For want of a theme

This post contains spoilers for episode 5.06, “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” of Community.

Sometimes, I watch an episode of a TV show and wonder, “What version of this scene ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor?” Or I watch an episode and think, “That was a strange cut. It totally changes the tone or pacing of the scene.” Most of the time, I know I’m overthinking these sorts of editing choices. (Full Disclosure: I have an awful habit of overthinking things, as Kerry and Becca can attest. They’ve received several early morning emails from me on the subject of my former college crush, stemming from Facebook stalking compounded by me overthinking inconsequential things. My point? Give me a topic, I’ll think way too much about it.)

Last night’s episode of Community was no exception, as I wondered how what was ostensibly the A-plot somehow became the C-plot, the B-plot slipped into the lead, and the C-plot moseyed into second place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This week’s episode, “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking,” was (relatively) heavily promoted, given its stable of guest stars:

Whedonverse-regular and star of ABC’s Castle, Nathan Fillion; Paget Brewster, alumna of CBS’s Criminal Minds;

ABC Family’s Katie Leclerc, best known for Switched at Birth; and action movie favorite, Robert Patrick. Plus, Jonathan Banks was back as Professor Buzz Hickey, and Brie Larson returned as Rachel the Coat Check Girl. Some of the guest spots were brief – Larson’s was tucked into the final minutes of the third act – while others, like Leclerc’s, were woven throughout the entire episode. Each appearance was a pleasant surprise, and added a new layer to the world of Greendale. (Because herpes transmitted by the water fountains? Sure. But absolutely no porn allowed through the school’s firewall? Say it ain’t so!)

The three concurrent plots were each well-realized and funny, even if their place in the plot hierarchy was a little muddled. In what essentially served as a prologue, Annie is leading a meeting of the Study Group Save Greendale Committee, of which Chang is now a member, and trying to assign tasks to the other characters.

 

Britta and Abed squabble about spoilers for Bloodlines of Conquest (the Greendale equivalent of Game of Thrones), then are tasked with updating the Greendale Community College student census. Shirley, Jeff, Ian Duncan and Chang avoid volunteering to decorate for the Mid-term Dance *until Annie says she’ll head up the group* – then they all agree to help.

Annie then puts them in charge of the dance, instead putting herself and Hickey on bulletin board posting duty.

On paper, Annie’s task is the A-plot: In the course of negotiating Greendale’s bureaucracy to have a new bulletin board put up in the cafeteria, she and Hickey encounter Fillion’s head custodian, Bob Waite; Brewster’s head of campus IT, Debra Chambers; and Patrick’s campus parking director, promising each one some weirdly specific kick-back in exchange for shuffling the bulletin board work order to the top of the queue. (Moving it ahead of “lower flag to half-staff for Reagan’s funeral,” so, really, Greendale could be further behind.) The dance committee had what appeared to be the B-plot, with Chang’s suggestion first confusing Jeff, Shirley, and Duncan, then bringing them together as a team, before finally bringing them together in shared embarrassment. And Abed and Britta’s cross-campus spoiler war, which used Leclerc’s fluency in sign language, should’ve been the C-plot: The shallowest and easiest to resolve.

This is where it gets tricky: Each of the three plots was funny and clever in its own right, letting us spend time with the characters as themselves, rather than as the extreme versions of themselves we often see in the heavily themed or homage episodes. Jeff and Duncan were their usual responsibility shirking selves. Abed exhibited a dedication to avoiding spoilers typical of his usual compulsions. Annie’s ambition was matched only by her deviousness, and both are traits that should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers season one’s “Social Psychology.”

Yet, Annie and Hickey’s plot, despite both Alison Brie and Banks bringing their A-game, lacks the charm of the other two.

 

It seemed unnecessarily convoluted and repetitive: For want of a looser firewall, a work order was delayed. For want of a closer parking space, a looser firewall was denied. For want of a bulletin board posting supervisor, a closer parking space was refused. For want of a toast, a bulletin board posting supervisor went unapproved. For want of a toast, a wall remained blank. And all for the want of a work order. Perhaps if the cameos had been spread out more equitably, this particular plot wouldn’t have felt as incidental, as created to provide a structure into which the guest stars could easily be inserted.

Abed and Britta’s task provides them a reason for roaming Greendale’s halls, but their plot instead focuses on Britta’s insistence on spoiling Abed for Bloodlines of Conquest. She goes to absurd lengths, matching Abed’s steps to avoid hearing or seeing anything she tries to tell him.

In the course of them avoiding each other, Abed meets Leclerc’s lip-reading and signing student, who peaks his interest. Their interactions are funny and sweet, as Abed quickly learns enough sign language to have a conversation with Leclerc.

As much as Abed’s made-up signs have all the indicators of being offensive, he almost immediately apologizes to Leclerc for not actually knowing sign language.

Meanwhile, Gillian Jacobs gives Britta’s mission to spoil Abed for BoC a gleefulness and dedication that speaks to the state of Abed and Britta’s evolving friendship: They aren’t – and may never be – besties, but her desire to annoy him isn’t done out of spite or ignorance. (Cougarton Abbey, anyone?)

Instead, Britta is poking at Abed the way she’d poke at any of the others in the study group, and, finally, without the assumption of Abed being some thing she needs to fix. I think it’s a layer that’s a result of Britta doing her best to ‘help’ Abed at the end of last week’s Lava World game, in that she finally seems to be accepting Abed needs someone to ground him, as Troy did, rather than someone who’s primary goal is ‘curing’ him. If that’s the tact the show takes, with Britta filling the same role for Abed, albeit in a different way, I think I could finally get behind her pursuing a career in psychology.

Finally, somehow the Mid-term Dance Committee plot took center stage, and in an unexpected way. The dance itself is less important than the decorating, as it’s not unexpected for Greendale to have a dance for any and every event. Chang, who has always been treated as unwelcome hanger-on by the study group and an object of derision and/or pity by his colleagues at Greendale, offers a suggestion for a theme for the dance: ‘Bear Down for Mid-terms.’ Jeff, Duncan, and Shirley are all, understandably, confused and mock Chang, as he repeats his suggestion without elaborating on what he means but grows visibly more frustrated. In an inspired choice, Ken Jeong explodes in a tantrum that is typical of Chang’s earlier behavior, but with an edge of mingled desperation and frustration as he says he knows he’s a joke and they think he’s crazy, but he genuinely wants to contribute.

It’s inspired because Jeong voices, in one brief monologue, what Community – both the show and fandom – have been saying since 2009: This show is unusual and may be best known for spurts of bizarre behavior, but it is as capable of contributing something real to the world as any other comedy, drama, network show or cable masterpiece.

Of course, there sight gags in abundance: Annie’s structurally unsound wall of success; the custodians’ enormous garage versus the IT’s department crammed into a large closet; Abed taping cans over his ears; and Neil bringing in a couple of 24-packs of soda (budget cuts?) as refreshments for the dance.

 There’s added humor in clever dialogue: Dean Pelton’s insouciant “Easy peasy, lemon squeezy”; Garret screaming “IT’S A BEAR DANCE!”; Duncan’s exasperated, “You can’t just repeat it but louder”; Jeff awkwardly trying to sell the new dance theme, ‘Fat Dog for Mid-terms’; and Annie’s “EV-ERY-THING!” (It’s been a while since we heard Annie’s Loud Voice, hasn’t it?)

These all added up to a funny, strange little episode, but I’m still wondering how the plot packed with guest stars wound up the least compelling. Did it happen in editing? Was it a matter of trimming the episode down for time? Or was it intentional, some sort of meta commentary on the propensity for stunt casting? But what do I know? I overthink everything.

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