Review: Community, “Contemporary Impressionists”

Not to cherry-pick from my own Twitter feed (not that I haven’t done it before), but “Contemporary Impressionists” is just a weird episode of Community. Weird doesn’t mean “bad” or “awful,” just as it also doesn’t mean “great.” This one featured some really intriguing character development, but was undercut by tonal and balance issues throughout. Despite what your best internet friends tell you, not every episode of Community is going to be TREMENDOUS. It happens.

What is really curious about this effort is that it is full of set-up for storylines that will likely power the second half of the season. And while these stories brought forth compelling individual moments here and certainly have a great deal of promise for the future, they were often handicapped by a surprising amount of broad, 30 Rock-like wacky humor and not enough running time. Jeff and Abed’s psychological issues are great places to build the perfect Community story from: they can be funny, likely full of pop culture references, but ultimately, emotionally resonant when it matters. Chang is still Chang, but his egomaniacal dreams of controlling Greendale could, theoretically, give the study group a quality antagonist to bounce off of moving forward. But kicking off an arc about Jeff’s ego and maturity with a wonky visual representation of his ego (one that mirrored that gag with his heart last week) and a whole lot of Hulk references doesn’t feel like the best way to accomplish those goals. The same could be said for Chang’s thought bubbles and even his odd sway over children. I’m not sure where that story is going, but if it’s anything like tonight’s opening salvo, I’m fairly convinced I don’t want to know.

Oddly, where this episode fails the most is in the joke-writing. Obviously, “funny stuff” is entirely subjective, but from my perspective, this episode had a few really great concepts in Jeff’s swelling ego and the celebrity impressionist event and then failed to support those concepts with typically-great Community-like jokes. Don’t get me wrong, there were standout bits here. The opening beats of the Jeff story, from he and Britta’s discussion of aviators to Jim Rash’s epic piece of physical comedy as the Dean discovered “new Jeff” (HIS SHADOW), were fantastic, and just from a visual perspective, the celebrity impressions were pretty great.* But once the event actually began, the episode lost its footing, discarded most of the characters and only pulled it together at the end with a hefty amount of emotion.

*And you have to love Abed’s costume to the party (Jamie Lee Curtis), since it was a call-back to the time that the group was exchanging barbs around the study table and someone called him “Brown Jamie Lee Curtis.”

As I said, these stories are all about laying the groundwork. And the thought that Jeff has changed therapists and asked for an anti-depressant as a response to all the weird, kind of terrible stuff that has happened to him this school year is really twisted, but compelling. Remember, this is the guy who was terrified to take Cholesterol medication because of his assumption that all his hard work in personal care made him the perfect specimen. There’s never been any indication that Jeff is completely anti-medication so I don’t want to project things onto the text that aren’t there, but I still find it very interesting that he took this specific response, after the time he’s had at Greendale this year. It does, however, make sense that he would shield himself from any emotion-related damage and just make himself feel better, because, well, why not?

The one strength of Jeff’s story in this episode is how well the script used Britta to help Jeff navigate the waters of his newfound confidence. Not only does a story like this remind us that hey, Britta might actually be okay at this psychology thing (in her own twisted way), but it allows she and Jeff to interact as friends, without much hostility or overt sexual tension. I don’t especially care who zooms who at Greendale, but it is see that the two of them can exist in a story without lots of sarcasm, entendres or sexual tension veiled as banter (or vice versa).

Unfortunately, the good start Jeff’s story had completely disintegrated once the episode moved to the party. I totally understand what the episode was trying to do and it followed up on things Britta promised earlier on, but watching Jeff turn into the Hulk because he didn’t win Handsome Young Man was cartoonish, broad and frankly, pretty stupid. I hope that the series keeps up with this story in some fashion, but I don’t ever want to see anything like that again.

Elsewhere, I quite enjoyed the Troy and Abed story here and because of the characters’ natures, it was easier for the two of them to fit into the zany world of the impressionist party. Abed hiring second-rate celebrity impersonators to help entertain him and fall further into a fantasy world is, in a lot of ways, just as sad as Jeff taking medication to make himself feel better. It’s often hard to get a read on Abed in episodes where it doesn’t open up (so, most of them), but this episode makes it pretty clear that drama and darkness of this school year is getting to the most-closed off member of the group as well.

Moreover, I thought the way the episode worked through the short, but satisfying beats with Troy was damn good. Troy having to initially defend Abed and his “playing” when everyone else was ready for a cold wake-up call, then have to work hard at the party to keep Abed’s legs intact and then realize that sometimes, Abed needs that wake-up call created a cohesive, smart story amid all the dumb stuff. Of all the characters, Troy has grown the most over the past two seasons and I think he’s starting to recognize that this friendship with Abed cannot exist (at least in this form) forever. Troy is growing up and perhaps Abed is holding him back. But now, there’s also a sense of responsibility on Troy’s part to keep Abed tethered to something real, even if he often gets caught up in the fantasy role-playing himself. And as we see by the end of this episode, even trying to address emotions or “real” honesty with Abed can push him further into himself, which makes Troy’s choice to actually address those things even more effective.

Unfortunately, Abed’s now, apparently, seeing Darkest Timeline Abed, at least when he’s in the Dreamatorium. If I were in full conspiracy mode, I’d try to figure out how this relates back to the multiple universe nonsense I was spouting in the fall, but I’m too distracted by the fact that Abed could be experiencing a legitimate psychological break. That’s pretty damn dark, even for this series, and I cannot wait to watch it unfold.

On that note, I think “Contemporary Impressionists” is an episode full of stories that requires waiting and patience. If these stories with Jeff (and Britta) and Abed and Troy continue, I have to imagine that the series’ writers will wrangle them in a bit and avoid the broad humor we saw here. Perhaps even the Chang story could be fun. As an individual episode, this one isn’t overwhelmingly strong, but I have a feeling we’ll look back upon it a bit more fondly come the end of the season. 

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