Review: Community, “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism”

Community is kind of screwed.

Now, let me say that I don’t mean that the series is screwed in regards to its place on NBC’s schedule. That might be the case, but there’s no need to be upset about that tonight (and I still think Community is ultimately going to be fine). What I mean by my statement is that there’s really no way that Community can ever placate all its fans, especially at this point. In season two, when the series seemed to be reinventing itself on a weekly basis, many fans were overwhelmed at the ambition and risk-taking. Others? They just wanted the series to say in its comfortable, but season one smart rhythms. There’s nothing wrong with either perspective and I think that there is more than one “style” this series is good at and there is certainly more than one way to enjoy a series.

Here we are nearing the unofficial mid-point of the season, it seems pretty clear to me that there’s yet another schism this season. People who wanted season three to be like season two are disappointed that these episodes feel more like season one. People who wanted season two to be more like season one are happy, but also likely unfairly comparing season three with season one. Obviously, members of a fan group are going to want different things, no matter what the text is. But the distinctions between the first two seasons of Community are so overt, so clear that it’s really easy to start putting every new season three episode into one of those slots, sometimes without even thinking about it.

So yeah, Community is kind of screwed. People are always going to be disappointed and this, of all times, is probably the worst time for anyone to let that disappointment guide them into not watching. I’ve seen a number of tweets and comments from disenfranchised season two supporters that followed along the “But Community isn’t even good this season” line and not only do I disagree, I think that’s just an unfortunate stance to take. To each their own, but those kinds of comments bum me out more than any press release that NBC can put out.

Nevertheless, while I see where some of the people who adorned season two are coming from in a general sense (there are less “concept” episodes and more “college”-based stories), I’m becoming more and more enthralled by how season three is progressing. More importantly, I think what makes this season so lovely is how its balanced consistency with ambition. I love season two, perhaps more than any single season of television ever. But when Dan Harmon and his team weren’t doing “concept” episodes and trying to do more straightforward college stories, it didn’t work. The college stories in season two didn’t connect in the same way as they did in season one. And with the concept episodes being so strong, it was easy to assume that Community was now better at doing one thing over the other.

This season, however, Community has been both remarkably consistent and smart in its balance of concept and college storytelling. Previous seasons have kept those two sides of the series separated in disparate episodes (for the most part), but many season three episodes have managed to integrate them both into one 22-minute package fairly seamlessly. Concept episodes have been more character-based, a few college episodes have included flourishes of high-concept storytelling. And perhaps most importantly, season three of Community has done two thinks fantastically well: Focused on the characters and been exceptionally funny.

Tonight’s episode, “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism,” is yet another strong effort in those two regards. On a basic level, both of this episode’s stories were simple and easily consumable, but despite the lack of any major concept, “Nocturnal Vigilantism” found time to mix in a short (and  somewhat random, but still humorous) anime riff. And again, most crucial for me, this was yet another episode that tackled the characters’ relationships, emotions and histories head-on while providing a number of substantial sight gags and zingers.

Although the series has done a nice job at attempting to make sure the higher concept episodes have a character focus, sometimes that doesn’t always happen and even when it does, the pay-off can sometimes be muted by all the stylistic and thematic intrigue and mashing swirling around. There’s something to be said for straightforward, honest storytelling that might ask characters to act somewhat outrageously or exist in a world that’s partially heightened and Community is doing a wonderful job of sketching out solid, recognizable arcs and working through similarly sturdy beats on a weekly basis.

In that sense, although Annie accidentally ruining Abed’s super special extended extended edition of The Dark Knight and forcing Abed to suit up as the Caped Crusader once more to figure out the truth isn’t the most complex or even original story the series has done,* but it A.) Allowed Chris Kula’s script to get a lot of mileage out of Abed back Batman mode and B.) Gave us a nice little story about what’s it like for Annie, Abed and Troy to live together. In “Studies in Modern Movement,” we saw how difficult this move could possibly be for Annie, but this episode nicely flipped that around by pointing out how much Annie’s anal tendencies can disrupt Troy and Abed’s desire to still act like 8-year olds a lot of the time. They should probably grow up, but she should also loosen up. This move is a big step towards maturity and change for all three of them and it’s not going to be easy. I like that the series is willing to milk the living situation not just for comedic material, but character development as well.

*Heck, there were numerous lines and allusions to the fact that the “roommate breaks something valuable and tries to replace it” storyline was a sitcom stable.

Meanwhile, pairing Jeff and Shirley for the first time in a long time provided all sorts of great material. The series has always had difficultly figuring out exactly what to do with Shirley, but in the few instances that they’ve put her with Jeff, good things happen. The two of them are quite different, but they’re also kind of the same: They’ve both been acting a certain way for a long time because of perceived mistakes or issues they had in the past. Jeff acts the way he does because of his strained relationship with his father and Shirley’s got her own rougher, meaner past that’s been alluded that she now covers up with religious platitudes and sunshine smiles.

This episode took their similarities even further by having their “origins” actually be completely intertwined. I knew that Shirley’s Foosball skill was going to lead us down an interesting path related to her history, but I never expected the series to have Shirley be the one who jump-started young Jeff’s decision to remake his identity. It’s a bit cheap and something that many series have done before, but I think it works here because we already knew about their similarities (and it doesn’t undercut any continuity or something). Now, they’re just more aligned. And hopefully, this means we’ll see more of Jeff and Shirley together moving forward. Joel McHale and Yvette Nicole Brown are awesome together.

Like many of this season’s episode, I think “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism” will only get better with time. It’s very funny and respectful of the characters. No what setting or the context, that’s what Community needs to warm my heart.

Other thoughts:

  • This episode was very aware of continuity. Abed and Batman, the cop remembering Annie, Vaughn’s nipples, etc. I love when comedies talk about their histories.
  • Nick Kroll was quite funny in the random guest spot, and I especially loved his post-soccer ball kick strut into the quad. Joel McHale’s reactionary reading to that moment was one of my favorite things of the episode. Fantastic timing.
  • Annie’s Christian Bale. That is all.
  • Leonard’s Pizza Reviews need to be the new tag. Move over, Troy and Abed.
  • Not a lot for Britta or Pierce this week. I’m sad about one of those and really sad about another. YOU CHOOSE WHICH.
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