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Community: The 2-Part Season Finale

By Zack Gutin · May 18, 2011

Wars, Westerns and Wet Paint: The Community 2-Part Season Finale

Oh, the old “To be continued…” trick.  It’s as much a staple of a 30-minute sitcom series as the old drug abuse or eating disorder episode that comes complete with post-show cast member explanation of how the “message” in the episode was no joking matter and even a phone number to call if you need help. But, then again, what sets “Community” aside from other current 30-minute network fare is – though it took them almost the entire first season to realize it – they are completely self-aware of the type of “old tricks” they enlist.  While some art forms chastise artists who re-use familiar tactics, in comedy, parody is welcomed with open arms.  Considering this, the 2-part season finale of “Community” was every bit as epic as the genres it parodied.

At the end of the first season, “Community,” which has just finished its second season as the lead-off hitter in NBC’s Thursday night comedy block, realized it’s comedic voice.  It actively decided it was no longer going to be about a group of misfits who attend a community college and – despite his charm and ability – Joel McHale wasn’t necessarily going to be the star.  It realized itself as an ensemble piece where each character would have a devoted storyline from time-to-time and, most importantly, the series recognized its ability to parody everything from films to literature to current shows on other networks. 

Series creator Dan Harmon must have been hit with a wave of compliments on the first season finale which saw the cast engaged in an episode-long, campus-wide paintball battle that was framed within the style of an epic war film, ala Saving Private Ryan.  It was hilarious and nailed every detail of what encompasses a war-film.  In writing parody, the trick is to keep everything true to form, with only one detailed altered to set the comedy in motion (in this case, instead of bullets flying, we’ve got little balls of paint).  When it came time to draw out an outline for his second season, he turned to a formula he knew worked; the entire campus of Greendale pitted against one another in a game of paintball.  It was a risky decision, as it’s rare that a writer would want to rest on one’s laurels and repeat an almost identical premise – in two parts, no less – and some critics may have a field day calling it “unoriginal,” “cheap,” or “safe.”  But, therein lays the uniqueness of this episode, as it avoided all of those labels.

The episode set-out to appeal to the droves of fans who raved so hard about the first season finale that it helped boost the shows reputation at the start of its second season.  In some later reviews, I’m going to spend time pointing out effective act breaks in 30-minute comedy, even in shows that don’t have commercial breaks.  However, for the sake of this review, I want to point out Harmon’s ability to generate a great season break; the episode fans and critics alike will point to until the show returns in the fall (which it will).  Using the two-part episode device, Harmon was able to build anticipation and buzz over the course of two weeks.  Years ago, the two-part episode would have required the audience to have seen Part One and might have lost anyone who missed it.  Nowadays, with DVR, TiVO and brain-implanted memory chips (those aren’t available on market yet?  Well, I like mine anyway), it’s much easier.  For the sake of this review, I even went back and re-watched Part One right before the west coast airing of Part Two.  I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

Different from last year’s finale, this year’s jumped from parodied style to parodied style.  It started two weeks ago with an homage to the shoot-em-up pulp westerns, going so far as to assign each character a “playing card” label and to include a deadly (well, good with a paint ball gun), mysterious character with absolutely no back-story, who just arrives in town.  But, before the episode delivered the “To be continued…” they shifted gears, twisting the plot and re-introducing the battle in a Star Wars-like framework.

The second part of the episode picked-up in the same fashion, reiterating where we left off with the George Lucas-conceived scrolling text and narrator.  Although we’d already seen a glimpse of the new advisories in their Storm Trooper-like gear, we soon find that the “evil” ice cream truck was a functional death star, solidifying an audience understanding that we’ve moved from the Wild West to the war in the stars.  Costumes were adjusted slightly in the first few scenes (Abed grabs the vest, transforming him into Han Solo) and our cast soon fits the bill.  Soon Annie (Allison Brie) had taken on the role of Leia, and she begins falling for Abed.  This, maybe all too similar to the end of season one when she surprisingly swaps spit with Jeff, is the one unwelcomed surprise decision made by the show’s writers.  While the surprise turn at the end of season one functioned to A) Surprise the audience into wanting to come back for season 2 and B) Informed the audience that Annie’s character would be changing and losing some of her innocence, it didn’t appear meaningful to have her and Abed lock lips in this episode.  If it had been done purely for parody, then why would Annie have been so confused by its meaning?  Could that moment have belonged to another character?  That’s not for me to decide.

As the episode concluded, we see that Pierce (Chevy Chase) has decided to leave the study group, alluding to what – we don’t know.  There has been no formal announcement that Chase would be leaving the show and – given its success and his return to relevance – it seems unlikely.  Will he mount a competing study group?  What other study group would have him?  Maybe they’ll call his bluff.  Oh, what does it matter?  They were all supposed to have graduated by now anyway.  I can’t wait for next season.  Think you can predict a style or genre they’ll parody next?  Spec it.