Friday, April 15, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Competitive Wine Tasting”

A friend of mine sent me a message right after this week’s episode making it quite clear that if I failed to give due credit to the all-black-cast production of Fiddler on the Roof starring Troy then she would no longer be reading this blog.  I would’ve done it anyway, because Fiddler, Please might be one of the most inspired pop-culture jokes this show has ever done, but I was glad to see that my fellow viewers thought as highly of it as I did.  Troy doing an ethnic Russian dance while singing/rapping about how hard it is to be a Russian Jew is probably in the top three laugh-aloud moments this season has offered.  It was a nice touch to redeem an otherwise shaky subplot tonight involving Troy faking a history of being sexually abused in order to win over a group of thespian classmates who are a bit hard on him for being a football star.  It was also the highlight of an episode that was good but not quite great.

The episode had some great fun with the study group exploring their options for new courses this semester, including a course Annie found about how to set up a punchline (but not how to deliver it, sadly), and the impossibly perfect course for Abed, analyzing who really was the boss on television’s “Who’s the Boss?”  The latter is a great gag, but doesn’t really play out as cleverly as I would have expected.  It’s an inspired meta-joke to point out the frivolity of over-analyzing television (point taken, but I’m still doing the blog), but it doesn’t quite go anywhere as an actual plotline.  For one thing, Abed seems a bit impotent as a character when Troy or someone else from the group isn’t there to provide a stabilizer for his eccentricity.  The plot gets off to a promising start wherein Abed wants to answer the course’s central query definitively on day one, which of course perturbs the professor who takes the show and his own theories far too seriously.  It’s a clever ruse given how many fans of this show like it because they feel like the show itself, and they as viewers, are smart and savvy culture consumers (let’s be honest—we’re all a little bit snobbish about watching this show when we tell other people about how clever it is). 

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t play out very well as a story.  Abed goes off on his own, refines his theory, and challenges the professor’s book.  When the professor seeks to put him in his place by letting him teach a class, Abed fills the board with a theoretical formula proving that Angela is, beyond a doubt, the boss in 9 out of 11 realms.  It’s funny for what it is, but it leads me to the complaint I have of the short stories I get from bad student writers:  There’s nothing duller than a story that gets to the end without really having any middle.  Abed doesn’t really struggle with the issue or engage the professor in any clever dialogues, he just goes off on his own, reads a book, proves his point, and shames the professor.  I know it’s just a B-story, but I was expecting at least one sharply written conversation between him and his teacher about the nuances and merits of various ways of looking at a classic 80s sitcom.  I felt just a little bit robbed when that never happened.  I got over it somewhat when the professor opens his desk drawer in devastation after Abed discredits his life’s work, first pulling the drawer out far enough to reveal a handgun, and then opening it the rest of the way to reveal his backup life’s work (and chance at redemption):  What WAS happening:  An Analysis of What’s Happening?  Maybe it just struck me as an inspired moment because Rerun’s face always cracks me up, but I’m pretty sure it actually was an inspired moment.

Jeff and Pierce’s choice of courses is not quite as interesting but leads to the central hijinks (I swear that’s spelled with an x not  ks—I call shenanigans, Microsoft Word) of the evening when the opening wine tasting event (the class is for wine appreciation) introduces a beautiful “dumpling” of an Asian woman named Ume who Pierce and Jeff are both smitten by.  She dismisses Jeff’s advances instantly and crudely in suspiciously broken English, but seems oddly charmed by Pierce’s utter lack of charm.  It seems like a predictable setup when Jeff immediately suspects her of having another agenda, but as usual Community does a solid job of putting a bit of a twist on things.  When Jeff challenges Ume about her ulterior motives she seems confused at what he’s getting at—she has her own family fortune and she’s a dual citizen already.  Chang provides the key to the mystery when he calls her “Red Dragon” revealing that she’s actually the head of a competitor company to Pierce’s Hawthorne Wipes (which is huge in China—as is Pierce, apparently).  I like when they pick up on the finer points of character backgrounds like this—we already knew Pierce’s family had such a business, but it was never more than a passing reference in the occasional joke. 

