Community: “Economics of Marine Biology” (Episode 4.07)

TV Reviews
Community: “Economics of Marine Biology” (Episode 4.07)

Episodes in Community’s fourth season have been a lot of things—most of them bad—but “Economics of Marine Biology” may be the biggest surprise we’ve seen so far: a return to form. No, that doesn’t mean it was spectacular. During any of the previous seasons, “Economics” would’ve been one of those forgettable mid-season episodes between the intermittent bouts of absolute greatness. But it achieved a task that this season has been struggling at since its first episode, that is to say feeling like Community.

As with many of the show’s episodes, the central premise that gets things started is the weakest part of the episode. Dean Pelton asks the study group for help in landing a “whale,” i.e. getting a super-rich student to enroll in the university. Apparently super-rich students like him or Pierce are somehow exploited into funding the school with more than just a normal tuition, and competition with City College means that this whale could go either way. One of the biggest obstacles to this is actually Pierce, Greendale’s current whale who also tends to get jealous of any attention that might distract from him.

So Jeff is enlisted in distracting Pierce, and the two of them head to an old barbershop where Pierce likes to hang out (we’ll let slide how much it looks like a set for now). Jeff goes from tolerating Pierce to genuinely enjoying the experience, despite its misogynistic and homophobic tendencies. It’s a weird thing, in that the actors did a good job of playing this off as genuine emotion, despite the sentiments being espoused in the barbershop making my stomach turn a bit. Despite this, it was a good plotline. Yes, really—its story is something the show has done a bit before, but the best parts were new, and Pierce talking honestly about the two men’s relationships with their fathers cut past anything we’ve seen them do before. It’s sad to see Jeff joining in the room’s old timey intolerance, and a little out of character, but everything else made sense and made Pierce sympathetic for the first time in a dozen or so episodes.

Another bit of bonding that worked was between Troy and Shirley, who spent the episode in their P.E.E. class learning how to become P.E. teachers. It was the type of stupid twist on a class that Community does well, and with this ended up the funniest part of the episode. Even, somehow, when “Kevin” entered into things, it managed to turn out a funny and tender storyline that also made sense for Shirley rather than forcing her into uncharacteristic activities like the rest of the season. It was an episode about bonding, and both this and the Pierce/Jeff storyline felt true and surprising—not to mention funny.

Back to the “whale” plot: perhaps the most interesting part of the attempt at courting the dumb kid was its self-referential nature. The difference between this and many other self-referential parts of the season was that here it was understated and a natural part of the episode. It was subtext rather than text, and that makes a huge difference. Like a lot of the season, there was a matter of protesting too hard in all of this “I will not allow Greendale to lose the things that make it Greendale” talk, especially in light of the first half of the season. But maybe it’s a sign that this won’t have been a one-off return. There’s a sense of determination to Pelton’s speeches as he returns Magnitude’s “Pop Pop” to the person it rightfully belongs to. People tried to make Greendale into something else, but it just doesn’t work. I read that as talking about the first half of the season, and my hope would be that this is how the writing staff felt and decided to express their concerns.

Even Abed’s brief story in starting a fraternity fit more with the old Community. The way it was given just a few brief moments to tell things, rather than taking over the episode, meant that it gave us a few chuckles at its cliche nature without forcing us into watching the same frat jokes that were old when I was born. It was an overloaded episode, but for once it was with new stories and ideas. Did everything work? No, but the creativity and push to try out new situations was there in a way it hasn’t been. I’d largely given this season up as dead, but if “Economics” is a sign that the writers had a second wind, then maybe Community’s fourth season won’t end up as just a footnote to a once-great show.

Stray observations:
• I had no idea a body farm was a thing until this episode, which made me look them up. Now I’m kind of obsessed with them.
• “Keep your damn hands off my Let’s.” – I don’t actually know why this made me laugh so hard. The whole Let’s concept was great and weird and everything that Community should be.
• We get it, name-brand glitter is a joke. Kind of. Let it go.
• On P.E.E.: “It started as a typo, but it’s grown into one of Greendale’s most successful programs.”
• “I had to hitchhike home last night in a burrito truck. It’s less fun than it sounds.”
• The one thing I didn’t really understand was why the study group should be so invested in the whale, particularly Annie. At this point, I think she’s had fewer plots about her this season than “Kevin” has, and Community seems completely lost about what to do with her.

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