This review contains spoilers.
5.6 Analysis Of Cork-Based Networking
“What this school needs is a band of heroes; champions, willing to rise up and… ‘get all of those potatoes out of the gym’.”
The previous five episodes in Dan Harmon’s comeback season have very much been about re-instating the status quo, (or Harmon-y?) of Community. It’s too bad that the show is going on mid-season hiatus for the next few weeks, to make way for NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, because now that we’re back on track, Analysis Of Cork-Based Networking covers a lot more ground, and has many of the signs of feeding into the main season arc.
After Troy’s send-off last week, the Save Greendale committee is back in action, inducting Professor Duncan and Señor Chang as members in order to fill up the study group table once again. There’s a colossal list of things to fix in a college that has most frequently been described as a toilet, and Annie decides to leave the burden of organising an imminent mid-term dance to the unlikely dream team of Jeff, Shirley, Duncan and Chang.
Meanwhile, she and Professor Hickey decide to take on the relatively simple task of getting a bulletin board put up in the cafeteria. It turns out to be a quest that takes them on a long trawl through Greendale’s arcane and bizarre bureaucracy, in which Annie is all too happy to get her hands dirty in the name of getting the job done.
We’ve previously seen the school in thrall of Vice-Dean Laybourne, the head of Greendale’s uber-successful air-conditioning repair annexe, in a memorable turn by John Goodman as season three’s sort-of Big Bad. And now, we meet his peers in the other unaccountably powerful sub-departments, played by Nathan Fillion (as head custodian Bob Waite) and Robert Patrick (as parking tyrant, Waldron.)
It feels entirely in keeping with Greendale’s weirdness that Waite claims he’s in the middle of an election year at an exclusive mixer for janitors, and the episode doesn’t even break stride in delivering that gag. For Annie and Hickey, this is a crusade through the insane, guest-star-heavy hierarchy of the school, as they find themselves agreeing to make seismic changes- like taking down porn filters, rigging parking spaces, and even handing over control of the bulletin boards to the power-mad Waldron- just to get the smallest thing done.
The pairing of Jonathan Banks and Alison Brie is wonderful. Banks, who has been nothing short of incredible this season, echoes something of his role as Mike from Breaking Bad with his cynicism about the immoral people he has to deal with, (bearing in mind that they’re mostly administrators rather than drug peddlers this time around) which makes him a great new foil to Annie’s peppy motivation, and Brie is on dazzling form too, given time to shine outside of that lampshaded weirdness with Jeff.
One of the B-plots of this episode centres around that aforementioned dream team doing a terrible job of organising the dance, coming up with a nonsensically bear-and-birthday-themed dance, which Chang guilt-trips the others into humouring. It turns out that he was subconsciously inspired by a tragic news story about a bear at a children’s birthday party, which leaves the others scrambling to adjust for sensitivity. At the very end, it manages to birth a likely new running phrase for the series’ lexicon, and I’m personally listening out for “Fat Dog For Mid-Terms” in regular conversation as soon as possible.
But the other sub-plot makes a precision strike on Game Of Thrones fandom and spoiler sensitivity, with Abed spoiling an episode of the fictional Bloodlines Of Conquest that TV hipster Britta hasn’t got around to watching yet. When they’re paired up to carry out a school census, Britta reads ahead in the book series that the TV show is based on, and Abed has to take extreme measures to avoid hearing petty spoilers.
Granted, shouting “PRINCE IRONSTONE’S DAUGHTER IS HIS MOTHER” at him doesn’t work, but Britta goes a bit far in paying a deaf student, to whom Abed has taken a shine, to impart spoilers through sign language. It’s interesting that the first episode with a Troy-less Abed finds him in a rare pairing with Britta, but also re-opens the possibility of him having a love life.
When Abed is actually really hurt by Britta’s prank, the return of Rachel (played by the wonderful Brie Larson) made a very pleasant surprise at the end of the episode. She was perhaps one of the only salvageable additions from last season, last seen agreeing to go on a real first date with Abed at the end of Herstory Of Dance. That finally pays off here, and here’s hoping that Larson will appear again throughout the rest of the season.
While I wouldn’t put it past this series to have roped the likes of Fillion and Patrick in for nothing more than cool cameos, it would be a shame if their roles in this season didn’t extend beyond the short time they have on-screen here. In the midst of an episode that was particularly thick with plots from A to C, and was closer in structure to a script from the first season than anything we’ve seen since around 2010, the actors might feel underused if that was really it for them, particularly in Fillion’s case.
It’s not until the Dean mentions that it’s all gone “Sorkin-y” that you realise how the episode is lightly ribbing a couple of the less enjoyable tropes in Aaron Sorkin’s writing, like Buzz mansplaining the politics of Greendale to Annie after she has been led astray; or Britta’s whole, strangely out-of-character spoiler assault on Abed.
Harmon and his writers have mastered subtle, yet coherent parody, but it feels like that didn’t come across here until someone straight up mentioned it. After that, a Sorkin-y montage of various characters in their Dark Night Of The Soul phase of the episode, earnestly scored to Roxy Music, feels more on-point, but less clever for having been lampshaded.
On the plus side, there are still a lot of really funny moments – the emotional blackmail about the theme of the dance made me laugh on both occasions, there’s a terrific brick joke about Labyrinth (the Henson film, not the bureaucratic kind) and Brie hilariously channels Gary Oldman’s performance from Leon for one hilariously OTT line delivery. Also, look out for a breaking news ticker during the Sorkin-y montage, which gives us a stealth update on the adventures of Troy and LeVar Burton.
It’s not that this episode suffers for Donald Glover’s absence- the relative scarcity of Troy in the episodes ahead of his send-off makes sense once you see how they’re planning to get on without him, and I didn’t particularly miss him here. But while Analysis Of Cork-Based Networking has the trappings of some of the best early episodes of Community, it suffers from following an unbroken run of hits since the show returned.
The season has still yet to put a foot wrong, in my book, but this feels like one that will look better upon reflection at the end of the season. For the time being, it brings an awful lot to the table, and leaves it there, right on the cusp of a three week hiatus. The break may not necessarily hurt the series’ flagging ratings in the US, but I can’t imagine it will help either. Still, creatively speaking, the season looks to be in rude health, getting on just fine without two of its original cast, and having also introduced a whole bunch of great new recurring characters into the bargain.
By the way, I have absolutely no idea what the non-sequitur in the end credits was all about, with Duncan apparently launching some kind of missile while trying to order stationary, but loving that character as I do, I still laughed a lot. Fat Dog For Mid-Terms!
Community continues on Thursday the 27th of February.
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