This week, I’d like to take a break from talking about movies to discuss the most recent episode of NBC’s pseudo-sitcom Community. For those of you unfamiliar with this show, it’s about eight people of varying ages and backgrounds that go to Greendale Community College. It’s currently in its fourth season and has been on rocky ground in terms of returning each year, largely because the meta-humor, constant references, and frequent subversion of TV/sitcom tropes don’t appeal to as huge an audience as, say, almost anything else on primetime.
I am, by and large, a huge fan of this show. All of the characters are interesting. The humor–when done right–doesn’t just play with what we know about TV, movies, and stories, but uses this to enhance the stories of the characters. At the same time, the show occasionally expects us to go, “Hey, this episode is a parody of [whatever]! That’s funny!” This has happened increasingly as the seasons have gone by, and this recent season has been particularly shaky as characters are sacrificed for one-off gags. Community as a show still entertains, but it doesn’t have the same dedication to character development as it used to, or at least as I think it used to, which has caused a lot of fans (and casual viewers) to feel largely disengaged.
This brings us to the most recent episode, “Basic Human Anatomy.”Taking a queue from body-switching movies like Freaky Friday, the episode has Troy and Abed switching bodies around the date of Troy and Britta’s anniversary. Jeff wants to finish a poster project for their class, but can’t because of these shenanigans paired with Annie and Shirley wanting to find out who is Valedictorian (hint: it’s Leonard).
When I first heard that this would be a body switching episode, I worried it would be another, “This is a [blank] episode!” But it’s not. The switch is very clearly a bit being done by Troy and Abed, so instead we have to wonder why they’re doing this. Their dedication is absurd. Slowly, we realize that Troy is uncertain about his relationship with Britta–which makes sense because the writers left this plot line starving in a ditch for most of season four–and is allowing himself to be Abed the Tactless and Abed to act as a mouthpiece for Troy so that he can communicate his conflicted feelings.
Here’s why I’m talking about this episode: this is a perfect example of how a show, in particular Community, can use tropes and familiar plot devices to tell an insightful, unique story that illuminates its characters. The script to this episode is dedicated to the bit of a body switch, but the episode doesn’t rely on us laughing at this (although it’s hilarious); instead, the idea allows the characters to say things they might not normally, revealing a lot about themselves while pretending to be someone else.
That is how Community is supposed to work. That is how meta-humor should be used: not as a shortcut to laughs, but as a clever way to develop characters. It shouldn’t be easier than straight-forward plot and character development; it should be cleverer, and possibly harder. Perhaps the episode could do all this because it was written by an Oscar-winning screenwriter.
Another great part of Community is how it balances multiple storylines, and again this episode does that really well. Jeff, in one of the few episodes from this season that remembers who he is as a person, wants the project done and will do anything to accomplish that. He feels genuinely motivated. Pierce is basically told to screw off, as he often is, and yet he comes through by completing everything. This was a small but insightful comment on how Pierce is treated in this show: he’s written off, yet he can do amazing things if you let him. That has been remembered sporadically at best since season one.
I’m conflicted about Annie and Shirley. I like that the writers found a common ground between them. Annie is a studious and uptight twenty-ish year old, while Shirley is a confident and caring mother/entrepeneur. The recognition of the latter’s ambition and intelligence is refreshing, but in conflating the characters, I can’t help but think we’re losing out on some of the unique aspects of both of them. Still, watching them follow the Dean around as he pretends to have switched bodies with Jeff is hilarious. Jim Rash, who plays the Dean and wrote this episode, shows that he is a much stronger part of the show than anyone previously considered.
The only other person to consider is Britta, who is effectively dumped by Troy on her anniversary via Abed. Britta has been dealt with terribly in the past, with her obnoxiousness played up without consideration of why we like her (she’s flawed, like everyone, and tries very hard to improve herself when she can get over her stubbornness). But her reaction to the Troy and Abed scenario told us that she is growing up, and trying harder and harder to listen to others. She still tried to play up the “I’m a brilliant therapist” aspect of her character, but when something that truly mattered to her occurred, she acted like a real, complex person. That’s more respect than Britta has gotten recently.
And I’d be remiss not to mention that this episode is also funny. Very funny. This is one of the first real Community episodes I’ve seen in a while because it was funny, creative, clever, and insightful. It actually used the characters that have been so intelligently constructed. I was compelled to write this article on because I was so refreshed to see an episode of a TV show do what many movies try: tell an intricate and engaging story with complex characters. Community, at its best, does this with a wit and level of insight not often seen in major films, no less primetime television.
If you love Community, I hope you enjoyed this episode as much as I did; if you don’t, then I encourage you to watch it, because episodes like “Basic Human Anatomy” remind us why we like stories, whether they’re zany, strange, meta, dramatic, funny, insightful, or just weird.