Original Airdate: Jan, 9, 2014
Director: Tristram Shapeero
Writer: Erik Sommers
Starring: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Jim Rash, Ken Jeong
Guest: Jonathan Banks, John Oliver, Dino Stramatopoulos
I've mentioned before that the key to an effective genre parody is making a piece of fiction that is very effective and compelling as a straight work with a few twists and winks at the clichés and tropes that form the humour. This is why Edgar Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is both critically acclaimed and fervently followed but the Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg library of rip-off of famous scenes now with poop jokes is better used as cruel revenge against your worst enemy. Community's most memorable and beloved episodes are excellently crafted genre parodies that constantly makes you nostalgic for famous shows and movies while also entertaining you with the different take of classic elements that make you laugh at how it distorts serious themes for slapstick, satire and jokes. This week's episode about the nefarious Ass Crack Bandit returning to insert coins into the "slots" of the unexpected victims was both a love letter, mash-up, and hilarious critique of crime-solving series like Law & Order and half the CBS library, dark thrillers like Se7en or Zodiac, and countless slasher pictures.
The mood and setting captures the genres perfectly as Greendale was conveniently hit by an extreme thunderstorm, the fluorescent lights suddenly have a habit of constant flickering, and the colours suddenly take a drabber tone giving off feelings of Prisoners or The Killing. The episode opens with Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) introducing her boys to christen her business with some soprano that gave us the necessary chilling choir music as the first victim just happened to be straggling behind in the otherwise empty hallway when he had to pick up a dropped book thus exposing his ass crack from the insertion of a coin from the intimidating figure who is concealed through a dark coat and hood. The celebration of Shirley's sandwich shop was quickly turned to screams when the victim arrived to reveal the return of tormentor of plumber butts everywhere (or mainly Greendale). We then immediately cut to the intro sequence, which this week was chilling and somber to appropriately feel like a dark procedural. It was a work of art how it all captured the feel of crime procedurals but also slashers but also countless thrillers with horror flavouring. If it wasn't for the characters being so ridiculous or the actual stalker having a rather silly assault plan, this would have been unsettling and disturbing.
It is quite ambitious trying to expertly capture the feel of a dead serious and dark genre while still trying to serve up a long line of laughs. This is where Community excels, and why in 10 years we will look back at this series as a sacred pop culture artifact. Though I still enjoyed last season, this episode is a clear sign that the meticulous pop culture expert, Dan Harmon, is steering the ship and making sure every detail is lovingly crafted in place to feel authentic to what is being parodied but also remaining true to being a comedy. This was a damn funny episode, but it was also a serial killer thriller that was better than many that have been released in theatres the past few years (I'd also watch this over and over rather than try to sit through the CBS catalogue of procedural series).
Greendale is thrown into a panic, because coins should be in vending machines not posteriors. Plus any slasher picture would demand that everyone is on edge but then still happily remaining in the place of danger so that is what exactly happens here. The genre also demands a solid collection of possible suspects to keep the viewer guessing, so Professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver) conveniently returns from looking after his ill mother (she is still alive but he put in his time) and Professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks) suddenly decides to start paling around with the gang (maybe to fill in the crazy older guys quota). It also isn't a proper horror thriller if the person in authority refuses to accept the present danger and revels in denial to avoid the bad press or having to shut things down, so Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) constantly clashes with our hero Annie (Alison Brie). The episode religiously follows the formula while unearthing every precious cliché, but does it with such an energy and knowledge that every predictable hit is pure pleasure and satisfaction rather than eye-rolling or tiresome. Abed (Danny Pudi) helpfully monologues about the recycling and laziness of network versions of gritty crime stories to really make sure we understand the crew is quite aware what they're doing.
It is easy for any group of writers vaguely aware of a genre to put together an acceptable parody that hits all the broad aspects that link each series or film. It is the expert that pulls out the often recycled material that we forget to bring up in discussions or don't really acknowledge until we see it. In one scene the college radio station plays a slow paced and deeply sung ballad about the Ass Crack Bandit while one joker runs about in a giant coin outfit, and it feels like something ripped right out of Scream or one of its clones, and it is pitch perfect to where I almost cried for joy of the genius of it.
Then there are the bits that are more common, but again maybe not what one would immediately associate with the genres at first glance. Obviously, another victim needed to happen a few scenes into the episode, and since this was the return of the bandit, this would constitute a sequel, which demands an assault on a regular cast member. Troy (Donald Glover) was left alone in the study room and talking on the phone promising he'd be home a little late, when he decides to glance out the window to be shocked to see the image of the stalker reflecting back. It is of course too late and screams of a man with a coined ass fill the hallways. The gag is played up with Troy covered in blankets and pushed around in a wheelchair for the rest of the episode. The assault leads to questions of what Greendale is doing and forces the Dean to take actions, and following the road laid by other inept authority figures, he tries to implement rules like cameras allowed in the restrooms rather than listen to Jeff (Joel McHale) and Annie about the signs it is a teacher.
The second half is just as marvellous in following the convoluted twists and crazy chases that are required in the final act. Star-burns (Dino Stamatopoulos) comes back from the dead (another must) to be revealed as the bandit and also the owner of a cat car (it will save the environment if they can figure out a way to get the cats moving). Of course, this is only a false finish, and then we get the scene of Annie left in the room with the real bandit while Jeff suddenly puts the pieces together. Except well all know the only thing better than one twist ending is another, and so that revelation ends up being a red herring too. Through all the twists it is revealed that the school is deceptively big as it apparently now has a stable and a botany room, both which serve for perfect chase scenes while also following the rule that places must mysteriously grow during the hunt for the villain.
The real fun was never the revelation, which is good, because we never get it. The bandit isn't discovered. Annie and Jeff suddenly start to think maybe the bandit wasn't male and shock comes over their faces. This leads to a helpful montage with creepy music where we see a clip of each individual playing with coins or possibly doing something that could implicate them. It is these small touches that make the mystery far more satisfying as they hit everything just right.
I could go on and on about the mastery of the episode, because I've missed several other little homages. This is really one that must be tracked down if you're a lover of this series. There were two other events that are worth noting that were outside of the parody.
Annie and Jeff were called out on their relationship again. They even had one scene together where Annie questions what they're doing and Jeff claims his embrace was perfectly platonic, and then he tries to prove it by holding Leonard (Richard Erdman) who was quickly seduced into giving some lip sugar. It looks like the on-going will they ever be more story will continue this season, though I think it works better if it always remains a tease. The whole "everyone sees it except them" is another delightful play one sitcom formula, and actually getting closer through tragedy and fear is rather popular in the genre that was being parodied.
The other major event was the out-of-the-blue ending where it was announced Pierce was dead. It was mostly used as a funny distraction from the fact no bandit was to be revealed. It now looks like Chevy Chase won't be making any more guest appearances, which is a bummer. Harmon and Chase had issues in the past, and the actor never seemed to be happy on the show, but the character deserves a better fate than an off-screen death.