Probably the oddest episode of the season, “Basic RV Repair and Palmistry” is heavily focused on its own structure. With Abed continually trying to explain how this week’s adventure should break into acts with standard narrative trappings (orientation, midpoint, etc.) and repeated flashbacks to an earlier event (that never sort of never actually happened), this might be the most meta Community since Abed and Annie’s Drematorium romp in season three’s “Virtual Systems Analysis.” Added to that, this is another episode taking place almost exclusively in one location with tensions running high and the characters frequently at one another’s throats.
I doubt many people tune in (or, um, navigate) to Community for their first time ever these days, but I always try to consider what the reaction of a Community virgin checking out the show at random might be like and with the combination of meta-nonsense and people screaming at each other, I imagine “Basic RV Repair and Palmistry” would be intolerable. But we’re all (most likely) fans here and for us this episode fares better.
In fact, though this is far from the best episode of season six, it’s probably the most interesting in that it at least has the illusion of being a unique entry in the series’ history. It feels this way because, for one, there’s the sense that we’ve never been this far away from Greendale before. Starting in season two, Community took us off-campus regularly, but it always felt as though Greendale was just around the corner (even when it made no real sense, I’ve remarked before on how odd it is that everyone’s parents are evidently within driving distance). The only incident I can think of where Greendale felt as though it’d been left far behind is the Inspector Spacetime Convention episode in season four and, well, that was season four, so enough about that.
The ending and Abed’s little flashbacks to the study room aside, “Basic RV Repair” takes place entirely on a Colorado highway. The only interior setting is Elroy’s RV, and the only exterior is the bit of road outside Elroy’s RV. It makes the proceedings feel remote and isolated in a way Community never has before.
The other seemingly new thing is how pissed off Jeff gets with Abed over his need to approach everything they do as though it’s part of a TV show. Jeff has gotten mad at Abed about this in the past, but I don’t recall him ever being so head-on and vicious in his attacks. Something I’ve always admired about Community is that it introduces character quirks and then doesn’t just coast on them for easy comedy, but rather asks, “What if you were actually around these quirky bastards all the time?” Just like your real friends, their behavior would eventually grate on you and it’s a cool idea that we get to witness the moment Jeff’s exasperation with Abed comes to a head.
This is something I used to admire about Community because, again, “Basic RV Repair” only presents the illusion of uniqueness. A major problem with the show is that, though it examines its characters’ quirks more deeply than you might expect, it also eventually falls back on accepting them wholesale. This has been my issue with Abed since the beginning: the show acknowledges that he can be a detached jerk but is ultimately in love with the guy. If someone goes up against Abed’s whimsical sitcom-oriented mind and tries to ground him, by the end of the episode we will be told that that person is the one in the wrong. This has been drilled into us time and time again, most notably in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” “Virtual Systems Analysis,” and “Geothermal Escapism.” We’re always told that Abed has to be allowed to live in his head and it’s the rest of the world that should accommodate him.
Believe me, I get it that Greendale is meant to be a place specifically for wacky misfits like Abed and that, without his meta gimmick he wouldn’t be the same character. I’d just appreciate more episodes that have the balls to say the guy isn’t always right (which is part of why I think “Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality” was one of the previous season’s best). Furthermore, even if you’re behind Abed (and, in fairness, Jeff does come off like a dick here), there’s also the Dean (who’s been revealed to be the other childish character now that Troy’s gone) who acts like an immature, entitled shit for the whole episode and ends up getting everything he wants without ever showing any real remorse for his behavior. (As an aside, though I think it’s clever that the origin of the Dean’s purchase of the giant hand is repeatedly teased but ultimately withheld, Abed’s explanation of the hand’s meaning is basically hogwash that, unlike Jeff’s speeches in classic episodes, seems only tenuously connected to what’s just happened.)
Also, though it’s a remote setting, this is still unavoidably another episode about the gang in a small space, getting mad at and then apologizing to one another. I usually like that sort of thing and I don’t hate it here, but this is the third episode we’ve had like this in season six, and it’s starting to get noticeable. I wonder what they’re saving up their budget for.
I’ve commented on how strangely somber this season has felt, and the isolated setting makes that sensation all the starker. This isn’t my biggest complaint as the dramatic stuff is fairly engaging, but this is not a laughs-heavy episode. There are some joke highlights though, like the Dean’s response to Annie calling him a child: “If I’m a child, you’re a child abuser!” Also, this is yet another episode reinforcing this as The Season of Britta as they’re doing an amazing job making her a reasonable human being when they need her to be or, like in this episode, the main source of comic relief. Her getting high and thinking she pulled it off without everyone knowing (but everyone did) is hilarious and, stupid as it is, Space Elder Britta made me laugh a lot, mostly because of Gillian Jacobs’ brilliant delivery when she says “What are you guys talkin’ about?”
This episode is a few minutes shorter than recent ones have been but it still drags in places. Elroy finding out that everyone killed the backup battery by charging their phones goes on way too long and isn’t funny. And as for the tag… Jesus Christ, the tag. It’s a funny premise that, at over two minutes in length, goes on way, way too long. It’s got the great Matt Besser, a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, which makes it feel a lot like a sketch and, maybe, had it shown up on a sketch show, I would’ve loved it, but at the end of an episode of Community, it’s jarring and more than a bit bizarre.
It bothers me that “Basic RV and Palmistry” acts like it’s going to cover new ground and then ends up being something of a retread, letting its immature characters stay as immature as before. But at least, for a little while there, it tricked me into thinking it was doing something new.