Friday, March 19, 2010

Community, "Beginner Pottery": Winger vs. ringer

A review of last night's "Community" coming up just as soon as I'm Goldbluming...

The February 5th episode was listed in many services (including whichever one supplies info to my DVR) as "Beginner Pottery," when in fact that episode was "Romantic Expressionism." I don't know if this was just some kind of clerical error, or if "Beginner Pottery" was supposed to air a month and a half ago and got bumped at the last minute, but I suspect the latter. "Beginner Pottery" was the first episode of the show in a while that didn't really work, and networks tend to shuffle the air order (particularly during sweeps) if they're concerned about a given episode.

"Community" is such a delicate balance of tones - self-aware snark mixed with completely sincere emotions - that it's a wonder it works as well as it does as often as it does. In this one, though, the balance felt off: too strange and too pop culture-obsessed even for a school like Greendale and a show that includes Abed. There were parts that were still very funny (Abed admitting voiceover is a crutch, Pierce's anguish at Shirley leaving him to die) and Pierce's pep talk to Jeff worked as a heartfelt moment (as Pierce/Jeff moments so often oddly do), but overall the humor felt too self-conscious. The final moment in the pottery class in particular seemed exactly the wrong note to end on, like someone wanted to throw in one last pop culture mash-up with Rich the ringer's memories of his mother scolding him (which combined bits of a dozen different movies, including "Ordinary People" and "Stand By Me") even if it didn't tonally fit.

I like the characters enough that even an off episode like this one feels worth watching (if anyone still cared about the idea of "the family hour," I'd be amazed that they were allowed to show Alison Brie working a pottery wheel like that), and I like the idea that Greendale is weird enough to have a sailing class in a parking lot (even if "Cougar Town" beat this show to the boat-in-a-parking-lot gag by months). It's just that recent episodes suggested a new show that was starting to make what Bill Simmons calls The Leap, and "Beginner Pottery" - which, again, may have been made much earlier in the season and held - was reminiscent of a rookie still suffering growing pains.

What did everybody else think?

55 comments:

Stephen said...

Who was that playing the sailing teacher? He looked familiar.

Anonymous said...

I liked it. And while you're usually spot-on, I don't understand why you're so sensitive toward the pop culture references. You bring it up in every Community review. I think the show has a good balance of story, pop culture and outrageous moments. I really like the show and can't remember a moment where I wished it would stop dragging on, unlike recent episodes of The Office.

Tom M said...

I agree that that final moment with Rich's memories didn't work, but I disagree with you about the rest of the episode not working. I actually thought this was one of the show's stronger efforts. Guest star Tony Hale's line about hallway passerby getting "contact credit" was particularly clever.

You're definitely right about them airing eps out of order too. In the episode where Jeff's in Billiards class, he mentions to Leonard that he spoke to Leonard's son on Family Day and that he knows about Leonard's gambling. The Family Day ep didn't air until the following week though. A little Wikipedia research turned up production codes. According to those, last night's ep should've been 14th, in between "Investigative Journalism" and "Romantic Expressionism". It looks like they actually go out of order frequently, which I guess isn't a huge deal, but is kinda weird for a show that likes to make call backs to previous episodes the way this one does. If it's a network thing like you said though, it may be out of their hands.

Hannah Lee said...

I thought the boating storyline was hysterical, with lots of great moments. But the pottery class storyline didn't really work for me.

Maybe it's that we've now had a couple of episodes of Jeff being over the top while fighting some self-created battle with an off-kilter character we've never met before.
For examples, see Jeff taking on the Billiards Coach last episode, Dr Pottery this episode, and AMH in the Christmas episode. The Christmas episode really took off when the whole group joined in the action ...it gave us Troy's Forrest Whittaker eye, the fight on the quad, etc, etc.

When he's in the conflict all on his own, it just leads to scenes where Jeff is outrageous, followed by reaction shots of everybody else. And that can fall a little flat if it's not done perfectly. Plus, because the audience has no previous connection to the conflict, there's a risk that it will play like a series of bits, instead of a cohesive plotline. And I think that's what happened here. In cases where he's doing battle in conjunction with another character (like with Annie in the debate episode, or with Britta in the pool trial episode) it seems to work better.

Who was that playing the sailing teacher?

I believe that was Lee Majors.

Lionors said...

Who was that playing the sailing teacher? He looked familiar.

That was Lee Majors, also known as Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man.

I think it was his voice that tipped me off, but he still looks like "him," just older.

srpad said...

I liked this episode much more than you. If it was indeed moved that was probably a good idea because it was loaded with pop culture but I felt the show earned it and used it well.

I LOVED the ending. It was just so dark and random that I laughed and laughed well into the commercial break that followed. The fact that it was so off putting tonally was what made it funny for me.

BTW was that Buster Bluth as the Pottery Teacher?

Karen said...

Yup, that was Buster.

I liked the closing, too. I loved that it vindicated Jeff.

But I agree that the episode felt off, like the show was regressing. Annie at the pottery wheel was hilarious, though--more so because of Abed's and Jeff's faces, which could have been overplayed but were perfect in their careful concentration.

Jobin said...

Very underwhelming night of NBC comedies, IMO. First Thursday I can remember in which I didn't really like a single episode of the four options.

Jessica said...

Though I agree that it wasn't as strong as the others of past weeks, this episode still cracked me up. Tony Hale as the pottery teacher was like a grown-up Baby Buster. As he yelled at Jeff to stop Ghost-ing, I could almost hear the "chickens don't clap!" in his voice. Also, I had to pause the show after Troy said Pierce was "ghost riding the jib." Then I had to explain to my hubs what "ghost riding the whip" was.

