Saturday, March 19, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Custody Law and Eastern Diplomacy”

So here’s the thing with Community lately:  It’s become so rapid-fire with its one-liners and gags (and I’m not saying it wasn’t already machine-gun quick before) that it’s easy to get swept up by the river of laughter spilling out of your jabberhole and not notice that the show has taken the characters and storylines in some odd directions that aren’t entirely in keeping with who they are (or were, at least) as people.  Prior to tonight there was no better example of this than the ongoing, excessive cruelties of Pierce towards everyone he could drag within earshot.  It didn’t fit his character unless you believed he was never anything more than a self-centered, grouchy old man, which I don’t believe is the impression of him we were given throughout the show’s run.  Tonight expands on these strange character transgressions by adding another act of insensitivity to Jeff and Shirley’s files.  If I were rating tonight simply on pure laughs, I would give it a firm A (just look at the list of “great lines” below), but for me the show has been the best comedy on television for the past year or so mainly because it avoided traditional sitcom riffs, played with the structure of television in general, rewarded pop-culture savvy viewers, and—most importantly—developed characters with much more dimension and depth than most sitcoms bother with in a half dozen seasons. 

All of which makes tonight’s use of Shirley and Jeff’s selfish attitudes all the more disappointing.  In the final scene in the prison, after they see that Chang has been arrested (but before he explodes from the vent in the wall), Shirley tells Jeff that she convinced the “kidnapped” boys’ mom to drop the charges on Jeff and press charges on Chang instead.  Their dialogue suffers from the shallowness of traditional sitcom humor:  The characters’ true attitudes and values are undercut completely in order to sell a set of cheap jokes.  Shirley is suddenly prepared to send an unhappy man (who she tolerated at least enough to sleep with at some point) to prison, and Jeff is ready to double his sentence simply because he finds him annoying.  This is not a conversation between two human beings; it’s dialogue being bent and contorted to try and play up a one-note joke that doesn’t work that well to begin with.  The writers are better than this and it never used to happen.  I don’t pay enough attention to the credits, but it makes me wonder whether new writing team members haven’t watered down the lineup of scribes who kept the show well clear of these pitfalls up until fairly recently.  On a related note, the line about Luca making hats out of babies was a bit too dark for a laugh, but I have to admit it also feels like a Donald Glover joke, so I doubt it has anything to do with new writers.

So I’m not sure where all of that leaves us this episode…I laughed endlessly and am looking forward to watching it again with my wife (the price of blogging is that sometimes you have to watch your comedy alone <sigh>).  But the change in how the characters are being dealt with is becoming a bit of a concern, even though part of me knows I’m taking a comedy a bit too seriously.  At any rate, where the main story (I guess, the two parallel plots tonight felt pretty evenly divided, time wise) of Jeff and Shirley trying to oust Chang from their lives provided a lot of laughs without really working in terms of relationships or character development, the secondary story of Troy and Abed trying to stop Brita from robbing them of another male friend by hooking up with him was inspired.  Luca is a pretty funny character, all the more so because he possesses all of the traits Abed and Troy are looking for in a boyfriend and video game companion.  And the twist that Luca really doesn’t deserve any of their friendships is a clever one:  Brita’s character demands that she keep her friends from hanging out with a genocidal killer, but her petty need to be accepted also demands that she not continue to propagate the belief that she ruins all of Troy and Abed’s friends for them.  Her attempt to steal “Kick Muncher 3” and blame it on Luca is hilarious, and the reconciliation between the three of them is a touching scene that doesn’t have to feel big and melodramatic in order to strike the right chords.  Thanks also to this subplot for giving us several of Troy’s wonderfully toddler-ish reactions to things he doesn’t like—his primal screams of “Nooooo!” every time Brita approaches Luca are a riot.

