Community: “Digital Estate Planning/The First Chang Dynasty/Introduction to Finality” (3.20-22)

TV Reviews
Community: “Digital Estate Planning/The First Chang Dynasty/Introduction to Finality” (3.20-22)

This week’s strange non-marathon (seriously, NBC?) of Community episodes that finished off the third season managed to do everything right and finished things off with a bang. In fact, I have to admit from the beginning that I was dead wrong about the season’s direction. I’ve been predicting here for some time that the Chang plot, which was frequently strange and led to middling material during its development, would end poorly and that the air conditioning school story would do likewise. However, they were both truly great, so much so that they overshadowed the show’s video game episode “Digital Estate Planning,” despite its wonderful animation style.

Let’s get out of the way a rapid-fire summary of these episodes so I can talk about more interesting things. First, in a kind of weird jump away from the building tension revolving around the Greendale Seven’s expulsion, they head out to help Pierce with his father’s estate, which for convoluted reasons takes the form of a video game. They spend the whole episode beating the game, and by the end of the episode Abed falls in love with a computer program while Pierce gives his inheritance to his previously unknown half-brother. Then, they head back to Greendale and infiltrate the school to rescue the real Dean Pelton, parodying heist movies and the Ocean’s series in particular. But in order to do so, Troy had to agree to join the air conditioning school, and in the final episode John Goodman tells him he’s their messiah before soon dying off. However, with this power he is able to make them into a normal school. Elsewhere, Abed becomes temporarily evil while Dean Pelton gives Shirley her sandwich shop but has to take it in one student’s name, and Pierce insists that student be him. So they have a student trial, where Jeff squares off against Pierce’s lawyer: the man at his firm who got him fired. In the end, though, the group throws away their differences with a big Jeff speech and a montage. Whew.

My disappointment in “Digital Estate Planning” isn’t due to it being a bad episode, it’s not, just that I was hoping for it to be one of the show’s best ever. As a pretty avid gamer since I could walk, the press stills released beforehand were juicy. They showed the cast rendered as game sprites, and the show did a great job parodying the tropes of 8-bit (and 16-bit—I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw some Earthbound influence in some of those screens) games. The episode had wonderfully authentic sounds and animation, however its story was actually pretty lackluster, which makes a sort of sense. In contrast to Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, the form being parodied doesn’t have very strong stories so neither did the episode. It was pretty much just them wandering about trying to figure out how to beat the game, but the humor also never really got beyond that. It featured a few strong jokes about games, but never really went beyond that. Frankly, it didn’t do nearly as well with the material as Futurama did with “Reincarnation.” Visually dazzling, for sure, but it never quite hit its marks, so that while I enjoyed the entire thing it wasn’t absolutely packed with great jokes, and I found myself watching more for the spectacle than the writing.

However, the showdown with Chang that I’d been dreading ended up being an amazing genre parody. The heist format is so perfectly suited to Community that it’s a surprise it took the show this long to get to it. Just like Community, every character in a heist has their role that makes them an important part of the team, and through the participation of everyone they succeed in a complicated scheme. Having it fail initially in the style of an Ocean’s movie was inspired. Plotholes and a lack of realism aside, the episode was pure joy, bursting with jokes everywhere and with the cast clearly just thrilled to be acting together in a story like this. Every costume was excellent, particularly Jeff and Britta’s, but above all it managed to make Chang extremely funny again. He’s gotten so exaggerated at times that he’s in an even more cartoonish world than everyone else, but “The First Chang Dynasty” got him just right.

The best episodes of Community are the ones where every character does what makes sense for them while the story makes sense. Whenever they’re forced to make choices that go against who they’ve grown to be, the episode and its humor suffers. That’s the strongest part of these two last episodes, that the strange plots come so naturally. Chang plotting in the first place seemed strange because he’s just not that type of thinker, but it works. The same is true with Donald Glover and the air conditioning school. Creating a sort of false opposition between one program in Greendale and the rest of the school never worked well, but once he’s in that program Troy’s point of view (and apparently messianic powers) play out the way they should. Getting everyone into these positions was a strain that was felt across the entire third season of Community, but once the pieces were perfectly placed they fell like dominoes.

Making the last episode be about Jeff and his law practice again helped make it feel so much like a series, rather than season, finale, as did the sublime montage. What I particularly liked about this episode, though, wasn’t the emotions at its end, which were for once earned. It was that “Introduction to Finality” wasn’t a parody like the two that came before it, yet it was still a hit out of the ballpark. Community’s truly great episodes have always been its gimmick ones, but here the best of the three was actually just a normal episode.

Up until the last minute, Community didn’t know if it had a future, which is why the season finale ended that way. Rumors that Dan Harmon or Chevy Chase won’t be back to the show next season remain rumors, and while Community can work without Chevy (although I hope it doesn’t), it wouldn’t be the same without Harmon, who’s put more of a personal stamp onto a network television show than anyone else working today. That a show of his was picked up by Cartoon Network doesn’t bode well, even while it’s a better match for him than NBC ever was. In any case, it’s too early to guess what next season will hold, but on the plus side there will be 13 more episodes, even if we don’t know what exactly that entails yet. See you all next season.

Stray observations:
•”I guess there’s no hug button.”
•Wait, Air condition repair people are anti-”sensational”?
•I really love the folder of Chang puns. So that’s where he gets those.
•”Fire can’t go through doors, stupid. It’s not a ghost.”
•Anyone else finish this block really wanting a yard-long Margarita?
•“This is a lock of my hair.” “Creepy.”
•This is my Limpkin Wrench. There are many like it but this is mine.
•I like that there’s a dedicated air conditioning priest. Kinda wish we’d seen more of him previously, although not as much as I wish John Goodman had more screentime. He was in 10 minutes the entire season, if that, which is a waste of a fantastic actor.
•“Three jokes later” was maybe the best joke of the season.
•”No, no. Take him to the police: he murdered someone.” – Ok, maybe that was it.
•The reveal that Starburns is still alive was perfect, too.

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