Last week was a particularly important one for Community, given its struggle to obtain a fourth season, so I’m glad that the episode that received such a huge ratings bump. It looks to have been partially the result of a concerted fan effort and, perhaps more importantly, the lack of The Big Bang Theory airing during the same time slot. We’ll see whether all of those viewers tune in again, but it was about as traditional a sitcom episode as anything Community does these days, and so likely a strong move. Had “Contemporary Impressionists” been the episode to air, the show’s chances of success would likely be much slimmer.
Not to say that it was a bad episode—in fact quite the opposite. But alongside clever plotting and many heartfelt moments, “Contemporary Impressionists” was overflowing with pop culture references and cartoonish jokes. It was also pretty insular. You didn’t need to know much about Shirley to understand her desire to re-marry, but “Impressionists” relied a lot on the relationship between Troy and Abed that’s been building since the first season. Because this episode was Abed-centric, it felt silly, but that only masked its high-stakes forward momentum.
The worst thing about the episode was unfortunately the flimsiness of its initial premise. That Abed has been paying for pop culture impersonators so he can re-enact scenes regardless of his inability to afford them doesn’t make sense. Aside from the suspension of disbelief required for the existence of such a service (not to mention having it be so incompetently run), what we know about Abed wouldn’t lead us to believe that he’d do such a thing. Yes, he’s eccentric and has had issues facing reality before, but he still functions as a human in society. This seems particularly odd given that he doesn’t have a catalyst for this behavior like he did with the Christmas episode.
Once past that hurdle, though, it’s pretty much all good material, even if the broader, more cartoonish aspects of the episode are likely to get some fan criticism. Chang’s thoughts, for instance, while not strictly necessary, were funny. The same was true with Jeff’s heart as an apple. Community has long strained against what can be done in a “realistic” one-camera sitcom, and here the show isn’t willing to let something as small as stylistic preferences keep it from telling the jokes it wants to tell. You couldn’t do these moments on The Office, but by now Community has earned them by showing that it can have these wacky asides while still maintaining real characters. These moments of whimsy are just part of its charm.
One thing it’s long struggled with, though, is telling stories that come together well, and “Impressionists” had no such problem. This came at the expense of giving Shirley, Annie, or Pierce that little to do, but not every episode needs to have every character shoehorned into everything. That the show no longer feels the need to do so actually speaks of its maturity. Having the entire cast around all the time is an old sitcom tradition, whereas complex dramas have no such compunction about this, and frankly that’s a good thing. The show’s creators had a choice between shoehorning in a c-story that would never get enough screentime to work well or allowing this to be an episode where not everyone had a big role, and I’m happy they made the choice they did.
The centerpiece of “Impressionists” is the broad, ridiculous moment when Jeff hulks out and wrecks the bar mitzvah, but as fun as that is, it was really the results of this that stole the show. Jeff getting picked up on the side of the road by Britta was a nice symbolic gesture towards him trying to confront his personal issues again, which we saw some of in the second season before it became a storyline that was dropped. The development of Chang’s army is a much goofier turn, but also promises to at least move things forward, since unfortunately Community still hasn’t really figured out what to do with him.
What was most affecting, though, was the rift between Troy and Abed. This has been building for some time, but “Impressionists” finally brought this to a head and did so in an interesting way, particularly because earlier this season Troy chose to stay, in some sense, a kid. But while Abed is if anything reverting to an even more childish world, Troy may be growing up a bit, even if this growth is reluctant. He sees that actions have consequences while his best friend has lost this maturity, and while this isn’t how it happens for everyone, the moment when you realize you’re moving apart from your friends is sad for everyone. Community hit these melancholy notes very well, although I question the Bizarro Abed who appeared at the end of the episode. The show needs to walk a thin line if it wants to keep him around and still treat Abed’s emotional self seriously.
Despite my misgivings about that, the rest of these endings bode well. I’m always looking for Community to allow its characters growth that doesn’t disappear at the end of an episode, and if the show is actually willing to devote lengthy plot arcs (relatively speaking) to these changes, then hopefully that will be the case. If nothing else, it’s not repeating itself or for that matter any other show. Not everyone will like its direction, but that’s still better than trying to make the show’s third season be like the first two just because fans liked it that way.
•”My swagger has a new swagger.” – I’m just surprised this wasn’t a Ke$ha lyric yet.
•”It’s unquestionably awesome.” “I question it.”
•Ken does in fact do a pretty good Renée Zellweger impersonation.
•”Abed is a magical elf-like man who makes us all more magical by being near us.”