A number of the episodes of Yahoommunity have taken on a more somber, dramatic tone than the Community of old. I’ve been suspicious that this hasn’t been a deliberate move, but rather an accidental byproduct of the writers taking advantage of the removal of time limitations that came with the show’s migration to the web. Though I still can’t honestly tell how intentional this tone is, “Advanced Safety Features” marks the first time it’s felt well-executed.
The main reason it works is because it’s the best-plotted episode yet. A problem that’s surfaced in newer Community (but can be traced all the way back to episodes in season three like “Digital Exploration of Interior Design”) is that sometimes the plots attempt to achieve a level of complexity the writing fails to live up to and parts of the story end up flat-out making no sense. The season six premiere had this problem in spades (just one example: Frankie bans alcohol in the teacher’s lounge; Frankie later quits her job at Greendale; now suddenly everyone is allowed to drink all over campus, including in classrooms).
“Advanced Safety Features” keeps its two main storylines mostly under control. One is about Jeff’s growing worry that Elroy doesn’t like him because of his tendency to skedaddle every time Jeff shows up. The other concerns the return of Britta’s brief, passionate love interest, the man previously known as Subway, now called Rick (played by Travis Schuldt). This time Britta enters into a more serious, but terribly problematic relationship with him.
The nice thing about it is that the plots all tie into each other tidily. Though their stories haven’t really influenced one another for the bulk of the episode, Elroy and Britta come together at the end to learn a moral, which works well because it’s related to their mutual appreciation of the fictional nineties indie band Natalie is Freezing (the band shows up in this episode and the lead singer is played by Lisa Loeb, which makes all kinds of meta-sense). The themes of each story also parallel reasonably enough: Britta is chasing a love that can never be and Elroy is learning to not reject people’s affections.
In truth, on further inspection, some of it doesn’t quite hold up. Elroy’s story has an odd progression. It starts with Annie, Abed, and Chang being worried Elroy doesn’t like them as much as they like him, transitions logically enough into Jeff thinking maybe it’s just him that Elroy doesn’t like, and then finally becomes about Elroy realizing he needs to be more accepting of people liking him. Considering this ends up ultimately being an Elroy story, he doesn’t get a ton of screen time, so this revelation about his character doesn’t exactly land. Also, he seems pretty accepting of Annie, Abed, and Chang early on. Furthermore, it’s never clear if he actually didn’t like Jeff before and, if so, why not?
Britta’s plot, however, is really solid. Considering Rick is a character who shows up whenever the show needs to shoehorn in some product placement (previously Subway; this time Honda), I have to say the writers do an amazing job exploring the concept of a personified advertisement. Rick hides his real personality to be a more effective guerilla marketer, but, at this point, is his Honda-loving act actually a part of what makes him who he is? Britta is the best one to play off of him because she’s attracted to him and is, as it turns out, an adept guerilla marketer herself, but she’s also staunchly anti-commercialism (one of the best jokes is her referring to billboards and commercials as “shillboards and con-mercials”).
Though this is the best-plotted episode, it’s not as funny as last week’s. As I said, it’s more a light drama of sorts, but just like with its storylines, modern Community also often has complicated joke premises that ultimately don’t come across. The cold open has some bizarre gag about Chang trying to do a magic trick where a dollar bill comes out of an egg or something? Abed has a running joke about how useless DJs are, which is fine, but just never made me laugh. The tag, featuring Britta’s parents is weird. Honestly, Britta’s parents have been an enigma to me since their introduction. Their main gimmick seems to be saying a lot of inane stuff that never adds up to any kind of sense.
There’s some stuff that works though. Frankie telling the Dean he’s dumb is pretty funny and also makes you feel bad for the guy. I like Jeff and Annie sticking their tongues out at each other and Britta asking Rick to crouch down so she can knee him in the balls is great (“you’re taller than my instructor and I’m only a yellow belt”). Also, considering so much of the Honda stuff is actual advertising, a lot of good comedy comes out of it. It’s brilliant the way Rick’s last attempt to guerilla market at Greendale echoes the “one last score” plot of so many gangster movies. The final shot of a tear dripping down the Honda logo is hilarious, too.
“Advanced Safety Features” still has that somber season six tone. It’s a far cry from the rapid-fire joke machine Community regularly was in its heyday and sort of has the tone of a light college drama. But at least it does a decent job being that.