Friday, March 14, 2014

5x09 "VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing" (The Elephant in the Room)

"VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing"
Original Airdate: March 13, 2014

Ensemble series are special because their focus is on the way that the show and the cast work together in a seamless and effortless way. But what happens when there is a shake-up within the ensemble? Imagine Scrubs without Dr. Cox. Imagine New Girl without Nick Miller. Imagine The Office without Jim Halpert. The longer a series runs, the more shake-ups it is prone to have. Recently, Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones left their respective roles of Chris Traeger and Ann Perkins in Parks and Recreation. Steve Carell bid adieu to Michael Scott before the series finale wrapped, and Chevy Chase and Donald Glover left Community before the show actually ended. Things like this happen all the time in television, really, but when a show is driven by such an ensemble-centric dynamic as Community is… well, the absence of Troy Barnes’ heart and soul is felt and hits the audience and the characters quite squarely in the chest.

I won’t pretend that I have loved every episode of Community, post-Troy Barnes. In fact, I’ve enjoyed some of the episodes but I have felt something quite distinctly missing and that – of course – is Troy himself. I miss his childlike wonder and optimism; I miss his humor and his one-liners; I miss his friendship with Abed; and I miss how he seemed to be holding onto the other end of one of seven ropes that anchored the study group on the ground. Without Troy Barnes or Pierce Hawthorne, Community doesn’t fall apart. Parks and Recreation continues to exist without Chris and Ann, and The Office  had its flaws, but Dunder Mifflin did not collapse under the weight left in Michael Scott’s absence.

However (and this is a BIG however), just because a show doesn’t crumble to the ground after a piece or two of the ensemble leaves doesn’t mean that it isn’t affected at all. We’d be foolish to pretend that season four wasn’t affected by the lack of Dan Harmon and we’d be foolish, too, to presume that Community could be the exact same show it has always been without Donald Glover and/or Chevy Chase. Acknowledging that this show has changed and it is NOT the same show it once was (and that's not to say that it is somehow a worse show or a better show: it is just a different show) is the first step of accepting the show that it is now. There’s one element though that I have failed to discuss, though: how a show deals with the absence of a character. This is really the first episode that acknowledged Troy’s absence. It’s the first one to talk about the role he played and the void that is left in his absence. A show like Community cannot pretend that Troy’s absence or Pierce’s absence doesn’t affect its dynamic and structure and I think that for the most part, the writers and Harmon have tried to distract us with guest stars and homages and pop culture references in hopes that we would simply forget that the Greendale Seven are now the Greendale Five. Until, that is, this episode.

No guest star, no homage, and no amount of paintball will fill the void that Donald Glover left in his absence. We cannot pretend it doesn’t affect the show and until the writers stop pretending that it doesn’t affect the show, Community will not and cannot accept the hand they were dealt and move on. I think that what this episode DOES do well is what Community has always done well: address an issue within the context of the characters and be very meta about it in the process. Anthony’s remarks cannot be lost on us, nor can Abed and Annie’s method of distraction. “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing” is a meta commentary about the white elephant in the room: Troy's absence. And though this episode was flawed, I am glad that the writers and Harmon finally addressed the off-balanced nature of the study group in Troy's absence.

Well, now that this is out of the way, let’s discuss “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing,” shall we? There are two plots for the episode, really: In our A-plot, Annie and Abed realize that they need a new roommate to help foot some of the bills and they decide, together, to play a VCR game in order to decide whether or not Abed’s girlfriend or Annie’s brother (yeah I’ll touch on that momentarily) move in. The B-plot finds Shirley, Jeff, Britta, Chang, and Hickey in possession of a hidden gold mine of new Chemistry textbooks. With money and lying involved, you can bet that things go from bad to hostage situation pretty quickly.

So the episode opens with Annie delegating assignments to the Save Greendale committee and since Jeff is so in tune with the way that Annie delegates, he volunteers for the first task she mentions, knowing she always gives out the easiest tasks before the harder ones. What can I say? He knows his wife. (Kidding. #Pathological.) Following suit, Hickey and Shirley volunteer for Jeff’s project but joke’s on them all: Annie knows them all well enough by now and adjourns the meeting without giving out any more assignments.

Abed and Rachel (“AWWW”) enter and I love Rachel. Can I keep her? Abed tells the group that Rachel got him a gift for their anniversary – a VCR game called “Piles of Bullets.” It seems Old West themed and Abed is excited about it, so we are too. The filmmaker and Rachel are celebrating their one-month anniversary which, to Abed, is more like a one-year anniversary since they’re so connected and about as in sync (not the band though, darn) as a one-year anniversary couple would be. He asks Annie for permission to invite Rachel over to their apartment to play the VCR game that evening and Annie tells him that she actually invited her brother over for dinner.

