"All you're making me feel right now is hatred of Renée Zellweger."
At Wondercon this past weekend, Dan Harmon said that for the first time that they had swapped the episode order for Community on purpose, claiming that they wanted a better episode for the return from hiatus. I had assumed that he meant that "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts" was merely a more accessible episode than what should have come first, but as it turns out "Contemporary Impressionists" wasn't much weirder than "Sandwich" at all - it's just not as funny.
While far from a bad episode (that would be something like "Competitive Wine Tasting"), this one doesn't quite hit the mark with the laughs as well as last week's, and doesn't do as good of a job with regards to using the core cast. Of course, that seems to happen a lot whenever they give a chunk of the episode to Chang, which is precisely what happens tonight as he begins the "Chang Rises" plotline that we have been hearing about on Twitter and such for a while now. Chang has always been a hit or miss character, but here he's mostly just standing around talking to children (would-be "security interns") and having unfunny thought bubbles. His scene with the Dean early on is good (any scene with Jim Rash is good, as a rule), and I loved his misunderstanding of what a Bris is, but as the start of what is going to be a multi-episode arc... let's just say I'm not convinced it'll be the show's best plotline. However, it might work better in context with the episodes to come, and I should know by now to trust the writers.
Then again, important setup or not, every minute spent on Chang is time we could be spending with Annie, Pierce, or Shirley, all of whom are glorified extras in this episode (pity the person who tunes in tonight and thinks that this show regularly wastes Alison Brie). They each get a laugh or two, but no actual role to play in the plot beyond BEING THERE (and there's not a single shot of Pierce with anyone else once they get to the party - did Chevy Chase shoot his scenes on a different day?). It'd be less problematic if the others were having top-notch episodes, but the script (credited to newcomer Alex Cooley, though I hate attributing any episode's script to one writer since everyone contributes) often resorts to cartoonish antics that seem out of place, even in this show.
A pity, that, since the main plot actually seems perfect for the cast's impressive range and lack of pretension. After a pretty funny Fugitive re-enactment, we discover that Abed owes some money to a Celebrity Impersonators group (led by French Stewart) because he keeps hiring their actors to perform full movie scenes with him, just to amuse himself. To pay them back before a Ving Rhames impersonator breaks Abed's legs, Stewart forces the group to don costumes and perform at a kid's Bar Mitzvah (30 Rock had a few of its stars blackmailed into performing at this particular Jewish ceremony as well in a recent episode - they sharing writer's rooms over at NBC or something?). Of course, the sight of Gillian Jacobs dressed as late period Michael Jackson and Chevy Chase as Burt Reynolds (or Fat Brando) is worthy of a chuckle, but they fail to mine the gag for any real humor; Annie is Judy Garland (as Dorothy) and I don't think there's a single moment where she even speaks in character.
Anyway, most of the focus here falls on Jeff, who is tasked with going as Ryan Seacrest (heh). Unfortunately, his new shrink has prescribed him anti-anxiety medication, which has inadvertently caused his already sizable ego to surge. Had the story played on some grounded level, this could be both hilarious (which it is, in the first act or so anyway) and even a strong character episode for Jeff. But instead they go for 30 Rock-esque surrealism, and (spoiler?) he turns into the Hulk, more or less. It's not that it's unfunny on its own, but I was troubled that it was essentially an inverse of the show's usual MO - no matter how wacky the situation, the characters tend to remain grounded in reality (or their own version of it, in Abed's case). Here the situation is kind of normal, but Jeff is rampaging around tearing his clothes off and such. I'm sure it'll be amusing to some (and few female viewers will be complaining at the sight of a shirtless McHale, I'm sure), but it didn't really sit well with me, though his "come down" scene with Britta was pretty nice (and there's a great music cue that should delight those who can place it).
On the positive side, it's a rare Troy-centric episode, as he's the one who rallies the group together, and given most of the dramatic moments (for the first time since "Mixology Certification", I think?). And in an odd way, the switching of the episode order actually helps a bit, as his strained relationship with Abed plays a part in the episode airing on the 29th (which we saw at Wondercon), so last week's tale (with them tighter than ever) would be a bit awkward if placed in between. Though, I guess, not as awkward as the fact that this one begins with everyone hugging each other after a long winter break*.
And despite its issues, it still delivers some solid laughs (Jim Rash's scene with Jeff in particular is comic gold, and Britta's reveal about a certain parking situation is a wonderful moment for the "shippers"), and Troy's dramatic moments are quite good. In an odd move, he gives a terrific, moving speech about how Abed makes their lives better... but it's in the episode's first 10 minutes. It's the sort of moment that, if it came at the end, could have saved an otherwise underwhelming episode, but (as with most of the good laughs), "Impressionists" is front-loaded, ending on a weird bit inside the Dreamatorium that seems to be setting up future plotlines. That's probably why I'm a bit less enthusiastic about this one than average; it starts strong but ultimately loses focus, and kind of ends on a downer note. I suspect it'll be more enjoyable on DVD, when it's grouped with superior bookends that continue its plot threads.
But that's just me. Hopefully, those new fans that got the show to a 2.2 last week will find this one satisfying enough to keep coming back. I've seen the next episode (not sure the name, I'm just calling it "The Subway Episode" for now) and it is the best of this new lot, so I'm OK with this one being a minor step back.
*We've seen that these folks are pretty much the only friends they have, what with just them helping Annie move, just them taking Troy out for his birthday, etc. So what do they DO over break if they're not hanging out and seemingly have no other friends? Just sitting alone in their apartments for 2-3 weeks? Read all about it in my new book: "I Put Way Too Much Thought Into The Off-Screen Lives Of Fictional Characters".