There was one grade-A scene in the otherwise B-level "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" and that was the extended sequence that involved Annie and Abed finally mastering the confounding rules of the 1993 VCR Western-themed board game "Pile of Bullets," while Annie's brother Anthony (Spencer Crittenden, a regular on Dan Harmon's Harmontown podcast) and Abed's S.O. Rachel (Brie Larson) looked on in dismay mixed with horror. The crack comic timing between Danny Pudi and Alison Brie is arguably something that Community doesn't take enough advantage of, so when they do get a rare showcase -- like Season 3's terrific "Virtual Systems Analysis" -- they make every moment count.
Given Harmon's deep knowledge of and enormous affection for outmoded entertainment platforms from the '80s and '90s, it's a little surprising that it's taken him this long to get around to these oddly compelling VHS-based games where players took their orders from actors on the TV, pausing the tape to carry out his or her instructions and, frequently, having to rewind to figure out what the hell they were supposed to be doing. It was an awkward, cumbersome process that was typically more fun in theory than in practice. Nevertheless, the novelty value of incorporating television into an ordinary game night as a companion rather than a distraction allowed this genre to flourish for a little while before joining the pop culture graveyard. And Harmon has great fun recreating what made VCR gaming so exciting and disappointing at the same time, helped along by a perfectly-cast Vince Gilligan, playing the talking head who (attempts to) guide teams Annie & Anthony and Abed & Rachel through the world of "Pile of Bullets," a supposedly delightful after-dinner treat that will have serious real-world consequences given that the identity of their new roommate (the one to replace the departed Troy) hinges on which duo makes it to the end in one piece.
While the future of their apartment hangs in the balance, back at Greendale, Jeff, Shirley and Hickey stumble upon a stack of sealed chemistry textbooks stashed in a vent and, with visions of a modest payday flashing before their eyes, hatch a scheme to sell them. While it's Jeff's idea to turn Greendale's loss into their gain, Shirley very quickly takes over the plan's execution, tapping into the ruthless streak that she tries to keep in check via regular trips to church. Having just watched Jeff and Shirley go at each other to more amusing effect in last week's '70s sci-fi spoof, this B-plot never really caught fire as it wound its way to a fairly predictable conclusion. Perhaps it would have played better had the episode order been flipped, thus giving the two added incentive to be resentful of each other during the whole MeowMeowBeanz fracas.
To be fair, apart from the "Pile of Bullets" stuff, the Annie/Abed storyline felt a bit thin as well, with Harmon going out of his way to include a reference to Annie's past stint in rehab at the last minute in an attempt to tack some emotional gravitas onto what had been a largely one (very good) joke premise. And as much as I'm enjoying Brie Larson's occasional appearances as Rachel, it's still hard to get a precise read on her personality, not to mention her role in Abed's post-Troy life. Part of that can be chalked up to the fact that Harmon inherited the character instead of originating her, as well as actor availability: since Larson has a busy movie career, she can't be a regular presence at Greendale, which leads to some inconsistent plotting. For example, if Abed and Rachel have been dating all this time, why didn't he enlist her to help him crash the Kickpuncher reboot premiere a few weeks ago instead of flying solo and, as a result, getting handcuffed to Hickey's file cabinet? Like trying to master the gameplay of "Pile of Bullets," "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" inspires more questions than answers. Here's each characters' favorite '90s board game as well as their funniest lines from the episode.
Favorite '90s Board Game: Crossfire: Jeff probably honed his ultra-quick paintball trigger finger by repeatedly firing small metal balls at this game's two rolling purple targets. Funniest Line: "Why is there hot sauce in the bathroom? It's Greendale."
Favorite '90s Board Game: Taboo: Because she enjoys any opportunity to censor other people's language.
Funniest Line: "Is the air working in here? I'm sweating like a Catholic on Judgment Day. Just a little Protestant humor -- I've got more."
Favorite '90s Board Game: Jumanji: He probably convinced himself he really was trapped inside the game, just like Robin Williams in that terrible movie we all watched a billion times.
Funniest Line: "You're like ice cream cake out there: Overkill."
Favorite '90s Board Game: Perfection: Because that's her mantra.
Funniest Line: "Nobody picks up on my pattern. What am I going to say next? Graham cracker. You didn't know!"
Favorite '90s Board Game: Mall Madness: Mainly so that she could protest consumer culture, while also buying into it at the same time.
Funniest Line: "I know we're in E9 in the East Wing. I know that because it smells like weed. Not my weed."
Favorite '90s Board Game: 13 Dead End Drive: Because it allows him to virtually harm and/or kill people who annoy him -- something he can't do in real life.
Funniest Line: "Why do you hell do you have all those muscles if you're going to bitch about moving boxes?"
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