“I read 1984; it really changed me in high school. I think kids should be forced to read it.”
After “Paradigms Of Human Memory” and “Remedial Chaos Theory," it was starting to look like Chris McKenna was the Community writing staff’s go-to guy for complicated episodes that are treasured by fans and critics alike. However, he also wrote tonight’s “Digital Exploration Of Interior Design” (which was directed by Derrick Comedy's Dan Eckman! Look for the other members in unbilled cameos), and that title is about as confusing as it gets – it’s actually a pretty “normal” episode as far as the plotting goes, and relatively easy for newcomers to follow. More importantly, it’s also a hilarious half hour and the best of the episodes that have aired post-hiatus.
Like “Sandwich Arts”, we have an episode with everyone splitting off, but no one being left behind (except Chang, who does not appear). As the episode begins, Pierce and Shirley are trying to figure out a way to get rid of the Subway sandwich shop that has opened in the spot that they planned to open Shirley’s own eatery. After discovering that an eatery must be owned by a Greendale student, they learn that a student has agreed to change his name to Subway, which is perfectly acceptable per the Greendale bylaws (in which the Dean makes another discovery that serves as one of the episode’s best jokes). Thus, for once, Shirley realizes that Britta’s penchant for casual sex can be a benefit – they enlist her to get close to “Subway” and gain inside knowledge to sabotage him. Things, naturally, don’t go as planned.
Meanwhile, Jeff discovers that he has been assigned a locker for his nearly three full years at Greendale. Upon finally opening it, he discovers a note from someone named Kim that calls him an inconsiderate jerk, which sends him on a quest to find out who Kim is and what he did to deserve this insult. It’s the least essential storyline of the episode, but I liked that it went back to Season 1’s more dickish version of Jeff Winger (love the “I didn’t sneeze” bit), who has softened over time – we HEAR about him being a vain asshole quite often, but on the show itself his actions over the past season and change tend to be less overtly douchey. When the show first started, I was kind of surprised at how willing the writers (and Joel McHale himself) were willing to depict their main character as a thoughtless jerk, so it’s nice to see a bit of that edge again. It also provides Annie (who aids him on his "quest") some terrific moments, particularly when the subplot reaches its conclusion (an unsatisfying one, in her eyes).
The other plot is the one that might cause panic among the show’s fans: the beginning the end for the “bromance” between Troy and Abed. The two start off the episode building a pillow fort, but Troy decides he’d rather do another blanket fort, especially after some pressure from Dean Laybourne (John Goodman) who gets into his head using (what else?) Dr. Spacetime metaphors. Unfortunately, Abed doesn’t want to repeat himself, and so the two split up and do their own thing. Of course, the two forts meet in the study room, and a turf war begins over who should get the remaining space. Anyone that follows the press and showrunner interviews about the show know that this “Civil War” plotline is something that will run for a couple episodes as the season winds down – it’s going to be tough to watch knowing that the pair are at odds. Hell, I don’t even like the first couple episodes in S1 in retrospect because Troy is openly dismissive of Abed, so seeing them BOTH treat each other like this actually kind of stings a little. It’d be like watching Elliott kick ET in his gut.
But fear not – it’s still funny. Damn funny, in fact. Jeff’s reaction to the war’s “first strike," the Dean’s hopelessly unhelpful (but cheerfully delivered) decision over who gets the study room space, and a few other sight gags keep these dramatic moments from being too harsh. It also gives Magnitude something to do besides say “Pop Pop," and features Star-Burns, who has been largely MIA this season, it seems. Not to mention the other two stories, which are jam-packed with laughs. Pierce in particular is funnier than he’s been in ages, as he seems to be getting a bit loopy (or just senile), and Chevy Chase acting weird is always good for a laugh, something Chase himself seems to agree with - it’s the most animated he’s been all season.
Oh, and it features the best boner joke I’ve ever heard outside of a Jim Steinman song. It was great fun watching this scene at Wondercon because of the various reaction times as people slowly came around to what was happening – some got it instantly, others took a long time (and some I think STILL didn’t quite get it). Actually I probably could have just skipped all of the above and just said “Britta gives a guy a boner” and the West coast ratings would skyrocket. But I’m classy.
