When Community really picked up steam with critics and internet commentors (because let’s be honest, it still hasn’t caught on with the general audience), most people pointed to episodes like “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare,” and for good reason. Those two episodes are probably the best the series has to offer (I personally prefer “Poultry,” but whatevs), but not for the reasons you might think.
While their incessant riffing on “Goodfellas” and an otherworldly amount of action movies respectively is wonderful in every aspect, “Poultry” and “Warfare” work because they actually tell great stories about the people acting out those references. The former explores how Abed relates to people, the latter how Jeff relates to people. It’s easy to get caught up in things like Annie’s Boobs, stylish backpacks, priority registration and those assholes trying to bring back rollerskates because those things are all awesome, but those episodes will live on as great comedic moments because there is heart and character behind it.
That’s why tonight’s episode, “Basic Rocket Science,” while certainly hilarious in many spots, cannot touch the standard set by its season one counterparts.
“Science” is the series’ ode to space exploration movies, particularly “Apollo 13” (a film I haven’t seen in ages, which may or may not have colored my reaction to the episode) and in that respect, it’s mostly a success. We’ve heard all sorts of things about this episode since Comic-Con and the “Science” makes the set-up work: Greendale rival City College is about to debut a space flight simulator that will bring them all sorts of attention and ultimately, money, so it can expand its evil empire and take over the location that Greendale now inhabits. But the Dean can’t take that, so he’s purchased a broken-down, KFC-sponsored simulator from a local museum so that Greendale can debut their simulator first. The study group has to clean it due to their tasteless and hilarious school submission and they get trapped within the simulator.
That sounds like a ridiculous premise and for the most part, it is. But it’s not anymore ridiculous than the study group starting a chicken finger syndicate of power or the school crumbling under the weight of a paintball game. That’s not the problem with this episode.
The problem is that this episode totally lacks relevance to any of the characters. Well, that’s not entirely true, as the story of usurping City College is extremely personal to the Dean. But c’mon, he’s the creepy Dean and his character doesn’t really fit into the reference riffing properly to really make it about him. The episode tries really hard about halfway to make it seem like Jeff and the rest of the gang are really attached to Greendale and although I do buy their desire to make sure no other school gets to make fun of the place they like to make fun of, that’s certainly not enough to hang an entire episode on — especially compared to “Poultry” and “Warfare.”
Instead, “Science” settles for a number of small, but ultimately frivolous moments for the characters: Troy ends up being something of a hero/leader, Annie realizes she’s better off with these merry band of misfits than trying to better herself at another school, everyone else learns the value of teamwork and most importantly, the Dean gets his moment in the sun with the glorious Greendale flag and the flaming simulator as the crowd cheers.
The final sequence is really magnificent and hilarious, topped off by Jeff and Troy’s awesome, slow-motion, you-son-of-a-bitch-how-did-we-get-through-this-mess-type hug, but as the episode ends, nobody’s really learned anything and nothing has really changed. Sure, Greendale is “safe,” Annie isn’t “leaving” and the Dean gets to keep his job and continue to be a downright creepy treat, but were those things really ever in danger? Of course not, because without them (particularly the first two, but I’d hope all three), there wouldn’t be a series.
Ultimately, this is okay. “Basic Rocket Science” is still a good episode of Community, it’s just not a great one and particularly not an all-time effort. The only concern I have is that future episodes with this sort of premise could easily continue down this path instead of the one set-up with “Poultry” and “Warfare,” which again, would surely lead to good, funny episodes. But I expect more from Community because it’s given me more in the past. As long as this isn’t the beginning of a trend, there’s no harm in a damn funny “Apollo 13”-riffing episode that includes lots of Dean Pelton.