Community – “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy”

“Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy”

March 17th, 2011

Earlier today, Community was renewed for a third season. And during tonight’s episode, critic (and friend of the blog) Jaime Weinman tweeted the following: “maybe now that Community is safe I can enjoy watching it w/o feeling guilty about not loving it.”

While I like the show more than Jaime, I’ll admit that various circumstances have conspired to make me less of a fan than many others. Part of this is a busy Thursday schedule which largely keeps me from writing about the show, which means that it’s often the next day before I get a chance to watch. However, I think it’s also a sense that the show has been somewhat hard to pin down this year, consistently raising questions (like “The Problem of Pierce,” discussed in numerous locales over the past month or so) in a way that I think is very interesting but has threatened to keep me at arm’s length.

In some ways, I had the opposite response as Jaime: was it possible that I was resisting the urge to be more critical of the show because of its uncertain future? Perhaps its renewal would awaken underlying frustrations that had been suppressed in solidarity, revealing that my general appreciation for the show was being challenged by growing concerns over its direction.

It’s certainly a possibility, but I don’t think “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” is the episode to test the theory. A simple, effective half-hour of television, this week’s episode of Community sticks to the basics and forms a perfect release for those fans no longer fretting about being on the bubble: it’s sharp, it’s charming, and it’s light on Pierce.

So simple that its title is an even more blatant description of its storylines than usual, “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” even manages to tie both storylines into one easy-to-understand principle. In the case of both Britta and Chang, they find themselves changing in an effort to disprove generally accepted evaluations of their personalities. For Britta, this is something light and breezy, as her pattern for ruining Abed and Troy’s image of her various relationship conquests through a case of TMI becomes tested by the genocidal Luka (the always enjoyable Enver Gjokaj). For Chang, meanwhile, this is something more emotional, as Shirley’s desire to have him sign away his parental rights leads to an effort to transform himself into Ward Cleaver with a kidnapping streak.

What I find interesting about the episode is that it has a certain rhythm to it despite two storylines with considerably different stakes. While genocide does add a more serious element to Britta’s story, for the most part it’s an excuse for Gillian Jacobs to be awkward and for Glover/Pudi to have some fun with Troy and Abed just being buddies (largely acting as a catalyst for Britta). It’s a nice showcase for Jacobs, and I thought the rhythm in this section was particularly nice (and particularly helpful in emphasizing Britta’s awkwardness, as it stopped the otherwise sterling rhythm dead in an effective fashion) – nothing flashy, but it works.

By comparison, Chang and Andre’s custody battle over Shirley’s baby (which, as far as science and available facts are concerned, is Chang’s) is a more important storyline for the future of the series, and something that seems to have real human consequences. And yet while it does have its more serious beats, and there is a clear acknowledgment that Jeff’s attempt to spin the situation for his benefit crossed some kind of line, there was still a rhythm to it. It didn’t feel as though these two stories were operating on different levels, they just achieved the same effect with a slightly different tone. Take, for example, Shirley’s pursuit of Jeff after she realizes that he has put Chang on the path to becoming a better father. The “Don’t make a pregnant lady run” line is in line with the more serious side of the storyline, but the “don’t make a pregnant lady walk the rest of the way” line is a really fun little comic beat that doesn’t feel as thought it violates the gravity of the situation.

This is not an episode of Community that makes enormous tonal leaps, or which pushes any boundaries: there is no “Mixology”-like conclusion which abandons comedy altogether, with the jailhouse scene relying on comedy to punctuate its serious conversations about grownup problems. And yet that seems necessary in a story that is working to merge Chang (once an over-the-top comic concoction) with a more serious subject, a transition that has been happening slowly but surely over the course of the season. Here, it’s still a bit off, but that’s precisely the point – of course Chang is going to struggle to be a father, and in the process bungle his way through his attempts to prove he could be one someday. But it didn’t feel as though the tonal challenges therein infected the rest of the episode, or “took over” the show in any capacity (and yes, you’re welcome to take that as an official statement on the Pierce situation, if you so desire).

Even in the one scene that features that particular cast member (as well as Alison Brie’s Annie who was also given a light load this week), the rhythm was working: Shirley’s baby has become part of this sitcom without becoming a sitcom, able to exist in this universe without feeling as though it must be corrupted by its quirks or in some way more important than the quirks. Certainly not an all-time classic, but an out-and-out pleasantly enjoyable episode that really does feel like a nice followup to this afternoon’s announcement: a chance to just sit back and be reminded that there’s going to be more of this to come.

Cultural Observations

  • As I noted on Twitter, this is yet another in a line of circumstances where our memory for how to spell Enver Gjokaj’s name will be tested. Come April, a similar situation will occur with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – somehow, I think Dollhouse was more memorable than New Amsterdam. But, on a more relevant note, Gjokaj is as good as ever – dude needs his own show, stat.
  • “Hit me with your genie’s bottle” is clearly destined to be a #1 hit.
  • Annie’s attempts to cover all of the ethnic bases was very much in character, and the joke about the letter from the toy company was enormously clever – combine with Jeong’s giddy excitement, and you’ve got a fun setpiece.
  • If anyone’s open to it, I’m willing to follow Pierce’s example and stop using the word “liminal” if it means everyone else will stop defaulting to “Recap” for post-air episodic analysis. Let me know.
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