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A Fistful of Paintballs: High noon shoot-out on Community

Dan Harmon’s hit Community is wrapping up its second season tonight with the other half of the finale, a Western send-up that has given our characters a fabulous excuse for skulking around campus with paintball guns, forming a series of shifting alliances. Deliciously, Community has managed to reference not only iconic pop culture but itself with this reprise of last season’s equally paint-splattered ‘Modern Warfare.’ Let’s hope they don’t try for a third year, or a clever reference might become a tiring tradition.

I was slow to catch on to Community. I watched the pilot last year despite my general dislike of comedies, and didn’t pursue it, although it kept floating across my radar. People just wouldn’t stop talking about it though, so I recently took it up again to see what all the fuss was about. The show is a slow burner that doesn’t usually grab viewers with flashy theatrics: you have to be into Community to enjoy Community, and judging from the following the show is starting to pick up, more and more people are into it.

This is a show steeped in pop culture designed to appeal to pop culturalists of a certain bent, which is part of why some people may find it inaccessible, and why it may be destined for underground fame, as the one thing we love more than pop culture is referencing pop culture. Sure, it’s still funny, but it’s funnier when you catch the layers of references going on. The show is to some extent a parody of itself but it can be difficult to pick up on that when you can’t read the subtext. Community, in other words, is a half hour comedy that requires users to do their homework and come to class prepared for discussion.

I happen to have a fine appreciation for the spaghetti Western as an artform, and Community took the right tack with it and managed to find a way to tie it in with the characters so it didn’t feel too forced. Yes, ‘A Fistful of Paintballs’ took us outside the usual narrative, but the characters didn’t forget who they were, and the episode managed to start tying in the season’s thematic elements as well, in addition to setting us up for a high noon (well, high 8/7 Central) showdown tonight.

These episodes are about the tensions between Annie and Pierce, when you cut through the colourful exterior. Pierce’s assumption of authority reflects the fact that he feels increasingly left out of activities in a group he desperately tries to pretend he doesn’t need, but really relies upon for socialization, and his manipulation of the situation is equally true to character. The interplay between the two characters was fascinating to watch, and it worked well with their storylines through the season. It was also nice to see Annie breaking out of the box a bit, as she’s been really underutilized this season.

The show’s creative team made a brave move in taking on the episode that many people regard as the pinnacle of Community‘s output thus far. Many creators would shy away from addressing their most popular episode for fear of ruining a good thing, especially since ‘A Fistful of Paintballs’ was largely setup, rather than a standalone episode for viewers to pick over. I think it was a good move, because it forces people to move beyond the cheap shots when they make the inevitable comparisons.

‘A Fistful of Paintballs’ is in a different genre than ‘Modern Warfare’ and the episode is taking the characters in a different direction. What’s notable about both of these highly gimmicky episodes is that Community integrated them into the storyline and engaged in some character development at the same time the show had some fun. Other shows attempt to do this, but often fail; the Grey’s Anatomy musical episode, for example, came off as stiff and wooden, and felt so jarringly out of place that it was hard to track what the characters were doing.

With the paintball assassin episodes, Community set out to do something fun while also pushing the plot, and the characters, forward in a setting that feels maybe not precisely believable, but at least vaguely plausible (or maybe I’m the only person who’s played assassin ARGs on community college campuses). There’s a lot going on between the hail of paint pellets and the witty pop culture references.

I was initially skeptical about the Community premise, because I failed to see how it could have staying power. Undeclared took a similar tack and fizzled out almost immediately, although it’s turned out to be a hit in DVD. Community has managed to create a coherent group of characters and it isn’t afraid to play with them, which is the only way to make the half hour comedy work in the long term.

The previews for tonight’s episode seem to be suggesting they’re taking it back into action movie territory, but I’m reluctant to rely on previews alone to guess about what might happen. This is a very calculated, carefully structured show and the same goes for the previews. Whatever happens tonight, we are assured, the characters will never be the same, but that’s a violation of the golden rule of half hour comedy. The question isn’t how they’ll move on when we rejoin them for season three, but how they’ll reset themselves to keep their viewers loyal.

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s.e. smith

s.e. smith is the Editor in Chief at Global Comment, with publication credits including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Rewire.

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