…On the other hand, if sweeps week stunts are expressed in episodes like last night’s Community, then long live sweeps week!
I haven’t written much about Community, in part because it’s clearly been in flux over the last season. What began as something that looked very much like a sitcom with a strong streak of self-consciousness became an entirely different show last night with the episode “Modern Warfare.” Over the last several weeks, Community has been playing with how much meta it can actually get away with, and trying to find a line between being a show about community college kids that communicates by way of pop culture reference, and being a show about pop culture. The most recent example of this was an episode a few weeks ago where the study group became a mob conspiracy to control the distribution of chicken fingers in the cafeteria. Its clichés, satires, styles, and story were note-perfect, and all of the jokes about mob bosses, snitches, conspiracies, wealth, and families were hysterical spoofs of a specific genre of fiction. Underneath those comments, though, that episode was ultimately funny because a community college’s chicken fingers were the basis for a criminal organization. In the midst of Ocean’s 11 music as we watched the chicken fingers circulate throughout the cafeteria, it was the mob spoof that was funny, not the community college lunch.
“Modern Warfare” flipped the equation. It began with a fairly standard opening bit about how Jeff and Britta bicker and Shirley misses spending time with her sons, and shifted into a very Community-esque discussion of how Jeff and Britta’s lack of sexual tension was keeping them from being friends/Friends. Jeff then falls asleep in his car and wakes up to find the campus transformed into a post-paintball apocalypse battlefield. The rest of the episode follows the study group as they fight off the glee club, the chess club, and ultimately Senor Chang for the rights to priority registration, and the references rain down without stopping. Abed finds Jeff in a classic Matrix-style gunfight, the girls and the boys join forces after a classic female stealth attack in the bathrooms, and finally, a sweaty, dirty, undershirt-clad Jeff reaches the Dean’s office, railing against a war fought over a hollow, meaningless ideal. In the most obvious cliché of all, Jeff and Britta barricade themselves in the group study room and their bickering escalates into sex, before they then turn on each other. Truly, the whole thing was perhaps the most masterful spoofs I have ever seen.
Except… unlike the chicken fingers episode, where the humor came out of the absurdity of the criminal conspiracy, the humor of “Modern Warfare” was that this whole action movie was happening at a community college, and even though the bullets were all paintballs, the action movie was real. Abed begins by warning, “come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes,” and it’s funny and stupid. Every time someone “died,” you expected him to deny the finality of his death by simply ignoring his paint-splattered clothing – it is, after all, just paint. But every fallen soldier stays dead, and as is demonstrated by the wound that kicks off the Jeff/Britta sexytime, the paintballs are more meaningful than actual blood. The spoof was allowed to expand without ever being punctured by its own silliness. It was funniest because at some point, it wasn’t even a spoof anymore – it was Jeff Winger, action hero.
It was awesome, is what I’m saying. And no, Community cannot do this over and over again, with each episode remaking Greendale into a setting for a different genre send-up. But the fact that it could do it at all, and do it so well, is seriously encouraging for the show’s future.