Community, “Grifting 101” (CREDIT: Yahoo! Screen)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in May 2015.

“Grifting 101” is the first fully themed episode of “Community” Season 6. The typical Greendale shenanigans have been present this year, but not quite in a way that has overwhelmed everything for a half hour. The pop cultural references have also been there, of course. Just last week, “Intro to Recycled Cinema” took inspiration from “Star Wars” and its schlocky knockoffs, but it was not a full-on pastiche. Greendale was making a space movie, but it had not become a space movie. “Grifting 101” actually was a con man story that purposely mimicked the genre’s tropes. The elements lifted from “The Sting” – the hand-drawn chapter title shots and the ragtime version of the theme song – ensured that this is still a show that can be ambitious in this fashion.


With more than half the season done before this episode and no straight-up homages, it seemed like “Community” may have grown out of that style. It would never disappear completely, but it felt like it was in a post-crisis era in which it did not have to prove itself anymore. For as many valuable emotional breakthroughs as they have led to, these homages have also been symbolic of the volatility of Greendale and its Human Beings. Under the positive influence of a newcomer like Frankie Dart, perhaps the need for them had finally been exorcised. But when you get the bug, it never goes away completely.

The actual inspiration for going through with the grifting did not make a whole lot of sense, but that was kind of the point, as con movies themselves tend to be nonsensical. Their appeal often exists beyond any logical explanation. As Abed noted, he was dying to recreate in his own life the 1990 film “The Grifters,” which featured John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and “very little grifting.” Even when successful movie cons do have explanations, they can be so complicated that they might as well be nonsensical.

As an ostensible grifting expert, Matt Berry’s professor (his name was apparently Roger, but he gave plenty of fake names and he was credited as “Grifting Professor”) was a surprisingly easy mark. Or perhaps Jeff Winger is just that good a grifter. Roger may have decried Jeff’s brutishness, but it is hard to argue that the Winger charm has been effective. Still, cons rarely work out as perfectly for amateur crews as they did here, especially when up against such a formidable opponent.

Furthermore, the previous “Community” episodes that featured heavy-duty deception did not resolve so simply. “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” folded its layers of deceit in upon themselves so thoroughly that everyone was double-crossing everyone else just for the sake of double-crossing. There were no winners or losers in that game, except in terms of having fun. “The First Chang Dynasty” presented an “Ocean’s 11”-style heist in which the mission seemingly going awry was actually part of the plan. Then the mission actually did go awry, and only by the grace of forces beyond the heroes’ control was a reprieve granted. But in “Grifting 101,” when Roger appeared to be defeated, he actually was, and it was a little jarring.

There was sufficient motivation for pulling off this con beyond Jeff just proving a point. Greendale was not serving its students well by employing someone who was snatching their briefcase money, and this current iteration of the school actually had the wherewithal to take care of such an issue. Frankie may very well have had her eyes on him as a potential trouble point for a while.

As for whether or not the mission was actually convincingly pulled off, there was a bit of a con played on the audience as well. There is more to TV characters’ lives than just what is shown any episode, and there is more to any episode than just the scenes that make it to the final edit. “Community” is more conscious of this than just about any other show. Jeff may have admitted that he was making it up as he was going along, but that could have been part of the con. But the fact that this episode actually took the time to show everyone watching “The Sting” suggested that there was not much going on that was not actually being shown. Annie may have pointed out that in the time that the group was not together, Jeff could have been thinking of a plan, but if meandering conversations were significant enough to make the final cut, how could the detailing of the mission – often a hallmark of the genre – been cut?

Everything worked out so perfectly, though, that either the Greendale crew was incredibly lucky or every possibility actually was considered, and the audience was just left to pick up on the implications. Officer Cackowski’s cool and collected explanation of Roger’s concluding situation suggested a confidence level that pointed to the latter. Britta may have been the honeypot, but perhaps anyone else could have played the role, should Roger have not walked into her bar. (Or maybe there were some subtle mind games that ensured he would head there.) He was clearly meant to witness the apparent messiness of their plan. The briefcase parade indicated strength in numbers as big as the whole student body. And of course Chang was not told everything, because as he quite pleasantly understood, he could not be trusted.

With the win working out so perfectly, there was not much of a struggle present to convey personal crises the way good homage episodes usually do. But Jeff was in an interesting psychological place that could have been missed with a singular focus on the con. Annie astutely noted that this was one of those dumb things that Jeff gets super jealous about, a tendency that dates as far back as Season 1’s “Beginner Pottery.” But the affection with which she brought it up suggests that this is now an endearing quality. Or at least it is for Annie; for Britta, it is another example of Jeff’s negativity bringing everyone else down. Regardless, Jeff was actually successful in overcoming this dumb thing. Now that he is as comfortable as he has ever been with these people, he instinctively knows how to look out for them.

That attachment, though, is also part and parcel of Jeff’s current major crisis. His breakdown when everyone discovered that he did not have a plan was for show. They wanted Roger to witness that to project the opposite of a united front. But it was an example of using truth to make a con more convincing, a common tactic for “Community” characters. All that talk about withholding information resonated with Jeff more than anyone else. His insecurities still linger, and he has not been able to fully open up to the people he is afraid of losing. Low-stakes fun might be happening now, but an emergency might be on the horizon.

Notes & Quotes:
-Ryan Ridley appears to be quite the star in the making, as the first member of the writing staff to star in an episode tag about himself.
-“I’ll tell you for $5.” “No!”
-“Tell them I spit on their wealth, and thank you.”
-When it comes to grifting, the African telegram is Jim Belushi, who continues to be taking a beating on this show.
-“Was Sting even in it?”