Community, “Basic Email Security” (CREDIT: Yahoo! Screen)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in April 2015.

“Community” does not usually take too much inspiration from real world headlines in the vein of a “Law & Order”-style procedural.  It instead tends to ape and play around with pop culture.  But recent hacking scandals have converged with media such that for “Community” it is right at home, almost a little too close to home.  This is a show produced by Sony, the victim of one of the largest-scale hacks ever.  A community college does not have the same reach as a worldwide media conglomerate, but it still has a significant virtual ecosystem that can be exploited, and so it was with Greendale.

“Basic Email Security” took its place in a tradition of “Community” episodes, following Season 2’s “Cooperative Calligraphy” and Season 5’s “Cooperative Polygraphy,” in which the fabric of the group is threatened by frustrations coming to a boil.  Abed specifically acknowledged this connection, referring to the first episode as a part of “the Golden Age.”  This meta analysis could have come off as overly cute or unfortunately critical of the show’s current state, but in the context of what was actually going on, his friends could have looked to him as a model of how to react.  He was by far the least upset, probably because his knowledge of their shared history assured him that they would work things out together by the end.

This episode was not just a trilogy of frustration, but also one of revelation of secrets, following Season 4’s “Intro to Felt Surrogacy” and, again, “Cooperative Polygraphy.”  At this point, considering how often these people have been forced to spill the beans and how long they have known each other, it is surprising that they still have so many secrets.  But with two new members, their history can now once again be surprising.  But the major point of “Basic Email Security,” vis-à-vis privacy, is that in 2015, even the most open people still tuck away a portion of themselves on the cloud, or at least attempt to.

While the Greendale Activities Committee was probably always going to survive this invasion of privacy, this incident was on a much larger scale than the typical “Community” episode that features such a personal crisis.  Everyone at school was targeted, and it was part of a larger ideological battle regarding free speech and privacy.  This allowed Britta to take one of her most passionate political stances in a while, and she actually managed to remain steady with her point.  She knew she did not exactly agree with the comedic perspective of Gupti Gupta Gupti, but she firmly believed in the Voltairean notion that she should defend his right to free speech.

Alas, there was a great deal of uncertainty about whether or not this was the best time to be defending this principle in practice.  Gupti seemed well meaning, but his stand-up immediately made it clear why so many of his gigs had been cancelled.  He confronted stereotypes, but in a way that reinforced them.  It is not a free speech issue to decline to book an entertainer.  Cancelling on him may be discourteous, but doing so is not a message that he should stop talking in any venue.

Furthermore, by forcing Gupti to perform in defiance of the hacker’s threats, the Activities Committee was making a decision for all of Greendale that many Human Beings clearly disagreed with.  By standing up for one human rights issue (free speech), they were forced to block another (agency in making one’s own decisions).  Besides, even if Gupti’s performance had been thwarted, there could not have been certainty that the hacker would have backed down.  With so much personal information stored on computers, and so many vulnerabilities therein, there is not much of a chance of completely outrunning these invasions.  “Basic Email Security” may have bit off more than it could have possibly chewed with this issue, but maybe that was the point.  It might seem like a disaster can be avoided in this situation, but then you find out this attack is all the work of a prepubescent boy, an explanation that seemed all too plausible.

Regarding how the hack specifically affected the main characters, it started off strong, illustrating the principle that the people most important to you are often the ones you have the nastiest (but also most important) fights with.  Jeff throwing the chair across the room showed how desperately he wanted everything to be more civil, but he knew it could not.  This plot best served Elroy and Frankie, their revelations serving to deepen their characterizations.  The former came off eccentric and deeply lonely, while the latter displayed both her principles and vulnerabilities.  Chang continued to kill it, working along the fringes next to everyone else, taking offense in ways that nobody bothered to fully comprehend.

While “Community” is often in a groove when emotions are running high, it can tend to bite off more than it can chew in that mode.  When it does so on the scale of the whole school, it can prove a point, but on a scale limited to its main characters, it can be a little dicier.  Serious transgressions are revealed, but then not given the room to breathe that they deserve.  Annie’s friends testing her blood for amphetamine is a serious overstep, and in the moment it was treated with appropriate concern.  But then it was swallowed up by everything else that was going on, which made a certain sense, but it left the audience and Annie hanging.

Then there are the matters surprisingly left unaddressed. One might guess that Abed’s girlfriend would fit in this category, thanks to lack of actor availability, though that is headed off with a slick reference.  Lacking even more were any revelations regarding Jeff’s feelings towards Annie.  With Season 5 ending with the reveal of the extent of his love for her, it is hard to believe that he has had no online correspondence that has at least hinted at that.

The lack of a firm lesson to wrap it all up at the end (“completism,” by Chang’s parlance) was frustrating, though apparently by design.  That the issue raised would not be resolved is understandable, but being unsatisfying on purpose does not make it any less unsatisfying.  “Cooperative Calligraphy,” still the top episode for group fights, had such a strong resolution and was thus cathartic for everyone involved.  “Basic Email Security” made some decent points about an unsettling issue, but in a way that is likely to leave its audience unsettled.

Notes & Quotes:
-Officer Cackowski is always a sight for sore eyes, and he had quite the chemistry with his new child partner.
-“How could he be racist? Listen to his name.”
-“How’s everything otherwise? Stoked for Avengers?”
-Jeff has a progressive (?) way of referring to white males: “We prefer to be called people without color or vaginas.”
-Abed’s best moment: his smile in response to Elroy discussing “Uncle Paul with all his flaws.”