Community, “Modern Espionage” (CREDIT: Yahoo! Screen)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in May 2015.

“Do you try to evolve, or do you try to know who you are?” Season 1 ended with Jeff facing this dilemma. As the years have gone on, this issue has come to define his show as a whole. Season 6 has brought this conflict to a head. Do you try to evolve beyond paintball, or do you try to know who you are and recapture your original homage episode glory?

By beginning “Modern Espionage” with a thrilling cold opening that captured the foreboding vibe of spy cinema, the value of continuing with old tricks appeared to be quite high. With acrobatic car stunts and mysterious off-camera dialogue, Rob Schrab fit himself in admirably in “Community’s” tradition of action direction. On a purely aesthetic level, this episode delivered to a degree that had not been attempted for years. The kitchen brawl got some visceral face time with a few POV tracking shots and made the food disgustingly colorful. The elevator scuffle summoned kinetic energy from the Dean’s slippery desperation. Even slight touches like Annie hiding her gun behind her back brought the vibrancy (and the humor). The action was not there just to provide the adrenaline: tellingly, the study room standoff, with its harried warnings that everyone keep it cool, called to mind the original in the bathroom from “Modern Warfare.”

“Community” has been accused of returning to similar plots and concepts with diminishing returns. In the case of City College, this is a fair point. Greendale’s rival has become a de facto villain with less-than-clear motivations and dropped storylines. The last paintball war already had City College pulling the strings behind the mayhem. This edition seemed at first to lazily be doing the same thing, but it actually adroitly tweaked the formula. Whether or not City College money was supporting the custodial crew was beside the point – this was Greendale at war with itself.

As the Dean put it, “The people that clean Greendale don’t want a cleaner Greendale. They want Greendale to be afraid of itself and reliant on them.” So many people – some with an appreciable amount of power – have a stake in keeping Greendale the same as it has always been. In much the same way, a large contingent want to keep “Community” how it has always been – the writers because they know how to produce the show that way, the fans because they know it is what they have enjoyed. But different portions of the same contingents feel the opposite: the creators evolving to remain relevant, and the audience because what they really enjoyed in the first place was the thrill of the new and surprising. But that development threatens to take the characters in places that are unexpected and not necessarily appreciated.

This parallel extends universally: everyone must decide if they want to hold on or move forward. But it is a false dichotomy. Change is inevitable – what individuals have to do is know themselves well enough to be able to survive its onset. But agents of change are not always as insistent as Frankie Dart, thus the personal threat felt by head custodian Lapiri. He was the mouthpiece to the fear that the old guard of Greendale is a dinosaur, and this resonated hard with the Dean. They held fast to the worry that all this rehabilitation may result in uncovering a side of Greendale they do not want to have to witness, one that threatens their livelihood.

Jeff, who has been known to unreservedly call his school a toilet, was defiantly on the side of change for the better. He may have a cynical shell, but when passionate belief is present, such as Frankie’s in Greendale, he is inspired to see the value at the core, mirroring his own personal journey. He insisted that a cleaner version of the cigarette of Greendale would not just be a cleaner cigarette, but actually a carrot stick. The Dean and Lapiri did not fear the cleaning because it would create something worse, but because it would create something unfamiliar. But the unfamiliar can be the self-confident, rehabilitated Robert Downey, Jr., as opposed to the “reliable” drug-addicted one with squandered potential.

This insistent, but measured and logical, streak ran throughout “Modern Espionage.” Much of this had to do with “Community” justifying its particular bag of tricks, through the meta vessel of Abed. Episodes like this one have been mischaracterized as “parodies,” but they are really “homages” that serve deeper purposes. Lapiri tried to deflect the accusations thrown at him as too obvious and disappointing a twist in the vein of M. Night Shyamalan, but Abed called him out for punching at an easy target, a tactic “Community” usually avoids in favor of meaningful character work. One of the MeowMeowBeenz creators and Koogler returned, not to fill their same original goofy purposes, but to further establish their places in the Greendale ecosystem.

“Modern Espionage” did not solve the struggle of evolving vs. knowing who you are, but it did not mean to, nor could it, as this is a never-ending struggle. But this season has ramped up this divergence, with increased experimentalism existing alongside a firm commitment to staying put at Greendale. Character development has been present, but drawn out and more subtle than usual. But if “Community” can continue to be as self-aware as this episode was, then that ambiguity need not be a problem.

Notes & Quotes:
-The tag also captured the spirit of evolving (digressive like the rest of the season’s tags) vs. knowing what it is (employing old characters instead of one-off’s). Adeptly utilizing Erik Charles Nielsen’s stage skills, “Grin & Garrett” continued the tradition of on-point in-universe stand-up.
-Jeff remarking that the IP addresses look like gibberish proved the value of two-pronged gags: at first it seemed like a groaner, but then there was the surprise reveal that he was wearing Britta’s glasses.
-“Are you a narc?” “Why would I answer that honestly?”
-Koogler’s feelings on bitcoins (he’s waiting for it to stabilize) mirrored those of Dan Harmon.
-Using Batman characters as code names at the gala was worth it for the deep cut of “the voice of Diedrich Bader.”
-Lapiri was considering leaving Greendale for City College, “where their pay phones aren’t only herpe-free, they’re actually … removed.”