This review contains spoilers.
5.9 VCR Maintenance And Educational Publishing
“If Rachel or I win, Rachel moves in. If you or Anthony win, I’ll gladly surrender, and count down the days until he eats me.”
After a blinding run of episodes, VCR Maintenance And Educational Publishing feels almost generic. Well, not generic- there’s no show that could do an episode that was principally about a Wild West-themed VCR-based board game, and come off as generic. But as we approach the final stretch of the fifth season, this marks the first point since the gas-leak year where it (at least partly) feels like a product of its own tropes.
The main issue is really that the B-plot overwhelms much of the central premise – perhaps that’s inevitable, given how more characters are involved than the former than the latter, but the secondary plot also feels like it could have been slotted into any episode from the last five years.
But we’ll get to that. The episode starts out with Abed and Rachel having become a fully-fledged couple in the month they’ve been together, Abed calculates that they’ve been twelve times more efficient than any normal couple, meaning they’ve practically been together for a year already. The two of them can interact with their eyebrows, they’ve gained the study group’s approval, (“Here comes the ‘Awwww’ Couple”) and they’ve even changed Jeff’s Netflix password together.
In fact, it’s going so well that Abed wants to move his girlfriend into the apartment that he and Annie used to share with Troy. With Annie’s brother Anthony coming to stay the same weekend, she has her own ideas about who should be their new roommate.
They decide to leave it up to a game of “Pile Of Bullets”, the aforementioned VHS tape game, and pretty much hold their candidates hostage as they try to make sense of the ridiculously convoluted rules. Maybe this type of game isn’t a point of reference that will travel for all viewers, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of laughs to be had from “Pile Of Bullets”.
If you were surprised by Mitch Hurwitz’s Koogler last week, (KOOGLEEEER!) the appearance of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, as the video’s cowboy host, may seem just as unusual. Still, Dan Harmon and co deserve kudos for simply casting people they would like to work with, even those who are better known for their work off-camera, because so far, it’s working marvellously.
But then there’s that B-plot. At the top of the episode, most of the study group are stuck in the boring end of the Save Greendale busy work, cleaning out an old storage room. They happen across a stash of chemistry textbooks, which Professor Hickey quickly calculates would be “worth more than the school they’re hidden in” on the black market. They agree between them to keep the find to themselves and make a profit from the discovery.
What follows is a paranoid escalation of events between Hickey, Jeff, Shirley, Britta and Chang, which soon ends with several of them tied up, and here’s where it feels a little passé. While it was nice to see Shirley break bad so magnificently, moving on from initial moral objections to eventually take no prisoners in her quest to off-load the dodgy books, it felt like we’d seen the basic conceit before- not in Mr. Gilligan’s AMC smash hit, but in a dozen other episodes of Community.
Either the idea behind the B-plot wasn’t as clever in this instance, or this was an episode that could have benefited from another sub-plot to spread the characters around a little more- whichever it is, it definitely suffers more for coming one week after App Development And Condiments, an episode that makes this one feel slight by comparison. The vibe wasn’t helped by Britta’s straight-up repeat of Annie’s homage to Leon from a few weeks ago. (“EEEEEVERYBOOODYYYY!”)
Even if the stolen focus from the main plot allowed for a lovely, subtle reveal of what was really motivating Abed and Annie to quibble over a new roommate, (namely, the absence of Troy as a peacekeeper) it felt like the episode would have been better for spending more time in the apartment with them, especially as this is really the first Abed-Rachel episode.
Brie Larsen is as adorable as ever as Rachel, and gets on especially well with Danny Pudi, while acting newcomer and Harmontown dungeon-master Spencer Crittenden is hilarious at first sight as Anthony Edison, purely because he’s about as physically and personally different from Brie’s Annie as it’s possible to be. Pudi and Brie both have enough terrific interplay and physical comedy to chew on with “Piles Of Bullets”, but both guest stars could have used a little more attention.
At the end of the main plot, Troy’s absence is felt more keenly than it has been since Donald Glover sailed away earlier in the season. The last few episodes have served as an extremely strong buffer in the aftermath of his departure, and now that there’s enough distance to have established what the show will be like without him, it feels like the right time to explore how the other characters have moved on too.
There’s almost something apologetic about the repetitions elsewhere, because the funniest moments in VCR Maintenance And Educational Publishing are both based around characters saying sorry. Firstly, there’s Dean Pelton’s demented, peanut-themed apology rap – Jim Rash knocks this scene out of the park (“BARACK OBAMA IS SCARED OF ME!”) and it’s the best scene he’s had to work with all season. Second, Abed’s romcom-inspired third-act apology to Rachel, in which the punchline to a scene with indoor rain is both anticipated and perfectly delivered.
But the fact that the stand-out moments come close to the beginning and the end of the episode respectively, makes for a slightly puffy centre, limited by the uneven distribution of the regulars between sub-plots, and the slightly rushed conclusion.
In short, we could spend ages watching Abed and Annie spin around on the spot, shouting random numbers and phrases at each other, all in the name of picking a new roommate, but the B-plot couldn’t get out of the way.
Next week’s Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, a sequel to one of the most celebrated episodes from season two, sounds a little more promising. If only someone had told Gilligan’s jobbing actor in 1993 that role-playing games, not VHS games, are the future.
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