TV Review: COMMUNITY 4.04 “Alternative History of the German Invasion”

Some old familiar faces drop by in this week's episode of COMMUNITY.

"And that failed ventriloquist's name was Slobodan Milosevic."

Since "Alternative History Of The German Invasion" is credited as episode 402, I was worried that they were pushing it back on purpose, not unlike the weak "Celebrity Impressionists" episode last season (which, if you recall, would have been the first one to air after hiatus but Harmon, who disliked the episode, had it swapped with the superior "Sandwich Arts"), but after a shaky setup I actually had a lot of fun with this one. And that's like a lot of episodes of yore - much like the seasons as a whole, sometimes an episode doesn't really click until the first act is through, which is fine by me. Better to finish strong after a weak start than the other way around.

As it should have been the second episode, it picks up where the premiere left off - the Greendale Seven are off to their first "real" history class, still angry about losing their seats in the "History of Ice Cream" course (something Pierce doesn't seem to be aware has happened). Their new instructor is a disgraced Oxford professor played by Malcolm McDowell, restoring a tradition we haven't seen for a while - guest star teachers! And among the roster in the class are the obnoxious Germans from the Foosball episode, although Nick Kroll's character has been replaced by his brother Reinhold, played by Chris Diamantopolous, who some of you might recognize as Brian the boom guy from this season of The Office. The language jokes are pretty similar (and there's a pretty worthless subplot that reveals one of them is an online gaming friend of Abed's), making their early scenes feel a bit forced, but it ultimately paves the way for what the episode is really about, when the two groups begin fighting over the study room.

Every sitcom that used a public place as its center has had this situation - what happens when another group takes "their" spot? The couches at Central Perk, Jerry's table at Tom's Restaurant... either as a throwaway gag or the focus of an episode, it's bound to come up, and it's always a fun way to introduce a little reality to a situation (and then go back to ignoring it). So now it's Community's turn to show what happens when they lose their table to another group - at first they just try getting up earlier to secure it before the Germans get there, only to be thwarted and get stuck in "B" study rooms with shady electricity (a scene that exists solely to let Chevy engage in some of his physical humor) and noxious air conditioning. So they finally find a way to get them banned from the room (involving Hogan's Heroes-style shenanigans), only to discover that the entire school is sick of them monopolizing the room for themselves.

This leads to the best sequence of not only the episode but the entire season so far, when flashbacks show past attempts of other familiar Greendale faces trying to use the room. Garrett freaks out when he sees them standing around naked (from "Cooperative Calligraphy"), Leonard is informed that they will be in there for a few hours playing D&D, and... well I'll leave the other example as a surprise for those who haven't seen the episode yet (with so much mixed response this season, I assume some folks are taking a "wait and see" approach). Honestly I could have watched an entire act of this, but it leads to more interactivity with Greendale, a hilarious bit with McDowell being the latest teacher to find the school's practices to be absurd, and Chevy paying off a joke that I'm pretty sure originated in the commentary track for the D&D episode (by now we all know that most of Pierce's awful behavior was inspired by things Chevy actually said or did, right?).

Last week I lamented how the season had been lacking any real Greendale stuff, so in a way the reordering kind of helped the theme of this episode, that the study room was their home (Jeff gets a bit sappy with regards to this theme, but I'll allow it since it's supposed to be carried over from his realization that this is the last time he'll take a class with these folks) and how they need to start giving back to Greendale to thank it for what it gave them. It'd be weird to hear that and then have two episodes (Halloween and then Inspecticon) where they didn't even go there, so in the long run it plays better, despite the minor continuity glitches (such as the Octoberfest scene - they already celebrated Halloween, and thus they are apparently taking their first class in November). Add in the fairly consistent good laughs ("You DO have an SS shirt...") and some returning faces like Todd, Carl and Richie (the alcoholic school board members), and you have an episode that, when it's working, would have fit comfortably within the others, and restores some order by finally letting the main cast play off each other for extended scenes.

One caveat - Chang returns this week. It's pretty obvious that they've never quite figured out what to do with him once he stopped being a professor, and half of the plot revolves around his use of "Chang" in place of other words (grating...), and after not having him around for the past two weeks I kind of got used to not having him shoehorned into the narrative. At least it paves the way for some great Jim Rash moments (most of their scenes are separate from the group), but it seems to be setting up a major arc, and we saw what happened last time they did that ("Chang Rises"). As silly as the show has gotten, the fact that Dean Pelton was kidnapped for two months and no one involved has had any sort of legal repercussions from it is possibly the hardest to swallow, though I guess we can assume he DID lose his apartment and that's why he's now living next door to Jeff. It's not the worst Chang stuff ever, but the show just doesn't need him anymore.

Otherwise - I really think it's getting there. Maybe I'm easier to please, but while I can see the problems, I also recall that the show has never been infallible - even the legendary second season had some low points. Mainly, I'm still enjoying what they're serving up, and with yet another sign that the show is not likely to come back for a fifth season (in addition to two weeks of record low ratings, Ken Jeong just booked a pilot), I guess I'll just enjoy what may be the last few hours I get to spend in this endearing and silly world. Even if it has lost some of its luster, it's still solid entertainment.

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