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Community Recap: “Intro to Knots”

By on April 19, 2013
If you mess with Trudy Campbell's grade she will destroy you. (Image © NBC)

If you mess with Trudy Campbell's grade she will destroy you. (Image © NBC)

The best thing we ever could have hoped from the revamped (or, we might say, gutted and stuffed) fourth season of Community was that it would carry on the tradition of genre exploration that made the series such a random delight. There have been some doldrums along the way, and some complete failures, but the last three episodes, including last night’s “Intro to Knots,” have found a comedic voice that carry echoes of the previous season while adding some unexpected flavor that’s entirely new.

The episode starts in a bizarrely different style than we’ve seen on Community before, a long, uninterrupted tracking shot following Jeff and Annie as they decorate his condo for Christmas. This is meant to deliberately mirror the technique used in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which is filmed in long takes cleverly disguised to seem like the entire movie is one interrupted shot (by the way, if you’ve never seen Rope, do yourself a favor and find it, it’s one of Hitchcock’s under-appreciated gems). That’s a great conceit for the show to pick up on, and exactly the kind of heady concept that keeps film nerds like me tuning in every—oh wait, they give it up after, like, three minutes.

Writer Andy Bobrow indicated on Twitter that they were trying to keep the allusion going for the entire episode, but that the network fought it—a fight, he laments, that Harmon would have continued until, let’s say, he got fired over it. Not that that seems like anything Dan Harmon would do. It’s probably for the best of the narrative flow and the comedy of it all that the tracking shot doesn’t continue, but it does make it jarring to notice the long takes that pepper the episode. There are a number of well-timed reaction shots (particularly Britta’s magnificent “judge-y face”) that would have been murder to convey in one continuous shot. It would be a workable homage if at least the entire opening tease were done in that technique, but no such luck.

But the failed tribute doesn’t grate as some of the others in this season, because the episode is so smart, and very well acted. Maybe lancing the white-haired, six-foot boil that was Chevy Chase freed the cast, maybe they stepped up their games to match what Malcolm McDowell (who does a great villain turn here) was giving them, I don’t know, but this is the strongest ensemble performance of the season, and reminiscent from the easy chemistry we’ve seen in seasons past.

The twisty story begins with Annie learning that the group is going to fail their History class, and inviting Professor Cornwallis to the gang’s holiday celebration to kiss up to him to convince him to change the grade. But both Annie and Jeff are hiding secrets—Jeff, that he tanked his section of the assignment to go to a secret Tom Waits show (I like to think that Jeff doesn’t actually understand Waits, but knows that he’s “cool”), and Annie that the grade she’s so desperately trying to change isn’t an F, but a C- that will put her assumed Valedictorian status in jeopardy. Soon, through a “misunderstanding” on the part of Kevin/Chang, the professor is tied to a chair and the group are involved in what Abed calls a “tense, high-stakes secret mission” as he excitedly munches popcorn.

Of course, it all unravels as easily as the poorly tied knots that Chang used (apparently the “kids marching down the well” technique isn’t as solid as the rabbit in the hole method). Jeff comes clean to the group, Annie learns that it’s actually Shirley who’s in line to be valedictorian, and the Professor admits that he’s only played along because he was so lonely on Christmas. All obvious resolutions, but sprinkled with so many great lines and performances that it hardly matters (I can’t decide if the best moment of the night is Abed’s temptation to step his bare feet in the shattered glass, ala Bruce Willis in Die Hard, or Troy telling Britta “Will you excuse me, I’ve just seen an old friend” and walking away from her as she begins the wind-up to an indignant feminist speech).

This is least Christmas-y of all of the Community Christmas episodes, but there’s really no improving on either the claymation spectacular or the Glee parody. It was a wise decision to downplay things. As the season goes along the show seems smarter about drawing parallels to the Harmon-ruled past, a match-up it was losing every time. Of course, if we really do delve back into the multiple timeline nonsense that derailed much of the back half of Season Three, as the closer seems to indicate, there may be more opportunity for direct comparison. But just for tonight let’s pretend that isn’t going to happen, so we can enjoy this episode for what it is, and not what it portends. It’s deep into the season, but the new Community has finally delivered a polished classic of its own.

Season Four, Episode 10
“Intro to Knots”: A