Community – “Modern Warfare”

“Modern Warfare”

May 6th, 2010

This episode is a triumph, so let me first make a note regarding its tremendous (or, if you prefer for me to actually complete the reference completely, huge) success – the various action movie parodies which run throughout “Modern Warfare” are expertly designed, tremendously directed by Justin Lin, and result in a really funny and successful episode.

However, I am sort of at a loss about what to really say about it, if only because I haven’t seen a lot of the action movies that the show parodied, and the brekaway narrative used by the episode (and most action movies) meant that the number of characters onscreen diminished as the episode went on. While the episode embodied the show’s propensity for pop culture references and for its meta-subversion of sitcom stereotypes, it also disrupted (as we saw in “Contempoary American Poultry”) the show’s traditional character dynamics. With only twenty minutes, the show rushed head first into the central dynamic between Jeff and Britta while largely “writing off” the other characters, which helped get to the various cliches the episode wanted to address but which kept me (who, as with the Goodfellas parody, was sort of left on the outside here) at arm’s length.

It still really freaking cool from my vantage point, but it wasn’t so much a high water mark for the show so much as it was an important test for the series’ future that it passed with flying colours.

Which were, you know, paint balls.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the fun atmosphere of this episode, it’s actually an incredibly important episode for Jeff and Britta as a couple. I don’t entirely know what we’re supposed to leave this episode with: are we to believe that their hookup only happened because they were under the influence of an intense, adrenaline-filled environment and some shirtless first aid was required, or are we to believe that sparks flying within this particular scenario indicate some sort of connection? The ending seemed to indicate that Jeff’s experience had changed him to some degree, and Abed notices a change in the room which boils down to resolved sexual tension between the couple. Perhaps all the show needs is to occasionally create a scenario where they can have sex in order for the show to go on as if nothing ever happened: it’s not that the two characters need to be together, it’s that the sexual energy between them occasionally needs to be unleashed to avoid falling into cliche (or doing so unknowingly).

Where most Community episodes tend to get bigger as they go along (like last week’s food fight, for example), this week’s episode did the opposite: it started with everyone together (or with the two factions coming together), and then it started to knock them off one by one. And while this still resulted in some nice moments, it felt like characters like Annie and Troy were criminally underused for the sake of continuing the parade of parodies. In some cases, they were done in by clever circumstances, like Pierce being used as a decoy or the reveal of Abed’s legs or Shirley’s dramatic “I’m going home, Britta” scene. However, Annie and Troy were just sort of tossed aside, and while that’s realistic for the genre being parodied I felt the characters were limited to a couple of quick lines and then dumped. Sure, Alison Brie popping out of a trash can was an episode highlight, but her death was without purpose, and I’m unwilling to accept the “but that happens all the time to red shirts” argument when these people are more than red shirts to us.

“Modern Warfare” is a fine example of the show being able to remain fresh and funny when relying almost entirely on pop culture references, and if you were to pick an episode of the show to embody those qualities it would very easily be this one (and it helps alleviate some of the pressure on the show heading into its second season, hopefully heading off “Will Community jump the shark with the pop culture references in S2” articles). However, if I was picking an episode which was my favourite, I think I prefer episodes which embrace the inherent wackiness of the characters rather than funneling their wackiness through action movie cliches, and I think I prefer episodes which embrace the entire ensemble cast rather than focusing so solely on a single couple. I love seeing Senor Chang getting tagged into the field, and I very much enjoyed the digs at Glee and the various factions which emerged during the episode, and the surreal scene of Jeff waking up amidst the carnage was just a tremendous piece of direction from Justin Lin that set the tone for the entire episode.

However, that tone never felt like it reached the series’ heights to me: I think “Modern Warfare” lived up to all of the hype, but it can’t help the fact that it wasn’t aiming for the version of this show which I personally prefer (and that I really need to get around to seeing some more action movies).

Cultural Observations

  • I’m sure I said it above, but Justin Lin had a lot of fun with this one: stuff like the paint bomb was just really well-staged, and stuff like the two paintballs hitting one another in mid-air was shot stylistically enough to seem like a parody but realistic enough to seem serious. The episode, and the show, are a bit too weird for the Emmys, but I’d expect Lin has to be a frontrunner for the Emmy for Best Direction in a Comedy Series.
  • Okay, I got Terminator, Die Hard, and The Matrix from this, but everything else was pretty much a blur, parody-wise.
  • I enjoyed the way that the episode built up to its two act breaks (not counting the cold open) in its humorous way but ended with the total cliche: the standoff starts with Annie coming out of the trash can but ends with everyone facing a gun in their face, while Jeff and Britta’s embrace starts out as fake but is “real” when we go to commercial. Both are subverted once the episode returns from that break, but it’s almost like a freeze frame of “realistic” action movie stories to take you to commercial.
  • If it weren’t for his persistent sarcasm, Joel McHale is actually a pretty convincing action star.
  • Disappointed there was no attempt at a distinct Arrested Development joke within the opening “TBD” discussion.
  • No Abed in the coda, but Jeff and Troy’s struggle to record the perfect message was still really, really funny.
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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Community – “Modern Warfare”

  1. While I did enjoy all of the action movie parodies, the whole Senor-Chang-as-John-Woo antihero was particularly brilliant, right down to the slow motion, the elegant suit, the glasses and the paintballs colliding in midair.

    And yet, much as I enjoyed this episode–and I did, as did my wife, who’d only seen (and loathed) the Jack Black episode–it’s still only my second favorite episode of a sitcom involving pop culture references and paintball. That would be “Spaced.”

  2. Gern Blanston

    It’s funny you mention Spaced, because I thought this episode in particular, as well as various other episodes, had a lot of Spaced’s influence. With the Goodfellas episode, Physical Education acting as ’80s underdog movie-sort, etc, I kinda love the direction the series is going in. Sort of like a U.S. Spaced (but not McSpaced, thankfully). It’s probably one of the main reasons the show, like Spaced, has connected so much with movie fanatics.

    The show does its part to tip its hat to classic ensemble comedies like Taxi, Newsradio, at the same time going very cinematic (hiring Justin Lin to do a few episodes) in scope. It makes it an incredibly exciting series, since I can’t recall a series that has connected all these parts together so well. While, I may laugh more on average at Parks & Recreation, I am always left energized, and joyful after Community.

    That was a lot of rambling, and I hope there’s a point in there somewhere.

  3. Pingback: Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “Modern Warfare” (Community) | Cultural Learnings

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