"Why not raisin?"
I’ve only seen one episode of Law & Order in its entirety, and that would be the one where Chevy Chase played Mel Gibs- er, Mitch Carroll, a beloved actor who was arrested for driving drunk and turned out to be an anti-Semite. I only tuned in for Chevy; I knew that the show was, for the most part, the sort of procedural I tend to dislike, in that there’s almost no growth for the characters, no major story arcs to latch on to, etc. In fact most of the episodes don’t even air in order; even the season premieres tend to be the 3rd episode in the production order. No, Community is more my speed, when an episode swap actually causes problems and the characters have shown tremendous growth since the show (hell, the SEASON) began. But sometimes I just like to laugh, and on that level, you can’t ask for a better example than “Basic Lupine Urology” (the show’s cleverest episode title yet; I admit I had to look it up after realizing the episode had nothing to do with wolves). It’s light on character beats – apart from Jeff springing to action because he thought Annie wanted him to come after hours to the biology lab for sex, you don’t need to know who these people are to follow the episode’s story (and even that is a stretch). This could be your first episode of Community and you’ll probably find it just as funny as a die-hard fan, which is exactly what the show needs right now after weeks of soft ratings as it heads into the all-important sweeps period.
However, you might need to know a bit about Law & Order, which shouldn’t be that difficult as there isn’t an hour of the day where it’s not airing on one cable channel or another. Like I said, I’ve only seen one complete episode (which I barely remember), but it’s inescapable, and I think most folks will have ABSORBED enough of the show’s existence to get the jokes tonight. From the witnesses that are constantly engaged in busy work, to the half investigation/half trial structure, to the fact that it ends on a cold note (more on that later), Megan Ganz' script and director Rob Schrab (a long-time Harmon collaborator making his Community debut here, I believe) fully nail the show’s style and tone – in fact it may be their most successful “style parody” yet.
So who’s the vic? We know someone dies tonight – is Greendale so screwy that a murder victim would be investigated by our study group? No, the death is unrelated – the episode centers on a murdered yam. The study group’s yam, in fact (if you recall, they all have to share assignments – and a grade – for the entire semester), which is found on the floor and seemingly stomped to death. Shirley takes on the role as chief since she watches crime shows in her spare time, assigning “officers” Troy and Abed (decked out like Jerry Orbach) to figure out who the culprit is. Naturally, they first suspect Pierce, who has botched the assignment in his own way (being too late to water it because he fell asleep in a sunbeam - "it's pretty adorable") but reminds them that they have an enemy: TODD.
Yes, Todd! The central character in "Competitive Ecology", one of the show’s most polarizing episodes (I loved it, for the record). I’ve been waiting all season for him to come back, and he does not disappoint in his role as the most likely suspect, who is ultimately put on trial in the Biology class “courtroom”. His lawyer is played by Michael Ironside, continuing this season’s amazing array of great character actors (such as Keith David and Luis Guzmán, not to mention John Goodman’s recurring role), and it’s always fun to see an outsider’s perspective on Greendale’s strange way of conducting itself. And we get double the dosage of that tonight, as Michael K. Williams finally returns as Professor Kane, once again deriving much humor from his exasperation at how nonsensical everything around him is (particularly during the trial).
Their jokes are not the only ones, however. It might be paying homage to a show not known for its humor, but this is actually the funniest episode of the season, I think. I laughed out loud several times per act, and honestly can’t think of a single joke that didn’t really work for me (and I probably missed some – I’m sure there were some specific L&O gags that went over my head). Annie’s text, Dean’s hula hoop (and his lullaby!), Abed and Troy swapping their good cop/bad cop routine, Todd’s explanation of how lives were saved in Iraq… gut busters all. And while I’d normally scoff at an episode that confines Britta to a single scene, her bit is so damn good that it almost makes up for it – the shot of her operating the computer is possibly the most adorably awkward thing I’ve ever seen. Pierce is also limited to a single scene, and it’s interesting that they're the two left out since Chevy Chase and Gillian Jacobs are the only two of the show’s nine actors who have actually appeared on L&O (Chevy on the flagship, Gillian on Criminal Intent). Perhaps some things are just too meta even for Community.
Now, for the first 25 minutes, this episode is guilty of something that’s never been true of the show before: it’s kind of a throwaway. Nothing’s going on with the characters, no development of Troy in the air conditioning school or Chang’s uprising; even a bit about someone needing a shrink doesn’t result in a Britta moment. The show’s greatest strength (for die-hards; it’s almost a bit of a detriment for ratings) is that they don’t waste a half hour on something that has no payoff – the zombie episode had Chang and Shirley hooking up, the clip show had the reveal that Jeff and Britta had been hooking up, etc. So it’s a bit odd, as the episode progresses, when you realize that there hasn’t really been any drama or anything involving this season’s arcs.
But then the final scene begins. It seems like a typical L&O ending, with everyone toasting their success and wrapping things up, and then the phone rings and we find out that a “beloved” Greendale regular has perished. Personally I’m not too broken up about it – it’s a character that could have been turned into someone more interesting but never really moved beyond his one-joke premise (telling that the biggest scene the character ever had prior to tonight was actually cut from its respective episode). What’s interesting is that he was one of only two options I’d feel that way about, and the other makes a typically one-note appearance here that did nothing to change that opinion. But I’ve grown to love the rest of their fellow “background” characters, and I’d honestly be bummed out if any of them passed. In other words, if they absolutely had to kill someone off, I’m glad it was this particular person. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it was thrown in at the last minute to justify the rest of the episode’s throwaway nature, or if they actually DESIGNED a throwaway episode to throw us off, and build toward a moment that in no way can be undone (and will be followed up in next week's episode). Considering the level of talent among the show’s writing staff, I suspect the latter.
So if you love that character, my condolences. I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it, especially when I’m so happy that they have delivered such a breezy, hilarious episode after a couple that have been so dark. A while back I wrote about 10 episodes that can make a newcomer get why folks love this show so much and turn them into regular fans – this is #11.