January 14th, 2010
There was a lot of talk early in 30 Rock’s third season about the proliferation of guest stars into the series, which was met with a lot of negative response from critics and viewers alike. The show felt as if it was being dominated by those guest stars, and that the stories were not so much about their presence in the show’s universe than they were about the characters themselves (which, in most instances, were indistinct enough to effectively become the actors playing themselves). It’s not that the show couldn’t write compelling guest stars (Dean Winters’ Dennis Duffy kills every time), but rather that something about the way they were integrating them into the show’s dynamic was off-putting.
Tonight, Community performed an experiment through the use of Jack Black, purposefully testing the show’s characters dynamics in order to see if adding another character to the mix would upend their rhythms. However, like many experiments where the facilitators are controlling every variable, the results are exactly what they want them to be, and Black’s character Buddy is a fundamental distraction who feels distinctly out of place. But by actually tapping into our expectations that the presence of a big star with a penchant for overacting would disrupt the flow of the series, and by allowing Black to essentially play an amalgam of his most annoying qualities without any context, the episode says something about how we react to interlopers on shows which focus on tight-knit groups.
In the process, the show gets quite a funny episode, and reinforces how much we like this study group as it is.
I like that we open the episode with everyone returning from Christmas vacation – it’s a college tradition that’s really captures that idea of a group coming back together, and when Jeff fakes that he’s still got last semester’s “attitude” it’s a great moment that reflects how the group has come together after some initial cynicism from Jeff felt a bit out of place. Yes, the episode eventually makes the argument that Jeff hasn’t actually changed at all but rather channeled that cynicism into tough leadership (which was some nice work from the writers), but it does a good job of getting us back into the show’s rhythms. And then you have that great moment where, without warning, you see Jack Black standing in the background joining in on the celebration, and you realize something is off. It’s a great little scene, which leads to an episode that is aggressively meta (See: the opening credits interrupting Jack Black mid-sentence) but never feels disconnected from the show’s characters.
A lot of this is because the actual time spent with Buddy is minimal: the episode spends more time with character discussing Buddy than with Buddy himself, which allows Jack Black’s schtick to avoid being repetitive up until the point where for story purposes it is supposed to be repetitive (convenient, no?). And we get great scenes like the group voting on his inclusion (including Pierce’s inability to tell the difference between Shirley and Troy’s voices), and Jeff and Abed doing M*A*S*H in the Newspaper office, and other scenes that felt distinctly “of” the show even when the episode was about how something that wasn’t “of” the show was disrupting it. The show went out of its way to work Buddy into previous sequences (which is something that How I Met Your Mother did in last season’s “The Fight”), but yet it made the joke work with Annie and Britta’s cheerleader catfight and through Black being very gifted at selling a creepy interest in their lives. The characters’ lives might have been disrupted, but the show itself didn’t actually feel any different because of Jack Black’s presence. It was still funny, Abed still went a bit too far with the pop culture reference, and Senor Chang still got to fake his own death and play a rap song ABOUT FAKING HIS OWN DEATH – Black’s involvement made no difference, and was actually a neat little story to tell in this environment as a new member of study group is the community college equivalent of a big name guest star.
Not everything quite added up, as Annie’s ace reporter story never quite went anywhere (as much as I still love Alison Brie) and I thought that Owen Wilson’s cameo actually did sort of send things over the top in terms of the guest stars dominating the show’s story (although, again, making them the “cool” group sort of makes that feel natural, although I wonder how Starburns got in), but it was a solid half hour of comedy that managed to say something about guest stars in general and the show’s characters without feeling more obnoxious than usual, which is nicely played.
- Pierce’s ironic t-shirts: Retired Old Fart. World’s Greatest Grandpa. I’m up here. Man Candy. That two of them aren’t actually ironic is what made the joke work.
- Not sure if Troy’s “Yo, I NEED my genitals” or “An Impressive Ratio of Girth to Hip flexibility” was my favourite Donald Glover line-reading of the night.
- Annie’s best line was easily “They have me editing the crossword because I’m a girl…and because I LOVE crosswords.”
- Note to self: find out a good episode of M*A*S*H in case anyone ever asks me that question.