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‘Community’ Review: “Pillows and Blankets”

Community
NBC

Framed as a Ken Burns documentary on PBS and narrated by Keith David, ‘Pillows and Blankets’ follows the great war between Troy and Abed over blanket forts and pillow forts, and, of course, their friendship.

Told with an utterly straight face, this episode resumes where we left off last week, with Troy and Abed split into two factions — Blanketsburg and Pillowtown — and planning war strategies, appropriately, like something out of a college history book. Using text messages, e-mails, and even Facebook updates as read by the various players in voiceover, the episode relies heavily on the faux documentary narrative.

It’s a huge risk to take, especially given the long hiatus and the shaky ground on which ‘Community’ has been standing for some time. But does it work?

“Pillows and Blankets” may very well be ‘Community”s best episode yet.

There are complaints from some that the higher the concept, the more alienating the episode to the viewer — but ‘Pillows and Blankets’ proves this theory wrong entirely. Even those unfamiliar with the acclaimed work of Ken Burns have undoubtedly watched a History channel special that uses the same devices. The framing is at once both widely accessible and filled with minor flourishes that only a select group of people will get.

Everyone has chosen a side — with Shirley taking second in command under Troy and Pierce joining Abed (with Leonard) — except for Annie, Jeff, and Britta. Annie has set up a makeshift nurse station, cleverly using upturned Gatorade bottles as IVs. Britta is using the opportunity to flex her photography muscles, by taking terrible black and white photos. Meanwhile, Jeff has decided to be his typical, selfish self, playing the ends against the middle until he’s bored with it, and mostly just sending texts to Annie.

Does the episode rely heavily on the documentary device? Yes. But it also does excellent story work with Troy and Abed, first focusing on something we’ve been over time and time again — Jeff’s self-involvement — before integrating that thread with the other. Annie asks Jeff if he ever has thoughts or feelings that aren’t about getting something he wants and suggests that maybe he keep a journal.

Jeff tries to get Troy and Abed to make amends, first half-heartedly with imaginary friendship hats just to get the nuisance of the blanket and pillow war to end, and then again — this time with a little more care, but still mostly out of exasperation — with a failed secret summit that results in the pair agreeing that their friendship is dead.

And littered throughout the episode are hilarious moments, like Pierce dressed as a giant pillow man, and Leonard being his awesomely weird Leonard self. But the most impressive mark of the episode is Dan Harmon’s ability to completely nail the tone. It’s both sober and whimsical, using straight-faced delivery from the cast, who utilize their energy masterfully. Where something like ‘Team America’ puts on a level of seriousness undercut by the melodramatic delivery, the ‘Pillows and Blankets’ episode of ‘Community’ knows how to deliver nuanced melodrama that still has a little bit of an elbow nudge.

These are wholly delightful characters engaged in what they believe is critical war with the most adorable weapons: pillows and blankets. This plot wouldn’t be out of place on a kids’ cartoon show in the 90s, like ‘Recess.’ Harmon takes something so incredibly cute and cuts it with the most dry, mature framework. It’s like your war vet grandpa sucking his thumb under his childhood blankey.

In the end, Dean Pelton announces that the Guinness Record challenge is off, so everyone disperses except Troy and Abed, still swinging pillows at each other because it’s the last thing they’ll ever do together. Jeff points out that this means that obviously they like each other, but the two demand their imaginary friendship hats that they left in Dean Pelton’s office. Jeff goes all the way back to the office to fetch the two imaginary hats in one of the most touching moments this show has ever had — and it looks likes Jeff might have found that part of him that says and does things without motive for personal gain after all, until we see him writing this in a journal that he shares with the camera crew. And so we’re back to square one with Jeff, as usual.

The stinger is a splendid take on PBS telethons, with Troy and Abed asking for donations to keep the Greendale TV network afloat, so we can have more documentaries like, “From Labs to Riches: The Annie’s Boobs Story.” Please donate. That documentary sounds incredible.

Quotable:

The names for the pillow and blanket forts are so utterly adorable: New Fluffytown. Legit Republic of Blanketsburg. United Forts of Pillowtown.

“The Changlorious Bastards”

“Leonard likes this post!”

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