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Community: Christmas in April

The Community gang celebrated Christmas last night, but all that audiences got from "Intro to Knots" was a lump of coal. The premise was the fatal flaw on last week's all-puppet outing, but in this case execution was the thing that proved to be lacking. Conceived in part as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's one-set, one-take, real-time feature film stunt Rope, "Knots" was built around the most consistent element Community has had going for it during this all-over-the-map fourth season -- the cast -- and, unfortunately, they dropped the ball. Maybe it was the aftermath of Chevy Chase's departure (this episode was filmed after he quit the show, necessitating Ken Jeong's presence as the study group's sixth wheel) or maybe it was the simple exhaustion that sets in after ten episodes are in the can with three left to shoot, but there was a noticeable disconnect between the performers and the material throughout the half-hour. Only guest star Malcolm McDowell seemed to have any energy and he spent the majority of the episode tied up (or so we assumed) in a chair.

How McDowell came to be occupying said chair involved a bit of potential criminality that didn't ring particularly true. Neither, for that matter, did noted curmudgeon Jeff's decision to host a study group Christmas party at his apartment in the first place, which is what set the whole incident in motion. Initially intended to just be for the core five, plus Chang, as Pierce has walked off the show is in sensitivity training, the party gets a surprise guest in the form of Professor Cornwallis (McDowell), whom Annie invited with the hopes of goosing the grade for their big history paper. But the plan backfires when he happens to hear Annie and Jeff bashing him, and he announces that he'll be failing them instead. Unwisely committing to a rash course of action, the group takes Cornwallis hostage as a way to make him change his mind, while he in turn attempts to play them off each other in order to regain his freedom. And if you think that taking a man hostage sounds like something that only the darkest timeline version of these characters might do, the writers throw in a gratuitous reference said timeline that was brought a satisfying and effective conclusion in last season's finale. Another end of the episode "surprise" was Chang's surreptitious phone call re-stating his evil intentions, to which all I can say is: drop the Changnesia and get on with them already.

The cast has had to roll with a lot of punches over the course of this season, as Community's new showrunners continue to struggle to figure out what they want the show to be in the post-Harmon era. Character relationships have broken down (I've thrown up my hands trying to make sense of Troy and Britta's supposed romance), personalities have changed (hate to harp on Troy again, but I don't think the writers know who this guy is anymore) and previously three-dimensional characters have lost two entire dimensions (despite Alison Brie's best efforts, Annie has regressed from the breakthroughs she made in that terrific Dreamatorium episode last season). At a certain point, all that turmoil was going to take its toll and that's what I think must have happened on "Knots." If the actors don't recognize their characters in the writing anymore, they're not going to be able to do their best work, especially when there are no outside distractions like puppets or competing school dances involved. Here are the ideal Christmas presents we'd like to give each of the characters as Season 4 draws to a close and their (few and far between) funniest lines from a weak episode.

Jeff
Ideal Christmas Present: A new apartment, now that he's ruined this one by willingly inviting people over for a Christmas party. That seems like a stretch, even for New Jeff.
Funniest Line: "You ruined our Christmas dinner so you could be crowned the smartest person at the dumbest school?"

Annie
Ideal Christmas Present: Real closure on any lingering romantic feelings for Jeff, the only personality trait the writers seem capable of writing about anymore.
Funniest Line: "Sha-na-not."

Troy
Ideal Christmas Present: A do-over on the whole hooking up with Britta thing, as that storyline hasn't worked out well for either of them.
Funniest Line: "If there's a human version of Scrooge McDuck, this guy's it."

Britta
Ideal Christmas Present: Ditto on the above.
Funniest Line: "Judge-y face."

Abed
Ideal Christmas Present: Erasing the timeline nonsense from his memory, to avoid resurrecting a joke that served its purpose.
Funniest Line: "This is amazing! And possibly all in real time!"

Shirley
Ideal Christmas Present: An au pair, so we don't have to be concerned about her kids being left at home (or at the store) alone while she's off gallivanting around with the study group.
Funniest Line: "That was my punch!"

Chang
Ideal Christmas Present: A "cure" for Changnesia, so that ridiculous plot will finally end.
Funniest Line: "I'm proving my worth to you guys. Do you want me to kill him?"

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