Comedy Roundup: 4/11

Big, big, BIG changes afoot in Greendale and Pawnee! This post is sponsored by Subway.

COMMUNITY: “Basic Story”

This inspection is going to be the most boring thing that happened since Britta dated Troy.

–Jeff

Wait…Jeff and Britta…got engaged?

Let’s back up.

As the series continues its improbable march towards #sixseasonsandamovie — all but confirmed, so close to the magic 100-episode mark — it’s time to take stock of just what this season has been about. Apart from its many inspired comedic highs (Hot Lava, D&D, last week’s undercooked-but-still-funny G.I. Joe homage), Dan Harmon & co. have worked extremely hard to drill down to the essence of these characters, and make them relatable, three-dimensional Human Beings again. So much so, that the episode opens with the Committee to Save Greendale in a “lull of contentment,” having accomplished essentially everything on Annie’s punch list, and the group mindlessly playing games on their phones (or, if you’re Chang, fiddling with the app that controls the sprinkler system). This is extremely unsettling to Abed, who desperately needs a story to be a part of, and will fabricate one if need be. Fortunately, it seems like he’ll get an assist from the Dean, who has just been told by the two bro-tastic board members that the campus is about to be appraised by an insurance agent. Every year, the school is shown to be a negative asset, but with all of the Committee’s improvements, who knows?

But this is no “call to adventure,” as Abed hopes. Jeff pulls him aside and tells him, quite clearly (if roughly), that there are no more stories; the group has done what it has set out to do, so Abed needs to not screw this up by infusing unnecessary weird drama. And even when the appraiser shows up, a deeply strange man named “Ronald Muhammad” (don’t say anything, he’s heard it all before), who quotes Dante and leads himself down explanatory rabbit trails while the group stands by awkwardly, it all goes — shockingly — according to plan. Thanks to the Committee, the fire exits actually lead outside, the wild animals have been removed, and no one is getting toppled by a vending machine, so guess what? The campus is actually a financial asset! For the first time ever! Cue up the Dave Matthews! And cue up the announcement, from the board, that the place is being sold. Jeff and the gang did manage to “Save Greendale”…so they could watch it be taken away.

So for the second time in its history, Community turns into a bizarre Subway commercial, as the sandwich shop takes ownership of the campus, renaming it “Subway University.” Even Jared Fogle is here. (How the show gets away with mercilessly ribbing the company providing product placement is something even 30 Rock would marvel at.) Chang, having reversed his loyalties once more to whoever is currently in power (Britta: “He unexpectedly betrayed us for the last time!”), runs around the old study room singing their commercial jingles (and CURSE YOU, show, for letting him put it back in my brain.) The group, their reason for existence entirely undermined, is ready to concede to the unstoppable will of capitalism, an especially tough thing for Britta to swallow. However, Abed, who has been — as is his custom — off in his own meta world, the very rhythms of his existence thrown off without a story to actively participate in (watch the camera barely keep up with him as he runs down the halls like something out of The Truman Show), comes across what he begged the story gods for at the top of the episode: a map to buried treasure. Is it more than a little deux ex machina, the sudden reveal of a former computer professor who left a roll of parchment behind his photo in the Dean’s office, a photo we have never seen before? Certainly. But Abed doesn’t care, because he has a purpose again. And Annie does to, and so does the Dean, who puts aside his labelmaker and gears up for one final quest.

And perhaps it is the final quest, as Harmon finds himself once more in the position of writing both a season and possible series finale. He juggled both aspects relatively well at the end of Season 3, but both that episode and this one (and, presumably, next week’s second half) drop massive character bombs that seem to come out of nowhere. For Duncan and Hickey, who would not appear in a sixth season anyway, their exit strategy feels a little more natural (and quite funny, as that tag shows). But Community begins and ends with the journey of Jeff Winger, who — uninterested in teaching “Sandwich Law” or making use of his new Subway Black Card — makes the most impulsive decision of all: while reminiscing with Britta about what first brought them together way back when (him just wanting to sleep with her), and how they’ve grown since, they get caught up in the crushing finality of the moment and…Jeff proposes! And she says yes! Not too emphatically, but she says yes.

Again, it feels like a somewhat arbitrary decision for the show to make, with Jeff still having a simmering, well-documented chemistry with Annie. Moreover, neither Jeff or Britta — especially Britta — are the marrying type. It’s the kind of stunt a more typical show typically pulls at the end of its run: if they don’t get another season, they’ll ride off into the sunset. If they do, it’ll fall apart almost immediately and they’ll go a different direction next time. I’ll give Harmon the benefit of the doubt for now, as we see how this develops (or doesn’t. They’re surely doomed, and they know it.) Anyway, before they can seal the deal on the new study room table, Jeff and Britta get interrupted with the Dean, Abed & Annie’s buried treasure dance. It’s not the show’s strongest cliffhanger (actually, it’s probably the weakest), but it’s character-centered, not gimmick-centered. Which is nice, in its own way. Much depends on how things get wrapped up next week, but I’m in.

 

PARKS AND RECREATION: “Flu Season 2”

You know in the movies when the cops find lipstick on a wine glass next to a dead body? This is that wine.

