TV Review: COMMUNITY 3.18 - “Course Listing Unavailable”
"What are you, my final?"
As I mentioned last week (well, alluded to - does anyone care if I put major spoilers in these things? I try to keep them vague for folks who watch later on Hulu or whatever, but is it necessary?), I wasn't exactly broken up about Star-Burns' death, as he never really evolved into a real character like Leonard or "Real" Neil. So I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy "Course Listing Unavailable", which was said to be an episode about the study group (and Greendale) dealing with his death. With only four episodes left of the season, I wasn't sure I wanted to waste time glorifying someone that wasn't particularly interesting.
But again, I should know to just trust the writers, because that's exactly the point of the first part of this somewhat disjointed but very funny episode. As the group convenes to study (pfft), Annie tries to get them to open up about this alleged tragedy, but Jeff points out, they should probably only talk about him in death as much as they did in life (i.e. not much at all). Death happens to everyone (even Troy's pen pal, eventually) - one minute something is there, and then the next it's not. No sooner does he say this does the Dean burst in (after carefully selecting a costume) and inform them that Professor Kane has left the school and their biology grades will be incomplete, which means they'll have to make up the credit over summer. And THEN Jeff grieves over the loss of a loved one - his summer free time.
We then go to a memorial for Star-Burns, which starts off OK enough thanks to Garrett's beautiful rendition of "Ave Maria", but devolves into an anti-Greendale rally as our group turns on the school that has screwed them out of their summer break, and in some cases crushed their dreams. Bad timing, as it turns out, because Chang has finally assembled his army and is ready to initiate his takeover of the school, which results in a full-scale (but funny) riot, complete with pepper spray and the cutest riot gear anyone's ever seen.
And then there's ANOTHER plot change, which is getting into that spoiler territory as it will seemingly play a part in at least one future episode (I highly doubt that the action against our group will be permanent). The episode is broken up into just a few long scenes, with our cast constantly grouped together and being moved from place to place. This season is 2 episodes shorter than the others, so it wouldn't surprise me if their plotting didn't account for that and they had to squeeze two episodes' worth of plot into one. It's not that it's confusing or even badly written, but the rhythm is noticeably different than typical episodes. I assume that the stuff from the 3rd act is what sets up the next few episodes, but as a stand-alone it definitely doesn't feel as complete as the average episode. Kind of like the 6th "Dark Tower" book - it's not bad by any means, but it's like half wrapping up the previous episode and half setting up the next, without really having a central focus of its own.
Luckily two things kept that from being a problem for me. One is that it's a goddamned hilarious episode from start to finish, with every single character (even Chang) getting a big laugh. Dean in particular is on fire tonight, both with his usual strangeness and some rare hostility toward the study group ("You were the ones who designed it!"), not to mention an out of nowhere realization about a certain character. And it's another dynamite showcase for Gillian Jacobs, as Britta attempts to give the group some grief therapy that involves burning puppies and the reveal that she once made out with the departed Alex. Hell, even Star-Burns gets to be funny, both with his insane video will and the episode's tag, a video tribute set to a Dragonforce-type power ballad. In terms of laughs per minute, it's probably one of the season's most successful episodes.
Part of that success stems from the fact that the group is together at all times - they're even dubbed "The Greendale Seven" (Or "Pierce Hawthorne and The Greendale Six", if you will), with no character getting the focus, or worse, someone being left behind. Everyone is present at the eulogy, everyone suffers through Britta's therapy session, etc. And there's a loving playfulness and strong bond to their interactions; I swear I even saw Britta resting her head on Pierce's shoulder at one point. I've said it before and I'll say it again, there was some sort of supernatural mojo going on when they cast this show, because they mesh so perfectly together (even Chevy, when he's trying anyway), and this is one of those episodes that wouldn't work at all if not for the fact that these seven people are totally in sync and willing to set the others up for a laugh.
The other big "save" is the closing scene, which recalls the classic "Remedial Chaos Theory" as the group convenes at Trobed's (Oh wait, Annie lives there. Trobedie's?) to reflect on what just happened, and again order up some pizza. Here it gets a bit user-unfriendly, as they not only start discussing the events of "Chaos" but also bring back its only guest star out of nowhere, a bit that won't make a lick of sense to anyone who missed that episode. Even if you skipped last week's, this episode is actually fairly accessible for a casual fan of the show, but this bit just won't work at all without having seen "Chaos".
But I have, and I assume many of you have as well, and that makes it a wonderful and surprisingly moving bit, as one of the group points out that everything that happened that day didn't matter, because they were still together and alive. A bit sappy, but the person who says it gives it extra resonance (even though some might claim it's totally out of character; I don't agree but I can see their point), and there are still a few laughs within, particularly a line from Shirley that's probably speaking for those audience members who might be in the dark.
See, not only does it work within the context of the episode (and the season, given the many fights they've had - it's worth noting that there isn't one real inner-group conflict throughout the half hour), but also in a meta way about the show itself - if not for its abruptness, this could have been the closing scene for the series finale. I hate to say it, but the show's fate is being decided in the next few days, and there's still no guarantee that it will be the decision any of us want to hear. Should the show go the way of Star-Burns, this little speech may serve as its eulogy: we should be happy everyone's still together NOW, and no matter what happens, the show will live on. And like Star-Burns, someone will undoubtedly take assorted footage and make a pretty awesome tribute video for it.
Ultimately this one reminded me of the classic Simpsons episode "And Maggie Makes Three", a flashback episode that explains how Homer once had his dream job, but was forced to give it up when Marge got pregnant with Maggie. It ends on a bit that makes me choke up just thinking about it, and while I didn't shed any tears tonight, "Course Listing Unavailable" had a similar structure to that classic. Both are funny episodes with touching, wonderful endings that you probably didn't see coming, and both remind you that underneath all the craziness and laughs, there's a real heart to the show that keeps you coming back.
In other words, it's a lot better than the episode of 90210 where they dealt with Scott's death. That shit was unbearable.