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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Maintenance" Keeps COMMUNITY On Track

Article first published as "Maintenance" Keeps COMMUNITY On Track on TheTVKing.

The latest installment of NBC's Community is "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing." Buoyed by several memorable guest stars, many of them non-actors doing a great job in rare appearances on screen, the study group is split in two this week for a couple of enlightening stories, leading to a new side being revealed for at least a couple of players. It's an emotional and entertaining episode that continues some of this season's arcs.

After an absolutely terrific opening featuring the under-used Dean (Jim Rash) rapping and breaking down, Jeff (Joel McHale), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), and Hickey (Jonathan Banks) head off to clean a storage closet. They find 120 mint-condition chemistry text books hidden in a vent, and soon are in a drug deal-esque story to unload them. Things get more complicated when Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is brought in as a middle(wo)man, Chang (Ken Jeong) stumbles on the stash, and Jeff has a crisis of conscience, and in the end, their buyer (compose Paul Williams) walks away without a deal.

Apart from the obvious genre parodying, which is enjoyable, the element that really steals the plot is the turning of Shirley into a kingpin. Brown plays the religious mother so sweetly most times, and despite her prejudices, hypocrisy, and judgmental nature, Shirley is usually very likeable. But when her dark side emerges, usually covered with a layer of honey, watch out! "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" may just be the nastiest we've seen her yet, conveying much with a tilt of her head or a lift of her eyebrow.

I also like that Jeff is the one has doubts about their enterprise. He's really turned a corner in what a good person he can be, and while he still makes some bad choices, such as being the one to encourage their illicit activity in the first place, he can't stand to see Shirley go evil and feels bad about his fault in it. I don't think his moral compass was nearly so strong at the start, and it's gratifying to see this growth.

It's worth nothing that much of this season has concerned Greendale's precarious financial situation. The Dean announces paychecks will be late at the start of this episode, and it's likely the text books were hidden precisely because they were worthless misprints, perhaps another mistake the Dean made to drive them further into the hole. Will the Save Greendale Committee be able to preserve the school? Or might this make an excellent main story for the movie referenced in the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie?

The other side of "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" involves Annie (Allison Brie) and Abed (Danny Pudi) searching for a roommate. This is necessary because they can't afford the rent on their own. Annie would like her brother (production staff member Spencer Crittenden) to live with them, while Abed argues for his girlfriend of one month, Rachel (Brie Larson). To settle the disagreement, Annie and Abed drag the other two into a high-stakes round of the old (fictional) VHS game Pile of Bullets.

Bringing up such an outdated form of entertainment as a VHS game is both fitting for Community and hilarious. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan does a fantastic job as the star of the tape, and his tag at the end of the episode with Gina Gershon makes for some pretty funny meta stuff. The show frequently brings up old trends from the past, and this is another link in that proud legacy.

Of course, things for Annie and Abed aren't so easily solved. As Annie's brother points out, there is a serious vacuum left in the apartment since Troy's departure. No one can really replace Troy in the role he held in their lives, and by trying to force someone into that hole, the two risk ruining whoever they set their sights on. Instead, they need to get a stranger to help pay the rent for practical reasons, then tackle the emotional void on their own.

Abed is already showing signs of development with his crutch gone. Rachel is good for Abed, letting him know when he's acting in an unacceptable manner and charmed by his better qualities. Abed almost loses her in his obsession with the game, but does wake up enough to realize her importance and win her back, creating one of his real, honest moments as he confesses his underlying concerns. She is patient and forviging, and there's a real sense of hope that she might be just what Abed needs to become a whole human being.

"VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" may not be a particularly special episode, but it's another good one, keeping the show alive to the millions of fans happy to see it survive. Might it be too much to ask from NBC to give us one more season and a film?

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

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