After last week's abysmal episode, this week's new 'Community' is automatically better by default -- but it's also a mostly solid episode with more consistent laughs than we've gotten in recent weeks. And it brings the return of Magnitude! Pop pop!

I was out for the last two weeks, but I hope you guys enjoyed Damon Houx's reviews in the interim. The thing that stuck out to me most about the previous two episodes, and last week's awful mock-doc ep in particular, is that these actors are acting the same as they always have, but the dialogue isn't the same, which creates a sort of tonal disconnect. They're delivering lines in their familiar, funny way, but the words they're saying aren't that funny. I think Troy is a great example of this because, of all the characters in this new, Dan Harmon-less season, Troy still makes me laugh the most, even though they clearly have no idea what they're doing with him. I can't tell if the lack of Troy/Britta relationship stuff is a case of the writers just dropping the ball entirely, or if it's due in part to NBC airing some of the episodes out of order. And tonight's stinger with Troy and Britta in bed together wasn't helping anything. The stingers on this show used to be great, providing us with one-off jokes and a space for the writers to explore some weird humor in a shorter amount of time, like Troy and Abed in the Morning. Now? Every stinger feels like a tacked-on afterthought.

That said, I enjoyed much of the episode, which I found to be solid for the most part. Dean Pelton rounds up the gang to land a "whale" -- basically, a rich dude with disposable cash who will inevitably remain in school for years and years, just funneling money into the school board's pocket, which they can use on things like corpse farms for the forensic department and more dead pigs to dissect in biology. So really, they're going to spend the money on corpses. Pierce is one such whale, and as he gets jealous easily, the group sends Jeff off to spend the day with the old jerk and keep him out of the way.

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang (sans Shirley and Troy, who are taking a Physical Education education class) are scrambling to make Greendale seem like a party college this guy might actually want to attend, with custom cups designed by Ed Hardy and a class taught by Shaun White. The dean even gets his stripper friends to show up and give this guy a great time, but as soon as Archie (the whale) discovers Magnitude's catchphrase and wants it for his own, and the dean actually demands Magnitude give it over, Annie realizes they have crossed a line.

What I like about this episode, and this plot line in particular with Archie, is that it's the first time that the show has really felt meta since maybe the premiere episode, and even the stuff that felt meta then never seemed fully intentional. The basic lesson here is that you can change the superficial elements and ingredients of something, but you can't meddle with the very essence of what makes it special. It reads as though the writers are aware that yes, 'Community' is a much different show now, but it still has the same heart and commitment behind the scenes. Whether or not that dedication translates to a good episode of television is debatable, but they're trying to make it work, and for all its faults this season, I still can't say this is a bad show.

It's perhaps more dramatic than before (as most sitcoms become once they go past their prime), and yes, with all the writers lost (Harmon wasn't the only one, you guys), some things feel different -- at times, characters seem to be Stepford versions of themselves. There's something hollow about Troy and Abed right now, for instance, and I'm not sure the writers are fully understanding the functionality of these characters or respecting their history. They tried in the premiere episode, when Abed imagined Greendale as a sitcom, and they tried again during the Inspector Spacetime convention episode, so I think there's a real effort to understand these characters, but it's just not translating well.

Evolving Jeff is a big step for the show, and one that is translating well. He's still sarcastic and narcissistic, but he's less cynical. Most cynical people like to call themselves "realists" to soften the blow, but Jeff has actually become more of a realist, and I like watching him spend a day with Pierce. Hell, even Chevy Chase made me laugh this week, and he's clearly been phoning it in all season. His line about a bygone era where "women were sex cooks who did laundry" was pretty great, and it actually sounded like something Pierce would say.

Most of the lines of dialogue for characters like Troy, Abed, and Pierce -- characters with very specific personalities -- this season have sounded like something a knock-off, flea market version of these guys would say. But things were a little better this week. I do think they could have trimmed down and eliminated a plot line or two -- Shirley and Troy in P.E.E. class had potential, and the drama students were hilarious, but that's something that needed to be fleshed out more, just like Abed's minor plot with the fake fraternity, a nod to 'Animal House.' Sitcoms often suffer when they try to cram too many plot lines into one half-hour of television. Two or three story lines usually works, but this one had four, and two of them were great, while the other two had immense potential that was squashed under the weight of the necessity of making the Jeff/Pierce and Archie stories prominent. It's a shame because I'd love to see more of what Abed was up to.

"Economics of Marine Biology" is a definite step-up from last week's eye-rolling outing, but it still had many of the same problems I've had with most of this season so far. I'm not sure that those problems are going to be worked out by the end of this season, and as this will surely be its last, I have to say I'm a little sad -- both for the loss of the 'Community' that was, and for the loss of a 'Community' that could still be.

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