Toward the end of of this week’s episode of Community, “Conventions of Space and Time,” Britta shared a moment of honesty with Troy by telling him, “I don’t care about Inspector Spacetime.”
Truer words have never been spoken on this show. This has nothing to do with newly hired showrunners or fired old showrunners; Inspector Spacetime isn’t funny. It’s not even particularly amusing. And the show has certainly run it into the ground more than anything else in its three-plus-year history. Because of this, and because so many TV critics* destroyed this episode in their preview for the new season, I was not at all looking forward to “Conventions of Space and Time.” However, whether because of lower expectations, some decent performances, or a combination of both, I kind of enjoyed this episode. That’s damning with faint praise for sure, but when you go into an episode assuming it’s going to be The End of Community, it’s nice to come out of it with your expectations lowered only slightly.
* The lesson here, as always, is: Don’t read TV criti— Oh. Nevermind.
The episode's biggest issues had to do with its structure. Although I like it when Community uses one event as the backdrop to tell a couple of stories, "Conventions of Space and Time" tried to jam at least four separate plots into its framework, resulting in what was probably the most scatterbrained episode ever. Troy and Abed (and Britta) made for a decent main thread about their friendship and growing up and all that stuff most of their stories are about, but everyone else was trapped in stories ranging from barely developed to nonexistent. Annie daydreaming of being Mrs. Winger ended up being less problematic than I expected, but it could have used another scene. Pierce and Shirley's involvement in test marketing for the American Spacetime adaptation existed mostly for the joke in the end tag. And Jeff, who tried to leave the convention (see a pattern there?), sat on a couch talking to wasted guest-star Tricia Helfer for 90 seconds. Too much and yet too little at the exact same time. If Pierce and Shirley weren’t even invited to the convention, don't shoehorn them in, and although sidelining Jeff helped progress Annie’s weird story, it still felt cumbersome getting to that great moment where she threw drinks in his face.
In some regard, this episode reminded me of the Season 4 premiere. Both episodes were too... manic. The premiere was all over the place emotionally and felt LOUD at times, whereas "Conventions of Space and Time" had at least one too many stories and could never totally keep the sloppiness of its less successful beats from overtaking the more resonant stuff at the core. To be fair, there've been other episodes of Community that failed to find a balance—in tone, in energy, in timing, what have you—and I’m willing to chalk this up to the new team feeling everything out. But when you’re already working with a dead gag that’s taken on an unfortunate life of its own, it's pretty important to make sure everything else within the episode fits together without straining.
Nevertheless, there were some appealing pieces in this episode. Community has probably explored questions of maturity and friendship with Troy and Abed enough by now, but with Britta serving as a new wrinkle in Troy and Abed’s epic friendship, this story felt like a more-than-worthy cause. Matt Lucas’s Toby was a fine temporary foil for Troy, and there’s certainly precedence for Troy and Abed having issues when one of them (almost always Troy) introduces a foreign element to their precious (and fragile) ecosystem. Although Troy thinks he and Abed are past that sort of thing, it makes sense to me that Abed wouldn’t totally want to wait around for T-Bone to have another moment like he did during Halloween two years ago, when he decided it was better to be a "sexy Dracula" and get women than embrace his nerd side with Abed. Abed knows that his friends are going to change, and he knows that he doesn’t want to. Instead of getting left behind, he took an active role in making sure he doesn’t end up alone.
But there were two parts of this story that helped it overcome any sense of repetitiveness and my personal disinterest in Inspector Spacetime. First, I think it made nice strides in convincing me that Troy and Britta’s relationship is not only real, but something I can care about. Britta counseling Troy on how not to be the bitter, jealous girlfriend worked (and that’s now three straight episodes where Britta has put her arm-chair psychoanalysis to good use); in those scenes, it felt like Britta and Troy were on the same wavelength, like we’ve seen them in previous seasons. If anything, it was at least better than the two of them wrestling in a fountain.
Second, the conclusion packed the kind of moderate emotional wallop that makes for a rock-solid Community story. Abed’s realization that no matter what was going on with Troy outside of their friendship, Troy would still come to help his friend tracks with their relationship. Danny Pudi was really great in those final few scenes with Abed trapped in and then freed from the box. So although the episode had a silly premise, the story itself didn’t divulge into pointless meta-riffing. This was still a straightforward, mostly warm story about two best friends and the possibilities of change. I can get behind that.
Everything else? Pretty empty. Based on the first two episodes and even how Jeff referred to the trip at the beginning of the episode—saying he only agreed to tag along with the group because he and Annie were going skiing—we’ve gotten the sense that the two of them have moved beyond most of the awkward, googly eyed tension and are experiencing something more real and mature. I’m not sure what that thing is, but I didn’t imagine it being Annie childishly imaging herself as Jeff’s wife in a hotel room. The actors did their best to make it work, and the final conversation on the couch almost sold me, but that felt like a regressive moment for Annie. And if it wasn't, then the show’s at fault for not giving us enough of their relationship coming into the episode to justify the story decision. At least it gave us Annie trying to throw liquid from the empty cups and Jeff’s line about needing to "call science."
Pierce and Shirley’s time in the focus group was one of the more innocuous bits in recent memory. It was fine, but mostly pointless—and again, a setup for a decent joke in the end tag, which I guess you might care about if A.) you care about Beverly Hills 90210 and B.) haven’t seen those Old Navy commercials with Luke Perry and Jennie Garth. Glad Chevy and Yvette got paid!
Look, it’s probably going to be rough sledding for at least five episodes here at the beginning of Season 4. None of the first three have been THE WORSE; in fact, I can pick out at least a few episodes from Seasons 1–3 that I liked less ('sup, “Competitive Wine Tasting”?). After all the scuttlebutt about this one on the internet, I’m happy that “Conventions of Time and Space” provided some quality, character-based moments. Hopefully the show’s gotten some of its “big ideas” out of its system and hopefully, you’ve made peace with what Community is: still a solid comedy.
– The payoff to Britta’s over-the-top escape from Troy’s room was easy to see from the get-go, but that was an impressive set-piece for a show that almost certainly had its budget slashed over the summer. It’s silly that Troy and Britta would think Abed wouldn’t notice; he knew (still knows?) the female group members’ menstrual cycles, remember? Look alive, Broy.
– Britta finding joy in the female Inspector and Abed barely being able to put up with it made me smile quite a bit. That felt like a correct note for those two. Britta for the win!
– Annie Edison, World Famous Police Detective! I’d watch that.