The big question from tonight's very funny episode of Community, "Digital Exploration of Interior Design," was "Did I just watch half an hour of egregious product placement?" or "Did I just watch half an hour of a spoof of product placement?" The answer is probably "both"—which as it turns out, is the most perfect way to do it. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Community approached Subway with the idea for the gag.
The space in Greendale's cafeteria vacated by the Hot n' Brown, which Chang made extremely hot and brown by burning it down a few episodes ago, was filled in grandiose fashion tonight by Subway, TV's favorite product-placer. The hoagie pusher has been featured rather innocuously on Cougar Town, trumpeted blatantly on Chuck, and absurdly crammed into your eyeholes on Hawaii Five-0. But in "Digital Exploration of Interior Design," Community poked fun at product placement by making fun of it, and the sandwich shop appeared to be quite willing to be in on the joke.
Community knew it couldn't slyly slip product placement past its incredibly intelligent, handsome, and fantastic-smelling viewers, so it embraced it wholeheartedly and threw it front-and-center, made jokes out of the chain's catch phrase, and managed to say the company's name about a billion times without us hearing the sound of cash registers ringing behind each mention.
But Community also managed to make fun of the whole thing in its own way through Britta's scathing anti-corporate takedowns and the idea that a man could sell himself as a walking advertisement. This was a partnership that left both Subway and Community happy, but most importantly, it left us happy. The trick was simply to make us feel like the product placement was done on Community's terms, rather than leading us to imagine Mr. Worthington B. Subway peeking over the director's camera and asking for tighter zooms on the footlong Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt. Plus, the Subway executive in the episode got an awkward boner after listening to Subway (the student) and Britta's naughty sex, and any company that allows such a scene is obviously in on the joke.
The Troy vs. Abed story, which started last week, continued as the two built competing pillow and blanket forts. Obviously a sitcom can't go multiple seasons without breaking up its best buds for at least one episode, as is ordained in the big book of comedy tropes, but Community is doing smart stuff here. Your typical American sitcom likes to reset things after each episode, but Community loves multi-episode arcs, and the break-up of Trobed is unfurling slowly and believably—as is necessary, because the duo is so tight. Like any master bad guy in a quality drama, VP Laybourne is stoking the fire that's threatening to burn down the friendship in an effort to draw Troy toward the air-conditioning repair school.
Do you see what Community is doing here? Chang is rising to power. Best friends are finding themselves on opposite sides of the battle field. A wild card (Laybourne) is corrupting Troy for his own benefit. Pierce and Shirley are business partners, but that's clearly about to fall apart. This isn't typical sitcom plotting—this is some Game of Thrones or The Wire shit going on. But instead of war-torn Westeros or the ghetto towers of Baltimore, it's taking place in the wacky world of Greendale Community College. To me, this is one of the most fascinating things Community has done, and Dan Harmon's pre-Season 3 quotes about spending the summer watching The Wire and saying it influenced Community Season 3 are now making sense. It's not what networks like to see (they'd rather have self-contained episodes that can air nicely in syndication), but as an art form it is way more progressive than other network comedies.
Wow, I've gotten this far and I've barely mentioned how funny the episode was. But that's just a sign of how much is actually going on with this show. Add two more things to the list of how Community will influence future sitcoms.
Study Group Notes
– It just occurred to me that NBC must have intentionally rescheduled "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts" to be the first episode after its hiatus because it was more "normal" comedy. Theory: With all the marketing and campaigning that went into the show's return, NBC was hoping to avoid scaring off potential new viewers with what it deemed a "safe" episode. "Contemporary Impressionists" was clearly the episode intended to be the return from Winter break, as evidenced by the gang's opening chatter, but it was as silly as the show has ever been. What this tells me is that NBC is treating the show like it's the "weird kid," and it hopes Community doesn't embarrass the network when the spotlight is on it. That's a disservice to the series, which thrives when it's weird.
– Ummm... why was the episode called "Digital Exploration of Interior Design"? Did I miss something?
– How long can you go seeing Abed and Troy at odds?
I'm please to announce that Pierce Hawthorne wins the title of episode MVP this week. He's coming back REALLY strong, even if he's just playing the old bumbling kook. But that's where Chevy Chase excels, and that's who Pierce should be. Mouth full of ink! "Whoreswomanship!" Lipstick in microphones! "Nice knowing you Subway, if that is your real name." Britta, as always, gets a close second.