Community is such an oddly hermetic show, so insulated from reality that when more realistic issues enter it they can sometimes ring false. “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing” addresses the fact that all of these students at Greendale are in fact extremely poor and should logically be having issues with this. But that’s not really what the show’s about, so in both cases the search for money ends up as a strange McGuffin that doesn’t quite work.
This problem with reality has always come to the forefront when Community’s entered the living space shared by Abed, Annie and, prior till now, Troy. The problem is that it’s difficult to imagine what their time living outside the show could actually be like, and while it’s worked for wacky adventures, it almost goes without saying that we never see what the casual day-to-day existence there consists of. For a while, Community was concerned with really broadening its scope and showing us what these characters do all the time, but I feel like dropping that was wise as it’s Greendale itself that the show really needs to feed off of. The fact is, though, that Troy’s departure left a hole in Annie and Abed’s living situation, one that they both hope to plug with someone they like.
What made this story work so well despite these trappings was the high emotional stakes. Not just Abed, but Community as a whole is still coping with Troy’s departure, and as a way of dramatizing this “Pile of Bullets” was perfect. That we had a break from stories about his absence also makes it stronger, as season five was at risk of just being about losing its cast. In this terrible VCR-game, Community found a space where Abed and Annie are equally competitive, as well as a safe place to take out their frustration. That their girlfriend and brother happened to be involved was incidental, and a continually entertaining joke. I should also mention that the game itself was hilarious and Vince Gilligan gave a surprisingly wonderful performance (even though the credits sequence he appeared in was a mess). It’s unfortunate that the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with Abed’s girlfriend, who here seems less like an individual person and more like a stock love interest (her only reason for staying with Abed seems to be thinking everything he does is “cute”), but that only undercuts the excellence of this a tiny bit. At least this season is trying to give her a role, which is more than we saw before.
While coping with Troy’s absence in a monetary fashion offered a great metaphor for his roommates trying to cope with his absence in their lives, the other half of Community seemed to be more of a “well, this’ll keep the rest of the cast busy” sort of story. While cleaning out an old storage area, Jeff, Shirley and Buzz stumble upon a cache of unused textbooks and they do what anyone would in that situation: decide to steal them and sell them on the black market. Soon this also involves Britta and Chang, less for any good reason than because they’re cast members on the show so they’ve got to be doing something, and it isn’t long before the situation’s squabbling devolves into a sort of Treasure of the Sierra Madre parody.
While there were a few big laughs with this second story—particularly the cut to Shirley having everyone in the group tied up—there were no real stakes. Whether or not everyone got rich off the textbooks didn’t really matter, as we don’t particularly care about these character’s lives outside of Greendale anyhow. That this was also the second episode in a row about Shirley getting greedy and taking control of everything, which undercut what began as at least an original story, if not a terribly compelling one. Now that’s becoming her primary mood rather than something of a surprise, and I’m not sure whether this change away from the meekness that was the defining point of her character early on is a positive one.
The complete removal of these two stories from each other meant that it really was two episodes cut together, one good and one bad. That’s not terribly uncharacteristic of this season, though, which has had quite a few moments of brilliance but has also featured more than a few duds that Community’s writers don’t seem to know how to fix. Not that “VCR Maintenance” was miserable, but while the first half of season five was so strong because of the way its arcs centered around the casting changes, the second half is a bit directionless. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the show is still finding pathos from Troy, but beyond that it didn’t seem to know what to do. There’s only four more episodes, but it seems likely they’ll continue this pattern of strange one-offs because Community doesn’t have enough time to go through anything truly momentous. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but aside from dealing with the show’s changes Community is still trying to regain its footing.