While last week’s episode of Community was the type of densely pop-culture-based humor that the show’s derided for, this week’s was in a lot of ways much less accessible despite being one of the most traditionally structured the show’s ever done. “Digital Exploration of Interior Design” had three tight, self-contained plots, each of them based upon issues in the show’s continuity. “Contemporary Impressionists” had a lot about the need for change within the group dynamics, but here we see it on-screen, and this is the result, with many characters actively working through problems previously set up.
Community has shown before that it’s willing to repeat ideas, just not stories. So the reappearance of the blanket fort makes sense in the same way that paintball returned to the school, and it’s a fitting topic because much of “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” was about the bonding between Abed and Troy. They made an entire world together, and the fort was a concrete example of what they could achieve. Abed’s refusal to compromise is petty but not surprising. He’s at a crossroads where he can become the Ayn Randian genius of whatever strange projects he can come up with, or he can have friends, most importantly Troy. That Community brought this to a wonderful climax with a Gangs of New York homage only emphasized that this is a conflict bigger than one episode. It’s about Abed learning what kind of person he really wants to be in life, and that can take more than 20 minutes to figure out.
Despite the importance of this plot, and some really great jokes, the best part of the episode came from continuing the sandwich shop story. Shirley and Pierce still want to open one on Greendale, but Subway has bought up space despite the school’s bylaws stating firmly that all campus businesses must be at least 51 percent owned by students. Subway’s solution: become a student. Subway’s corpo-humanoid stole the episode for me, particularly in a show that shies away from political humor. As a network television show, making a political stand is pretty much out of the question, and as such barely in its DNA. But making Subway into a corporately owned human satisfies those needs while also working well within Community’s whimsical universe. This wonderful conceit really takes over the episode, and does so in a way that’s original and, more surprisingly, never becomes a one-note joke.
The episode’s smallest plot also relies on past episodes. Jeff asks Annie for help making amends to a supposedly deceased student who hated him, but along the way we mostly learn about how hurt and ignored she’s felt. In contrast to the fast pace and silliness of the other plots, this one’s more contemplative, but that works to its advantage. Like a lot of other fans, I’m always interested to see more between the two of them, and talking through someone else’s letters was a novel way of allowing Annie to voice her opinions without being too blunt (for a while I was assuming that Annie had written the letter herself and just signed it Kim).
None of these stories are as instantly fan-pleasing as more pop culture-heavy episodes, but they’re just as well-crafted. When Community’s writing usually suffers is in these sorts of episodes, preferring to lavish time and attention on high-concept gimmicks that, while frequently spectacular, can never be the heart of the show. It needs these three-story, school-based stories to be this good, too, and for once it managed to do so. As hyper-referential as it can be, the show is frequently apt to forget or ignore character growth, but as signaled by last episode it looks like there’s some actual shaking up of the status quo going on here. Here, it embraced its own stories and past yet used a more familiar format, and as usual Community seems to have really hit its stride in the second half of the season.
•Corpo-humanization is this close to actually happening. I’m with Britta on this one.
•Does John Goodman with a beard look increasingly like Rip Torn to anyone else? Also, he was great, which probably goes without saying.
•So what does the “digital” part of the episode title refer to?