After last week's legitimately stellar puppet episode, I had high hopes for "Intro to Knots." Not only did it seem like the writers had found a rhythm, but Community's first three Christmas episodes have ranged from pretty good (Season 3) to all-timers (Seasons 1 and 2). However, this one kind of weird. It offered some initial intrigue that it wasn't totally able to follow through with, then overcame that initial wave of disappointment with a strong middle, only to end on a lamer note. It wasn't a complete mess by any means, but it squandered more potential than I would have liked.
At this point, I'm generally against Community trying to do big concept episodes, even after the success of last week's puppet show. What worked so well about "Intro to Felt Surrogacy" was that it fully committed to the conventions of that concept. A few times this season, Community has attempted random moments of "concepting," only to quickly move past them without much consideration for why it it did so in the first place. The Shawshank Redemption bit in the Thanksgiving episode and Abed's animated daydream were both superfluous; in those instances, it felt like someone in the writers room wrote "HOMAGES" on the whiteboard and then the staff picked a few random things to toss in.
"Intro to Knots" presented us with the same problem, but in a way that was simultaneously more and less problematic. Clearly there was an attempt to recall Hitchcock's Rope, a film I haven't seen but am familiar with through pop-culture osmosis. The teaser sequence was driven by a few extended, continuous shots that moved all around Jeff's apartment as the study group set up for their Christmas party in real-time. It was an cool idea and one that I would love to see executed over 21 minutes. But while the episode at least tried to keep the real-time element in-play, the shooting and editing style returned to normal; the teaser was meant to evoke a certain approach that Community simply didn't have the time or the money to deal with on-set (Andy Bobrow said as much on Twitter). The disappointment of not having the concept carried out for the full running time was a bummer, and it makes me wonder whether there's value in trotting out a certain stylistic homage if you can't entirely make it work.
And yet, in the episode's middle chunk, there was some really good stuff. Annie invited Professor Cornwallis to the party in hopes of convincing him to raise the group's grade on a team paper—because apparently the creepy one-on-one sessions she mentioned last week weren't enough—and Jeff screwed it up once he realized they'd already scored a passable C-minus. Annie, of course, wanted an A. But before the gang could figure out a good way to convince Cornwallis to change the grade, Chang tied him up, resulting in some fun, cheap psychological warfare from Cornwallis.
As is the case with most episodes of Community, the story was ultimately about how strong the group's bonds are and whether or not they can stay together in the face of adversity. Though we've seen this variation at least a few times now (most notably in "Cooperative Calligraphy," an episode you'll likely see this one compared to, especially since Troy longingly wished that the group could solve its Cornwallis problem by saying a ghost did it), Cornwallis's threats were pretty generative. We learned that Shirley is also on-pace to be the Valedictorian, and we got a fun little moment where Troy had to acknowledge that he's still intimidated by Jeff and Britta's sexual history.
Shirley and Troy haven't had much to do this season, and while I wouldn't call their moments in this episode dramatic progress, they certainly worked. Annie and Shirley's respective competitive streaks are basically their defining secondary traits at this point, so I guess the show might as well make an interesting story out of them. I wish Troy weren't in this current state, but maybe—just maybe—it'll lead to a moment between him and Jeff in the future. While we clearly don't need a love triangle, there's always been something about Jeff that Troy finds admirable and cool. Does that have something to do with his interest in Britta? Even if not, I'd love to see that conversation.
Though you might say that Jeff and Abed's characterizations this week were a little regressive, with the former screwing the group over because he wanted to see Tom Waits and the latter side-stepping the conflict and trying to turn it into Die Hard, change is hard. Jeff might be New Jeff, but no matter how much he cares about the group, he can't totally care about Greendale homework. That's fair, and he immediately attempted to rectify his stupid mistake. And while I'd love to see more of Abed's relationship with Coat Check Girl Brie Larson, he's still Abed; going barefoot and considering stepping on the broken glass was great, and someone had to keep reminding us about the real-time nature of the episode's events.
Plus, Malcolm McDowell is clearly having a good time as Professor Cornwallis, and the character serves as a great instigator for the group's combustible tension. He's the perfect kind of wordy foil that can go toe-to-toe with Joel McHale's Jeff and make most of the rest of the group feel uncomfortable and silly. The whole sequence with him initially tied up and trying to manipulate the group instantly stood out as one of this season's high points for me. It hummed along with zeal as Cornwallis picked the group apart and they almost cracked.
Yet, once Cornwallis escaped from Chang/Kevin's terrible knots, the episode's energy really tailed off. The Winger speech about everyone in the group being flawed and recognizing those flaws in one another was fine enough (albeit familiar), but the final-act reveal that Cornwallis was never really tied up to begin with was a little odd. It removed the group from some initial criminal culpability, but it's not like the show has been worried about that in the past.
From there, things got progressively worse. Annie's epithet about gifts and obligation didn't make a lick of sense, and it's unclear whether the show actually wanted us to see that or think it was something powerful. Kittens are kittens, Chang still planning to ruin the group needs to come to some sort of breaking point soon, and the less said about the darkest timeline scene, the better. Community needs to move on from that, just like it needs to move on from Inspector Spacetime.
I don't totally know what to make of this one. It was initially brimming with potential, and it only partly followed up on that potential, but it did so pretty well. And then it just completely fell off a cliff. Community's always had problems with third acts, and that was certainly on display in "Intro to Knots." The highs were some of the season's best ones to date, and while the lows weren't nearly as bad as the season's worst, the episode's disjointed nature is hard to ignore.
– This was the other episode without Chevy Chase and Pierce. Kinda missed him!
– Christmas in April is fun. TV shows should just do holiday episodes whenever they want. Don't let The Man and those crooks at Hallmark tell you what to do!
– Did we actually get to see Abed's gifts? They looked like wrapped Ziploc bags of sand or something. I also appreciate that the group wanted to troll Jeff so much that they all bought him Greendale garb. Awesome.
– Despite Troy's weird season, Donald Glover remains on-point. His pronunciation of wassling was pretty tight.