Jan 10, 2014

Thom Bitches About Community: "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics"

Left to right: Jim Rash, Joel McHale, and Allison Brie
In the ashes of a failed column comes the reformed birth of Thom Bitches About Community: a weekly look at the beloved Dan Harmon sitcom that chooses to push boundaries and throw a meta cocktail into the face of every sitcom currently out there. With the return of the show's creator after a rocky, disastrous season four, we take a look at the show and try and capture what exactly makes the show worth checking out all these years later. Keep an eye out for it every Thursday night following the episode unless otherwise specified.

Oh, how great it feels to have Dan Harmon back. The fact of the matter is that this is pretty much a gimmick episode. One that parlays on a simple, juvenile premise and demands that you take it seriously. If you are too squeamish to a half hour comedy that is based entirely around anal fixation, then Community this week may not be for you. However, there is a good chance that you're like me and while butt jokes in general are embarrassing, that this episode is a pinnacle in how to stretch out the premise without sacrificing quality.
From Chang (Ken Jeong) sporting a front butt to Troy (Donald Glover) having severe trauma from being harassed, this episode's fixation on butts works because it manages to look beyond it. The episode is set up in the vein of a mystery, with the case being based around the idea of who is the Ass Crack Bandit. The name alone is consistently referenced and the action of dropping a quarter into one's butt crack is more referenced than show. However, when pivotal characters such as Troy and Fat Neil (Charley Koontz) get violated in this way, the moment is drawn out for dramatic tension. Shocked faces and the sense that something life changing has happened. 
In fact, what makes everything work is that Abed (Danny Pudi) is also playing along with the procedural tropes. His routine in this episode, while minor, is to cover the victims in blankets and give them cups. He has seen it so often in movies that it somehow sticks. For most of the episode, Troy is rolled around like an old woman in a wheelchair, covered in the blanket and staring as if damaged. The final slap when he attacks the culprit is done in a deadpan manner that helps to keep the serious tone taught and the ridiculousness of the whole thing strong.
As Britta (Gillian Jacobs) points out, the culprit is someone who either likes money or hates it. There is no real understanding. All that is received is cryptic phone calls and occasional references to the Dave Matthews Band, or Dave as the hardcore fans refer to them as. It somehow becomes a plot device and ties in a whole group of characters, including the resurrection of Starburns (Dino Stamatopoulos), who died in season three and is now revealed to have faked his death. The show is continuing to retool in interesting ways and has even attempted to bring back the Annie/Jeff (Joel McHale) relationship through vague comments thrown out at varying points in the episode.
It also continues to effectively use Jonathan Banks as Mr. Hickey, who may still be just an alteration of Banks' Breaking Bad character Mike, but his deadpan delivery on the logistics of putting time and effort into chasing the Ass Crack Bandit was delightful, especially compared to Dean Pelton (Jim Rash), who is eager to make everyone safe. Then again, this is a school whose flag is an anus, which never felt more relevant than this episode. Along with the brief appearance of the always delightful Professor Duncan (John Oliver), this is a tightly wound episode that shows the cast performing in top gear.
The appeal comes from the serious take on the subject. While I find butt jokes a little pointless, there wasn't a period in this episode where I wasn't in hysterics. What Harmon has done is make butts funny by juxtaposing tragedy and seriousness to an otherwise ridiculously simplistic and harmless activity. By the time everyone is leaving school to a school about the Ass Crack Bandit, there is a sense that he has impacted the school, even if nobody is sure who it is. Annie thinks that it is Duncan, but the mystery remains at large when Duncan gets the quarter treatment as well. The episode ends shrouded in mystery, and it is delightful in a way satirizing noir elements.
Of the elements, the most obvious, though one that I felt was already addressed, was the death of Pierce. For those not in the know, there was conflict on the show between Chevy Chase and Harmon and that carried over to season four. He has since left, and I felt that "Repilot" was as good of a way as any to kill him off without making a big deal. To end the episode almost as a eulogy in between butt jokes is also sort of inspired. It is also great that almost like a phoenix, Starburns resurrected as if to replace Pierce's position on the show. It could feel like a gimmick, as it did feel tacked on, but it did feel like an apt way to move on without addressing the obvious. The only question now is how Donald Glover's brevity will play. He was so good in this episode and it played to his strengths that I cannot see reason for wanting to leave in the height of the show's resurgence.
Three episodes in, and I am almost wanting to say that Community has regained its legacy back and now is on track to have its best season since the second one. There hasn't felt like any dark episodes, but if the first one was an apology for Harmon's disappearance, then this one is the welcome mat laid out, making way for the return in gratuitous butt jokes and fun. He is a master of mixing genres and making the mixture of low and highbrow comedy fit together in one bizarre story that on paper sounds terrible, but in execution, makes for a great set piece for the characters to suffer traumatic experiences without the traumatic experiences. 

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