We’ve seen a great deal of complex character development in this season of Community already, and this week’s pair of episodes is no exception. Sure, Critical Film Studies’ legacy will always be wrapped up in its My Dinner With Andre homage, but it contains some of the best character work of the show so far. It’s a wonder that Dan Harmon didn’t write the script (that would be newcomer Sona Panos).
Our first entry, Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomancy, initially feels slight in comparison, but it provides a nice spotlight for Britta and Chang. Shirley’s impending pregnancy, and Chang’s continued insistence that he be in the babies’ life, comes to a head when Shirley and Andre want him to sign away his parental rights. Naturally, Chang can’t take the hint. In fact, he doubles down and tries even harder to get involved to show he can be a capable father. Maybe I’d be looking too deep into it, but I think there’s a reading of this subplot wherein Dan Harmon is making the case to the fans for Chang to remain a part of the show, even though he no longer serves a primary function. Ken Jeong rarely misses, and Custody Law is a great look into Chang’s arrested development. Not only is Jeong adept at bringing Chang’s left-field lines to life, he handles whatever bits of physical comedy the script throws at him. It’s a shame that he’s been pigeon-holed into weird reality competition programs in his post-Community career.
The episode also brings together the two things that Britta cares most about: men and social justice. While it’s not the most original plotting – Troy and Abed make a new friend whose base description very much appeals to Britta, so she hooks up with him, only to learn he’s literally a war criminal – it provides Gillian Jacobs ample opportunities to show off her gift for line deliveries. While Community’s headline-grabbing movie spoofs and homages may have stuck in my mind primarily before starting this rewatch, it’s episodes like Custody Law that provide a nice reminder that the show could just as easily handle its more grounded episodes.
We’ve seen a good number of movie and TV homages this season, and Critical Film Studies may easily be the most obscure parody of them all. Only being 24 at the time and barely having any movie nerd credibility, I had never heard of My Dinner With Andre before the episode (and I still haven’t seen it). So I unfortunately can’t speak to how well the episode hews to the film. But the mark of a great parody is how well it can stand on its own without knowledge of the original source material, and Film Studies is a fascinating look into both Abed and Jeff’s inner psyche and how they see the world. It should come as no surprise that an homage episode of Community nails the little details, and here it shows up in Richard Ayoade’s direction of the Jeff-Abed scenes, and the accuracy of the group’s Pulp Fiction costumes.
Abed’s monologue about being an extra in Cougar Town (hello, 2010!) works as both a bizarro story about being unable to differentiate movies from reality, and an introspective look at Abed’s fears at his current place in life. That the episode functions as a new way to showcase the group’s affection for Abed makes it stand out as more than a simple parody.
Any sitcom could fill itself with movie homages and riffs on TV tropes until the cows come home, but to rightfully receive the cultural longevity that Community has, it has to be grounded in likable characters at the end of the day. Characters that are likable to us and each other as well. Characters that go to elaborate lengths to show their appreciation for one another. It’s been a joy to be reminded that Community was capable of grounded moments like this, and this pair of episodes is a solid look at what it did best.
Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy Grade: B+
Critical Film Studies Grade: B+