This review contains spoilers.
6.11 Modern Espionage
“If I tell you, then I’ll end up pretendsies-dead.”
We’re far closer to the end of that “six seasons and a movie” thing than the beginning and somehow it felt like paintball might be the basis of a pretty decent movie. After all, season one’s Modern Warfare was a watershed moment for the show and the following season’s two-part finale A Fistful Of Paintballs and For A Few Paintballs More stand as two of the best ever episodes- the show is seldom more cinematic than when it’s splattered with paint.
Aside from a cloying reprise at the end of the much maligned fourth season, Modern Espionage marks the first time we’ve seen it since then and it’s not without reason. But far from the campus-wide carnage of previous games, the tournament is driven underground by Frankie’s level-headed administration of Greendale, with rivals City College once again bankrolling a mysterious inside man to help destroy the school.
Jeff heads up “Dean Force One”, as they’re dubbed by you-know-who, in trying to get to the bottom of it, but of course, everyone (even Elroy) is also in on the game. While previous episodes have paid homage to John Woo, westerns and Star Wars, this one’s closer to a spy thriller than a shoot-’em-up.
Another part of why this one feels so different to previous outbreaks is the hand of director Rob Schrab. Ahead of his recently announced gig on The LEGO Movie Sequel, Schrab has been the most prolific director of the season, helming Ladders, Laws Of Robotics & Party Rights, Advanced Safety Features and Grifting 101 before this one.
Following in the footsteps of other paintballers like Fast & Furious director Justin Lin in season one and the Russo brothers in season two’s peerless finale, he more than holds his own here. In fact, in an ingenious tip of the hat to the Russos’ post-Community work with Marvel, he pulls off a spoof of Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s elevator scene with the Dean that may be the highlight of the whole season so far.
Other tropes come in for some ripe parody too, including the cross-cutting of dramatic speeches with violent paintball shootouts, searching for hidden assassins in a crowded room and implausible comms interactions at a swanky party. The latter of those is lifted right from Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol, except in Community, people can actually hear you when you’re talking at normal volume into an earpiece.
The episode also makes great use of the supporting players, with the first appearance of Dino Stamatopoulos’ Starburns for this season and a return for Arrested Development‘s Mitch Hurwitz as “fun dad” Koogler. The beginning and end tags delve deeper into Greendale’s performing arts scene too, with the equally dreadful one-man shows “Veni Vidi Vicki” and “Grin & Garrett”.
Paintball episodes are more-ish though, so you still want them to go even further with the ensemble. The absence of Leonard was disappointing, given his show-stealing moments in previous games, and Annie and Abed felt a little sidelined again.
You might even suspect that the role of the custodian mastermind might have been meant for Nathan Fillion’s occasional cameo role, reprised briefly in the season premiere, rather than Kumail Nanjiani as his deputy, LaPari. Nanjiani is great as usual, even though his voice is recognisable enough in the cold open as to take any of the (admittedly spoofy) tension out of who’s really behind things.
This isn’t the Frankie-centric episode I’ve been hoping for the past few weeks, but as a more chaotic episode than we’ve seen since she arrived, she is the catalyst for all of this mess and she gets a couple of great moments when she shows her model of a “cleaner Greendale” and her bizarre punishment of the group at the end.
But after a season of more grounded exploits and more sporadic silliness, Modern Espionage truly earns the act of picking up a paintball gun again. After last week’s meta-misfire, this one hits the target with some supremely silly and masterfully executed action setpieces. It marks yet another standout episode for Jim Rash as Dean Pelton, from his initial appearance stumbling over a cleaning cart to the final showdown in the unlikely Museum of Custodial Arts.
Wisely, the show doesn’t try to top the untoppable season two finale in going back to the well, (and Jeff’s sharp comeback to even hearing the word “well” has to be the most self-conscious acknowledgement of that in the episode) but in focusing on a different facet of action cinema to tell a new story, it leaves us wondering what on Earth they’ve got planned for the final two episodes of the season, let alone that long-promised movie.
Read Mark’s review of the previous episode, Basic RV Repair And Palmistry, here.
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