"Is this a cult? Are you going to eat me?"
I wasn't planning on writing up Community this week (anymore?), because the first four episodes, while decent and enjoyable, didn't really have that spark that excites me enough to write about something. I started thinking about the days where I'd be all but yelling at people to watch the show, and realized that those days were behind us - this is no longer a show I feel I need to defend or champion. I enjoy it for what it is, but it's no longer earning that fevered devotion that the first three seasons inspired. Hell, I woke up today and was on my computer for about an hour before remembering that there was a new episode to watch - a far cry from the days where I'd skip screenings or whatever to make sure I was home at 8pm on Thursday nights. And before you die-hards get mad at me, think really hard: would YOU use one of these episodes to show a Community virgin how great the show is? You can throw a rock at S2 and probably hit a classic episode, the sort of thing that can make someone "get" it - that's no longer the case.
But as it turns out, 'Laws of Robotics and Party Rights' is the best episode of the season so far, with the writers (and episode director Rob Schrab) finally nailing the balance between "Hey we can be longer now!" and "Let's not go overboard"; it's actually the 2nd longest one of the five, but it never felt it to me, and they balance out two enjoyable storylines without leaving anyone on the sidelines or rushing through something to get back to the other. In other words, it's like an episode of yore, but without that "no time to take a breath" pace that hampered several of the 97 pre-Yahoo episodes that were locked into 21 1/2 minute runtimes. Maybe not a CLASSIC episode of yore, but one of the solidly entertaining ones that proved the show could be really good and unique even when it wasn't parodying anything or destroying the school for some reason. If for some reason you wanted to introduce a newcomer to the show with a season 6 episode, there's no question that this is the one that would have the best chance of making a new fan.
It also (FINALLY!) shows us Jeff in his classroom again, something I don't believe we've seen since the 2nd episode of season 5 where the idea was introduced. Since then, the fact that he has an office has served as our only real reminder that he was working there as a teacher (oh, and Subway offering him to transition to "Sandwich Law", which I still wish we could have seen), but here we see the classroom, the blackboard, the whole thing. We also see how terrible of a teacher he is, opting to put on a DVD of Planet Earth and look at his phone rather than even attempt to teach anything (the fact that he's got all the same students as last year is another indicator). Jeff's unusual approach to teaching doesn't sit well with Willy, a new student played by Brian Van Holt (yes, from Cougar Town - Abed never seems to see him so I guess that's their workaround for what would surely send him into a meltdown), because he actually came there to learn, and thus sets out to teach Jeff a lesson.
Of course, this is Greendale, so Willy isn't a flesh and blood presence, but a prisoner who is attending via an iPad connected to a sort of Segway-like device. Seems the prison system wanted to try this new concept out as a means of rehabilitating their prisoners, and were turned down by so many other schools that they've sweetened the deal by offering 300k to do it. This of course, attracts Frankie and Jeff, who convince the Dean to go along with it (after assuring Chang that they can't be raped). The other prisoners mostly disappear as far as the plot goes, but Willy's antagonizing relationship with Jeff becomes a major plot thread, with the prisoner trying to kill Jeff by knocking him down the stairs (Joel McHale is incredible here, just sort of sadly watching this stupid robot try over and over to push him - a newborn baby would probably have more strength behind its shove attempts). This of course leads to Jeff eventually "murdering" this thorn in his side by breaking it, which upsets the Dean ("You are going to a better place - with a stronger signal!") and results in Jeff being placed on sabbatical for two weeks.
