Community S04E04: "Alternative History of the German Invasion"
Hello! It's me again. Back in this rotating game of Hot Potato with a Community review instead of toasty spuds. Last night was the fourth episode of this brand-new season, the final leg of a special edition of The 4-Episode Test (trademark TV.com), and I think that after these first two hours of Season 4 we can officially say that Community is a charmless imitation of its better days. I don't say that while wringing my hands with glee or celebrating that fact. I'm weeping it out, guys. This SUCKS.
When I shared my thoughts on the Season 4 premiere, I likened that episode to an impostor dog purchased by parents to fool their kid into thinking the family dog didn't get run over while the kid was away at summer camp. It looked the same, it was still a dog, but it wasn't dear old Mr. Ruffington von Leglifter, the best friend we used to count on. That analogy still holds today; in the season's second and third episodes ("Paranormal Parentage" and "Conventions of Space and Time"), the dog looked less and less like our old friend... and also peed in our slippers and rubbed its butt all over our toothbrushes. If you still like the show, and I hope you do, then great. It still has one of the best casts on television today, no one can argue that, and it still exists in the wonderful Community universe that was created in seven days by its god Dan Harmon. There just happens to be some sort of New Testament thing going on here in Season 4.
HOWEVER! "Alternative History of the German Invasion" actually showed signs of improvement over its Season 4 predecessors because it didn't rely on the shameful pandering to Community fans we'd seen in the previous three episodes. Thankfully, last night's episode took place at Greendale Community College, and not in Abed's mind, Pierce's mansion, or at an Inspector Spacetime Convention. Things felt relatively normal for the first time this season, and that was comforting. It feels weird to say, but this episode was better for only seeming like a bad episode from Season 3 instead of like the fashion show of outrageous costumes we've been watching for the last few weeks.
"Alternative History of the German Invasion" brought back the Germans (minus the only actually funny German Juergen, played in "Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism" by Nick Kroll, who was replaced here by Juergen's unintentionally stale brother), and they instantly had beef—or pig blood stuffed into sheep intestines—with the study group and reacted by taking over the group's usual study room. It was a sparklingly clean us-against-them scenario as the study group, acting as a whole instead of the motley crew we've come to know them as, was thwarted by the Germans at every turn because the Germans were always one step ahead. In the B-story, Chang returned to campus supposedly afflicted with amnesia, and Dean Pelton thought it was all an act and sought to prove it.
Okay, wasn't the the best story the series has ever done, but this show has gotten away with far less and turned it into magic (missing pen, anyone?). But the biggest problem with "Alternative History of the German Invasion" was that it forgot to be funny or interesting, even though I think it was just as funny if not funnier than the previous three episodes. This is all subjective, of course, because the pitfall of reviewing comedy is that we all get our jollies from different things, so opinions will and should differ, but there are a few specific reasons that laughter was absent last night.
First, the Germans were painfully bland and only roused half-arsch jokes about efficiency and Hitler, mostly from Jeff, who has been reduced to reciting Winger Zingers without passion in Season 4. Second, the individual personalities of the study group were wiped clean as the conflict became just homogenous Germans against homogenous college students. It didn't have to be the Greendale Seven in this episode, it could have been any seven sitcom people. Third, what should have been an interesting C-story with Abed and Lukas's gaming history went completely unfinished, leaving me to wonder why it was there in the first place. And fourth, the Dean-Chang bits floated away with zero weight, and threw Dean into a nurse's outfit for a lazy attempt at laughs. Jim Rash won an Oscar! Now he's being treated as a Barbie doll at dress-up time. It was funny when Community put the Dean in funny outfits a handful of times per season, but my lord, this explosion of wardrobe props is flat-out embarrassing.
All that, plus most of this week's plot points made no sense. Changnesiac was brought back to Greendale and into the Dean's supervision by authorities for "immersive therapy"? The Germans were stopped for celebrating their own heritage, one of the penalties being the retraction of study room privileges? This script was softer than a present-day Pierce in an airplane bathroom with Eartha Kitt and no potency pills.
But the silver lining to all this is that "Alternative History of the German Invasion" felt like the most Community-esque episode of the fourth season, devoid of what the new Community crew thinks the fans want (PLEASE STOP IT WITH THE COSTUMES!). We were back at Greendale. It wasn't an attempt at another "special" episode, which Season 4 has so far whiffed on. It didn't try so hard. And there were some pretty good moments sprinkled in there that didn't feel like a stretch. The callbacks to "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" and "Cooperative Calligraphy" felt like the old days (although with the latter, most people should have been at the Puppy Parade and not trying to get into the study room). "Someone must have changed the channel to USA, because I just watched a Burn Notice!" shall forever be quoted. The group switching from Grande-sized coffees to Venti-sized javas as they tried to wake up earlier on the second day of beating the Germans to school was one of those great small details (but why didn't they have buckets of coffee on Day 3?). And Dean inserting his own name into a sentence while chastising Chang for doing the same thing was clever enough.
But sadly, it still wasn't the old Community, and the show's future will always suffer the disadvantage of being compared to what came before it, and longtime fans will always have the built-in excuse (no Harmon) to dissect it with extra vigilance.
It's worth nothing that I also thought Season 3 had a high bar to overcome, and we all know that turned out great. I tip my hat to the fans who still adore this show and I will keep my eye out for improvement (don't be shy, send me a Tweet when it does get better), but for now I'm dropping out. Auf Wiedersehen, Community. We'll always have Seasons 1 through 3.
– As you could probably tell by the gang wistfully looking at the first day of class of "The History of Ice Cream," "Alternative History of the German Invasion" was supposed to be the second episode of the season. It was moved back to S4E04. Why? The likely theory is that NBC thought it sucked, and wanted the show get off to a better start. Or to use Valentine's Day—which coincided with Episode 2—as a way to air the Halloween episode.
– Pshhhhhhhtt. Putting Annie and Britta and Shirley in Oktoberfest costumes isn't going to work. Actually okay, it did.
– What a waste of Malcolm McDowell as Professor Cornwallace! Will anyone even remember he was on this show?
– What a continued waste of Pierce!
– Game of Thrones reference? Works for me.
– The Winger speech to close the episode was one of the weakest speeches he's ever given. It felt like, "Hey, we need to wrap up this episode, get Jeff in there and have him say something with some of that cutesy piano music in the background and let's get to credits."
– Community tied its series-low rating of a 1.1 last night. And Ken Jeong has already booked a pilot for next season. Take that information as you will.