–April

The first “Flu Season,” from Season 3, was a comedic high water mark for Parks (“Stop. Pooping.”) — and there were questions, when the title of this episode was revealed, as to how the show would go about rehashing the same concept. As it turns out, this episode has very, very little to do with the flu. In fact, no one actually has it, save Larry, who Leslie has literally quarantined inside a tent while the team continues to plan out the Unity Concert. “Flu Season 2” is instead somewhat disjointed, with (like this week’s Community) characters making decisions that don’t totally jive with what we know about them, redeemed by a single game-changing reveal and the usual plethora of gags. Unlike Community, however, Parks has already been renewed for a seventh (likely final) season, and has a clear way forward — if it can just get all the pieces in place.

So not to bury the lede, but Leslie is pregnant! The old TV adage of “woman pukes into trash can = pregnant” holds true once more. It’s exciting, wonderful for her AND for the show, and her final scene with Ben — “Well Buddy, I’ve got some good news for you” — was entirely heartwarming. How Leslie manages motherhood alongside her soon-to-be-burgeoning political career is a great dynamic for Parks to introduce, because it provides a strong internal conflict to a story that could otherwise simply be “Leslie has a dream, Ben supports her, she achieves her dream.” How will it affect that dangling job offer with the NPS? Will it make her even less likely to leave Pawnee? How far along will she be when the show returns next Spring? These are all questions I’m looking forward to the show answering.

But in the short term, aside from that last moment at the Wyatt home, this is a jumbled episode, both over-stuffed (with guest stars) and under-developed. So many of the tiny details are as brilliant as we’ve come to expect from the show: the pregnancy test called “WOMB THERE IT IS;” Andy’s sage — and completely misunderstanding — advice to Leslie (he thought she was getting a dog); just about everything with Other Ron, right down to the actual falcon alighting on his arm. Most memorable is the monstrous, Bieber-esque presence of Chipp McCapp (Bo Burnham), a pitch-perfect parody of terrible, pandering Country music that crowbars “mom,” “freedom,” and “support the troops” into every other line of lyrics, while Chipp himself is a truly awful person who shoots his beleaguered dad with a paintball gun because he can.

While I’m not sure how Leslie and Andy got access to his studio, or where it actually is, they now find themselves down a headliner for the concert after McCapp bails (he has a hair appointment.) So instead, they throw a Hail Mary pass at the home of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, playing the former frontman of a band called “Land Ho” that will never, ever, ever get back together — until, charmed by the pair (and his son’s recognizing of Andy as “Johnny Karate,” who is very particular about how Tweedy sings his inane lyrics), he agrees. But Leslie is sitting (almost literally) on an even bigger piece of news, something she can’t even share with Ben because he dropped his phone in a puddle while drunk on blueberry wine. Nothing negative about this episode can be laid at the feet of Adam Scott, who is already brilliant at playing “uptight and wasted,” and nails all of his physical character beats in hysterical fashion.

But Ben’s big problem in this episode just isn’t that interesting — his parents (who we have only seen once) have sold his family’s lakehouse (a place we have never seen), and it’s eating him up for a reason it takes him the entire episode to understand. It comes to a head while attending a wine tasting with Ron, April, Donna, Craig, and Tom (who is there to impress a sommelier that he wants to lure to his bistro, another story thread I have problem with). A hammered Ben opens up to Ron, and the two decide to walk home (Ron: “I’m always up for a brisk walk. Also, if I leave you I’m pretty sure you’ll die.”) On the way, they come across Sam Elliot’s “Other Ron,” who tries to help Ben become one with the Universe. (“It all depends on whether your conception of time is circular or linear.” Easy there, Rust Cohle.) He does manage to identify his spirit animal (baby snow owl, obviously), but makes the questionable decision to toss the check from his parents — his share of the sale — in the fire. Uh, you’re going to need that money, Ben. Ron, barely unable to hide his revulsion of Other Ron, knows this was a bad move. As do I. Ben doesn’t even seem to regret it later, which is unusual for him.

As for the others, I remain unsold on the prospect of “Tommy’s Bistro” as a viable enterprise for either Tom himself or for the show in general, but it provided some funny moments this week, starting with April “Professional Drinker” Ludgate’s anarchic deconstruction of the sommelier experience. (“I’m getting hints of dried robin’s blood, old, dirty cashews, and just a hint of a robot’s bathwater.”) Tom is unable to get his man, but he does get Craig, who shows a surprising ability to turn it down a thousand notches (when in front of customers, at least — “WHAT KIND OF MONSTER ORDERS RED WITH FISH??”) and makes his case for Tom to hire him instead. Craig, already being a challenging addition for coming this late in the show’s run, is a polarizing figure — he’s basically human Caps Lock — but it’s nice to FINALLY see a different shade to him. Hopefully Parks can also convince me that the restaurant business is a good choice for Tom, as he has yet to bring any personal touch of his own into it.

With two episodes to go (including an hour-long finale), Parks is slowly but surely moving its pieces around the board, even if it doesn’t have the thrilling momentum of years past. It has yet to be as consistently marvelous as it was in Seasons 3 or 4, but it’s as enjoyable as ever and — most importantly — its big emotional beats are still ringing true. Now excuse me, I’m going to watch that last scene again.

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