Well here we are folks. After three months of agonizing, waiting, Twitter campaigns, flash mobs and a whole lot of kvetching, Community is back on our television screens in one of the deadliest timeslots around. I was supremely excited for the series’ return, just as I was fairly sad that NBC made the (fairly logical) decision to take it off the air for a while. But I have to say, it was a little freeing to get away from Community, The Thing That Everyone Obsesses Over on Twitter for a few months. I wasn’t as impressed with the Christmas episode as most and honestly, found myself a bit worn out by all things Greendale-related by the time December rolled around. I’m not ignorant enough to dislike anything because of its fans, especially when I’m a card-carrying member of that fan group, but boy, Community fans can be…exhausting.
Long story short, the hiatus was, in a lot of ways, a welcome one for me and I hope that all the discourse and buzz about Community during said hiatus ends up being as beneficial for the series as it was for me. And in the off chance that a few random millions decided to check in after hearing so much about the series, “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” was a damn good introduction to these characters and this world. And for those of us who are already in love, the episode was a splendid reminder of why the hell we care so damn much in the first place. “Urban Matrimony” isn’t heavily reliant on the things unknowing or hating viewers of Community assume the series, but is instead powered by the elements that are truly most important: well-shaped, charming – and sometimes, weird – characters.
The big thing that I think has gone a little bit unnoticed with this season of the series (and I know I mentioned this in my review of one of the later 2011 episodes, but it’s a new year after all) is how well Community has learned to combine the bests of seasons one and two into single episodes, oftentimes without letting either element override or dominate the other. In season two, Community tended to work better when there was a single story pulling most or all of the group into it, whereas episodes that tried traditional A/B/C sort of storytelling didn’t flow as smoothly.
This season, though, Community’s writers have figured out how use a single event (like Annie’s move or the appearance/death of Pierce’s father) as a catalyst that shoots characters or pairs of characters off into separate, but wholly related stories. This allows a few characters to go off into a random popular culture or meta riff while others stick in more grounded, character-based stories. I know the fandom is so set on discussing how season three is more like season one or more like season two, as if it’s a competition, but really, Community’s confidently combining the two to great success.
On that note, “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts” is the strongest example of this “combined” version of the series. Andre’s proposal to Shirley and their rapidly-planned wedding and her underlying desire to start a business (somehow, with Pierce of all people) work together to create a lovely center for the episode. From there, the episode finds enough room for quality stories for all the characters.
Shirley, thankfully, gets the most material as she struggles to balance the desire to be a small business owner with the desire to make her family whole again. Shirley is the character the writers have had the most trouble with, not so much that I would say she has been “mishandled,” but it is clear that Yvette Nicole Brown is just as talented as everyone else on the cast and she therefore deserves a certain amount of quality material. I like a few other of Brown’s performances better (she was really great in “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” but I know you hate that episode, Earth), but this might be Shirley’s best episode. She gets to be funny (the “literally two minutes later” time-card gag was tremendous), she gets to be strong and there is real complexity to her predicament. Starting a business, and with Pierce of all people, is a scary thing and once Andre presents the possibility of running back to the safety of home (and typical gender roles, apparently), the conflict feels real, logic and important. This feels like one of Dan Harmon’s character journey circle-things (yes, I believe that’s the official designation) fully-realized.
Malcolm-Jamal Warner is a great fit as Andre and really so much of a fun fit with the whole cast that I wish he would be around more often. Anyway, Warner does fine work here and the he and Brown guide the story past that awkward mid-episode drama with the GET IN THE KITCHEN, WOMAN nonsense and into a fairly satisfying resolution. One of Shirley’s biggest strengths is her willingness to forgive, but in arguably her most important relationship, that got her in trouble. I liked how this episode allowed her to step up and take control of her life; that’s really a seminal moment for the character and yeah, it would have been even more powerful had Andre been around more or Shirley been given more material, but it still feels important.
Elsewhere the possibility of Shirley opening this sandwich shop gives us another solid Pierce story (those are happening more and more frequently) about the “young” man Hawthorne wanting to show his dad’s ghost that he can make it out there in the business world. Like Shirley, Pierce sometimes gets lost amid the shuffle (or becomes the default villain), but I enjoy the story anytime the writers put the two of them together. There’s an unspoken, awkward understanding that works well here and should be mined for more material in the future. Plus, a more confident Pierce leads to a slew of great moments from the character, from his hair dye-job to the “Call all the Ambulances” bit.
Meanwhile, the wedding story spins everyone else off into easily consumable, sitcom-y plots that are given the typical Community coat of paint. Annie gets to do cute Annie stuff while talking about loving weddings and hugging Leonard.* Britta and Jeff find themselves planning the wedding and giving the toast respectively, and of course, unfortunately discover that their anti-wedding rhetoric is just a façade for their more complicated feelings on the subject (Britta’s a secret expert wedding planner and Jeff is, unsurprisingly, still messed up over his dad abandoning his mom). It has been said time and time again this season, but god almighty is Gillian Jacobs killing it. I think I laughed out loud at every single thing Britta said in this episode, starting with the anti-wedding rant to her description of a metaphor to her complaint about coming from a long line of wives and mothers. She and Jeff are so uncomfortable with being conventional that they just end up reinforcing the things they’re trying to cut down. They Britta’d it.
*I’m not devaluing Annie by just referring to her bits in this fashion. Annie being cute is important.
And Troy and Abed take Shirley’s hope that they’ll “just show up” to mean that they are perhaps too becoming simply too weird. While none of the other characters’ stories feature much “typical” Community meta chatter or popular culture references, Troy and Abed’s story about flushing the weird from their systems is just meta enough to satiate the fans who prefer that version of the story. I think a lot of people expected Community to be obsessed with its own possible demise and comment on the events immediately, and I guess you could argue that the Troy and Abed story fits for something like that (especially considering that no one really understood if Troy and Abed’s “normal” personas were actually sincere or just sarcastic, knowing representations of sincere, something critics of the series accuse Community of all the time), but it was neither prominent enough or direct enough to constitute much more than a winking nod – especially since the episode was likely already written before NBC pulled Community from the schedule. Nevertheless, Troy and Abed being “normal” was both very funny (Danny Pudi is really, really good when given the opportunity to be a slightly “different” version of Abed) and character-based.
Ultimately, what’s so great about this episode is that it feels confidently focused on the characters. This might not be Community firing on all its meta, inside-popular culture cylinders, but “Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts” proves that the series doesn’t have to be one specific thing or another to be really good.