Community – “Advanced Criminal Law”

CommunityTitle

“Advanced Criminal Law”

October 15th, 2009

I am not one of those people who needs every episode of a comedy to establish something new about the show, but early on in its run Community has actually done a pretty good job of expanding its collection of stock characters into something more diverse than I expected. As a result, “Advanced Criminal Law” is a step back not in terms of quality (it’s still a fine episode) but in that it relies on basic stereotypes and offers us combinations that either have already been done or were not given enough time to really click.

And yet, for the most part, I think the episode succeeded in finding humour in each of the storylines, something that should really be the goal of any comedy early on its run. Even if the storylines didn’t feel like they were bringing anything new, the various situations fit into these characters very well, giving us new takes on old dimensions and making me laugh enough to look past the relative simplicity compared with some of the show’s better segments.

Each scenario in the episode has roughly the same problem, in that they never really went anywhere or did anything that the show hasn’t done before. Jeff and Britta’s relationship is in no different a place now that Britta has been on trial for cheating, Troy and Abed already had a somewhat close friendship (they’ve shared a few codas) that never really felt in jeopardy or changed by the alien gag, and we knew Pierce was crazy before we learned that his jingle-writing style is ripping off famous songs. What made each storyline work was the the situations developed were stock for these characters, but nonetheless were given little twists that allowed them to remain engaging for us as an audience.

Take, for instance, Jeff and Britta’s trip to the courtroom, which was really an example of situation comedy rather than character comedy. Yes, we got to see Jeff lawyer things up (which has been built into the show’s premise for a while), and it was good to have both Oliver and Jeong present to build on their respective recurring characters. But really, the storyline was an excuse to hold a trial by the Judges’ table in the Olympic-sized pool, with its built-in sound system, thus extending the episode’s message of Greendale trying to appear more like a real college as opposed to a place where they hold legal proceedings while some guy swims naked by the pool. It was a ludicrous situation to be in, and most of the humour was derived from that (like having the locker rooms serve as the meeting rooms) or from the guest actors, and not the actual storyline, which was interesting for a moment (when Jeff clarified that he cares about Britta even though he’s not willing to take sex off the table) but never went anywhere – we didn’t really care that Britta cheated, and all Jeff’s lawyering did was confirm what we knew from the pilot. It didn’t make for a bad storyline, but it made for one which didn’t accomplish much.

The same goes for Abed and Troy, who are two of my favourite characters to see interacting. Troy is perhaps the least-developed of any of the lead characters, his injury/loss of scholarship not quite coming to the forefront. However, I like how his cocksure attitude and his comfort in his own skin operate with a character like Abed, as he attaches himself onto the latter gullibility. The storyline, though, simply continued what we’ve seen in the past, where Abed is more self-aware than people realize, which tends to confuse them (like it did with his video, which we presumed would be hilarious but was in fact borderline tragic). Here, there was really no payoff: the alien language was fun to watch, but the storyline didn’t go all the way to Troy believing it was true (which would have taken the premise too far, I think) nor did it have him be entirely dismissive. It sat somewhere in the middle, which was interesting but ultimately lacking in momentum. Abed is a fun character to watch, and I like his dynamic with Troy (the coda featuring another fun little aside from the two characters), but I think there needed to be something more there.

And while I believe that Chevy Chase is hilarious and that Pierce is an interesting character, there was almost no development in his jingle-writing adventure. While the storyline was admirably connected to the premise of Greendale aspiring to greater things (as with, ostensibly, the Abed/Troy story considering what spurred Troy’s first set of lies), it suffered because I think there’s an interesting character interaction between Annie and Pierce that we didn’t actually get to see here. Instead, we got Annie serving as a conduit for Pierce to sing about Mushu Pork (humorous) and break into his “Coming Around the Mountain” ripoff Hawthorne wipes jingle (which made me lose it with “AT THE PICNIC!”). This isn’t the worst idea in the world, as Chase is legitimately great in the role and the Bruce Hornsby ripoff conclusion was fun. However, it was an example of a very simple idea that already fit into the character’s world, and one that actually did nothing for Annie and didn’t really go where it could have.

And that was the story with the episode, the first where it felt like things kind of retreated back to an almost pilot-like mentality for these characters. This doesn’t mean the show stops being funny, but it means that forward character momentum is kind of lost, albeit not in too detrimental a fashion. A solid but unspectacular outing, at the end of the day.

Cultural Observations

  • There’s some talk (Todd at The A.V. Club mentions it) that this was initially intended to air a few weeks ago, which totally makes sense in terms of how uneven it felt at points.
  • The character who actually got the least to do in this one was Shirley, who got put back into the stereotypical black woman role (a role the episode confirmed despite her objections). It was a REAL flashback to the pilot, with its string of stereotypical character interactions, and the one that felt the most “off.”

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Community – “Advanced Criminal Law”

  1. S. Stills

    That Chevy chase storyline felt to me like just a way to make sure everyone remembers that Chevy Chase was in the show. I would’ve rather they nixed that and had the “messing with you” storyline between Abed spread to Shirley and Annie, with Pierce oblivious to either side’s attempts to fool each other. It would’ve been nice to have that kind of a big goofball plot involving more characters contrasting with Jeff and Britta’s relatively more serious plot. The presence of the jingle storyline just took time away from the better two plotlines (maybe then the alien language gag would’ve actually gone somewhere)

    The show is superb when it finds a way to cleverly weave the ensemble in and out of the main storyline (like the silent protest, or Shirley and Jeff gossiping about Britta’s new beau), and this week felt like they were writing 3 separate stories of isolated groups.

    -Euge

  2. I don’t envy comedy writers for first seasons. It would be very, very challenging to set up a relationship that is inevitable and draw it out forever. The Office successfully pulled this off (a season 6 marriage is amazing), but so many shows screw this kind of thing up… or they get canceled. Obviously Community is in a rough spot. The show was never going to be a runaway success, and it’s almost guaranteed that one of the Thursday night comedies will be canceled. It’s a rough spot. How do you write a funny show with out pulling the trigger on all your drawn out stories? It seems like Parks & Rec. is choosing to not hold back, but I think Community is going to hold on and save these big moments for later.

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