Oh, so this is where the budget went.
“Modern Espionage” is a paintball episode and, like the best of Community’s paintball episodes (read: not the season four finale), it comes out guns blazing. In the first minute, Todd and Star-Burns (hey, it’s Star-Burns!) have a dramatic showdown featuring a ridiculously over-the-top spinning, sideways, flip-thing from Todd. It’s a strong start and, happily, that momentum and panache are sustained for the whole of the episode, which is easily one of the season’s best.
Todd’s stunt is representative of the rest of the action in that it actually looks really cool. This is a big deal because ever since the first p-ball outing (importantly, directed by Justin Lin who also did a few of those Fast and/or Furious films), Community’s action-oriented episodes have never again looked quite as cool.
Last year, the hot lava episode was stylistically the closest we came to paintball and it frankly kind of looked like crap. Probably because of some combination of budget issues, editing, and camerawork, it rarely managed to elevate itself above its hokey premise. Season four’s paintball attempt was so poorly staged it was tragic. And, yes, great episodes though they are, I’d still say the two-part paintball finale of season two was subtly missing the dynamic look and feel that made the original “Modern Warfare” break out of its sitcom trappings to become a true 22-minute action film.
As the action in “Modern Espionage” is confined to a few sequences, separated by more dialogue-focused bits, it doesn’t feel quite as un-sitcom, but a lot of that action is about on par with what “Modern Warfare” achieved (thanks in part to more impressive work from future Lego Movie 2 director, Rob Schrab). The aforementioned Todd and Star-Burns sequence is pretty great, as is the scene where Jeff effortlessly disarms a number of students who are attempting to take out the study group. The biggest action highlight is the Dean’s accidental defeat of a group of guys who’ve surrounded him in an elevator. It looks as good as the same sort of scene you’ve seen in action films, but with the added comedy of the Dean flailing about and apologizing throughout.
When it comes to the episode premise, it’s nothing groundbreaking by Community standards. In fact, it seems to be a bit of a copy of the season two finale as the impetus to have a paintball war is based on some cash prize being offered, once again, by City College. The only twist on it is that, being the new Sherriff in town, Frankie’s trying to stop paintball from ever happening again (so as to minimize unnecessary clean-up and general destruction) and Jeff, wanting to help her out, is only participating in the game to the extent required to stop it from escalating.
The concept is a touch flimsy. For example, Frankie attempting to stop the final showdown between Jeff, the Dean, and Vice Custodian Lapari (Kumail Nanjiani) rings kind of hollow considering the paintball war has already gotten well out of hand and this showdown is little more than a footnote. Also, I honestly lost the plot a bit, mostly in terms of Lapari’s character. For one, there’s no real satisfying moment of him being “unmasked” as Silver Ballz. They just find his identity with a computer halfway through everything; he doesn’t even use his signature silver paintballs in the final scene! Also, what’s motivating him? He’s not playing for the money? He’s actually playing to keep his job? Or something?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter as his motivation becomes the default “let’s keep Greendale weird” one that drives so many of the plots these days. And, these niggles aside, the structure and pacing are the best the season’s accomplished. It’s another 28-minute episode but it doesn’t drag at all and there’s even a great little character arc for the Dean who spends the episode feeling unneeded, but makes it all the way to the end of the game with Jeff. It’s actually a good overall redemption for the Dean, as he’s always been relegated to the background for paintball episodes but now finally gets his chance to shine.
It’s a more exciting than funny episode, but it’s still plenty comedic and there are a number of laugh-out-loud moments. Everyone’s cleverly slotted into appropriate roles. Elroy gets to be the resident hacker and Britta continues to be one of the season’s best assets when she’s awkwardly paired with him for no good reason. Annie and Abed were a bit of a duo in the second paintball and they go all out with the Mr. and Mrs. Smith thing here. The Dean has a some great lines, like “I guess to a custodian a supply closet is like a location” (I love that he actually gets a laugh out of Jeff) and “Did you do stand-up? Is that how you became a custodian?” Vicki’s one-woman show “Veni! Vidi! Vicki!” pays off nicely in the tag too, with Garrett’s comedy show, “Grin and Garrett.” Finally, Jeff accidentally shooting a disabled guy made me guffaw harder than anything else this season.
There are lots of guest stars here, too. Steve Agee is back as the MeowMeowBeenz guy (for no real reason) and the much-lauded return of Mitch Hurwitz’s Koogler is brief and only a little funny. But Kumail Nanjiani is good fun to watch. His reaction when he accidentally mistakes Jeff and the Dean for mannequins is brilliant.
The announcement of “Modern Espionage” worried me. Dipping back into paintball seemed like a creatively bankrupt prospect that couldn’t be anything but pandering. But this is a solid, fun, good-looking episode. Overall, there’s just a sense of cast and crew having a great time and trying their best here (to the point I’m a little annoyed; if you could pull it off this time, surely the rest of the season could’ve tried a little harder too). The spy homage isn’t so incredibly different from the original action movie-concept, so it doesn’t have the blow-you-away, “I want to run out and tell everybody about this show” factor of “Modern Warfare,” but no one was really expecting that. What it does do is prove that if Dan Harmon and Co. want to do more paintball, it doesn’t have to suck. It can even be pretty darn entertaining.