Community: Basic Story Review

The penultimate episode of Community's fifth season continues its backward slide into total bewilderment....

With two rather lousy concept episodes in a row, Community’s gotten on my bad side as of late and I’m now wondering if I’m just pissy, if the show’s still kind of dropping the ball, or if it’s both of our fault and the relationship is in a funk.

“Basic Story” mostly struck me as an overstuffed, unfunny mess.

The opening moments, with the gang back in the study room and the normal version of the opening credits actually playing gave me an immense sensation of comfort, like we were back where we were supposed to be, and all is right with the world. But then, like so much modern Community, it got all weird and wayyyy too much up its own butt. And I know this is a show that’s often up its own butt, and since us fans are usually up there along with it, we have fun exploring that butt like it’s a Community History Butt Museum or something, pointing out all the things we remember from earlier in the series that are paying off now. But(t) listen, it’s possible to go too far up a butt (I mean, duh, it’s a butt), and Season 3 onward has more than once ventured too deep. “Basic Intergluteal Numismatics” was a good episode, though. Remember that one?

I’m struggling to think of an episode more certain of its own legacy and of its fans’ familiarity with that legacy than this one. The thing is it’s not just making callbacks to its own canon or having characters mock their own gimmicks; it’s actually got overt references to how its creator constructs the danged thing. If you learn at the feet of Dan Harmon, you’ll know of his dedication to a story circle based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces that he’s relied on for narrative structure since back in the days when he was producing a webseries called “Laser Fart.” If so (or at least if you’ve read Campbell, I suppose), you’ll get what Abed is saying when he starts referencing a “call to adventure” and a “refusal” of that adventure. Otherwise, it’s just kind of weird.

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Actually, all of Abed’s meta-nonsense in “Basic Story” is weird. I get that he’s always viewing things in terms of sitcom or movie premises, but this is a situation in which he’s just overtly become Dan Harmon, rambling off stuff about narrative structure. I kind of get what’s going on, and why as Abed tries to avoid being in a story and looks directly into the camera and screams about “how it’s always a story.” …But only kind of. It feels like a commentary on itself that doesn’t fully land, ultimately making me feel kind of embarrassed for the writers and Danny Pudi. I mean… did he know what was going on when he was saying this stuff? Did anybody?

I wonder if this bit of the episode made more sense and was funnier in an earlier draft and had to get cut down because, as mentioned, a lot of crap happens here and it ends up feeling like the different pieces of the episode don’t collectively form a whole. First, there’s Abed going nuts trying not to be in a story, then Michael McDonald shows up to play an insurance appraiser for a few minutes, then the school’s going to be sold, then it’s sold to Subway, then Britta and Jeff want to get married, and then there’s treasure buried underneath the school. It kind of feels like I watched six different episodes (and a movie, haha!). Unfortunately, I only really enjoyed two of those episodes.

I’ve always liked Britta and Jeff together, so just seeing them being into each other again makes me happy. Plus, it felt like the characters were connecting and relating to each other’s personalities again, instead of being hollow vessels shuttled around to progress some madcap adventure, something this episode, and much of this season, has suffered from. Of course, the marriage proposal thrust that moment back into ridiculousness again, but I’m still glad to see those two crazy kids at it again.

Finally, dumb as it was, I liked the nonsense of there actually being buried treasure at Greendale. It worked as an absurd payoff because Abed had mentioned—in what seemed like a total non-sequitur—buried treasure, and it turned out to be the actual thing that might save Greendale. Also, Abed, Annie, and the Dean dancing around and screaming about buried treasure was funny (a .gif will be available by the time this review is posted).

I also like that Chang, on a dime, is evil again. He’s infinitely funnier when he’s evil, and it’s really been getting on my nerves that he’s just been integrated into the group with little fanfare when it was teased that he was back to his old horrible self in “Repilot.”

However, please notice that everything I’m saying I enjoyed here comes down to brief moments that showed up in the final act, and my appreciation of these moments is largely to do with the potential of them as plot developments to be expanded upon (after all, this is a two-parter). What I’m saying is I can’t ignore that I spent the bulk of this episode, as I did with the previous two, hardly laughing, but rather, stroking my chin and finding it all very curious.

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Much like “G.I. Jeff,” “Basic Story,” contrary to its title, is very complicated and spent too much time explaining itself, rather than making with the comedy (or the emotions). Abed’s crisis was just weird, Michael McDonald didn’t do much for me, and a lot of the episode had those school board guys in it. I get that the cast and crew think those guys are hilarious and love bringing them back (they’ve said as much in commentaries), but I’ve never found them funny at all and feel that the show takes a dip every time they’re onscreen.

And, yeah, as a fan I’m of course fine hanging out with Community up its own butt to an extent, so I got a tickle from obscure references like the Dean finding his mother’s wedding ring (which I believe he only wore in the pilot episode before the character was better defined) or the callbacks to Dave Matthews, Subway, and Britta and Jeff getting it on. Plus, out of all of Abed’s meta-trash, at least his calling out Shirley’s “two-voice” gimmick was good. However, this is all rendered nigh-irrelevant because I barely laughed, I barely felt anything, and I found the episode to be a confusing exercise in self-referential narrative gymnastics. I also find it weird that a storyline so obsessed with its own structure had such a sloppy one. Or maybe that was the point? Huh???

I dunno, man. I hope Community and I can get along again. I did appreciate this episode more for its potential than its actual showing so, in theory, all that stuff should explode and release a shower of cleansing, satisfying payoff in the conclusion of this narrative, next week’s season (series?) finale, “Basic Sandwich.” I hope we go out on a high note. Or, if this whole six seasons and a movie business becomes reality, I hope the show finds its footing again, so that watching it produces more joy than bewilderment.

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2.5 out of 5