TV Review: Community 5.13 “Basic Sandwich”

A remarkable season comes to a close.

"What the hell does your penis look like?"

As I mentioned in last week's review, "Basic Sandwich" is very much a "part 2", in that you can't really fully grasp what's going on in it unless you've seen "Basic Story". This differs from most of Community's two-parters, which typically offer two more or less complete stories bridged by one ongoing thing - this seems like it was written as one giant tale and merely cut in half. Indeed, "Sandwich" picks up right where "Story" left off, with the gang in the study room (though the rest of the cast has joined them), moments after discovering that there might be buried treasure on the Greendale campus, which will allow them to save the school from becoming a Subway university. Also, Jeff and Britta have gotten engaged, something that upsets Annie since she's harbored a crush on him for years now but fails to ever really act on it.

Honestly, I don't care about the various pairings of fictional characters, but many people do. So many, in fact, that the ads teasing Jeff and Britta's engagement caused at least a few Jeff/Annie "shippers" to boycott last week's episode, because they are so hellbent on seeing this 40 year old man hook up with a 23 year old girl that she refers to as an uncle when he's not around. Not quite sure how not watching a show that's just barely escaping the cancellation block makes any sense to someone who supposedly loves it (indeed, last week's episode had a ratings low), but whatever. Luckily for them, Jeff and Britta break off their engagement just as randomly as it started, but not before Annie gets in several funny lines about how much she hates the idea of them being together, which should please them. And then there's a moment later in the episode that should launch a million Tumblr posts and make them all feel pretty goddamn stupid for potentially hurting the show by not watching an episode based on what was obviously not going to be a lasting plotline. Hopefully some of them will have the courage to apologize to Dan Harmon and the rest of the writers for referring to them as "cowards" and the like for not rushing to explore the romantic possibilities between a girl and a man who was almost ready to go off to college when she was born.

Thankfully, this subplot is just that - a subplot. The main thrust of the episode is the treasure hunt, which takes the gang under the school into a hidden wing of Greendale that was sealed off in the 70s (Abed can tell it was the 70s based on a debate team flier asking if Elliott Gould is sexier than Donald Sutherland, a gag that Harmontown devotees will have an extra bit of appreciation for). They seek Russell Borchert, a computer genius who was outcast after having sex with one of his machines - and who must be dead since he sealed himself off nearly 40 years ago, right? Not so shockingly, he is still alive (the photo we saw last week was a bit of a giveaway - they wouldn't have hired Chris Elliott just for a photo shoot), and can indeed save the school - but Chang and the school board guys (Carl and Richie) foil their plans and trap them in the lab, with time to save the school running out.

Honestly it's not as exciting as the 3rd season's Ocean's 11 style caper to save Greendale from Chang. Most of the episode just has everyone sitting in the lab, and only Jeff and Annie really have much of a role in the proceedings (Shirley and Hickey don't even get to go downstairs with the others - I hope they can get Jonathan Banks back for the Season 6 premiere to give him a proper farewell before he leaves for the Breaking Bad spinoff, as he sure as hell doesn't get one here). And said proceedings aren't particularly complicated - they just have to open the door and go back upstairs. For a season/possible-series finale, it's pretty grounded compared to other season enders, with minimal use of the supporting cast (none of the other students - Neil, Leonard, etc - appear except for a quick shot of Starburns) and not much of a resolution for anyone's attempts at a degree (I just realized that we haven't seen any of them in a classroom since 502, actually). I assume it was for budgetary reasons that the regular co-stars don't appear in an episode about saving Greendale, but it's still kind of a bummer - Magnitude should have been around to offer up a "Pop, pop!" during the celebration, instead of a bunch of random anonymous extras.

Then again, how many times can they opt for a "it works as a finale, if it must" approach? They've done it with Seasons 3 and 4, and are more or less doing it here again, albeit in a more Harmon-y way than usual. For starters, it's practically DARING Sony or NBC to pull the plug at times - with Carl yelling about how the "school" will never be marketable and constantly on the chopping block. And then there's the tag, which not only makes fun of the network's troubled Thursday lineup (I'd watch Mr. Egypt), but also their approach to scheduling in general, with the stars of their terrible new shows announcing that they will premiere when something else fails. And Abed just goes ahead and finally breaks the fourth wall, apologizing to Annie for having a lack of any calendar specific dates (Annie: "Maybe next year.") and saying that they'll be back unless they're all killed by an asteroid, before looking at the camera and assuring us that such an event would be "canon".

This actually tickles me in an odd way - the show likely WILL come back, but they're seemingly going all in this time around, acting as if this was really the end. Perhaps Harmon and co. simply don't know what to do with a further season, now that Greendale has been "saved" and everyone is more or less content (even Jeff/Annie shippers, sort of)? He's long said that the show has to expand beyond the walls of the school, but I can't imagine a season 6 taking place entirely at their apartments or Señor Kevin's or whatever - maybe they can actually do something more with Jeff teaching law, or finally show Britta in one of her psych classes? I think there are still stories to tell there, though I can see the writers running out of excuses to keep them ALL there, which poses a problem. The show is at its best when the group is all together, and they've already lost two cast members - it'd be too risky to send Chang or Shirley packing just because they've exhausted their potential for storylines at Greendale.

However, if for some reason this IS the last, at least it leaves us laughing. Borchert's reaction to the existence of emoticons and Youtube is one of the funniest things all season ("It's a video of a kitten, and this is people arguing about it."), and I love when Chang admits he might just be mentally ill. Any screentime for Carl and Richie is always good, and another reprise of "Ants Marching" (including the whole school singing Starburns' "Hee hee hee haw" version along with it) is both spectacularly funny and almost sweet in a weird way - I like that it's become the school's anthem of sorts. There's also a bizarre cameo from Saginaw Grant and a funny line from Hickey that reveals Richie's "thought jacking" powers might not be made up - in fact the stuff in the cafeteria is so good I wish they had gotten there sooner, as it seemingly generates quicker/better laughs than the lab stuff, where it can be a bit more intermittent (plus features everyone together, instead of split up). Maybe if they had gotten to the Borchert stuff last week*, and ended on the cliffhanger of them being stuck, they'd have a bit more time to breathe here, plotwise, which would also allow them to have a slightly longer final study room scene, just in case, well, you know.

So it's got a few rough spots, but overall, it's another win for what has been a damn good season. Out of 13 episodes there was only one clunker (D&D 2) and one where I was mixed ("VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing") - but also a contender for top 10 all time episodes ("Polygraphy") and the longest run of solid episodes in a row since season 2. Considering it had to deal with the loss of two cast members (plus writer Megan Ganz, who wrote my favorite episode and was one of the longest running staff writers during the "gas leak year"), a presumably smaller budget than before, and Harmon's first time dealing with the seemingly now standard 13 episode order, it could have been a wash, something we just were happy to have back but otherwise didn't think much about down the road. That it can stand proudly next to the first two seasons (apparently 3 is seen as a mess by many, including Harmon? I dunno, I can only think of a couple that didn't work for me, but I can say that about 1/2 too) is something of a miracle, and since next season would almost assuredly be the last, hopefully they can plan ahead and give each character the sendoff they deserve, knowing for once that they didn't have to keep those doors open any longer.

*In retrospect, they didn't really need to show the whole insurance appraisal process - they could have just had Carl and Richie announce its results after it had already occurred. But then we'd lose Michael McDonald's hilarious "What do I mean by dog? Let me tell you a story..." ramble, so I dunno.

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