“The highest stakes 1993 interactive VCR game of your entire young-adult lives.”
— Abed Nadir
After reaching dizzying heights of surreal, high-concept lunacy during last week’s “MeowMeowBeenz” dystopia, tonight’s episode of Community felt like a bit of a comedown. Still, the show was due for a more subdued episode and as usual it delivered a deliriously funny half-hour. Despite the smaller stakes, there were plenty of laughs to be found, including Jim Rash’s transcendent performance in the cold open. Dean Pelton’s freestyle rap about the teachers’ delayed paychecks (decked out in a Payday peanut bar costume) devolving into a manic display of anger followed quickly by horrified shame, was a definite highlight of the episode that had me laughing well into the first commercial break.
“VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing,” continues the trend this season of brilliant guest casting. In addition to Brie Larson’s welcome return as Abed’s quirky girlfriend Rachel, we are also introduced to Annie’s hitherto unmentioned brother Anthony (played by Spencer Crittenden), who appears to be even more socially dysfunctional than Abed. Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad) also appears in a very funny cameo performance as the host of a cheesy, western-themed, 1993 interactive VCR game called “Pile of Bullets”.
This absurdly difficult, over-the-top game becomes a hilarious setpiece, driving the action of the A plot as Abed and Annie use it to compete over who should fill the void in their apartment following Troy’s departure. Ostensibly looking for someone to help pay the rent–Abed pushing for his girlfriend and Annie campaigning for her brother–it becomes increasingly clear that their frenzied efforts have more to do with the emotional hole Troy left in their lives (when he set sail to travel the world with LeVar Burton) than with their current financial difficulties. Meanwhile, Rachel and Anthony awkwardly watch from the sidelines, unaware of the true reason Annie and Abed are so fervently trying to win “Pile of Bullets”. When the truth is revealed Rachel storms out, informing Abed that she doesn’t like this manipulative side of him (“or this side of VCR technology. [She’s] glad it’s a dead medium!”). Abed’s “third-act-apology” to her is extremely charming as he enlists his former dorm-mate Pavel (!) to help recreate that clichéd scene in romantic comedies where the man comes to the woman’s door, soaking in the pouring rain, to make things right with a heartfelt “I was wrong” speech. We’ve all seen it. They use a watering can and a locker door and as Rachel enthused: it is adorable. The student who accidentally slips and falls in the hallway puddle Abed made is just the comedic cherry on top.
The B plot follows Jeff, Shirley, and Professor Hickey as they descend into Greendale’s storage basement. Here they discover a treasure trove of illegal textbooks stowed away in a vent. What follows is a riff on films like A Simple Plan as they conspire to sell the textbooks on the academic equivalent of the black market and eventually paranoia makes them all turn on one another. The episode hits a very effective beat when the gang succeeds in overcoming Shirley’s religious objections to thievery only for her to turn on a dime into a criminal mastermind, taking charge of the situation. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this side of Shirley, but it’s always a satisfying respite from her usual passive-aggression masked in cloying sweetness shtick. Britta makes a fun appearance as the “drug mule” type who can set them up with a “dealer” using her connections. When Chang arrives on the scene (sporting a bong) and “sees too much”, Shirley–in full on Mafioso-mode–coldly states that he can’t be allowed to leave and they seize him. They blackmail Chang with a cellphone-video confession wherein he is made to claim he stole the textbooks. Here, Britta gives a hilarious line reading parodying Gary Oldman in The Professional when they threaten to share the video with everyone (“EVVERRYYBODDYYY!!”) if he doesn’t keep quiet. This particular line reading has been a recurrent joke this season that has gotten funnier each time, the more exaggerated it has become. Eventually, everyone except Shirley has been tied to a chair as she goes off to make the exchange herself, only to find out from the dealer (played by songwriter Paul Williams) that the textbooks are worthless due to a printing error. So begins the group’s collective walk of shame back to the study room as the plots dovetail, everyone admitting they learned nothing.
While it is far from the best episode this season and less ambitious in scope, “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing,” still delivers a solid episode in what is turning out to be a great season of Community. Considering the travesty of season 4’s “gas leak year,” I can safely say it feels amazing to have my favorite cult comedy back on top of its game. Thank you Dan Harmon for leading the way! All I can say is I can’t wait for next week’s Dungeons and Dragons sequel, reprising one of the best episodes from season 2 and the series as a whole.