Monday, April 22, 2013

Community Christmas in April

Article first published as Community Christmas in April on TheTVKing.

NBC's Community celebrates Christmas this week with "Intro to Knots." Jeff (Joel McHale) throws a holiday party at his apartment for the study group and Chang (Ken Jeong). Annie (Alison Brie) invites Professor Cornwallis (Malcolm McDowell) when she learns he is giving them a poor grade. Hijinks ensue when Chang ties up Cornwallis, and Cornwallis begins playing mind games with the study group.

I really dig the concept "Intro to Knots" is going for, even if the execution leaves something to be desired. Cornwallis, a wonderful professor to add to Community's recurring cast, getting into the heads of our main characters for his own amusement, and the study group triumphing over him, is a classic Community story. It exposes some things about our cast, and forces them to look at themselves, again.

The problem is, the plot only goes half-heartedly into things. Aside from revealing that Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is in the running for valedictorian against Annie, nothing major comes out. Cornwallis has the opportunity here to really break down the group dynamics, and he just casually figures out there's a love triangle between Jeff, Troy (Donald Glover), and Britta (Gillian Jacobs), not even picking up that Annie is part of it. Weak sauce.

It's surprising that Annie is left out of the romantic analysis when "Into to Knots" provides her and Jeff a small alone scene, one of the best they've had this season. We get to see Annie trying to play house with Jeff, and it's a reference to the unkindled feelings between them. I think Jeff and Annie should end up together, and while he's not mature enough for her yet, nor she him, he has been making great strides this year, and could be ready to give it a go by season's end. I hope this scene is a promise of things to come, as hinted when Jeff likes her curtains.

Jeff has been growing a lot this season, but faces a backslide in "Intro to Knots" when he admits to tanking his part of their group project for Cornwallis. The others don't judge him, and we can see why when Jeff not only tells Britta that he is only keeping with the persona he has built, but he also delivers a heck of a speech about they are all flawed people who keep screwing up. Jeff may not take a step forward this week, but his self-actualization is promising. Plus, the party may be his attempt to make up for the guilt he feels at screwing up their grade, a good sign.

I could nitpick and say Cornwallis is stupider than he should be be accusing Jeff of untying him when Cornwallis gets free while everyone is distracted by the Dean (Jim Rash). Jeff is the one by the door, so everyone is seeing him the whole time and he is the one with the least opportunity to betray the others. However, I think Cornwallis is just trying to distract the group and get them to turn on each other, and in the moment, when Jeff is winning against Cornwallis, it's the emotion that the professor plays to more than logic, so it sort of makes sense.

I am not sold on the continuing rivalry between Annie and Shirley, which seems to come out of nowhere in the fourth season. I like that it gives Shirley more play in the larger scenarios, as she tends to be often forgotten in years past, but I'm not sure bickering is the way to go about expanding her role. She is a proud, strong, smart, busy mother. Why can't that be her story?

That said, as much as I love Annie, I really hope Shirley gets to be valedictorian. Annie will have other endings, but for Shirley, it would be a great, triumphant way to finish off the character.

Most of the players just get fun little moments this week. The Dean tries to intrude, and for some reason, gifts them all kittens. Everyone buys Jeff Greendale wear, which for some reason is funny. Troy gets a little jealous of Jeff and Britta's past. Troy makes a little bit of effort, though just a bit, to fulfill Abed's (Danny Pudi) Die Hard Christmas wish. And Chang has issues with knots and a fascination with bubble wrap. All of this is mildly amusing, even if not as smart as Community fans are accustomed to.

There are hints in "Intro to Knots" as to what this season is building towards when they take a moment to remind us of the dark timeline from "Remedial Chaos Theory." Evil Abed is still around, and has still vowed to destroy the group. Is he the one pulling Chang's strings? Will he be the bad guy that must be battled in the season finale?

I don't know if I like this. Before, one could dismiss Evil Abed's continued appearances as part of Prime Abed's fantasies. To really commit to Evil Abed being the villain, and this cannot be dismissed as Abed himself, given that Abed is with the group when Chang calls his master, is very strange, even by Community's standards. It also doesn't explain away why Abed sucks this year, something I desperately want a justification for, unless Evil Abed has taken over Abed, but then he couldn't be Chang's controller, so it doesn't quite fit.

I am also highly disappointed that Pierce (Chevy Chase) is said to be with Gilbert (Giancarlo Esposito) in this episode, rather than still lost in the woods. As I said in last week's review, Pierce getting lost is lame compared to other possible scenarios. But since the writers did it, they should stick with it. I don't see the point of drawing things out now, knowing Chase will not return in the next few episodes to finish out any kind of story.

"Intro to Knots" gets a few things right, but also quite a few things wrong. And the plot being set up for the rest of the season in this week's installment only makes me dread how the final weeks of the series could be screwed up even more, rather than building excitement. This could be considered the beginning of the end for Community, and not in a good way.

Community airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

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