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Community: Growing Pains

by Ethan Alter February 28, 2014 5:55 am
<i>Community</i>: Growing Pains

Well… they can't all be winners. For the first episode back from the Olympic break, Community serves up "Introduction to Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality," an odd, disjointed episode in which its two most child-like characters -- Abed and Britta -- are taught some grown-up lessons.

And that's really the only connective tissue binding this episode together, which otherwise feels like a case where the limitations imposed by actor availability left Dan Harmon scrambling to fill minutes. Part of me wonders if this was originally intended to simply be an Abed-centric episode, since his material is the mostly cleanly diagrammed and, in a way, serves to form a loose trilogy with the "My Dinner With Andre" and "Trapped in the Dreamatorium" one-shots. Both of those outings grew out of an isolated Abed arriving at a crisis point and "Sexuality" subtly establishes the loneliness he's been feeling since Troy skipped town, a loneliness that leads him to stay late on campus building a suit of Kickpuncher armor that he can wear while crashing the premiere of the ill-advised reboot. Roaming the halls, he finds another solitary figure, Professor Hickey, working late on his own passion project -- those infernal duck cartoons, which Abed proceeds to ruin while demonstrating a particular function of his outfit. This leads Hickey to handcuff the kid to a filing cabinet, thus ensuring that he'll miss the movie and learn that old "actions have consequences" lesson that his elder doesn't believe he's fully absorbed. Abed responds by passing through the various stages of negotiation -- pleading, bargaining, flattery -- before arriving at temper-tantrum followed, at last, by acceptance. It's the same arc that parents of toddlers will be all too familiar with.

It's a kind of confrontation that Abed hasn't been able to have up prior to this point, given that the last older authority figure on the series was the equally immature Pierce. Jonathan Banks's inherent gruffness, on the other hand, makes him an ideal fit for the "grumpy dad" archetype that Harmon's using to mete out some parental discipline to a kid who routinely gets away with so much. But there's also a little Troy in Hickey: a self-confidence challenged guy searching for a way to express himself, in this case, thru doodling comic strips in which a duck confronts the major and minor idiocies of the world by repeatedly asking, "What the hell?" If Hickey can continue to function as both a parent and pal to Abed, this could mark the start of a beautiful friendship.

So yeah, that storyline kind of works, even if the writing isn't quite as sharp as it might have been. The Britta material, on the other hand, is all over the place, largely because it's not really about Britta at all. Sure, it seems to put her front and center, sending her off to a benefit show for starving children with cleft palates where she encounters a bunch of her old anarchist friends who make her feel bad about selling out (by… attending community college?), thus leading her to ask whether her youthful idealism was all for naught. But the starring role in Britta's personal drama is instead occupied by John Oliver's lovestruck Professor Duncan, who with Jeff's reluctant aid maneuvered her there to find a way to "hit that" only to, when the opportunity presents itself, escort her home like a proper English gentleman in favor of a bro-date with Winger instead. It's strange to see a heretofore minor (if funny) character awarded such thematic importance, especially at the expense of a regular player who deserves more time in the spotlight. No wonder the episode feels so unbalanced: one half depicts the start of something new while the other leads to a dead end, as Oliver's guest start status will always keep him on the fringe. Here's a round-up of each character's idea comic strip character as well as their funniest line from the episode.

Jeff
Ideal Comic Strip Character: Garfield. Cynical, sarcastic and vain? Yup, that's our Winger.
Funniest Line: "Have fun circling my former lover waiting for her to… cry. I tried to make that sound good, but that's what you're doing."

Britta
Ideal Comic Strip Character: Huey Freeman. She's the lone truth-teller decrying the political and social conformity of our times. In her own mind, anyway.
Funniest Line: "Are they speaking English?"

Abed
Ideal Comic Strip Character: Calvin. He's got an overactive fantasy life and almost certainly talks to stuffed animals. Plus, he dressed up as Bill Watterson's signature creation for Halloween. (Of course, that was during the gas leak year.)
Funniest Line: "You're not the Marco Polo of bullying me. You're just another tourist taking pictures of a great big wall."

Annie
Ideal Comic Strip Character: Cathy. Mainly because it's easy to picture young Annie clipping and saving Cathy strips under the impression that it represents what grown-up life is like.
Funniest Line: "Okay, we have confirmation that all the bones have been removed from the football field and we agree that teachers should get a ten minute head start at the job fair. Any other items?"

Shirley
Ideal Comic Strip Character: Linus van Pelt. The one person of faith in a group of narcissistic heathens.
Funniest Line: "Okay, so it was about our marginalized perceptions as drones being born into a corporate hivemind?"

Hickey
Ideal Comic Strip Character: George Wilson. Hickey's made it clear that he's got no time for youthful menaces.
Funniest Line: "For five years, I have watched people walk around on your eggshells. 'Oh, Abed -- he's so imaginative, so magical, everybody hide their hamburgers, if Abed sees a hamburger we'll all travel in time! Let's eat cookies and ice cream and dress in pajamas in the middle of the day!'"

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