TV Review: COMMUNITY 5.09 “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing”

Vince Gilligan finds a home on the range.

"I don't really know how girlfriends work, but I don't think you have one anymore."

When I was 7 or 8, I got a VCR game called Doorways To Horror for Christmas. There were a couple of others (I recall one adventure themed with an Indiana Jones knockoff guy on the cover), and I assume they were all pretty much the same, which is to say incomprehensible. I tried to play Doorways a few times the right way, with my dice and "strength chips" and confusing rules about whose turn it was, but would always just sit back and enjoy the tape, which was basically a highlight reel of several public domain horror movies (it was my first exposure to Night of the Living Dead and The Terror!). But memories of trying to figure it out came flooding back with "VCR Maintenance And Educational Publishing", where Abed and Annie play a similar game called "Pile of Bullets" to determine who will fill Troy's place in their apartment.

For quite a while now, I've wondered what the younger members of the group do for a living; Pierce was well off, Shirley has her shop, and Jeff is now employed at the school - but what about the others? Jobs are occasionally mentioned but never shown, and since they're all still going to school (or living there, like in last week's episode) whatever employment they have must be part-time, right? But it's rarely an issue for a narrative, which makes this one somewhat refreshing as Annie and Abed are struggling with rent now that Troy is gone, while Jeff and Hickey are faced with a late paycheck due to usual Greendale nonsense. Maybe it's because I'm having my own worries as of late (owing on taxes when you need to prepare for a baby is not the most enjoyable situation), but I appreciated this little nod to reality, reminding us that they do have important things to deal with outside of Greendale.

They also have relationships and family, something else that's not often apparent. The candidates for the new roommate are Rachel (Brie Larson, yay!) and Annie's brother Anthony, who I forgot existed if he was ever mentioned at all. Anthony is played by Spencer Crittenden, who is one of the staples of Dan Harmon's podcast (he runs the D&D game that closes each episode, and is apparently the secret weapon of the upcoming documentary) and is acting for the first time here. Crittenden does a fine job of creating a memorable character that fits into this kooky world; at one point he asks Rachel if she knows what happens when you die, and after she answers in the negative, he sighs and tells her she's lucky. He's a little "off", in other words (but handy! He fixes their refrigerator with what appears to be a bottle cap and a rubber band), and for the first time in a while (no, last year's insufferable "Origins" episode doesn't count, because that episode doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned) we are reminded that Annie was pretty messed up back in the day. We've always been led to believe it was mostly related to her schoolwork, but her brief one on one conversations with Anthony let us know that home wasn't exactly the best place, either. In fact, I was a bit upset that his appearance ends on a bit of a harsh note, since he doesn't appear in any further episodes - hopefully they bring him back next year.

As for Rachel (also making her last appearance, dammit), Abed wants her there because he's afraid of messing up, and thus wants her to move in after only a month before he does something wrong. So, like any rational humans, Annie and Abed decide that rather than flip a coin or play rock/paper/scissors, they will play "Pile of Bullets" to determine the victor. If Abed or Rachel wins, Rachel moves in, and if Anthony or Annie wins, he will take the spot. Unfortunately, neither Annie or Abed take into account that the game will be a confusing and boring experience for their pals (who aren't even aware of the stakes), eventually driving them BOTH away. I don't know how well any of this stuff will work on anyone who has ever suffered through trying to play one of those things, but I assure you that the seemingly way-too-ridiculous rules and gameplay aren't really that far off from what those games have you do. In fact, here's the Doorways video, which only has the clips, but at least offers a glimpse at the confusion it caused:

However, those games were never hosted by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, the latest non-actor creative type to appear this season. It's not as memorable a performance as last week's from Mitch Hurwitz (was stoked to see so many Koogler hashtags after it aired), but it's admirably earnest, and leads to one of the stranger tags the show has ever done - flashing back to 1993 when Gilligan's actor character got the call to appear in the game, which his wife (Gina Gershon!) is ecstatic about as she believes VCR games are the next big thing (for younger viewers - the 1993 date is part of the joke, since the Doorways series came out in the mid 80s and was a dying fad by the time I got it in '87 or '88). I should be annoyed that a show that's often too crammed to provide good material for all eight of its principal characters will devote another 30 seconds or so to a guy that they never met (and introduce another character in the process), but there's something wonderfully insane about offering up a bit of this nothing character's backstory. It sort of reminds me of the (deleted) Austin Powers bit where we see the family and friends of a deceased henchman reacting to the loss - everyone has a real life!

Meanwhile, while carrying out one of their "Save Greendale" assignments (I like that they've committed to this storyline - it's certainly been more prominent than Jeff as a teacher or anyone else going to class), Jeff, Hickey, and Shirley stumble upon a hidden cache of brand new Chemistry books that retail for 200 bucks ($160 street value, per Hickey), prompting them to try to move them and split the cash. But they need a buyer, so they bring in Britta who "knows a guy". It's a parody of any number of action/drama films where a stash of drugs is found, complete with backstabbing and greed, but over a bunch of textbooks. But while the idea is OK in theory, it never really generates many laughs (I do love Britta pulling out a knife to check one of the books, however), and we just spent an episode watching them bicker about something silly. By the time Shirley has turned on all of them and met with the buyer (Paul Williams, because why not?), I had lost most of my interest - I would have rather spent more time watching clips from the VCR game. Maybe it would have worked on me in an earlier season, or even closer to the top of this one, but after last week's MeowMeow Beenz thing, I wasn't really excited about watching Jeff. Shirley, and Britta fight over nothing again.

But while that subplot didn't grab me, everything at Abed/Annie's apartment did, and I was quite charmed by how Abed and Rachel's little tiff was resolved by a pretty cute scene where he does the "apology in the rain" scene as seen in any number of rom-coms, albeit in the halls of Greendale (and he's assisted by Pavel! Haven't seen that dude in a while). Also, in order to break the bad news about the paychecks, Dean enters in a Payday candy bar costume (a rare costume this season!) and spits out a glorious rap that might be the funniest thing the character has done since he had an orgasm looking at Jeff's new swagger in S3's "Impressionists" episode. Uneven, but overall enjoyable, and even if it doesn't all work, it's another grounded episode that makes good on the "back to basics" promise they made before the season began - S1 had a few episodes with a solid A story and a lesser B one, so there's no real harm done. Plus, it's a good way to keep Troy "alive" - he left three episodes ago, which would be long enough to never mention him again on any other show - I remember when Charlie died on Lost and Claire seemingly forgot all about him in 2-3 days. I know some folks miss him dearly, but there's something to be said that if he WAS still around the episode would lose its most interesting element.