The episode also gets a lot of credit for giving us more Chang and Andre.  I’m not sure if Theo Huxtable (I know his real name, I just liked The Cosby Show A LOT) is signed on for the rest of the season or beyond, but his slightly straighter character is a nice sounding board for a lot of the weirdness of other characters, and the writers throw him a lot of comedic moments of his own—and he takes full advantage.  Chang, meanwhile, is such a bundle of raw-nerve energy that it makes sense that they have to limit his role in most episodes.  Even in scenes where he really serves no purpose (like when he’s spinning and bumping into the wall like a defective video game bad guy) he tends to draw everything in the scene towards himself.  I mean all this as complimentary—he’s fun as hell to watch and makes the most of small moments with wonderful non-verbal reactions and mannerisms.  Tonight his take on becoming a responsible father-type figure was a bit over-wrought, but he sells it fantastically with his pipe and attempts to speak more, shall we say, affluently?  “I can already hear the pitter patter of little Chinese footsteps across the treetops” is a hilarious, if dated, reference (perhaps funnier because it seems like stereotyping without actually being guilty of it), and his completely inaccurate interpretations of proper “responsible man” behaviors makes for some great moments (like when he asks proudly and defiantly whether Andre thinks the community room pool table aluminum sided itself).
"Of course we still hang out with Jeff 'nipple play' Winger."

I’m really at a loss to grade this episode.  I’ve changed the “overall rating” below four times since I started writing and I’m thinking about changing it (Chang-ing it, if you will) again.  Perhaps I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and not deduct too heavily for the flawed characterization this evening; after all, I don’t really think that going these routes with the characters will be the show’s undoing, nor am I foolish enough to think that these little things are bothering a majority of viewers.  But I can’t pretend that they don’t represent a flaw in what was once the show’s key strength when taken as a complete body of work (even when there were mediocre episodes comedically, the characters tended to carry the day and leave you content even if you weren’t clutching your stomach with laughter).  So I’ll be keeping an eye on it (now you can sleep more soundly) the rest of the season, but trust me when I say my concerns are not diminishing my own sore sides after laughing for these stellar thirty minutes every Thursday by any stretch. 

Overall Rating:  8.8/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Annie’s shower gift is an African American doll…and a “very nice letter from the manufacturer promising to expand their collection.”

Pierce calls “Joseph” history’s biggest chump but to be clear “We’re talking about Joseph Kennedy, right?”

Chang:  ‘it’s cool, if it’s mine I’ll be a lovable uncle…okay a creepy uncle—final offer.”

Troy on his and Abed’s gift of bottled water (for apocalypse readiness):  “We wanted to get sawed off shotgun but those are pretty expensive already.”

So great that they’re making Pierce trade some of his most offensive racist language for lesser offenses:  “I really got ‘jewish personed’ out of that one.”

Dean:  “Can I get a Ni Hao up in this hizzie?”

“In my country we give 9mm to little girl for sweet 16.”

I think I’d still hang out with a guy named Jeff “nipple play” Winger.

Abed’s “It’s all downhill from here” paintball episode shirt is an odd meta-joke.  I don’t know of any fan or critic who is of that opinion—are the writers imagining phantom critics here?

Luca’s monologue about all of the violence he misses about his country is a bit heavy, but Spencer the neighbor playing a “wah waaaaah” on his trombone just as Brita realizes she’s been making out with a monster is a perfect Community moment.

Chang’s excitement when Jeff hands him Shirley’s paperwork is great:  “Parental rights? You’re adopting me??”

Line of the night (maybe top 3 Chang lines ever):  “Between you and me, I don’t Chang a lot of chicks.” 

Troy:  “Girls are so un-desensitized.”

“Buddy I worked at a maximum security prison for 7 years and those are still the gayest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Jeff:  “Did you know you can make an ashtray using just a cigarette and a snitch’s forehead?”  
Andre:  “Yeah.”  (Shirley’s reaction is what really sells this joke). 

Love the subtle joke that Chang calls the bald cop “Officer Baby”.

Abed:  “If I ever go to the Balkans I’m bringing some serious cheat codes and walkthroughs.”  


  1. Great review. I was kind of at odds with this episode as well. While it was funny, it sort of seemed to me like they were trying so hard to sell a couple of cheap jokes about Chang (going to prison, being a possible absentee baby daddy, etc) that they may have over committed to plot lines which will HAVE to carry on through future episodes.

    That and I really wish Theo would have worn more sweaters from his dad.

  2. Yeah--Theo wearing Huxtable sweaters would have made a great running gag. That's a good point about having to stick to these stupid plotlines though--the show has made it pretty clear that it doesn't just "reset" after each episode, so now they have a bunch of dumb decisions they're going to have to work their way out of.

  3. You do realize it is Kickpuncher 3--and Britta mistakenly called it Kickmuncher 3. I don't think it was intentional because it makes no sense. I think it was their oversight in controlling the quality of this haphazard, unpolished turd of a show.