That’s right, folks: Annie Edison has a brother. A brother that has never, in five years, been mentioned. Now, it seems like she and her brother are estranged but not as estranged as she and her mother are (we still don’t know her relationship with her dad and I don’t think we ever will because the show refuses to give us any more of her backstory. #bittertrain), but it is interesting that Annie never mentions a brother. During Greendale’s Family Day, everyone else had family to talk about and/or socialize with and Annie was left wandering around in the background of the episode, providing Jeff with morally sound advice on what to do when it came to Pierce's ex-stepdaughter. I don’t think it’s necessarily far-fetched to presume that Annie and Anthony were never close enough for him to be invited into her school or her life. And yet… I find it hardest to believe that he is five years YOUNGER than she is (he claims he was thirteen when Annie made the decision to go to rehab in HER senior year of high school, which pegs him as five years younger). The whole Annie Edison family situation doesn’t quite add up in “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing,” really, which is the issue I took with the sudden appearance of a brother we were never led to believe, in five years of knowing Annie Edison, actually existed.

Nevertheless, both Abed and Annie are broke and can’t afford to take their respective guests out so they agree to both host them that night at the apartment. Speaking of the apartment… it seems that things like refrigerator door hinges are falling apart around the living space and Anthony – without any prompting – fixes the door for his sister and Abed. Did I mention that Anthony is the exact opposite of Annie? He’s awkward and unsociable and gruff and clearly he and Annie connect zero, emotionally. But – and this is an important caveat – he’s handy and he has money and that’s why Annie pulls Abed aside to suggest that he moves in. What Abed counters with is this: why not Rachel move in since she is his girlfriend, after all? The two are at an impasse and the problem is that they’re doing exactly what Community is self-referentially admitting to (or so I’m choosing to interpret it): Abed and Annie are trying to fill a void without addressing the larger issue behind the need.

Back at Greendale, Jeff and Hickey and Shirley are failing to organize the room in the East Wing they’ve been assigned to organize and instead, stumble upon a bunch of Chemistry books stashed in a vent. They’re still shrink-wrapped, too, which means that they’re brand new. And when Hickey mentions the price that they could get for selling the stolen books… well, you can nearly hear the wheels in Jeff and Hickey's heads turn. Shirley, of course, is adamantly against them doing anything immoral or illegal, so she attempts to dissuade them. … Until, of course, she becomes slowly tempted and manipulated (what a theme the past few weeks this has been) into a decision to join Hickey and Jeff’s Chemistry book operation. And then Shirley kicks into full-fledged power mode and, as we saw last week, when she acquires power, it’s wise to stay your distance and agree with whatever she says, lest you suffer the consequences.

Annie and Abed’s dinner is about as awkward as you might anticipate it would be, considering the fact that they’re both trying to convince the other that Anthony and Rachel would make, respectively, the best choice for a roommate. When the conversation grows a bit uncomfortable, Annie and Abed excuse themselves in order to determine the best and fairest way to choose a new roommate. That’s when Abed settles on “Piles of Bullets” and the two decide to pair up with their choices: whoever wins the game gets to invite their roommate of choice to move in. Of course, there is one important thing I forgot to mention: Rachel and Anthony don’t know the stakes of the game at all.

Apparently the troops have called in Britta at Greendale, who takes a look (and sniff) at the new books and says that she may know a guy who could get them all a price on the book and a seller… but it would cost Shirley and company HALF of what they’re going to earn. Shirley’s running the show now, not Hickey or Jeff (the tides turn quickly at Greendale), and the woman refuses and insists that 25% of the cut is the best and only offer Britta will get. And the woman only makes that bargain because Britta now holds a slightly upper hand – she was brought to the East Wing blindfolded but knows where they are and can return at any time to steal the books from the gang and take all of the money for herself.

Unfortunately, another cog enters the wheel of an already diabolical plan: Chang. Knowing they have no choice but to keep him with them, lest he betray their whereabouts, the group decides to kidnap Chang and hold him hostage. As you can tell, “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing” is a shining episode for everyone involved in the B-plot. Back at La Casa de AbAnnie (… that’s all I’ve got), the group is attempting – to no avail – to figure out how to play “Piles of Bullets.” Nothing about the game makes sense, but then again it was a VCR game in the ‘90s and really, how many of those made any sense?

Anthony and Rachel don’t know about the actual stakes of the game so they’re baffled when Abed and Annie begin to become obsessed with understanding how to play and win it. Subtext by Calvin Klein is heavy in this episode and these scenes because they’re literally focused on how to win a game that makes no sense to distract themselves from the idea that they’re lonely and a bit broken without Troy. You know who else is a bit broken? The textbook theft team, who decides to film Chang making a fake confession (that he stole all of the textbooks) in order to blackmail him into not saying a word to anyone else about the books.

