After stumbling out of the gate, Season 4 of Community aired what was probably its strongest episode to date last night... although, the fact that "Conventions of Space and Time" qualifies as "strong" tells you how rocky the show's post-Harmon era has been so far.
Inspired, no doubt, by Community's hot-ticket appearances at Comic-Con International, "Space and Time" sends the study group off to the Inspector Spacetime convention, InSpecTiCon -- two by choice (Troy and Abed), three as accessories (Britta, Annie and Jeff) and two out of spite (Pierce and Shirley... well, okay, Pierce is spiteful at least). Once on the con floor, they split off into separate adventures: Pierce and Shirley are drafted into a focus group that's giving feedback on a planned Americanized Spacetime series; Annie enjoys the benefits of being (fake) married to Jeff, while Winger flirts with an absurdly hot fangirl (Tricia Helfer); Britta strains herself to find her boyfriend's obsession interesting; and Troy experiences jealousy pangs when Abed cozies up to a new pal, Toby (British comic Matt Lucas). Honestly, none of this was mind-blowingly funny, but at least the characters mostly sounded like themselves and the setting was amusing in and of itself (you can tell the writers have been to their fair share of fan conventions), which is a major improvement from Pierce's House of Horrifically Unfunny Scooby-Doo Homages that stank up the joint last week. Here are the character-by-character pros and cons of an entirely decent episode of Community.
Pro: Trying out his "American" accent on Helfer, who believes him to be Nigel Cuthbertson, the handsome British actor who played one of the Inspector's worst enemies, Thoraxis.
Con: Everything else about the Helfer sequence. It wasn't Number 6's fault -- that was perfect casting -- but man, what a profound waste of an inspired cameo. I kept hoping for a twist to her bland straight woman role (like, say, she's a double agent from a competing British sci-fi serial) that never came.
Pro: The sheer delight she took in role-playing the part of Mrs. Winger, from ordering "the good... kind" of Scotch to inventing a whole soap opera-ready storyline about the state of their marriage for the benefit of friendly bellboy, Randy. After being mostly neglected for the first two episodes, Alison Brie made the most of the most substantial storyline she was granted here.
Con: Having to deliver the line, "You're on your own, Al Capone," confirming that this three-episode old annoying habit of rhyming a name with a bit of dialogue will serve as one of the season's running gag. To which I say: that stinks, Jar Jar Binks.
Pro: Responding with horror to Britta's "If you love someone, set them free" line of relationship advice with a panicked: "That makes no sense! What if they get hit by a car or fall down a well? Remind me not to put you down as my emergency contact." Great line, expertly delivered.
Con: Nothing springs to mind, actually. This was a strong outing for both Donald Glover and Troy, one that gave him the chance to show off a fair amount of range from Clueless!Troy to Jealous!Troy to GoodBoyfriend!Troy.
Pro: Summing up her experience of watching an early black-and-white episode of Inspector Spacetime with a just-so-slightly-horrified "Wow... there are fifty years of these, huh?" It's the look of forced enthusiasm masking abject terror that sells the joke.
Con: I can't believe that I'm about to complain about an extended sequence that required Gillian Jacobs to run around in lingerie, but did that strike anyone else as a little... well, cheap? Cheap as in, "Our ratings are down! Quick, let's get one of our two hot girls in a bra and panties!" Given that the rest of the episode was, in many ways, a light satire of geek culture, it's a shame that the writers didn't take the opportunity to frame this as a bit of meta-commentary on the fanboy objectification of beautiful women in otherwise nerd-dominated shows. That would be more in keeping with the spirit of Community, not to mention Britta's character.
Pro: This exchange, which is one of the most scary-accurate representations of geekspeak I've ever heard on network television.
Abed: "Toby, did you see..."
Toby: "...the Christmas special? Horrible."
Abed: "But when you consider what it set up?"
Con: Outlining the reason why all Spacetime devotees hate the lone female Inspector,
Janeway Minerva. "Not because they're sexist -- because she sucks." A pithy put-down sure, but again, this plot point represented a missed opportunity to do some smarter, funnier jokes about the sexism that all too often infects geek culture.
Pro: Her comment during the focus group session that what Inspector Spacetime fans like most about the show is that it's "smart, complicated and doesn't talk down to its audience." Although stated in the context of a Spacetime evaluation, one could easily extrapolate that Shirely is also talking about the current incarnation of Community. She's right... that is why the fanbase likes the show and what I, for one, continue to hope the new showrunners will do a better job of maintaining that as the season continues.
Con: That Shirley is otherwise only there because Yvette Brown is contractually obligated to appear in every episode. If they can't come up with anything meaningful and/or funny for her to do, let her relax with Andre and the kids for once.
Pro: Seizing control of the American Spacetime focus group testing (which is entitled Epochs of Eternity by the by) by listing all thing things that confused him... beginning with the whole time and space travel thing. Chevy Chase hasn't seemed this engaged in a scene since that "Baby Boomer Santa" ditty from Season 3.
Con: That there wasn't more of the focus group stuff. It was a great premise that wasn't exploited to its full potential. (See the implications of Shirley's comment above.)
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