Friday, October 04, 2013

Week 19 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

It's too bad that I went into watching this week's episode with as much trepidation as I did. But given some of this show's more recent offerings in this vein, I think I had reason to worry about how will this would hold up. But then I started watching it, and it all just fell away. I was right back there enjoying it just as much as I did the first time. I remembered why this episode was not any of the ones that tried to one up it. And if that's not reason to put this on the list, I don't know what is.

After the break: If this show doesn't rebound in its new season, my tears will be real today.

Community, "Modern Warfare"
First aired on NBC Thursday, May 6, 2010

"I thought it was paint but I'm just bleeding. Talk about luck!" - Jeff Winger

At the end of the last entry, I described this week's episode as an original that towers over all of its successors or imitators. But to compare "Modern Warfare" to the numerous high concept parody episodes that "Community" did afterwards is actually something of a disservice to one of the funniest and most well-plotted half hours of TV in this decade so far. While second season episodes like "Basic Rocket Science" and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" went so far up their own asses committing to a specific parody that they became very, very lost, "Modern Warfare" emphasizes its actual story and uses action movies tropes to colour the proceedings. It felt as though someone had an idea for the Greendale campus to compete in a merciless paintball fight for priority registration and these allusions were integrated (or more often, applied and deconstructed) through the development of the script, rather than creator Dan Harmon saying, "Let's do an 'Apollo 13' parody". Here, there is no specific parody and it is such a better episode for it.

"Modern Warfare" also offers an interesting and delicate way to handle the sexual tension between Jeff and Britta that really did need some kind of development. Ever since "Community" realized that Britta was the worst and would mock her endlessly because of that, the study group was also sure to comment on her and Jeff's obvious flirtation so as not for the show to legitimately fall into a cliched "will they, won't they" arc with them. Here, they're called out on it (and really how annoying they're being about it) but the way it's "dealt with" so to speak during the paintball fight and away from any other members of the study group, and uses Abed as the only one to sense that the vibe is off, was both a good way to subvert expectations about their relationship and the correct way to have Abed's obsession with all tropes of pop culture bleed into real life.

On the subject of good character use, I appreciated the way the episode uses Troy and Shirley to at least bring up the idea of race as a trope of this sort of movie. While it's more blatantly addressed in the "Epidemiology" episode where Abed tells Troy, "be the first black guy to make it to the end," I liked that Troy suggesting to Shirley that the study group might already be the last seven players left in the game and the two of them should team up to turn on them was met with her disapproval because "that would be great PR for the black students" (and right on cue to mock the stereotype, Troy gets shot with a paintball and becomes the first member of the group eliminated). Rewatching "Modern Warfare" also made me yearn for these season one days where SeƱor Chang was in a position of power and was thus a much better foil for the study group than in any of the future seasons where had his lost his job and gotten a new one as a professional cartoon character. His reading of "Critical Media Literacies and Politics of Gender, bitch!" as his proof that he's a student and thus eligible to compete is great and it's a shame the show dropped the ball on that character so hard so suddenly.

Do I think Harmon "chased" this episode in those aforementioned pale imitators? Hard to say for sure. If an episode like "Basic Rocket Science" aired in the third season when "Community" was first starting to show some cracks I think I would more confidently agree with that idea. While the second season had some "trying too hard" outings like that, it was still consistently great, and some of those high concept episodes like their fake clip show "Paradigms of Human Memory" are fantastic. But then again, the third season also contains "Remedial Chaos Theory," a sign that they could still write that kind of episode at that point in the series' run without pandering to what they thought the fans would want. I do think the writers understood that a collection of references rather than one specific parodical recreation would allow them to craft a better story. But "Modern Warfare" is still considered one of, if not the best episodes the show has ever done, and I'm not sure I blame them for feeling confident they could do a more head-on parody that would be a) just as funny, and b) give them the freedom they needed to make sure their plotting wasn't being drowned out by a James Horner-esque score and slow motion sequences.

It certainly made for more inspired episodes in that era, which is more than can be said for the trial and error experimentation of the fourth season. When the parodies didn't work back then, at least the characters on screen weren't telling us they were doing something cool. Anyway, I've moved away from the positives of "Modern Warfare" and into the negatives elsewhere. This episode = A+. Read some of the quotes below as an example of how damn funny it is.

Odds and ends:

- When and if time travel is invented, I'd like to take this episode back to May 6, 2004 and show it to everyone at NBC enjoying their "Friends" finale parties. "This is what you'll be airing exactly six years from now. I'm gonna love it, but know it will be watched by a tenth of your current audience"

- I know that Jeff's "Write some original songs!" insult to the glee club members after they're shot out of the tree is a fan favourite line, but I think I actually prefer when Jeff, Troy, and Abed shoot the chess team and Jeff says, "And tell the drama club their tears'll be real today."

- Once again, Joel McHale doesn't know how to properly say "Starburns," as seen in this promo. Emphasis on the "star," not on the "burns".

- While I, like Jeff, enjoy the sound of scheduling all my classes on a Monday and taking a six day weekend, I don't really understand how someone could do that. Granted I don't exactly know how community college operates educationally, but it still seems tight.

- Britta: "Shirley, I'm gonna win that prize for you and your boys." Shirley: "That's nice." Jeff: "Shirley, I'm gonna win that prize, but not for you and your boys." Shirley: "That's less nice."

- Jeff: "I mean I'm all for winning, but let's not resort to cheap ploys." (*immediately takes his shirt off*). See, "Community"? You used to know how to do this! Save us Dan Harmon, you're our only hope!

- I miss the Troy and Abed end tags, or at least really good ones like this where Troy keeps re-recording his message to Abed that he'll meet him at the flagpole in 10 minutes. Jeff: "Hey Abed, your girlfriend will meet you at the flagpole in 10 minutes."

- My brother just reminded me that Joel McHale starred in the unaired pilot for a U.S. remake of "The IT Crowd". This is all I can find of it still on YouTube, so behold the horror.

Next week: Let's travel across the pond for a night in beautiful, metropolitan Camden.