NBC originally announced that they would broadcast the finale for the second season of Community as an hour-long episode. Their decision to split it up extends the season, but it creates the first situation where Community stretches a plot across two consecutive episodes that inherently depend on each other. This isn’t a bad thing — it’s just unprecedented for the show, and it makes what was great about tonight’s episode just a little bit questionable because we don’t know how it all wraps up like every other story the show has done.
If there was one episode from last season designed not only to please every one of the surprisingly few regular viewers of Community, but also attract a bevy of new viewers, it would be “Modern Warfare,” the paintball war, action movie-themed episode directed by Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow and every movie since Tokyo Drift in the Fast and Furious series). It was a hermetically sealed perfect episode, that included every character in pitch-perfect fashion, doling out jokes a mile a minute on top of a genius twist on a genre, and the second indication -– after the Goodfellas parody episode about chicken fingers -– that the show could not only be highly referential in dialogue, but in episode structure and visual style. It even gave the writers an outlet to solve the Jeff/Britta tension that was limiting Community’s potential. The show has been chasing the Everest of creativity ever since.
“A Fistful of Paintballs” is an attempt to capitalize on that fan favorite episode. As a first half of the whole finale, it does a wonderful job throwing us right back into the action-movie visual style from “Warfare,” but this time around introducing characters in a very Tarantino-esque style, with a freeze frame nickname corresponding to a playing card. Annie is the Ace of Hearts, Jeff the King of Spades, Britta the Queen of Spades and so on, with the exception of Pierce. There’s more of the faction dividing from the episode last season, and the fantastical suspension of normal time rules that allows the study group to treat each other like hours stretched into years.
The subtle overall arc of the season featured Pierce’s descent into drug addiction and his mistreatment of the rest of the study group. In “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” everything finally came to a head, but the conclusions of his confrontation with Jeff felt a little weak. By contrast, this episode uses the genre of a western via paintball to tie the whole group dynamic themes into a believable extension of the season conflict. Allison Brie really shines in this first half as Annie, who has always been the nicest and most innocent member of the group, and the prime defender of Pierce going back to his discovery that she was cut off by her parents. That relationship, its trust and minor betrayal, was the central strength to the episode, how the show wound the spaghetti-Western around thematic elements that had been in play the entire year.
Josh Holloway was the highly-touted guest star, but unlike some other high-profile jaunts in the Community universe — and here I’m thinking specifically of Jack Black’s appearance during the first season in the first episode after the winter hiatus -– but unlike Black’s physical comedy taking over in certain scenes, Holloway doesn’t get a lot to do other than look handsome, piss Joel McHale’s Jeff off and share one tense scene with Allison Brie. He does well, and is certainly a fun addition to the episode, but there’s no reason for it to specifically be Holloway. The best part was his exit, which teases the overall plot at work that will extend into next week.
After this first half-hour, all we’re left with is a great setup, half of the arc that could add up to something better than “Modern Warfare,” but right now represents the only time that Community has left anything open-ended. Some shows can do the “to be continued…” thing very well, but Community has never felt like a particularly plot-driven show that needed to keep its audience questioning what would come next. It’s been a well-structured sitcom that is now experimenting with the hour-long sitcom form. The Office managed to make the switch work until the network got greedy and ordered too many of those episode per season, but perhaps Community can make the structure work.
Final Grade: Incomplete (we’ll see after next week, but it’s looking good)