Wednesday, May 11, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “A Fist Full of Paintballs”

I can’t decide whether I was surprised to see Community go back to the paintball well this week; it made a ton of sense based on the high praise that episode drew last year, but it was a bit surprising given that Community has found so many other forms of parody, satire and silliness to fill episodes with.  In retrospect, I should have known that a revisiting of the general premise of paintball wouldn’t involve any laziness or repetition by the writers.  Instead they’ve taken their original premise and given it a couple of fantastic tweaks (namely the strange mystery of the $100,000 prize from the ambiguous Pistol Patty’s Cowboy Creamery, allowing for the “Fistful of Dollars” parody, and the flashback-centric subplot wherein we discover that Annie either cast the only vote to keep Pierce in the group, or the only vote to kick him out, putting them at odds during the battle). 

I won’t even begin to wade into the debate about whether this episode was better/worse/equal to the original paintball episode, nor will I attempt to do so after the conclusion of the competition next week.  I will say this:  I like that this paintball episode lightened up slightly on the action/adventure parodies (with the exception of the “Die Hard 2”-esque white-jump-suited death squad which unleashes a “Matrix” caliber Gatling gun on Chang and then storms the campus) in favor of a man-with-no-name storyline featuring everyone’s favorite Lost face, Sawyer (I know his real name; let’s face it, he’s forever going to be known as Sawyer), and a really clever storyline which finally addresses the fact that Pierce has been an insufferable B this whole season.  A GDB, to paraphrase Vaughn’s ode to Britta.

This episode started on a phenomenal note with Annie, aka “Ace of Hearts”, ambushing fat Neil (she calls him that, don’t blame me) and revealing that she’s become a loner and recluse in order to survive the paint splattered hallways of Greendale.  I’ll admit openly that by the time the Sergio Leone inspired opening credits finished, I was pretty certain I was giving this episode an A.  I believe it was only last week when I mentioned that I like how willing this show is to engage in jokes and references which only a small population of viewers will appreciate,  but appreciate enormously, and tonight’s opening credits certainly serve to underscore that point.  They were a gorgeous replication of the opening sequence of Leone’s film and were so lovingly recreated here in homage to the icon of the spaghetti western as to almost overshadow the other fine touches and references scattered throughout the rest of the episode. 

I also love the simplicity of the premise tonight—for reasons inexplicable the dean approves another paintball game despite the epic levels of destruction left by last year’s game, and the game’s sponsor (as part of a western-themed campus event—that’s all it takes to get the boys into cowboy hats and Annie into a corset and ruffled hot pants) equally inexplicably reveals a ridiculously huge prize for the winner of the game (to the dean’s utter dismay).  Community revels in such silliness; they know their audience well enough to not bat an eyelash at the idea of throwing such a paper thin premise at us on the assumption that we’ll eagerly toss aside our incredulity for the chance to dive headfirst into an Old West themed paintball war. 

Which is not to say, of course, that everything tonight was light and simple.  Obviously, the presence of The Black Rider suggests something strange is in the works; the motives behind the evil ice cream corporation being, I presume, next week’s big surprise.  But more important tonight is the clever and convoluted approach to dealing with Pierce’s season-long funk as a dislikable character—a character who at times has overstepped so many boundaries this season with the other group members (and with viewers, which is the real issue) that it seemed somewhat foolhardy at times that the writers were pushing him so far into the realm of one-dimensionality (by comparison, consider how successful Chang has become as a character by going from extremes to a somewhat more three-dimensional and identifiable figure).  Tonight we discover that the group has suffered a deep rift when they all cast their votes about whether or not to keep Pierce in the group using playing cards.  Annie tells us, through dramatic voiceover, that the vote had to be unanimous, which it was not:  there was one red card thrown onto the table, hence her new name.  What the episode cleverly does not tell is what the colors meant—did Annie’s vote represent the one vote to remove Pierce, or the one vote to protect him?  Either way, it went against the rest of the group’s feelings about Pierce, which makes for a great opportunity for all of them to deal openly with the fact that he owes them a lot of explaining for his antics (Jeff seems to become the voice of viewers tonight in calling out Pierce for the sheer excess of his cruelty and viciousness over the course of the semester). 

Pierce, for his part, provides them with a safe haven tonight, allowing him the chance to prove his odd set of abilities to make the most of certain situations and opportunities.  His incredibly authentic Ft. Hawthorne Old West saloon is intricately detailed with all the amenities of a genuine saloon, from dancing girls (and nerds, for Jeff, who Leonard helpfully points out is gay), to cards and ample amounts of whiskey.  It’s a hilariously detailed sight gag, as is its eventual destruction at the hands of Black Rider, complete with an incredibly disheveled Pierce emerging dumbfounded from the (figuratively) smoking wreckage of his establishment.  In addressing his character’s need for redemption, the show was wise to begin with this lighthearted and inspired wrinkle in the paintball game; the idea that Pierce was able to gather up enough students and resources to build an impenetrable saloon/fort in the middle of the cafeteria is funny and winkingly clever in introducing a staple of all great westerns (what western doesn’t have a good saloon scene?) in an environment where it seems almost impossible for it to exist.  With such an impressive establishment under his control as he plays host to the rest of the group, and coupled with the realization (again in flashback to the card game) that Pierce walked in on the vote regarding his removal from their ranks, his character is endeared to us just enough to make his ensuing explanation (and pseudo apology, I suppose) of his behavior palatable and believable.  I believe Jeff actual tells him he’s been a “villain” the entire year, which is hardly an exaggeration, especially in the episode where he was hospitalized and toyed with the emotions of every character for his own gain. 

