That’s not always true, but it’s at least usually true.* Whether due to poor planning on the producers’ part or a shockingly high level of expectations from the audiences, there’s just something empty about coming back for seconds. So when it was announced that the Community team was doing a follow-up to last season’s epic “Modern Warfare,” I can imagine that most of the series’ super-persnickety fans flinched a bit. And they had every right to do so. That episode is so perfect on almost every single level that trying to top it seems like an insane and misguide proposition.
*Recent exceptions: Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight. Soon-to-be not exceptions: The Hangover Part II.
Which is of course why Dan Harmon and his team didn’t actually make a sequel to “Modern Warfare.” Yes, “A Fistful of Paintballs” does include an end-of-the-year paintball game that quickly gets out of hand in a way that only things can get out of hand at Greendale. And yes, there are not-so-subtle nods to how this awful thing is happening yet again. But from the outset, “Fistful” doesn’t really feel like it’s trying to top anything. It relies on a more narrow (and therefore deeper) group of popular culture codes and touchstones and mostly nails its coverage of the spaghetti western genre (at least from my moderately flimsy knowledge of the genre). The teaser sequence, the opening credits and the little nicknames for each character were very well done and I will never complain about an episode of this series that puts Troy in a yellow “cowboy” outfit that even Doc Brown wouldn’t buy for Marty McFly and Annie in whatever you want to call that glorious number.
Moreover, this is an episode that is extremely confident in its framework, so much so that it’s actually a more successful story on the character level than “Warfare” ever was or pretended to be. The Community team already knows how to do a paintball episode so they don’t have to show that off and I was surprised at the amount of interesting character stuff this first-half of a planned two-parter works in. The genre conventions actually benefit the story tremendously, perhaps even more so than those in “Warfare.”
I think we can all agree that even though last year’s paintball festivities told us a nice Jeff and Britta story, what’s displayed here with Annie and Pierce is much, much better. The series’ “Pierce Problem” has been talked to death over the last 10 episodes and even if the series doesn’t figure out a way to really make all those horrible things he did earlier in the season seem “OK,” I have to give them lots of props for actually trying to do so. His actions here are in stark contrast to how he operated during the first paintball game. There, he was willing to throw StarBurns under the bus so that he could join up with Abed, Jeff and Troy. This year? He builds his own crew and doesn’t stop there, as he takes over the cafeteria, stock piles paintballs and forces Garret and Fat Neal’s crush to dance for Twinkies. He’s in full-bore villain mode here, but much like the Dungeons & Dragons episode, this episode (or at least this half) needs him to be.
And yet, there’s still even more actually going on there. Pierce does all of this because he’s tired of the way the group has treated him this year, which they of course think he deserves. The frantic, lawless world of paintball is really the perfect place for this season’s biggest story to manifest and “Fistful” handles all of that masterfully. When it’s revealed that the group actually voted to kick Pierce out of the group and he subsequently fakes a heart attack to which they can’t even respond to, it crystallizes how far this relationship has fallen. Troy notes that they’re always nice to Pierce, but clearly they’re not. But he’s also been extremely terrible and petty in response to their “niceness.” Bringing in the Dark Rider (wonderfully embodied with the right mix of cool and straight-forward badassery by Lost‘s Josh Holloway) to respond with fear and shock to Pierce’s “heart attack” while the group stands around incredulous is just a fantastic touch. He’s horrible and they’re just barely less horrible. As Annie says, they’re family. They don’t get to pick.
Speaking of Annie, her place as the heroine of this story was a really smart move. She’s the youngest and most earnest, but also the one who hasn’t been out in the real world long enough to be as jaded as Jeff and Britta are about their lack of familial connections. She’s clearly got issues with her parents because of her pill addiction and she’s being completely honest when she says that the study group is her family. We saw her apartment back in “Mixology,” it’s truly awful. In that episode, we also saw how Annie doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin yet, but the place where she feels the most comfortable is with the group.
In her loneliness, Annie can relate to Pierce the most. He talks about having nothing once summer rolls around and for the most part, Annie’s in the same boat. Troy and Abed have one another, Shirley has a new kid to take care of and Jeff and Britta don’t seem like the summer hang kind of people. All she has is that terrible apartment to go to and at 19 or 20, she can’t deal with it being it. In a way, she doesn’t want to become Pierce and when that’s combined with her inherent desire to do the right thing, she’s going to try her damnedest to keep Pierce in the group. No matter who it pisses off in the interim. Which of course makes Pierce’s in-game betrayal even worse.
I have to say, I think Alison Brie and Chevy Chase did their best work of the season here. Brie obviously gets to play the super-hot bad-ass version of her character that we’ve never really seen before, but I thought she played some of the quieter moments really well too. Chevy is Chevy, but the ways in which he toggled between Evil Pierce and Evil Because I’m Sad Pierce was impressive. I’ve been much more sympathetic to Pierce throughout the season for whatever reason, but I have to believe that even the most skeptical of the character and the story will find him much more appealing here (even in his awfulness) and that’s primarily because of Chase’s performance.
Of course, this is only part-one of a two-parter. After their final confrontation here, the group is presumably now going to have to work together to fight this mysterious evil coming for them. That’s the perfect way to strengthen the bonds between them, but I have to imagine it won’t be that easy. But I’m sure it will be very, very awesome.
- The episode sneaked in a few other season-long beats: Chang’s desire to find any group to bring him in (and his ability to screw over the past group) and to a lesser extent, Jeff and Abed’s relationship. Okay, I’m reaching with that one, but I loved that they were teaming up during the paintball game. I just need to know they’re hanging out.
- Pierce’s “Wanted: Gay and Alive” poster for Jeff was awesome.
- Very, very little for Britta and Troy to do in this episode. Understandable, but disappointing. Did Britta even say anything this week?
- Why hasn’t USA built a series around Josh Holloway yet? That dude is a TV star. Period.
- It’s worth mentioning Alison Brie’s outfit again. GOOD LORD.