Speaking of class, the Subway product placement may irk some, but as with S2’s brilliant usage of a KFC sponsorship in “Basic Rocket Design," the show’s writers are too good to let it just be some obnoxious and ubiquitous prop, or have the characters awkwardly tell their friends about how good their sandwich is – it’s actually an important part of the plot. I could go into it more, but why bother – our own Film Crit Hulk has some thoughts on the matter, and he has graciously offered to double the value of this article with the following paragraph:
THANKS BRIAN. THE SUBWAY ELEMENT OF THIS SHOW MAY BE HULK'S FAVORITE THING THAT HAS APPEARED ON COMMUNITY. HULK NOT SAY THAT LIGHTLY. THE REASON IS THIS: TV SHOWS HAVE BEEN TRYING TO TACKLE THE "PRODUCT PLACEMENT" ISSUE FOR A FEW YEARS NOW AND HAVE HAD ABSOLUTELY NO SUCCESS. USUALLY IT'S JUST USED AS THIS OVERT AND OBVIOUS JOKE, OR THEY POINT IT OUT AS SOME SELF-EFFACING SHILL JOB, BUT EVEN WHEN THESE DEVICES GET A LAUGH, NONE OF THEM REALLY "WORK." AND THAT'S BECAUSE THERE IS NO REAL WAY TO SUCCEED WITH IT. BY ITS VERY NATURE, PRODUCT PLACEMENT CAN *ONLY* END IN A BUSINESS COMPROMISE. AND WHAT THIS EPISODE MANAGES TO ACCOMPLISH IS THAT IT FINDS THE PERFECT WAY TO EXPRESS THAT; TO DISTILL THE WAYS THAT CORPORATE CULTURE HAS INFLUENCED BOTH OUR MEDIA, DAILY LIVES AND PERSONAL CHOICES. AND AS SCATHING AS THE WHOLE PLOT CAN BE AT TIMES, IT IS ALSO ONE OF THE MORE UNDERSTANDING TREATMENTS HULK HAS EVER SEEN TOO. THROUGH "SUBWAY'S" HISTORY IT DIRECTLY ADDRESSES THE WAY WE COMPROMISE IN THE NAME OF LIVELIHOOD, HOW WE ESCHEW OURSELVES AND HOW WE TRY TO CONNECT BENEATH THOSE SURFACES ANYWAY. THIS ALL MAY SOUND A LITTLE SILLY, BUT HULK ASSURE YOU THAT THE LAYERS ARE ALL THERE. NOTHING MAKES IT MORE CLEAR THAN THE WAY THE ENTIRE PLOT ULTIMATELY REVERTS BACK TO COMMENT ON THOSE IN CHARGE (AND THEIR COMPLETELY BACKWARDS ETHICAL STANDARDS, COMPLETE WITH BONERS). THIS IS THE FIRST PRODUCT PLACEMENT DISTILLATION THAT HULK HAS EVER SEEN THAT TRULY "WORKS". AND THAT'S BECAUSE IT WAS NEVER A COMPROMISE. IT'S AN OUTWARD + INWARD, HUMANE ANALYSIS THAT ALSO HAPPENED TO BE HILARIOUS ... EAT FRESH!
Thank you sir. Sorry that your intelligent, interesting insight had to follow up a paragraph about boners.
Overall, it’s probably closer to what fans who disliked “Sandwich Arts” (I was not one of them – and I think on DVD folks will realize how underrated that one is) want from the show when it’s not doing crazy themed episodes. The pillow fort stuff is silly enough to give the show some of its trademarked “like nothing else on TV” cred, and the laughs are a little more frequent (and without a single goddamn thought balloon!). A nearly perfect “normal” episode, and an important one in the canon as it kicks off the season’s 3rd act.
P.S. Food for thought – is it just me, or do the “Greendale Seven” go to class about as often as Homer Simpson goes to work? Not that I care much, but I don’t think there’s been a single scene of them in a class (together or alone) since the THIRD episode of the season (Todd!). With so much of the effort to keep the show airing another year based on the “Let us see them graduate!” motive, it might hold a bit more water if they were ever seen doing anything related to their degrees.