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Latest episode of 'Community' doesn't live up to old standards

By Ryan Gibbs
On February 28, 2013

I never thought I'd be in the position to write a mildly negative review of a "Community" episode. Yet here I am. I didn't hate "Conventions of Space and Time," but I sure didn't like it.

The episode prior to this one, "Paranormal Parentage" (a belated Halloween episode. Remember: this season was supposed to begin in October), was excellent. It put to rest many of my fears about this show failing to produce even one half hour up to snuff with the Dan Harmon era. "Conventions of Space and Time" on the other hand? Maybe it's just a rough patch, or it could be a warning that this season might be spotty at best.

This episode revolves around a visit to a convention for "Inspector Spacetime," the "Doctor Who-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off-so-they-don't-get-sued" show that Troy and Abed enjoy. "Inspector Spacetime" is one of the show's nice little recurring features. I stress "little" because blowing up something enjoyable at a short length rarely works as the focus of an entire story (for example, nearly every movie based on SNL sketch that isn't "The Blues Brothers" or "Wayne's World.") The first frame of set in the convention is crawling with vague references to "Doctor Who" miscellany only fans of both "Community" and "Who" would appreciate. From this first frame, I instantly dreaded the rest of this episode, namely the inferior plot that usually comes out of poor usage of such a specific setting concept.

As the episode progressed, I discovered that I was right to worry, as we indeed got the worst possible scenario for a plot involving this setting. Most of the jokes revolved around vaguely renamed references to various Doctor Who characters and settings. This is funny when it was confined to a single joke like in episodes past, but it got really old, really fast stretched out to episode length. This setting was always a possibility: two geeky characters like a cult TV program, so it would only be time when they visited a convention for said series, but the jokes and writing could have been handled so much better.

Happily the show manages to actually work around the poor use of setting and the show delivers some good jokes about the series, and once in awhile some of the "this isn't Doctor Who, but a vaguely different show!" jokes are actually kind of funny, as were some of the character situations. The writers of the show remaining after many jumped ship with Harmon still know their characters, and their actors still continue a strong ensemble cast. There is also a pretty fantastic joke in here that proves that you can still get a laugh out of Nigerian banking scam jokes.

The main plot thread of the episode is about Abed (Danny Pudi) dealing with the relationship between Britta (Gillian Jacobs) and his best friend Troy (Donald Glover) and what it means for their friendship. If you've seen the show before (or read the above sentence) you'd think it would be Abed having a crisis from this dilemma. Instead it is Troy, who feels threatened by a new character, Toby, played by British comedian and writer Matt Lucas (best known for co-creating the very good series "Little Britain.") One of the things "Community" does well is find great actors for guest parts and give them quite a bit of space to do as they please with the role, and Lucas is no exception: He's excellent in his part, and the conflicts he adds (especially in the latter half of the episode) is one of the highlights of the entire episode.

In Jeff's (Joel McHale) subplot, it is pointed out that he is the spitting image of a character on the show. He impersonates the actor of said character to impress a woman. You've seen this plot before. It isn't even a very good variation of it either. This plot is eventually smashed into a related subplot involving Annie (Alison Brie), in which she fakes being Jeff's wife because their room is in his name. She has a giant argument with him that ends his plot to continue her own lie. While I'm unsure of whether they're doing this because of any changes they want to make to Annie's character (like the forced romance in a quest for ratings), I find it kind of cute that they ended one lie with another, bigger one. That it ended a subplot I was annoyed with only made it better.

Meanwhile, Pierce (Chevy Chase) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) focus test an American version of "Inspector Spacetime." Pierce gives very bad, broad recommendations that try to ruin the show, which we already know that American TV executives can do just fine on their own ("Community" star Joel McHale was actually once attached to an apparently terrible US remake of the British sitcom "The IT Crowd," which never made it past the pilot stage). I liked Pierce and Shirley's plot more than any of the others, and there's actually very little of it in the episode.

If you're willing to believe everyone in show business who has ever interacted with Chevy Chase, he's a massive prick. He is also a very good actor when pushed. His performance as Peirce these last few years has been his best showcase as a comedic actor since "Three Amigos" in the mid-80s. However, from the way the show has been dealing with Pierce these last few episodes, I've been getting the feeling that they're starting to drop hints at how they're going to write him off the show should they get a fifth season, based on Chase officially quitting a few months back. Hopefully I'm reading too much into character dialogue, but I'd be incredibly upset if they decided to write him off with a "MASH" reference or something like that.

I've seen many of my favorite shows die undignified deaths due to ending long after their time had passed. Even if this season isn't the show's last, I don't want to see "Community" have an exit like the one "Scrubs" had or "The Office" is currently having. The season's second episode, "Paranormal Parentage," proved that the show can still be great, but the severe quality dip in "Conventions in Space and Time" has me worried. I can only hope that future episodes aren't as mediocre.

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