Tuesday, February 4, 2014

COMMUNITY Breezes Through "Networking"

Article first published as COMMUNITY Breezes Through "Networking" on TheTVKing.

The latest installment of NBC's Community is "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking." The Save Greendale Committee splits into three groups for different projects. Abed (Danny Pudi) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) conduct a student census. Annie (Alison Brie) and Hickey (Jonathan Banks) try to get a fallen bulletin board rehung. And the other four attempt to decorate for a school midterms dance. Needless to say, none of these subplots are that straight forward.

It's a classic sitcom structure to split a larger ensemble into smaller groups, preferably pairing those who rarely interact with one another, and let characters come to new understandings with others. That's exactly what "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking" does. Annie and Hickey have never gotten along, and now they have to work together. Same goes for Britta and Abed, probably the two with the least to talk about in the gang. And no one likes Chang (Ken Jeong), who is on a mission to prove he can be part of their club this week.

Chang is an odd character because he's always been a member of the main cast, but doesn't exactly fit in. It's worthy noting he isn't assigned a task when Annie doles out the assignments in the beginning, ending up with decorating by default. He's flirted with joining the study group before, but it's never really gelled, with him usually splitting off to end up a villain. But now, with his treachery probably having been taken as far as it can be, and since he didn't actually permanently alienate everyone in the process, he tries to work his way into their good graces by assisting the Save Greendale Commitee. He certainly endears himself to the viewer this week, especially with his special dance.

Chang's inclusion brings the committee up to eight members, finally filling out the table once more (Professor Duncan has also apparently joined). It's nice to not see the holes during the library scenes, and the mix of four teachers and four students seems like the appropriate make up of such an organization. Community, despite its losses, feels whole again.

Of course, Chang screws things up spectaculary, convincing Jeff (Joel McHale), Duncan (John Oliver), and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) to go with a bear-birthday theme, forgetting that he saw on the news that morning that a bear attacked a kid's birthday party and mauled a bunch of people to death. They try to cover it up by turning their the bears they already made into fat dogs, inventing a Wikipedia term (it really isn't as easy to screw up Wikipedia as TV shows pretend it is; there are editors who monitor such things), and following Chang's example of crying to confuse Annie, but they are caught in the end.

This is the kind of zany, weird stuff that only Dan Harmon can do well. Most series couldn't make a wild animal murdering innocent children funny, but the idea is carried out with utter sincerity by the cast, and the visuals of the actual decorations, horrible in their lack of artistic skill, will earn snickers, at minimum. It's a completely original idea executed in the best of ways.

In "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking," Annie starts out on the decoration committee (which is why the others join, thinking she'll do all the work), but goes with Hickey when he can't get the bulletin board hung himself. What follows is a series of bargains, bribes, and threats as the duo go from department to department, building an elaborate chain of favors to get their task done. But to accomplish this, Annie must toss her ideals out the window, something Hickey refuses to do, which threatens the tenuous respect they've earned for one another with their cleverness and tenacity throughout the half hour.

My biggest complaint about this subplot is all of the famous faces that breeze by with barely a couple of lines of dialogue. Nathan Fillion (Castle, Firefly) plays the head custodian, while Kumail Nanjiani (Portlandia, Franklin & Bash) works with him, joining recurring janitors Jerry (Jerry Minor, Brickleberry) and Crazy Schmidt (Eddie Pepitone, Conan). Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds) is an IT girl. It's practically criminal that these people appear so briefly, and they should absolutely return for longer stints in the future.

But other than that, I really enjoyed seeing Hickey and Annie interact. He could really be a mentor to her if he'd let himself open up just a smidgen more, and it certainly seems like her disapproval of him stems from his refusal to grant her his approval. They have terriffic chemistry, and it was great fun to see them spend this time together, clearly leaving plenty of material to mine in their relationship.

Finally, the third story has Britta trying to, well, britta, Abed's favorite new series, which is a very clear play on Game of Thrones. When Abed adeptly sidesteps Britta's attempts to spoil the plot, Britta pays off Abed's new flirtation (Katie Leclerc, Switched at Birth) to do it for her. This hurts Abed deeply.

There isn't much purpose to Britta destroying Abed in "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking." It's more just Britta being Britta, stuck on a mission she invents for herself and carrying it too far. Their friendship will survive it, neither being willing to leave their social circle, but this does effectively sabotage any closeness that may have been earned last week when Britta helped Abed deal with Troy leaving. It resets them to the status quo, which is fine, as they are good how they are.

More interesting is Abed's love life. There's an early reference to Rachel, a.k.a. The Coat Check Girl (Brie Larson), one of the only good things to come out of season four, the Harmon-less, so-called "gas leak" year, and it looks like the new girl will be just a one-time thing, too. Which makes it super surprising when Rachel is seen again late in the program, and she and Abed go off to have dinner.

Might Rachel be just what Abed needs to get over Troy? I really hope she returns because she brings out a very different side of Abed that we don't usually see. Her inclusion here is perfect timing, and while "Analysis of Cork-Based Networking) doesn't reveal what happens on their date, it certainly seems like it'll go well, maybe even turning into something long-term, which would be a first for Abed, romantically speaking.

Among the awesome little tidbits that slip their way into this episode are: two completely opposing viewpoints on the movie Labyrinth; Abed watching Rick and Morty, a new Adult Swim series created by returned Community showrunner Dan Harmon; and Troy (Donald Glover) and LeVar Burton (himself) have apparently been captured by pirates in the Gulf of Mexico, as reported by a news scroll when Hickey is watching TV during the dance.

This last bit has to make it on screen at some point. Please, please, please let Burton and Glover film a spin-off TV movie covering their trip around the world. Community is practically begging for it.

"Analysis of Cork-Based Networking" may be considered a "typical" Community episode, which is fair, but it is completely enjoyable from beginning to end. The magic is back, as I've been saying for weeks, and if every installment were simply as good as this one, it would remain my favorite currently running comedy on TV. This is the perfect example of what Community should be, when it's not doing oddball one-offs, which are most appreciated, too.

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

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