… Man, when Greendale students become invested in something, they don’t hold back, do they? Shirley doesn’t think blackmail or kidnapping is going to far at all because she’s become drunk with power. And a power-hungry Shirley is a Shirley to be feared. Interestingly enough, I always presume that JEFF is the one who is most easily swayed to the “dark side.” He’s the one, after all, who entered Greendale and tried to destroy innocent lives; he’s the one who used to manipulate and lie for a living. But I think Jeff has boundaries and lines that he knows he won’t cross again, even if it’s to personally gain something. Shirley, on the other hand, has always been powerless. She’s been considered the weak one and I think that type of person is a far more dangerous one when power is placed in their grasp. Shirley doesn’t know what power can do to a person, but Jeff does and he hates the person he was when he abused that power. So when he sees what Shirley and the others are doing to Chang, he refuses to take part in it anymore.

Jeff genuinely doesn’t want any part in the debacle and begins to leave, but he’s tied up (literally) by Hickey and Britta and prevented from doing so.

Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Rachel and Anthony are watching Abed and Annie’s craziness unravel as the two cannot seem to manage to win the game and decide to try for another round. When their guests object, Annie and Abed reveal the real reason for “Piles of Bullets” and Rachel is so offended by the deception that she leaves. Speaking of deception, things aren’t going too well for our band of thieves back at Greendale. The sun is beginning to rise – yes, that’s how long they’ve been there because Greendale students lose all sense of time and space when they’re invested in trivial things – as the group begins to squabble, thanks to encouragement from Jeff, over who will deliver the books to Britta’s guy. When everyone begins to distrust everyone else, the only solution left is for Shirley to tie them all up and deliver the goods herself while, presumably, keeping all of the profit. It’s a dark episode for Shirley and even darker when it’s revealed at the end that she feels bad for being duped by the error in the books but doesn’t feel remorse for what she did to her friends. They all claim that there is no lesson to be learned but I think the lesson is this: power corrupts good people more than it corrupts those who have had it and lost it. BAM. Mystery solved.

The next morning, Anthony packs up to leave because of “unresolved issues” and Annie agrees and begins to unload her issues onto her brother: she’s still upset that their mother never supported her decision to go to rehab; she’s mad at Anthony for taking her side in the whole thing. I suppose it’s good to see the writers acknowledging that Annie went to rehab and is estranged from her parents without utilizing her pill-popping days as a joke or an offhanded remark. I’ll take what I can get, of course, but it’s short-lived because Anthony doesn’t care about THOSE unresolved issues. He’s referring to Troy and leaves in a huff, not resolving anything with his sister or even thanking her for anything. … I don’t like Anthony. I liked it better when Annie had no brother at all.

The third-act resolution between Abed and Rachel is going much better as the young man stands beside her locker and recreates an apology in the rain, which is my favorite part of the episode. What Community has done well in the absence of Troy is develop Abed. The young man sincerely apologizes to Rachel for his behavior and explains that he is afraid of messing their relationship up and he’s afraid of people leaving him because the times he can’t see that coming (i.e. Troy) are the worst and most difficult to get through. It’s an intensely human and wonderfully honest moment from Abed and I loved it so much. Rachel forgives him, of course, and the two are resolved.

One loose thread has yet to be resolved and it’s that of Abed/Annie: the former enters the study room explaining that Troy was the one who used to keep the peace between them and though they haven’t been saying it (meta), without him… there’s a vacuum. I’m glad that Abed and Annie have evolved in their friendship and I’m glad that they have acknowledged the absence of Troy and the significance of that absence. I definitely think they’re the better for it.

And you know what? I think we are too.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
  • Alison Brie and Danny Pudi were stand-outs in this episode.
  • I can’t make out EVERYTHING on the whiteboard, but it seems to be a little riddle which is fantastic.
  • Jim Rash is the best thing about this episode. His rap was HILARIOUS and  had me laughing out loud, as did his scene at the end. Give the man an Emmy already to go with his Oscar.
  • “I ain’t livin’ with your month-long girlfriend, brah.”
  • What a delightfully meta commentary about Joel’s muscles that was, Hickey.
  • “It's from whom, by whom, but he nailed the third question.”
  • “Is this a real conversation or are we being bugged by the feds?”
  • I want both of Annie’s outfits in this episode. Thanks to the Internet, I found them and I'm way too broke for them, so.
Next week is the epic return of a game I know absolutely nothing about: Dungeons & Dragons! Join me here next Friday for my review of “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” Until then, folks. :)

1 comment:

  1. area. What intrigued me was the pass-along path those calls took, from animal group to animal group. The shrieks of baboons, the trumpeting of elephants, the screams of francolins, the cries of impalas were picked up by adjacent animals and sent out for as long as the threat remained. In that predator-prey world, where survival depends on heeding and passing on warning calls, this was nature's equivalent of a "heads up."Truckers Insurance It got me thinking. Why isn't there as effective a process in the workplac