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Raising the Bar: Thoughts on Community's Contemplative "Mixology Certification"

Ah, how the child becomes the parent.

Last night's sensational and heartfelt episode of Community ("Mixology Certification"), written by Andy Bobrow and directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, brought us Troy's 21st birthday and took the group out of the study room for a night of debauchery that gave us a glimpse into Shirley's dark past, Annie's home life, Troy's state of mind, and Abed's, um, love of Farscape.

Now in its second season, Community has proven that it's adept at conflating genres and smashing expectations about what's possible within the confines of a broadcast comedy: it's a workplace comedy, thriller, horror survival story, romantic comedy, mystery, buddy comedy. An episode jam-packed with jokes and sight gags can give way to an episode like this one, that's higher on the heart quotient and lighter on overt humor. And that's a Very Good Thing for a thoughtful and contemplative episode like this one.

The series' innate unpredictability gives Community a vital edge over multi-cam comedies; one show can be all things, within reason, given the flexibility of Community's overall premise, the skill set of its writing team and its talented actors, and the absurd nature of the show itself.

That absurdity, granted by creator Dan Harmon, gives the show the ability to be both untethered from reality and emotionally grounded. The situations the gang at Greendale might find themselves in might invite disbelief, but the relationships between these characters and their emotional bonds keep the series from flying off into outer space. (Literally, once.)

This week's episode was no exception, offering us a night at The Ballroom, in which Troy's expectations of his first legal drink were dashed on the rocks when he saw the behavior of his friends influenced by alcohol: Jeff and Britta's squabbling, Annie's attempt to become someone else, Abed's abject loneliness, and Shirley's sad, drunken past. His unsipped seven-and-seven emblematic of a choice he's made.

Jeff and Britta, as previously noted, have served as the heads of Community's family of former strangers, often sliding into their self-determined roles at the drop of a hat. From Britta's censuring of Troy at the episode's start (after convincing Pierce that he owed him for the "cake deposit" for Pierce's non-existent birthday party) and Jeff's tacit approval of said incident, we see a Troy desperate to please his knowledgeable and worldly parents, even as they slip into roles that are less becoming, arguing over which of their local haunts is the better bar. Is it L Street? The Red Door? The fact that both are one and the same--revealed at the episode's end--undermines their authority within the group, at least in Troy's eyes.

Jeff and Britta are not infallible.

That seems to be the takeaway for Troy, as he sees them not as unstoppable forces of nature or as all-knowing parents, but as flawed individuals who know nothing more than he does. As the scales fall from his eyes, we see Troy take that first full step into adulthood as he learns that most important--and heartbreaking--of lessons.

Our parents are just as human and as messed up as we are.

It's that knowledge that pulls us, often kicking and screaming, into adulthood. Troy might be 21 (I loved how the gang worded this Jehovah Witness' birthday cake) but he's realized that his expectations of what that entails and what that means for him have been greatly exaggerated. If a night at the bar means this sort of drunken upset, he doesn't need to have that seven-and-seven, after all. And after a heart to heart with Annie (one of the episode's best scenes), his handling of the unruly "kids" in the backseat of Jeff's car fulfill this trajectory from child to adult. ("Abed, no one likes a tattletale.")

Growing old, it seems, is not what Troy believed it to be. It's not a gateway to coolness, but to just growing old. Often, it seems, without the wisdom that Troy believed his older peers to have.

I mentioned briefly that scene between Troy and Annie, notable for the tenderness of the interaction between Donald Glover and Alison Brie and that heartfelt embrace (a nice callback to the crush Annie formerly had on Troy), and for the fact that we got a further look at where Annie lives, a part of town that everyone acknowledges is rough. (As Brie told me a few months back, that opening shot in the season opener was meant to show Annie's bedroom is right across from an adult bookstore and frequent drug deals.)

Annie's journey in this week's installment show her disconnect from the reality of her situation, her using of Caroline Decker's sold Texas ID to become someone else altogether, a girl from Corpus Cristi with nary a care, a "drifter" who is the opposite of Annie. The more she fantasizes about Caroline Decker's life, the more Annie hopes to dissociate from her own, from the future that she has intently mapped out for herself, from her shabby apartment in the wrong part of town.

Just as Shirley attempted to erase proof of a less-than-perfect past, Annie attempts to eradicate her future, assuming someone else's Texas drawl and their looseness with their future. It's a very un-Annie character that she becomes that forces her to see how she's been running just as much as Caroline Decker, putting her all of her energy into 15-year plans to rigidly run her future life rather than live it now.

Sometimes a drink is just a drink. And yet sometimes it's indicative of something else. That first legal drink, that milestone in everyone's adult lives, marks a major turning point for Troy, one that he walks away from in the end. Not because it means the end of innocence or the loss of one's childhood but because he sees the effects of alcohol on the so-called adults around him. And in that moment, Troy takes one giant leap into maturity that puts him well above his metaphorical parents, Jeff and Britta, and his own mother, seeing her lies for what they are.

Along the way there were laughs, but this episode also brought a somber, introspective quality to the mix, seeing Troy's birthday as not just a festive time of merriment but of change and transformation too.

Kudos to the Community producers for casting the always fantastic Tig Notaro and Paul F. Tompkins in this week's episode, here playing respectively the bartender and Abed's would-be "gay sex" partner. The handling of the scene between Abed and his erstwhile paramour was pitch perfect, with Abed's interest being limited strictly to have found someone he could talk to about "Sci Fi original series Farscape."

In its way, "Mixology Certification" once again pushed the envelope in terms of what Community is able to accomplish, bringing a cable sensibility to its broadcast network roots. It's not often that broadcast comedies can handle such life-changing moments without veering into "very special episodes," yet Community pulled this off remarkably well, delivering an installment that blended together heart, humor, and painful realizations. Not many comedies can do that and yet Community once again manages to make the seemingly impossible look all the more effortless.

I'll raise a glass to that.

Next week on Community ("Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"), Abed goes on a quest to find the meaning of Christmas after he awakens in stop-motion animation; Jeff and Britta seek help from Professor Duncan after getting concerned about Abed's mental health.


Sean Sakimae said…
That was as great of a write-up on the Mixology ep of Community as the ep itself. "Televisionary" is quite the appropriate name.

I greatly appreciate when a show that is capable of producing side-cramping laughter, is able to ground itself in reality and add depth to their characters... to make the viewer actually care. Plus, as you mentioned, the call backs- (troy/annie, shirley's life, Jeff/Britta).

Also, this episode allowed the actors more range, furthering my push for Donald Glover's emmy nom (providing a certain show runner submits the necessary materials)

-@Snapthejap on twitter
Juan J Ramos said…
I didn't watch any of season one but I'm greatly enjoying season two so far. I love the the show's unpredictability. I thought the last episode was possibly the best one I've seen.

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