His words tonight are nevertheless touching and believable as a reminder that his character, given his divorcee status, age, and lack of friends outside of these six individuals, needs the group in a much more desparate way than any of them need him.  The fact that he often mistreats them, especially when he perceives that they are developing friendships or activities which exclude him, is actually a rather fitting character trait for a man who clings so tightly to his friends that he lashes out at any threat to the group’s collective closeness.  Even if you don’t buy that argument entirely—and given his excess at times, who could blame you?—you have to give him credit for putting his feelings about all of them in perspective when he explains that this is a tough time of year for him because while all of them are excited to head off to exciting summers in their non-college lives, he has nothing to look forward to except the start of school next fall when he can be reunited with them.  It’s a very human moment for him, but I still don’t think it dismisses the odd extremes of his personality to which we were exposed during the course of the season.  Nothing in Community’s structure has suggested that we have the right to demand complete continuity through the course of a season (many incidents are obviously meant to be dismissed in favor of traditional reality in later episodes), but it still seems only fitting that we should expect a character to remain inside fairly predictable boundaries with regards to what we know of their character.  In that sense, tonight felt something like an apology from the writers for temporarily disavowing that unwritten rule—here was Pierce being normal Pierce levels of devious and ultimately revealing himself to be the same insecure, desperate-for-real-companionship man we met in season one.

I should probably populate the “whatnot” section with a list of western/action references from tonight’s episode, but the truth is I’m a bit rusty on my memories of any given western to make an attempt at something so ambitious—there was clearly homage left-and-right, beginning with Annie’s surprise drop (literally) on Fat Neil in the opening scene.  Sound off in the comments section if you recognized specific nods to famous movie scenes—I love that sort of stuff even when somebody has to point it out to me.  For my part, the overall tone of the episode and its devotion to tying multiple characters to a common history (the card game) which will ultimately play a role in their ability to survive their current predicament is so fundamentally “Western” in the American film sense of the word that one almost forgets the motivational posters hanging on the walls beneath layers of paintball; or for that matter forgets the paintballs themselves as substitutes for a traditional .45.  Next week promises to play out in similarly reference-heavy fashion, but I get the impression from the storm troopers unleashed by the anthropomorphic ice cream cone at the end of tonight’s episode that next week may adopt more modern action tropes instead.  More specifically, it seems like the classic “evil corporation with an inhuman monster as its head” storyline made famous by every other summer blockbuster of the past 15 years.  It will still be fun, but I was just getting comfortable hunkerin’ down in this one-horse town of Greendale. 

Overall Rating:  9.7/10

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

Let’s get this out of the way first:  Annie in old west garb?  Yowza.

“If you were a dude you’d have my fist up your balls.”

I like the silliness of Annie heating a can of beans with a bunson burner.  It simultaneously pulls us into and draws us out of the imagined western motif.

Annie’s tin-can alarm system is so intricate—how long has this game been going on?

“Then I guess it’s good I’m not unarmed…considering I’m eating your beans.”

“And I want pants...Everybody wants something.”

“I hear he has more paint than a French kindergartner.”

“Does that guy even go to this school?  He’s so good network TV good looking.”

Troy popping out of the trash can is hilarious.

Great opening of death and violence—what’s his face is back.  “there’s only one rule, fat neil.” 

“If you were a dude you’d have my fist up your balls.”

Annie is ‘ace of hearts”

Best opeing I’ve ever seen—gorgeously well done.

She’s heating beans with a bunson burner; remembers flashback to “pistol patty’s cowboy creamery” end of year picnic. 

They decide to play another game.  Everyone’s dressed in western garb.

Prize is $1000000 cash.  Dean screams.

She has a tin can alarm system.  Hilarious. 

Abed is jack of clubs.  Dressed like eastwood.  “then I guess it’s good I’m not unarmed…considering I’m eating your beans.”

Jeff is king of spades

“and I want pants.  Everybody wants something.”

Jeff takes a lot of heat for his vanity and looks tonight.  Among the best is the “Wanted gay or alive” poster (huh?) on the wall.  Which leads to this exchange:
“My forehead’s not that big right?” 
“It’s not small.”

“For betraying the cheerleading team I sentence you to pretendsies death.”

“It’s a rash, I’m allergic to beans.”

The slo-mo choreography shootout is phenomenal.  Don’t know what else to say about it.

“I got a good look at him.  He’s not that good looking.”

“Okay Black Rider, now let’s see who’s attractive.” 
“Dude, you have a problem.”

Sawyer gets a fantastic exit tonight (no idea if he’s back next week):
“This school sucks.  I wouldn’t go to this toilet with my big sister’s toe…I’m out of here; I’ve got coldplay tickets.”  And when that last strikes Annie’s fancy he adds:  “Too late, Bean Allergy.”

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