What makes it work is that it's actually an excuse to return to a "Jeff learns a lesson" story, the likes of which we rarely see anymore now that he's resigned to his life at Greendale, fully supportive of his friends (he even tries to help Abed with his movie in the B-plot, which I'll get to soon), and no longer simply trying to get away from everything/everyone else. Willy might be misguided, but he's right - Jeff's a dick for phoning in his teacher role, and it probably COULD be done better by a convicted criminal. Jeff also realizes he has to stop taking advantage of the Dean's affection for him (and the fact that he gave him a job), admitting (for the first time?) that he does care about the school, likes his job, and considers Pelton a friend. It's a wonderfully odd apology - Jeff apparently feels bad when he steals toilet paper and pens from the school (and one time, a roll of carpet and an overheard projector), but doesn't actually say he'll stop doing those things. You might start wondering just how little money he makes there (he has to steal TP from a community college? You KNOW that crap is 1-ply), especially when Dean offers to give him a fake promotion complete with ceremony and Jeff counters by asking for the money they'd use to put the ceremony together, but by now I've learned not to question the money logic of any of these people. From now on I'll just assume Britta's parents are just sending all of them checks whether Britta owes them or not.
That's something we learned about in the episode where Britta moved in with Abed and Annie, which gets fully explored here when she decides she wants to throw a party. Annie has a rule about parties not eclipsing 8 guests, which to Britta isn't even a party, so she tricks Abed into overruling Annie (he's been there longer) by writing a movie about a party and having him direct*. Of course, Abed takes it too seriously and eventually drives Britta nuts by filming long past the point where the real party had ended (if you look closely, when Abed's "reshoot" begins, the extras are wearing the same clothes but are played by different people - this is the sort of great background gag that makes me so giddy re: Schrab directing the Lego Movie sequel). Like Jeff learning a lesson, these folks have known each other too long for any sort of natural/personal conflict to come up too often unless it's school related (i.e. Annie and Jeff fighting over Greendale teaching a dog), but Britta moving in with them opens up at least a couple of possibilities like this for a standard sitcom plot of "Friends don't see eye to eye, there's a conflict, and then it's resolved". More importantly, it's one that has nothing to do with Greendale (though the plots combine when Dean and Frankie show up with the iPrisoners), and seemed genuinely evolved out of established character dynamics. I liked last week's Karate Kid subplot, but it revolved around two people who don't seem to have much of an existing relationship (Annie and Chang) teaming up to realize the acting dreams we've never heard much about before - the party/"Annie and Britta butt heads" concept is a far better fit within the show's history.
As for the laughs, it's a winner; there aren't many laugh out loud, let's rewind and watch that again types (beyond the aforementioned McHale vs. weak robot bits) - but the smile rarely left my face anyway. Keith David continues to be the MVP when it comes to the best lines (he's had the quote at the top of all 3 reviews I've used it on!), and both the cold open and closing tag were pretty hilarious to me, especially the latter, with the group all attending their group meeting using the iPad bots and going on their own little adventures within them (Britta gets arrested for stealing a coffee shop's wi-fi, Dean uses it as an excuse to sit on Jeff's lap, Abed changes the background to something cooler, etc). And there's a bonus for fans of the Harmontown podcast, as Jeff and Britta's "hoist up by their own petard" conversation is practically taken verbatim from one of the episodes (deeper Easter Egg - frequent podcast guest "Real" Abed shows up in the tag as a janitor). Garrett fully committing to the Dean and Jeff's inadvertent Officer and a Gentleman parody was also quite inspired. And Leonard taping a "Parole Me" sign on the back of one of the iPrisoners was so lovably dumb that I couldn't help but cackle. God bless Leonard.
In short: a winner that may have benefited from lowered expectations after four episodes that I enjoyed OK enough but wouldn't rewatch in syndication (if I did it would only be to see what was cut). But even if that's the case, who cares? It's renewed my faith in the season (still waiting for that rumored Chevy cameo though), and showed that the loss of three of its main characters isn't an issue as long as they can find new avenues to explore with the ones that are left. See you next week!
*I doubt it was intentional, but there's a slight bit of meanness in Britta telling Annie she was perfect for the "role" of the lady who had to clean up after the party - Annie had her acting dreams crushed last week! Jeez, Britta, too soon.
"Is this a cult? Are you going to eat me?"