From the very beginning of its run, Community has been compared to the early seasons of The Simpsons for its intelligent goofiness and remarkable world-building. Each character in the world of Greendale, as in Springfield, has their own instantly recognizable quirks. However, this week’s episode, “Alternative History of the German Invasion,” was more reminiscent of late-period Simpsons, full of odd story tangents and unfunny one-liners put in the mouth of the wrong characters.
The basic plot of the episode gives us the return of the German soccer players, last seen terrorizing Shirley and Jeff in last season’s “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism.” But Nick Kroll has either wisely chosen to stay away this time, or was too busy appearing on every podcast in the universe, so instead the Germans are led by his brother, played by Chris Diamantopoulos (who, between playing Moe in The Three Stooges, the Jim-and-Pam killing Brian the sound guy on The Office, and this bizarrely accented role, is putting together quite a weird—but active—career for himself). The Germans get their revenge on the group by taking over (or, as this episode would have you refer to it, invading the study room, causing the group to get up earlier and earlier to try to sign up for it.)
So, that setup is similar to Die Hard 3, right? That’s a very Community thing to do, but this episode does nothing with the setup, and the Germans disappear by the end. The driving engine of the story is never resolved. Instead, Jeff makes the realization that it’s really the group itself who are the “Germans” (not sure how current or necessary a Nazi metaphor is here), and have been hogging the study room. We get a few cute callbacks to earlier episodes, with the Greendale extras trying to use to the room for actual studying instead of, you know, stripping and hunting for pens. An episode following the Greendale extras has been talked about for a long time. It says a lot about this season’s creative direction that it’s handled this abruptly. It’s also a story point that we’ve addressed before, through the voice of the beleaguered Todd.
The final Winger-speech of the episode is delivered in voice-over, as if we were watching Modern Family. And, just as with that series, the technique is cloying and obvious. And, even worse, in spite of what the satisfied expressions on the actor’s faces and the schmaltzy music might tell us, what real resolution is there? The group decides to give back to Greendale by building new study rooms. But that only serves to keep the other characters separate, because at the end of the episode we’re right back in the original study room with the group safely in their usual position. So … what was learned? And why ultimately, did we spend that time with this story? I can’t tell you, and I can’t imagine anyone involved with creating this episode can either.
The episode also includes a Dean Pelton/Chang subplot that went nowhere, and was just an excuse for them to say their own name several times. It’s as if someone read a Wikipedia entry on the characters without ever actually seeing an episode and said, “Well, this is what they do, Dean, Dean, Dean, Chang, Chang, Chang.” It’s a waste and a shame, because in the right hands, this is probably the right way to bring Chang back into the fold.
Because it calls back to last season, this episode provides an interesting chance to contrast last season’s approach to this season’s. “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism” wasn’t a great episode, but there were a number of small touches that elevated some pretty standard sitcom plotting, such as Abed tripping on the windowsill trying to make a heroic Batman-like entrance, and the inspired sight gag of Kroll’s two goons picking him up and swinging him like a human foosball man. Those little moments are what define the style of a series. There just wasn’t anything in this episode that anyone will remember in a year’s time.
As this season goes on, the sense of what Community should be is fading, and a kind of acceptance of what it is now has settled in. But, sadly, what it is now is a second-rate sitcom with some very talented actors that you hope jump to better projects. In that sense, it’s now no different than a show like Suburgatory—something that’s fun to watch every once in awhile, but you’re not going to rush home to watch or discuss the next day. It is what it is, and will never be more. And now Community has officially dropped from the already small list of appointment-viewing sitcoms. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be fine letting the next few episodes sit on your DVR unwatched.
Season 4, Episode 4
“Alternative History of the German Invasion”: D