Hype is a powerful thing. NBC itself hasn’t been doing too much to talk up the “Modern Warfare” episode of Community (after all, how much can you promote a single episode of a TV show?) but the show’s creator Dan Harmon has been doing so for quite a while. When I interviewed him a week ago this episode was a lot of what he wanted to talk about, and on Twitter and in discussions elsewhere he’s been implying that the episode is pretty much the best thing made in the history of mankind, ever. I came in with some high expectations about how exciting it would be and, if they proved false, was ready to be annoyed. After all, what kind of media critic would I be without taking part in unwarranted backlash?
As the Simpsons aptly put it, “This better be the best beer I’ve ever tasted. … You got lucky.” Maybe it’s the pulpy action-movie fan in me, but if that wasn’t the best episode of the show so far, it was definitely within spitting distance. Before I get ahead of myself, let’s take a step back and look at why this was the case. “Modern Warfare” begins with two things: first, Jeff and Britta enter the Spanish study group flirting with each other, which is commented on by the group. Second, Dean Pelton enters and announces that Greendale College’s primary Spring Fling event will be a paintball competition, the prize of which is later revealed to be early registration for classes (after the previous prize of a Blu-Ray player was stolen). Jeff then leaves to take a nap in his car.
After the theme song plays, Jeff wakes up in his car and finds himself in a post-paintball-apocalypse version of his school. The entire area is covered in paintballs and gangs of unruly students are hunting the area for any sign of unpainted life. Jeff is ambushed but is soon saved by Abed—it’s at this point that the action movie parodies begin. The school has devolved into a set of gangs and Jeff ends up first with Abed and Troy, which soon allies itself with Pierce (who’d been working with the Community’s favorite whipping boy Star-Burns), and moments later the Spanish study group’s women.
All of this is flooded with action references from Terminator to Mad Max to The Warriors and, when Ken Jeong enters the fray, some wonderful bits devoted to the old John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat movies. The action movie parodies are impeccable, but they’re also more than just nice trimmings: they have a point. Aside from this epic struggle, the movie is about finally returning to the Jeff and Britta relationship. “Modern Warfare” gives the pair a stressful situation and they respond as the characters would in any love on the battlefield story, with both sex and betrayal.
There are other shows that are brazen enough to do this type of large-scale event episode, but they’re almost universally animated. That isn’t to take away from what shows like South Park or Venture Bros. achieve when they do take on whole genres, but our sense of reality in an animated show is different; the abstraction required by the medium allows for a lot more of this sort of play. Community doing the same thing is a lot tougher, but I think the reward is also greater in its success. The level of commitment required in devoting nearly the entire show to something this outlandish is immense and you can feel the dedication the entire show’s cast and crew lavished upon this episode.
And while the paintball part of the “Modern Warfare” was important, as far as the series is concerned Jeff and Britta having sex is obviously a much bigger concern. She’s a character that’s grown a lot since the beginning of the series and has definitely gone from being largely an annoyance to a fully-developed person in her own right. This relationship between the pair that felt ridiculous in the beginning of the series now makes a bit more sense. Still, Jeff and Britta just don’t seem right together for anything beyond friendship. With the end of the first season coming up fast, we’re left with a big cliffhanger to be resolved, but right now it doesn’t feel like something we’ve been cheaply manipulated into, like the end of a chapter in a Dan Brown novel. No, we’re left wondering about something that’s been unspoken for months, it’s just finally being brought into the forefront of the show again. The most impressive feat this show pulled off was figuring out how to make the dynamics between these two characters more than the bore it was when Community began; rather than dreading that part of the next episode, there’s some real excitement about what will come next.
“I want TBD—is that new?”
“Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.”
“Tell the drama club their tears will be real today.”
“It’s just Star-Burns.” – Community knows just the right amount to use Dino’s character. He’s become a fan favorite not because he’s used a lot, but rather because we see him for about 15 seconds every episode. Also: because his star-burns are just awful.
-In the glee club bashing I sense a bit more of the show’s animosity towards Glee.
“Please tell me you didn’t have sex with me to win at paintball.”
“I know it’s not Blu-Ray. But it comes with its own remote.”
“Could be me, I’m sporting a man-thong.”