TV Review: COMMUNITY S4E04 Alternative History Of The German Invasion (Or, It's Nice To See Greendale Again)

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
One thing that has clearly been lacking thus far in this season of Community is quality time spent on the campus of Greendale Community College. In many ways the study room is just as central to this show as the study group is (it's their home-base and place of origin after all), a point tonight's episode wants to emphasize with care and insight as we move ever closer to Jeff's early graduation date. So how does it fair?

With the History of Ice Cream class ("It's as informative as it is delicious!" Garret exclaims) under way without them, Jeff and the gang sign up for a non-dairy based dessert history class -- a European History class -- with their Professor being played by Malcolm McDowall (who is largely wasted, but should be back soon). And who should return to cause tonight's major dilemma? Why it is none other than the German exchange students from last year's Foosball incident, sans comedian Nick Kroll. The third member is now Kroll's character's brother. When their local coffee hangout closes down for the shooting of an "esoteric art house film", the Kermit sounding cartoons of my ancestral heritage set up shop in the study room, and gasp! they have properly signed in to do it! Which leaves the study group without a place to study (when did they ever do that?). One thing the episode gets right -- if nearly too late in the proceedings -- is that it is a really lame practice of making fun of Germans, especially when you don't go beyond basic stereotypes, seen on and off the TV screen. And to prove this point they begin with many a Hogan's Heroes referencing, homage-ing, and well, Jeff just says it outright: to get back their study room they're gonna pull a ruse (not even a clever one) like they did on Hogan's Heroes.

The study group is eventually ostracized by their fellow students for being delusional, selfish people. Indeed our heroes are cited as the villains, but it's a plot point and opportunity for redemption that feels trite, and more than a little insulting in regards to how these characters have grown, because it is unwilling to go any deeper than a very thin, very rushed role reversal. To make matters worse the happy place the study group ends this episode at in no way feels earned. Again it feels rushed as if there was a whole lot of set-up, some hot air, and then, three minutes into the third act, the writer's room realized there needed to be a third act resolution. What we get feels pretty pat.  

Thus far in my reviewing of the fourth season, I've been pretty hard on the show, and sometimes downright harsh. I've been scared and frustrated and wished to god that Community without showrunner/creator Dan Harmon would work. I still want to be proven wrong, because from the cast to the crew, there are many hard-working people still involved on this show, people who believe in this universe, who live and breath it.
 
So... somewhere between last week's episode and this week's I decided I'd try to let a lot of my worry for what the show was missing go. And in doing so I had to ask myself again what was missing... besides Harmon, that is. I realized it was a lot of other fine people too. One thing that is becoming clearer and clearer is that most of the behind-the-scenes creative forces that helped bring to fruition the first three seasons are now gone. Directors and executive producers The Russo Brothers departed early in season three, as did EPs Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan. Writer Chris McKenna too. These people, and others like them, have shaped and crafted a place that we all enjoy spending time in. And now, kinda like the study group against the partially retooled/recast Germans, we witness a group of writers and producers that we aren't as familiar with. Who are these new guys? Who is writer Ben Wexler? Can we ever give them a real honest chance? And how do they all feel about this?   

What we have now is a show with a complicated history, both on and off screen. Four seasons in and that's not a surprise. But what is interesting is that we, the audience, because the way we can interact online, feel more entitled to a stake in what Community is and could be... or else we just lament on what it had been. Are we wanting to exclude the new guys from the little world Harmon built simply because the grown-ups at NBC told them to play there after Harmon was kicked out? Do we not want them to enjoy it? Don't we want them to believe in it just as much as we do and Harmon did? I still feel like we're watching a version of Community that is playing out like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (the people look and sound largely the same, but they don't act quite the same). Ironically enough I'm getting more emotional about all this as things go along, because at the end of the day if I were a writer on the middling fourth season of a show I had once dearly loved as an audience member... boy, inside pressure or outside pressure (or no pressure), I'd sure want to do a good job!

Random thoughts and observations, ahoy!

- Each week the writers seem to get one or two characters right. In Paranormal Parentage Pierce and Britta felt pretty on point. Last week Troy and Abed matured nicely. This week, despite a plot that I am not too fond of, it was Dean Pelton.

- Speaking of which... Chang's back at Greendale, and through some dumb decision made by the board, is in the Dean's care as the amnesiac "Kevin". Jim Rash I could never live without. Ken Jeong does not need to be shoehorned in

- I laughed. Despite a half dozen pop culture references that were way, waaayyy too obvious (which can sometimes work if they stick), I really laughed. Sure, most of the laughs took place in the first three minutes, but considering I did not laugh once last week this is indeed a step up.

- Was this episode supposed to air third, perhaps even second? It must have been second.  With Chang's return and with classes starting the timeline feels a little stretched and skewed to me. 

- Chevy Chase has all but checked out at this point. It'll be interesting to see if they just let Pierce kind of peripherally coast (which would be easy to do) or just outright bench him depending on the episode. We know that there will be at least two episode where Pierce does not make an appearance since Chase quit the show with two episodes left to film.    
Around the Internet:
  • deanareeno

    My only laugh of the episode, an ego-stung Pierce: "No one's even willing to consider that I might be the Hitler of the group?"

    Worst on-the-nose reference, Troy: "It's like a Darren Aronofsky film." (worse still, it really wasn't)

    The tag was the best thing about the episode.

    The Kroll-less Germans are a good metaphor for this season to date. Sort of the same thing, but trying too hard in all the wrong ways, and garnering zero laughs.

    I've come to realize that my favourite shows are creator-driven (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Louie, etc.). Harmon is no genius, I'm no Harmon fanboy, but it really was his show, and a Harmonless Community is pretty pointless. The first three seasons are enough for me. I'm done.

    Enjoy the rest of the season, folks!

  • CJ

    "They lost a pen..." To me that was the biggest laugh of the episode. Todd rules.

    This definitely felt like a step back to the COMMUNITY of old. Good to see.

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