Community can be a difficult series to analyze, particularly because it has so many different circulating/reoccurring thematic and stylistic identities. Sometimes it’s a very smartly written laugh-a-minute sitcom; other times it’s a meta-subtext-fueled, parody-driven, set piece-structured spectacle; and sometimes it gets relatively dramatic, using the emotional gaps and varying backgrounds of its central characters as catalysts to either rip them apart or bring them closer together (oftentimes it’s all three, and within the very same episode).
With the exception of the wonderful “Modern Warfare” episode, the first season of Community tried too hard to be quirky and original, and in doing so became tedious and trite. As its second season unfolded, the show began to demonstrate consistently smart storytelling and character development, and after a bit of a shaky start, Community has really come into its own in its third season, focusing not so much on individual characters, which was thoroughly and brilliantly explored in season two, but instead on the dynamics of its ragtag group, which has become the true personification of something greater than the sum of its parts.
Community is at its most watchable not when it’s tackling some real-world hot-button issue via the guise of a Greendale Community College campus event, but when it’s examining the interactions of its main characters. Perhaps that’s why, after the generally solid season premiere (complete with a Glee-inspired dance number and great guest appearances from Michael Kenneth Williams and John Goodman, respectively as a biology professor and the vice dean of the Air Conditioning Repair Annex), the show delivered two of its most unappealing episodes in quite some time. “Geography of Global Conflict” more or less highlights Community‘s Achilles’ heel: pushing one character to the forefront (in this case, Alison Brie’s Annie), thus fracturing the remainder of its cast, forcing the writers to craft specific, often hokey scenarios for them to fill up time until everything collides in a final act that goes for broke and often misses. The episode almost feels like something out of another show entirely: spiteful, disjointed, all over the map, and with little focus on an already uncertain theme. Only Britta (Gillian Jacobs, who’s by far the season’s MVP so far) and her strange chemistry with newly appointed security officer, Chang (Ken Jeong), in a series of comic-relief bits that manage to salvage an otherwise lackluster episode.
The following episode, “Competitive Ecology,” does well in keeping Community‘s major players in close quarters, but falters as it tosses a random fifth wheel, a goodie-two-shoes-type character named Todd (David Neher) into the mix, expectedly causing splinters in the core group that result in trivial arguments over how to pair off into lab partners for a biology assignment. The entire episode turns into a shallow popularity contest among people who are obviously in no way popular. “Competitive Ecology” fumbles most of all in its final moments, as its main characters blame their disdainful arguments, immaturity, and mudslinging not on themselves, but on the out-of-place Todd, a guy who just happens to be there, and is the model of normalcy. These characters, who’ve so frequently displayed authentically identifiable soft spots, come off as nothing but a troop of cartoonish assholes who could care less about the feelings of those around them.
Thankfully, Community shines a light on the season-long theme of future-driven choices, kicking itself into high gear beginning with its high-concept fourth episode, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” a genre-defying encapsulation of everything that makes the show one of the strongest sitcoms on television. By playing out seven different timelines through the tossing of dice by Joel McHale’s Jeff (his own scenario, the one that actually happens, occurs near the conclusion), each detailing what would happen if any one member of the group departed indefinitely, the episode skillfully emphasizes Community‘s most prominent, resonant message: These people, with all their disturbing insecurities and striking dissimilarities, need each other more than anything else at this point in their lives to move forward. The Halloween episode, “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” builds off the success of “Remedial Chaos Theory” by employing a similar format, but instead of observing what would happen in the absence of certain characters, it takes a look at how each character views the personalities of everyone else in the group through the pretense of some very funny Treehouse of Horror-style scary stories.
While the episode “Advanced Gay” deals with homophobia and unstable father-son relationships, the worldliness of its messages isn’t lost through scatterbrained plotting as in previous episodes. Instead of causing a sudden rift in the group, the controversial issues at hand work to soulfully unite Community‘s characters through the death of Pierce’s (Chevy Chase) controlling, elitist, racist father, Cornelius Hawthorne (Larry Cedar). The episode nudges its leads into making choices that will or will not benefit them in the future. Jeff, who also has a douchebag for a dad, puts his tumultuous relationship with Pierce aside to aid him in telling off Cornelius in a moment of intense self-revelation. Perhaps most notably, Troy (Donald Glover) passes up an opportunity to embrace his savant gift as an appliance repairman to simply hang out and watch TV with his BFF, Abed (Danny Pudi). If there’s one thing Community has to say about the vast limbo that’s community college, it’s that making a poor decision and venturing forward ultimately leaves you in a better position than perpetually hesitating to choose a route, quickly becoming stuck within the treacherous revolving door of an ineffectual education.