Aired: May 6th, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
I liked episodes of Community more than I liked “Modern Warfare.”
When I first watched the episode it couldn’t live up to the mountain of hype, and my general lack of emotional connection with the specific films being referenced meant that I didn’t have the same thrill that others might have found in the episode. I enjoyed it, as I’ve enjoyed most if not all of Community’s first and second seasons, but the episode was not as life-changing as it seemed to be for others.
And yet there was no single episode of Community more important than “Modern Warfare” this year. It was evidence that this was a world which could sustain these flights of fancy, that Greendale could become a paintball battleground without losing that which made the show tenable. It was indulgent and self-reflexive without being reflexively self-indulgent, never stepping back from the parody and yet never allowing that parody to swallow or bastardize the character arcs caught up in this conflict.
The show achieved higher highs, and perhaps even took greater risks as the year went on, but I feel pretty confident that none of it would have worked as well were it not for the confidence and goodwill gained from the day that Greendale went to war.
The very element which makes “Modern Warfare” so distinctive is the same element which caused the show great difficulty earlier in its first season. It’s still not entirely clear whether Dan Harmon and Co. intended for Jeff and Britta to become a “true” romantic pairing in the spirit of the relationships Abed and Shirley compare them to in the prologue of sorts, but the fact is that it wasn’t working. It wasn’t that Joel Mchale and Gillian Jacobs didn’t have chemistry, it’s that the chemistry wasn’t romantic – they made compelling partners in crime, and even their bickering had its moments, but it wasn’t what “television logic” wanted it to be.
And yet in an episode which goes against the series’ logic in favor of an endless stream of action movie clichés, it accepts “television logic” with Jeff and Britta falling into our initial expectations. Their release of tension, giving into the wounded soldier fantasy, was certainly in the spirit of the episode: it was all about excess, indulgence breeding indulgence, except here it was lampooning the show itself (and the show’s difficulties establishing the nature of their relationship) rather than the movies being paid homage or parodied in the rest of the half-hour.
It’s all a part of the episode’s careful balancing act, never allowing things to spill over into the truly chaotic. In the beginning, it’s simple and free from any sort of character work: the characters fit comfortably into action roles, they play out those roles in elaborate setpieces, and one by one they’re picked off – quite quickly, then you think about it – until it’s only Jeff and Britta left standing. At that point, where the game itself seems more simple, the character work adds an extra dimension which makes you realize that just because the episode has moved in a particularly broad direction does not mean that it’s forgotten the pre-existing character dynamics.
Sure, the show still goes for the big action climax and has Jeff’s search for revenge play out in largely parodic fashion, but that brief moment of character amidst the carnage is the glue that holds the episode together. That Jeff and Britta sleeping together doesn’t get swept under the rug is what sets “Modern Warfare” apart, setting a precedent that will almost always work in the show’s favor: what separates “Modern Warfare” from something like “Basic Rocket Science” is that the former felt informed by the world we knew, with long-standing character dynamics filtered through its fantastical premise. The prologue and epilogue are what define the episode, not the madness which takes hold in the middle: you can mop up the paintballs, but you can’t reverse what happened between Britta and Jeff, and even if we remember the episode for its bombast it resonates thanks to its willingness to have that bombast mean something.
This could have been an extremely silly episode of television, and one could argue that its hyper-seriousness (so deftly handled by Justin Lin) is verging on silly, but I think the episode ultimately believes in the story it’s telling. It’s willing to push the boundaries of what we expect from a sitcom, abandoning its “reality” for the sake of a high-concept project like this one, but it also shows that it isn’t willing to push so far that Jeff and Britta’s tryst becomes “part of the joke,” something to be washed away the next day. It lingers within the story in ways which worked against conventional wisdom, just as this episode lingers in any discussion of Community’s impact on television over the course of the past year.
It’s possible that the show had “finer” episodes this year, but for me “Modern Warfare” best represents what Community accomplished in 2010 – pushing the boundaries without pushing its luck, and delivering a hell of an episode in the process.