‘Community’ Review: “Alternative History of the German Invasion”
The study group goes to war with the Germans in this week's episode of 'Community,' featuring guest star Malcolm McDowell.
"Alternative History of German Invasion" gets off to a good start -- Malcolm McDowell stars as the study group's history professor, Mr. Cornwallis, and the gang must battle their German classmates for the rights to their study room just as they're learning to view history from the perspective of those who lost battles. Somewhere along the halfway mark the episode settles into a familiar sitcom rhythm. Gone are clever jokes, replaced instead by dated riffs like Jeff comparing a security guard's request to see their papers to Arizona.
'Community' was once praised for its more meta aspects, typically provided by Abed, and juxtaposed against Jeff's cynical narcissist. The pair are arguably the crucial anchors of the series, each providing much-needed balance. But it's as if this week -- and maybe even this season, so far -- has forgotten the functions of these characters and their personalities entirely. Instead, we get passable facsimiles of our familiar friends. Pierce is no longer as maniacal as he used to be, and is now a lovable, crazy old man. His extended joke about wanting to be the group's Hitler feels lazy and forced.
Jeff comes off as a bizarro world version of himself when he declares the study group is his second family and he will do anything to preserve the sanctity of that bond, and by the end of the episode, he's a do-gooder, leading his friends to makeover the more decrepit study areas so the entire school can enjoy studying comfortably. Who is this Jeff? Maybe Senor Chang isn't the only one suffering from a bout of amnesia.
And ah, yes -- Chang graces us with a timely reappearance. At the beginning of the episode I found myself wondering where he'd gone off to since his brief appearance at the end of the premiere. The writers have kept Chang away long enough, so this week he's stuck with the Dean, who doesn't buy into the whole "Changnesia" bit, but relents when Chang checks himself into jail out of remorse, a quality the old Chang never had. Dean dons drag again this week, and it's something that's beginning to feel a little too frequent. His appearances in drag previously were smartly worked around this idea that Dean spends his free time coming up with elaborate costume puns, but they were never a weekly indulgence. Here, it's beginning to seem like a crutch, and Dean's "nurse" pun felt as forced as the Pierce/Hitler jokes.
The episode isn't all bad -- I just wanted to get the major complaints out of the way. There are some great jokes, like Troy comparing a study room poorly lit by a flickering fluorescent light to the films of Darren Aronofsky, or the German who motorboats a pile of 99 red balloons. The nod to Shirley's "Shirley's Subs" t-shirt, which features an "SS" on the sleeve was also funny, as was her adorably worried response. Sadly, Nick Kroll doesn't reprise his role as the leader of the German students, and his absence is keenly felt.
"Alternative History of the German Invasion" finally brings the cast back to the study room to study for a professor who wants to teach them that heroes are only known as such because victors write history. As this is a show from the study group's point of view, they are consistently the protagonists, as detailed in a brief series of flashbacks involving times when other students wanted to use the study room but couldn't because of the group's silly antics (losing a pen, playing Dungeons and Dragons, et al.). There's a great concept here in viewing the group through the eyes of others and recreating episodes of the past to show how their classmates perceive them, but the writers instead choose to focus on more generic sitcom elements rather than taking a risk.
Unlike the previous three episodes of this season, this week's doesn't feel like one long lead into a punchline, and the jokes instead feel more evenly distributed. Unfortunately, the episode loses steam a little over halfway through and a few things become increasingly evident: 'Community' 2.0 is not interested in taking risks like "Pillows and Blankets" or "Remedial Chaos Theory" -- the third season was filled with wonderful high-concept episodes that really allowed 'Community' to push the boundaries of the modern sitcom, without ever losing affection for its predecessors. Just as Jeff and Abed sit on opposite ends of a teeter-totter to balance things out, the show always knew how to find the balance between satirizing a sitcom and honoring its history.
Another thing that I find fair to say four episodes in to this New Coke version of the show is that 'Community' now feels more like an average sitcom where life lessons are learned and blah blah blah. It's more wackiness with less wittiness, but it's a sort of safe, low-key wackiness. The show used to feel sharp, but now its teeth have been filed down and dulled to appear more friendly.