Community, and really anything Dan Harmon has worked on, loves MacGuffins. That’s no surprise, as they’re a great way of structuring comedies, perhaps even moreso than thrillers, because they create an easy excuse for a show or movie’s cast to hang around together. Creating these types of situations naturally has become a pretty big problem in Community’s later seasons since reasons, beyond friendship, for the cast to do really anything together have become more of a stretch. Now that they’re the committee to save Greendale, the show seems to have decided its format is to give us a weekly crisis for the gang to defuse, which may end up meaning in fact a weekly MacGuffin, and this time out it’s a commercial attacking the school from its rival, City College.
Fortunately, Community’s writers are also smart enough to create a really funny, entertaining MacGuffin. It turns out that one of the school’s more successful students, though strangely enough not a graduate, was a dog named Ruffles. Obviously they don’t want this news to go public, and the premise creates some great jokes, eventually even leading to the appearance of Ruffles himself. More than that, though, it’s an odd situation for the cast to have some friction around, especially when they’re woken up in the middle of the night to deal with the dog’s status going public. The problem, though, is that (as is typical for one of the show’s later seasons), this friction feels extremely artificial. While most of the cast searches for ways to mitigate the ad in some way, Annie instead begins defending Ruffles’ achievements.
It’s a strange episode in that pretty much everything else works. Jeff behaves sufficiently Jeff-like, and though a bit angrier than the version we saw early on in the show’s run, he’s still smart and intent on solving problems. Abed makes videos, Chang takes the initiative to create a porno, and even Britta plays very much like herself, or at least the version of Britta that’s appeared thus far in Season Six, which is to say a complete trainwreck (alcoholism has really seeped into the show this season, mostly for the worse). But that Annie problem is pretty big, and ultimately derails the third act. Why would she care about the feelings of an animal that can’t understand humans, so much so that she would abandon her friends and drop out of college? There’s no real explanation, and instead we have a character acting as a plot device.
Community also doesn’t really know what to do with either Francesca or Elroy yet, and while Elroy was wonderfully strange here, confused as to what was really happening or why anyone cared so much about it, Francesca was still inhuman. She’s a concept character, not a person, and while I’m sure we’ll get some sort of pathos-ridden backstory eventually, for now she’s just not meshing with the rest of the cast. The other character on the show, which is to say the school itself, also had its fair share of problems. “Basic Crisis Decorum” had some excellent jokes about Greendale, but at this point the school has become such a joke itself that it’s impossible to be surprised about anything we hear. Greendale, and much else in Community, has run into the problem of late-period Simpsons episodes. As Homer in The Simpsons got dumber, it stopped being as funny because there’s no way to top what came before. Greendale is as pathetic as it possibly could be, and instead of this being a gag, it’s hard not to just shrug and think, “well, I guess Greendale is that bad.” The cartoonishness is so extreme that it’s just not that entertaining, as there’s no grounding in reality.
Another problem that arises in the third act is the need for yet another heavily emotional moment in a show that’s had far more than its fair share. It’s difficult to earn these type of moments in a 22-minute sitcom in the first place, and “Basic Crisis Room Decorum” certainly doesn’t, but regardless of that, trying for catharsis every week both makes everything same-y and meaningless. Community does better when the stakes are low. When they’re high, like pretending Annie might leave the college, all it does is point out how hollow a story this really is. The show also wants to have it both ways, with big, real emotions, and goofy, inhuman characters, and whenever these two halves of the show collide the result is anything but satisfying.
“Decorum” is the funniest episode of the season so far, and it feels, just like “Lawnmower Maintenance and Postnatal Care,” like a legitimate episode of Community. The joke timing is there, the cast is playing well off each other, and some of the ideas are absolutely inspired. However, it’s riding on a formula that’s become increasingly stale, and what’s worse for a show as self-referential and knowing as Community is that it doesn’t seem to be aware of this.