Community Season Three: Crazy-Town Banana-Pants

Community is, without a doubt, my favorite show on television right now. It’s actually one of my favorite shows of all time, which is really rare for a comedy. Looking back, most of my favorite shows are high-concept dramas like LOST and Battlestar Galactica. They feature heavy mythology like Alias, Fringe, and Buffy, and their plots last seasons long like Veronica Mars and Breaking Bad. Or they’re slow and refined and technically flawless, like Mad Men and Downton Abbey. Community is none of those things.

Don’t get me wrong, I like comedies. I like to laugh. But comedies, by their nature, seem to invite the casual viewer. You know who they are. They’re the people that want to be able to pick a show up at any time, recognize all the faces, and know all the dynamics. They’re the people that don’t wait until the commercials to ask questions; better yet, they’re the people that never want to have to ask questions. And that’s fine, because that’s most people, and I need to come to grips with that.

I’m the kind of guy that can’t feel invested in characters that don’t change. If a character isn’t at least vaguely changing over the course of the show, I just don’t think they’re very interesting. If I don’t think they’re very interesting, I don’t care about them. And if I don’t care about the characters in a show, I don’t care about the show.

So why do I love Community???

There are a lot of reasons, and I’ve already posted about them here. But basically, I think Community is brilliant all around. The characters are so weird, and they really have changed a lot over the course of the three seasons. Troy has gone from arrogant jock to probably the most sensitive, encouraging, team-based member of the group. Shirley has gone from a judgmental caricature of a Christian to a strong woman with an entrepreneurial spirit, with a somewhat darker streak she works hard to keep in check, who is willing to overlook religious differences and character flaws for the sake of unity and friendship. Even Jeff, the lazy, cynical loner, has learned how to admit how much he loves people, and to put forth the extra effort to keep his group together (even if he thinks it’s silly). The show has running gags that are rarely shoved in your face, and tons of background details that really reward close viewing and long-term commitment. And of course, Community isn’t afraid to take risks – to call itself out on doing a bottle episode, to spend way too much money on paintball, to explore religion, to claymate an episode, or to go shockingly dark for a 22 minute comedy.

Anyway. What did I think of the third season?

Well, it certainly wasn’t perfect. But of course I loved it.

For this season, the creators of Community wanted to get back to the “community college” aspect of the show, something that was a tad lost in the shuffle of the second season. Whereas the first season featured wacky teachers, ridiculous classes, and an absurd number of school dances, the second was mostly about parodying and honoring various tropes and genres of television and movies. So a lot of the emphasis of this season was on Greendale as a character – its unique charm, the way it gets under your skin, the way it heightens EVERYTHING and consumes you. I liked that idea, and especially  the way it allowed for Jim Rash to play a bigger role in the show.

Now, I am not one of those fans that ONLY wants concept episodes. You know – A Western Episode! War! Law & Order! Conspiracies! Action Movies! Granted, most of my favorite episodes from the show ARE those concept episodes, which is why Season Two is my favorite season. The Conspiracy Theory Episode, The Bottle Episode, The Spaghetti Western Episode, The Clip Show – all top fives – happened in that season. And from the first season, The Action Movie Episode is a standout. But I like tons of the non-concept episodes as well, or the more subtle ones at least. For example, the episode where the group all goes to a bar and gets sad is a personal favorite. I loved when half the group took pottery and the other half took sailing. In Colorado. I loved Carpe Diem!

But I’ll admit, it was a bit jarring to go from expecting a huge spectacle every week to focusing more on the actual community college experience, but over the course of the season, I adjusted. I came to realize that I’m going to get total ridiculousness either way – either from the situations, or the characters. Or both. To me, this was typified by the Model U.N. episode, which came early in the season and felt very Year One. This wasn’t my favorite episode by a long shot. The whole Model U.N. part never really connected to me. But I never laughed as hard watching Community as I have seeing Gillian Jacobs growl at Ken Jeong while locked in a cage, or seeing her spit in his face after he’s tased her, all while Hello by Lionel Richie plays in the background.

As far as the year as a whole went, I feel somewhat let down by the (under)use of John Goodman as the Vice Dean. He came across as menacing and sinister, but the whole AC Repair school felt SO ludicrous and bizarre (even for Greendale) that it never felt like the threat it should have been. I think the season could have played up his behind-the-scenes control of the school much more, enacting odd or oppressive policies, manipulating not just Troy and Abed but the whole group throughout the year. I know Chang did some of this, but that whole subplot just seemed pretty wasted to me.

More successful by far was the ongoing theme of the group beginning to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Pierce’s dad died, enabling him to figure out his own destiny. Jeff gave up a sure job to protect Shirley. Shirley started a business. Britta and Annie found majors (psychiatry and hospital administration). Abed consented to long-term therapy. Troy joined the AC Repair School. Big choices were made by the characters that could affect the rest of their lives.

As I’ve already mentioned, the real standout this season was Jim Rash, who was in even more ridiculous costumes, and just generally benefited from more screen time. His EPIC meltdown early in the season was… amazing. I mean truly hysterical. Ken Jeong continues to feel adrift after losing his job from the first season – though somewhat less so now than last season. And based on the last minute of the season finale, I think he’s found a real niche going forward.

So overall, I liked this season a lot. I think it really tested the group in a lot of ways. Jeff went briefly crazy in the first episode. Abed went crazy in the finale. Like, dark crazy. Troy and Abed went to war and said some really hurtful things. Britta discovered the depths her self-loathing could take her to. Shirley found her marriage on uneasy footing for a while, and Annie was completely deconstructed by a pissed-off Abed. Things were dark at times. But in the end, we all came out of it better people. Jeff will be looking for his father. Britta found a man that actually likes her. Shirley has a business and Pierce has a brother. It wasn’t a perfect season, and there are few standout episodes on the level of say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But there were PLENTY of solid laughs, outrageous costumes, musical numbers, heartwarming tear-jerkers, rousing Winger Speeches, and above all – these amazing, crazy, messed-up, group of people that truly and deeply love each other every bit as much as the Modern Family or Friends.

And as long as they’re there every week, I know I’ll come back for more.

Top Five Episodes

5. Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism – One of the most genuinely heart-warming episodes, anime, and multiple impressions of Christian Bale. What more do you need?

4. Pillows and Blankets (part 2) – The PBS Civil War Documentary. Plus, a really great Jeff moment at the end that actually caused me to tear up a bit.

3. Basic Lupine Urology – The Law & Order Parody. This would be number two on the list if not for Britta’s Awkward Song and Annie’s weird sexy baby song routine.

2. Regional Holiday Music – The Musical Episode! OR IS IT??? Hint: it’s not. It’s creepy and really funny and has the best Alison Brie .gifs available. Plus Gillian Jacobs in a unitard singing really REALLY badly and dancing SO STRANGELY.

1. Remedial Chaos Theory – The parallel universe episode. Brilliantly filmed and expertly synched. Hilarious, dark, and moving. We learned more about the group’s dynamics from this one episode than probably any other.

Honorable Mentions

Digital Estate Planning – 8-bit Study Group! Gus from Breaking Bad. It was amazing, and will probably go on the top five list after I see it again.

Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts – Purely because I love Britta’s freak-out when she realizes she’s actually amazing at wedding-planning. I hope this (somehow) comes back.

Curriculum Unavailable – The sequel to the absolutely amazing Clip Show episode of Season 2, this episode was really funny while also advancing the plot quite nicely. It featured some great moments for the Dean, plus the phrase, “Talk to me about Crazy-town Banana-pants.”

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