TV Review: Community 5.12 “Basic Story”

Get ready for Subway University.

"This inspection will be the boringest thing that's happened here since Britta dated Troy."

While many network shows have "promotional consideration" (read: sponsors) on every episode - usually Apple or Microsoft, in the cases of NBC's other sitcoms - Community has only had a couple over the show's five year run. One was Subway during season 3, and in true Community/Dan Harmon fashion it couldn't be as simple as someone eating a Subway sandwich and saying how good it was - if anything they were sort of mocking the idea of such corporations. But I guess Subway didn't mind much, because they're back for "Basic Story", and once again the butt of the joke that they're paying for. I don't know if the show ran out of money thanks to the animated and two giant "and the school gets taken over" storylines this season, or if they just wanted an excuse to bring back James Michael Connor as the Subway exec, but either way it made me want to eat a sandwich, so hurrah!

As for the storyline, it's actually pretty brilliant, and I was surprised to discover that Harmon wasn't credited with writing it (though I'm sure, as always, he had a heavy hand in its development - at one point Abed starts quoting Joseph Campbell, one of Harmon's heroes). After the episode begins once again with Annie announcing yet another insane thing about Greendale has been taken care of (the gym has been exorcised), they notice that they've pretty much run out of "Save Greendale" tasks and thus have effectively saved the school, leaving them content for the first time, ever. This troubles Abed, who believes that if they're all happy there's no story, and without a story there's nothing. This sends him into a panic, running around the school and trying to find a story - even if it means just making weird faces and shouting for no reason.

However, he's in luck - there IS a story for them, as the group has inadvertently put the school in danger by "saving" it. Greendale is due for an insurance appraisal (the appraiser is played by MadTV's always hilarious Michael McDonald), with drunken school board members Carl and Richie assuming that once again the school's many problems (such as fire exits that don't lead outside) will keep the property from being worth anything. However, thanks to the study group's efforts, it's been upgraded and now worth money - something Carl and Richie can use to finally sell the place to corporations. Enter Subway, who quickly turns the Library into a "Subwayary" and having Jared sign autographs on campus. They also offer Jeff a chance to teach "sandwich law" (something I REALLY wish they could have explored) instead of regular law, buttering him up with a Subway Black Card, which offers him $5 footlongs for life.

As this is a part 1 of 2 (with next week's followup being the season finale), there's a lot of setup here without much payoff, on a narrative level. Unlike previous two-parters (2nd paintball, the pillow/blanket war from S3 - which also involved Subway), there isn't a subplot that is finished with this time, making it feel a bit slight on its own (fear not - I've seen next week's, and the payoff is solid). I guess the insurance thing could count as one subplot, but it's not enough of a focus here to really count as a full plot - more like one of those extended opening bits on The Simpsons that paves the way for what the episode is REALLY about. However, it fully satisfies as a "Harmon and his writers are geniuses" way, as it's not hard to see the metaphor here - Greendale the school has always functioned as a standin for Community the TV show, so they're obviously drawing parallels to the hurdle Harmon and co. have always faced - do they keep alienating the audience by being clever (case in point, last week's animated "GI Jeff" resulted in the show's lowest ratings ever), or do they do their job as the runners of a network television show, which is not rock the boat, make it "normal", and get it to a place where the show is profitable (meaning: 100+ episodes for better syndication deals)?

It's perhaps that thinking that led to one of the episodes more surprising bits: Jeff and Britta rekindling their... whatever you call what they do. Defeated by Subway's takeover, Jeff and Britta find themselves alone in the study room, taking stock of where they are in life, before they recall that it all began because Jeff wanted to bang Britta ("What did either of us get done except for each other?", Britta asks, inadvertently dissing Troy more than Jeff did with his above quote). This prompts Jeff to ask her to marry him, just so they can say they accomplished something after all this time. Deciding to honor the occasion by doing it on the new study table, they're in the process of securing the room when Dean, Abed, and Annie burst in, excited that they may have found a way to save the school after all: BURIED TREASURE! Will it truly save Greendale, even if it exists? And will Jeff and Britta actually get married? Tune in next week!

(Either way, I love that NBC once again demonstrates how they have no idea what the show is by making an ad that focuses on this one bit that's supposed to be a surprise, and probably giving a non-viewer the impression that this is a show hinging on a traditional will-they/won't-they scenario.)

In addition to the fun jabs at corporate overlords and the struggle for a guy like Harmon to tell his stories within the confines of a show that should be designed to never actually end, it's a pretty damn funny episode on the surface. A reprise of the "Ants Marching" Dave Matthews Band song (seemingly the school's theme song now) killed me, as did the sight gag where Subway replaces a poster of a guy reading a book with one of the exact same guy eating a sandwich. I also enjoyed the strange bit where Abed asks the Subway exec what they call buns, since they say "bread" instead of "bun", but "bread" is a substance. But the best gag, possibly the most insane callback in television history, is when Jeff finds a wedding ring in the Dean's office, prompting a very excited Pelton to reveal that it's the one he lost his first week there. To the casual fan, this will play as a throwaway gag about his penchant for wearing women's clothing (as the ring belongs to his mother and it just happened to fit him), but careful/obsessive viewers will know it's the long-awaited explanation for why the Dean is seen wearing a wedding ring in the show's pilot (it disappeared after that). It's hilarious to me that a show like Lost will end without getting around to answering some of its bigger questions, but Community will go out of its way to dedicate 15 seconds to explaining a harmless mistake from 5 years ago.

And that's it for now! I have more to say about the concluding episode, but don't want to get too far ahead of myself. Again, previous "Part 1s" have done a better job of more or less working on their own, but it beats a rushed "solo" finale episode like last season's, or one that focuses too much on Chang and the "darkest timeline" like Season 3's 2 parter (which, like the other examples, had their own stand-alone plots, linked together by a secondary storyline). And for once, they don't seem to be going into it assuming that it's the end, so it's calmer and more focused, offering an episode that makes us want to come back for more instead of beating us over the head with the idea that it might be over. After a few lesser episodes leading up to this (and the GI Joe one, which I loved), all is well again!