in to her apartment, but Gina is unsatisfied with just making lists of what’s been taken (dozens of spanx outfits; a music box that plays “She Works Hard for the Money” when opened;) and chasing down a thief they have no leads for — she wants action! So when her civil lawsuit against Diaz and Santiago (and her hiring of Leo Sporm) is rejected, Holt finally clues the detectives into what’s really going on: Gina’s just scared. Even if this mysterious vulnerable side of Gina — who is just grating to a portion of the audience, though I find her delivery hysterical — is merely told about rather than shown, it’s nice to know it exists. Diaz would rather have an ax and some throwing stars, but she’s not the one protecting a set of homemade Joseph Gordon-Levitt nesting dolls.