What made the plot even better was Pierce’s, uh, piercing analysis of Jeff’s ulterior motives:  He points out that while Jeff stopped her in her little scheme, he wasn’t worried so much about Pierce as he was about proving that no woman could possibly be attracted to Pierce when she knew that Jeff was available.  It’s a nice reversal that he pulls on Jeff and makes for a clever redemption for all three characters when Jeff puts things right by reuniting the two of them for at least one more date (I thought it was kind of great that, for reasons inexplicable, she actually did enjoy Pierce’s companionship, whatever her “mission” was).

I’m not sure what to say about how the entire episode came together—Troy’s weird fiction about an abusive childhood had funny moments, but it seemed like the writers knew the idea bordered on icky and tried to disarm the creepiness by having Troy refer to his “no-no” and some other similarly childish euphemism for his butt, but it didn’t quite work in getting rid of the unsettling concept he was trying to sell them.  It wasn’t an episode ruining element, but it just made the laughs a little less comfortable than I would have liked.  It didn’t help matters that a more interesting and potentially laugh inducing scenario wherein Britta falls for Troy because he’s a wounded man gets short shrift despite a lot of promise for humor (Troy’s facial reactions to Britta’s looks and interest in him could have carried the subplot by themselves—Glover is a gifted physical comedian). 

The episode also suffered just a bit from the relative absence of Shirley and Annie.  They’ve been central often enough this season, but given how little Abed had to do and how one-note the joke about Troy’s efforts in acting class became, it seemed ill-advised to put these two on the bench given how much their characters add to the group dynamic.  Adding neurotic Annie or conservative Shirley to the acting class could have made for some better exchanges with the professor than what we got with Troy (although the professor’s overly zealous devotion to the craft of acting offered some worthy moments on its own).

As has sometimes been the case this season, it’s hard to rate tonight’s episode given the disparity between the really consistent laughs offered in contrast with the somewhat less intriguing plot through which the jokes were delivered.  In coming to a favorable conclusion, I’d have to cite the phenomenal final moments of Troy’s performance as the lead in Fiddler, Please (the greatest title EVER) as making the episode praise worthy despite its flaws. 

Overall Rating:  9.0/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Pierce on class selection:  “I’ll give you the same advice my father gave me the night I lost my virginity.  Pick one they all cost the same price.”

Who Indeed:  A Critical Analysis of Television’s Who’s the Boss—seems like an all-too-plausible title of TV analysis (who watches TV that closely anyway?  wink)

Chang’s recipe for a  good time:  “Drunk ladies, fancy bathrooms and a room full of free coats.”

“Who’s the dumpling with the nice Asian pair?” 
“That’s the first time sexism has made me hungry.”

Troy’s options for stage names:  Trevor St. McGoodbody or David

Great little touch that the roomful of aspiring actors is repulsed by Troy saying he was on the football team and inspired by “My uncle put his finger in my no-no.”

“I’d like to begin with a simple question, who was the boss?”

Pierce refused to drink pinot noir because he thought it was French for “black penis.”

“We knew we were meant to be together forever, or at least until she gets heavy.”

“Don’t preach romance to me, Annie, I had a 3 way in a hot air balloon.”

Line of the night: “My mind is open professor.  It’s as open as the door to Mona’s bedroom.”

Love Chang’s take on world cultures:  “In China they put the last name first, I mean, they’re nuts over there!”

I would LOVE to have Abed’s “record scratch app” for my phone.

“I wasn’t so much molested as much as I ‘made it up’.”

It’s probably an easy jab, but I liked this little joke:  “The pain of not having enough pain is still pain, young man.  That may sound like an easy resolution, but we’re not writers—we’re actors.  Story doesn’t matter here—all that matters is our time…in the spotlight.

Also an inspired title (I like it even better than the “Who’s the Boss” reference):  What WAS happening:  An Analysis of What’s Happening?

I wish we could have seen Pierce and Ume’s date, given the start it gets off to:
“You’re paying.”
“You’re dressing slutty.” 
“How about Thai—they’re like Chinese Mexicans.”

It’s hard to be Jewish in Russia, yo.  Bagels and lox, diamond shops?”  

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