There’s almost nothing on television as glorious as a perfectly executed “gimmick” episode of Community. That I call them by that name is a bit demeaning, but whatever word is used to describe when the show goes all-out and its entire universe is flipped into becoming a different genre, it’s led to some of the strangest, most exciting things I’ve ever watched. “Geothermal Escapism” was a reminder of exactly how good these can be when Dan Harmon is in charge, not just taking an idea to its full, crazy endpoint but also attaching this development to an emotional core.
The escapism in question is there because of Troy’s immediate departure for his round-the-world boating trip. One of the things I liked best about the episode, though, is that akin to when someone has died, “Escapism” focuses on the cast members who remain and how they feel about the situation. Troy is definitely key, but we knew that the entire study group, and Abed in particular, was going to take his absence hard. Ignoring that and pretending that this is all about Troy would’ve been a poor choice, and instead it’s an ensemble piece like usual. We don’t need an episode to explain Troy’s choice; we understand it, but we do need to see how his friends cope with absence.
Admittedly, “Escapism” hits a few of the same notes that, for instance, the paintball episodes have hit in the past. Harmon’s meticulous plotting can make action-based episodes be a bit same-y because in order to structure things properly for the same amount of time, there isn’t as much variation as he could have in something longer. But that’s more an issue of the limitations of 20-minute sitcoms than the show itself, which does everything it can to create its own faux-apocalyptic universe out of a community college. The big twist here was Britta joining professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks, if like me you still have trouble remembering his character’s name) after she’s abandoned by Troy and Abed. But Britta’s involvement isn’t out of pure malice; it’s because she knows that to Abed this is bigger. There are real stakes, and so abandoning her wasn’t just a strategy in a game.
I’m not even sure I have any quibbles. Parts of the episode that briefly didn’t work for me, particularly Britta’s role, grew in significance until they did. One of the things I love about Harmon’s truly epic concepts is the way everyone at Greendale immediately joins a clique in the school’s strange ecosystem, from those at Shirley’s Island to Chang’s army. There’s always an entire world that appears when the school devolves like this, and the transformation is so complete that it’s easy to understand how Abed or anyone else can get so wrapped up in the insanity. There’s an understanding that for something like this to work, the commitment has to be 100 percent, but when that’s there it’s a bit magical.
Of course, at the end of the episode we reach Troy’s departure, and as I wrote last week I believe that this was a strong choice, even if it was forced. One of the weaknesses of Community has long been its desire to return to status quo, but with this season that just hasn’t been possible. A lot of the show’s problems have resulted from the fact that it’s about change and moving forward thematically, but structurally it resists that at every turn. Troy leaving, like Pierce’s death, is big and real, and it makes the show and its characters actually address change rather than simply paying the subject lip service.
It was a sweet way for Troy to depart the show, and with Pierce gone as well, it also seems like it should be leading to the end of the show. I know I’m likely in the vast minority here, but I would like Community itself to start winding down rather than go into a sixth season, because these changes have given the show momentum and pathos that was frequently missing in the past (not to mention that it was always about the characters, not the school, and now several of them are gone). These episodes have hit emotional notes that can’t be forgotten or cleaned up the way the school is after its latest destruction through paintball or lava or whatever else, and that’s what makes them so powerful. I’d like to see the show keep up that momentum instead of trying to pretend that the old status quo still exists.