Mar 13, 2014

Thom Bitches About Community: "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing"

Left to right: Brie Larson, Danny Pudi, Allison Brie, Vince Gilligan
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.
With an abbreviated season, I know that we are rapidly approaching the end of an impressive fifth season. Even if you consider the problematic fourth, or the "gas-leak," season to be moot, the episodes have been going strongly back into the attitudes that made Dan Harmon's show so uniquely brilliant and fun to watch. If there was any problem going into this, it was that Troy wasn't going to be on every episode. Instead, he would have a brief run and then leave the show to piece itself back together. In reality, a lot of the pieces still fit, but I always worried about Abed (Danny Pudi), who has had a couple of episodes now that haven't felt like he was all that significant. He has been resorted to a background character with weird personality traits.
Of course, that is until we get an episode addressing everything and anything about Abed's psyche post-Troy. He may be dating Rachel (Brie Larson), but that plot alone hasn't been prominent the whole season. Here, we're given the interesting opportunity to see how he handles with a potential roommate: Rachel or Annie's (Allison Brie) brother. This is essentially a chance for their shared apartment to be the grounds for where everything can go wrong. With Troy being the mediator for chaos, this episode reflects what having no filter can do.
This is delightfully done through the VHS video game "Piles of Bullets," which Rachel gave Abed as a one month anniversary gift. The game is a kooky excuse to have a cameo by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan as a cowboy who spits directions fast. In fact, the whole thing doesn't make sense to anyone but Abed and Annie, who play for Rachel and her brother respectively on who gets to move into their apartment. It is fast paced and with the lo-fi technology, a little eerie. Not being familiar with the technological format, I cannot comment on its authenticity, but it does feel very nostalgic in some sense.
More than anything, this episode reflects why Abed's lack of a partner in mischief is a bad thing. While it is true that Donald Glover is returning next season, the question is for how long. I would hope for the entire run, but this hiatus made no sense as it is. Even then, watching him have fun and get competitive over trivial pursuits is quite entertaining. Abed hasn't been this interesting since the Troy episodes and mix in the brilliant Gilligan cameo and I really come away finding this episode effective not only on a plot level, but on a commentary level. Nobody suspects much, but it ends up stating what I personally feel like the show was slipping into. Bravo.
On the flip side, I really couldn't care for the subplots with everyone else. It does feel like there was a need to fill time, so focusing on a stash of textbooks was what had to be. It locked them up in their corner of the world and relied on them trying to deceive each other. Chang (Ken Jeong) supposedly loves the books and Shirley (Yvette Nichole Brown) seems to be overtly religious in this situation. It is creepy how everyone turns on each other, but it does feel anticlimactic to hear that they weren't sold because of a manufacturing error, specifically over the lack of page numbers. It may undermine the problems a little, but it also reflects just how uninspired the subplot really felt like.
If I am harping too much on the Gilligan cameo, it is because I do find brilliance in the somewhat campy idea. From the presentation to his accent, there is something deliciously off about the whole thing. I especially enjoyed the closing credits scene that could serve as the origin story of "Piles of Bullets" with him sitting around with his wife telling him to leave Apple Computers to go into VHS video gaming so that they can get cocaine. It is an amazing premise worthy of a Breaking Bad-style series, if only for a limited run. I find the idea endlessly fascinating in ways that Walter White was and to throw blame on the wife would subvert expectations enough to make for some entertaining TV.
I really do like what they did with this episode. It commented on an issue that I feel has been important this season. While the cast has been a little retooled the entire season, I do feel like there is a need to address how strange it is. This is notably true in the case of Abed, whose distinct personality is hard to mesh with everyone else in the cast. At least now, we understand that the show understands, and that suffices in some ways. Even if all we get is Abed and Rachel sitting around playing games, I'll know that we came to terms with Abed's change of roles in the show and that even if he isn't the same as he used to be, he is in a good place.

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