Two episodes of Community’s fourth season were screened for the major television critics (by major I mean not me) before the season began, to allow them time to write advance reviews. Critics were lukewarm about “History 101”, but hated the episode that aired last night, “Conventions of Space and Time”, in unison. Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club called it potentially the worst half-hour of the entire series. Now that the much-maligned episode is here for our consideration, we might remind Mr. VanderWerff to re-watch “Contemporary Impressionists” or “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” to find the show’s worst moments, but the episode once again highlights troubling differences in the series this season.
Every once in awhile an NBC executive will look up from the mound of bath salts they’re snorting (or whatever it is that convinces you to greenlight a series about a monkey doctor) during an episode of Community and say, Jesus, these people are incredible looking! Let’s get their clothes off! So we open this episode with Donald Glover and Gillian Jacobs in their underthings and end it with Joel McHale ripping off his shirt … again.
The Troy and Britta scene, at least, serves a solid story point, showing us that last episode’s infantilized “girls are yucky” Troy has been forgotten, and thank God for that, as it was the major sticking point in last week’s otherwise awesome episode. But that scene culminates in a bit of fire escape acrobatics for Britta designed to keep their sexual escapades secret from Abed. It’s a clever but ultimately confusing scene.
Most of the action in this episode takes place at the Inspector Spacetime convention. The Doctor Who joke ran its course last season (I’d have much preferred a trip to a Cougarton Abbey convention), and was tiresome by the end of it, but it’s handled well enough here, as Abed meets up with his British friend Toby (played well by an under-utilzed Matt Lucas of Little Britain), who causes him to doubt whether an Inspector even needs a Constable, sending Troy into panicked, jealous-girlfriend hysterics. This is all fine, and Britta’s continuing dismissal of the geekery around here is great (especially Jacobs’ supportive tone as she says, “honey, I told you—I don’t care about Inspector Spacetime”), but there’s not nearly enough freaked-out Donald Glover this season. Someone get LeVar Burton back to Greendale, stat!
If there’s one thing that differentiates this season from Harmon’s tenure, it’s story structure. In “History 101,” Jeff’s sudden decision to say “screw it” to winning all of the Dean’s challenges to make sure each member of the study group got into the class was a poor story decision that rendered the entire storyline useless. Likewise, in this episode Abed is presented with a clear temptation—visiting Toby in London and potentially staying there for good—then within moments that choice is taken away as Abed realizes just how insane Toby is.
If the story is about Abed and Troy being torn apart by partners who are better suited to them, then you need to play up that potential loss—that is your story. Instead, Toby locks Abed in the Inspector Spacetime phone booth. Okay, at least there’s a chance for drama there, right? Wrong, because Abed freaks out for the space of a commercial break and then realizes Troy will rescue him and patiently waits for his arrival. He literally sits down and does nothing. All tension or suspense is nullified. It’s one thing thing to know what’s going to happen in a series because you’re familiar with the characters and can anticipate their moves, but the characters themselves should have some doubt.
But maybe it’s not too wise for this writing crew to take these characters in unpredictable directions, because we might get more weirdness like the Annie and Jeff storyline in this episode. This is really the first solidly Annie-centric story so far this season, and while it does serve as a handy reminder of how young Annie is, she’s 21, not 14. Her play-acting a marriage to Jeff is only cute because Brie is cute; in all other ways it’s creepy as hell. The story takes the complicated Jeff/Annie relationship and turns it from dual flirtation to one-sided stalking. It also takes Annie several very important steps back from the progress she achieved last season, and belabors a story thread that is already the weakest link on the show.
I’ve outlined here a lot of problems with an episode that, in many ways, I really enjoyed. Gillian Jacobs continues to kill it, Donald Glover played jealousy well, and the Shirley/Pierce storyline paid off well (if predictably). But these issues aren’t nitpicks—they’re serious structural problems in a series that thrives on structure.
This is where you can see the Port/Guarascio effect. Happy Endings under their watch was funny, breezy, but disjointed. The same can be said of their short-lived, brilliant but inconsistent series Aliens in America. And now Community, which ran like a clockwork for three seasons, is riddled with dropped storylines, confused characterization, and choppy editing. If NBC continues to shorten the opening theme song in the way they did during this episode, it’s probably best to choose a line other than “I can’t count the reasons I should stay”, because, for many fans, those reasons may be gone.
Season 4, Episode 3
“Conventions of Space and Time: C+