Either way, if the weakest episode is still this funny, I will gladly take it.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I don't understand why you're so sensitive toward the pop culture references. You bring it up in every Community review.

To be clear, I love pop culture references. I make them myself all day, every day, and I'm always pleased when I can spot a reference on another show. But, just like the Abed/Jeff exchange about voiceovers (which was itself a reference), leaning too heavily on them can be a crutch, particularly on a show that wants you to take its characters and their feelings at least somewhat seriously. Most episodes, they manage to be meta and heartfelt at the same time; this one didn't do it for me.

W said...

The last bit didn't really fit in with the rest of the show's tone, but I still liked it. It was a good comment on how you never know what's going on in someone's head. And it explained why an expert potter would take a beginning class.

Bryan said...

I thought it was great - again.
(I do agree with Alan about that final scene however) The concept and execution of the pottery teacher being sick of anything Ghost related was terrific. And there was just something awesomely surrealistic about Pierce's canoe being flooded in the parking lot.

Anybody know what music they were playing during the boating scenes? At first I thought Perfect Storm but I'm not sure.

Teev said...

I get where you're coming from. Jeff felt off tonight. For all the wacky hijinks, this show feels grounded in reality and especially in emotional reality and in this episode Jeff was too crazy. And writing that feels kindof weird considering that the naked pool episode didn't seem too crazy so maybe I'm not putting my finger on it, but to me Jeff just felt off. And the payoff to the superlong Ghost setup fell a bit flat (although surprise payoff 2 of Titanic was funny).

I totally busted out laughing at Doc Potterywood's mom demon, though.

I guess they've preemptively solved the problem of what happens when everyone graduates. With all their credits for pool, pottery, sailing and living in the moment, these guys are never getting out of there!

Anonymous said...

I thought the boating story line worked pretty well. It might not have if any of the other characters had gotten "lost at sea", but this gave us a deeper look into the real Pierce.

The pottery line, not so much, though it was nice to see Jeff fail at something besides romance.

Of course, it would have been better if they had let him do it without his shirt on.

Mr. Guilt said...

I've been following the "pop culture"...not quite debate, but more than a discussion...around this show for a while. I have two thoughts.

First, I think there should be a distinction between the allusions/homages in this show, and the references in a different show, such as "30 Rock." With the latter, I think that, in ten years, the references will only be funny to folks who lived through, say, the Tiger Woods scandal (to pick on last night's episode). Simply put: while I think "30 Rock" is funny, I think because it trades so deeply in the moment that it won't age well.

In contrast, "Community" uses pop culture allusions as an homage. The scenes used are part of the cannon (much the same way saying "Play it again, Sam" to a piano player would be), and are likely to be known to future generations. Plus, they tend to be a layer of the comedy, rather than comedy in and of itself. Watching Jeff play pool to "Werewolves of London" was funny, mostly for the action, but the music was fun. Only later did I learn it was an allusion to "Color of Money." Watching Jeff and Abed dance was a fun allusion to the "Breakfast Club," but it can just be "two drunk guys dancing," and the scene still works.

I think the second thing is that this is one of the first shows whose language of allusions is primarily post-Boomer. It makes it seem more of the topical variety, but consider that the most consistent contributor, "The Breakfast Club" is like 25 years old.

Rinaldo said...

I found this a wonderfully strong episode, even though I too feel that the whole pottery-class subplot didn't really pan out (and most particularly the final voice-over for the Perfect Guy... somehow the decision to do that broke a level of reality for the series, weird as it sounds to verbalize such a distinction).

Still, there were lovely bits sprinkled throughout that story, and as for the sailing class? pure gold. I've seldom laughed so hard as I did at some of its lines and images, and part of the pleasure was seeing how the familiar characters behaved in the new environment. (What do I care that Cougar Town did a boat in a parking lot a few months before? It's good both times.)

Alan Sepinwall said...

What do I care that Cougar Town did a boat in a parking lot a few months before?

You certainly don't have to (especially if you don't watch Cougar Town), but it's actually an ongoing gag (just one introduced months ago), as one of the characters lives on this boat. So there's a lot of parking lot boat humor on that show.

Zach said...

Thought it was a very good episode. I was crying laughing when Jeff got kicked out of pottery, he looks at Buster Bluth and starts singing "Oh...my love...my darling" and Buster nearly loses it. Solid all around

rexmism said...

The episode numbers, starting with February 5, are 115, 116, 118, 117, and last night, 114. Glad to see your theory is correct.

Commenter105 said...

recent episodes suggested a new show that was starting to make what Bill Simmons calls The Leap

Maybe I'm treating tvtropes.org like gospel but I thought the phenomenon already had a term: growing the beard (I think it's from a little show called Star Trek. No really, I think" because I'm not a trekkie or trekker.) You mean this is not the Webster's definition? Please give this the tv critics stamp of approval. The leap is sports parlance: Kevin Durant made the leap last year and again this year.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Yes, The Leap is sports parlance (hence, Simmons), but I feel it can apply well to TV shows. I wrote a column years ago about how I felt "The Office" made The Leap late in season two.

Dan said...

"Stand by Me" and "Ordinary People" in the final scene? Alan, how can you possibly make a point of identifying those extremely vague references but not mention the clear nod to Psycho?

Alan Sepinwall said...

"Stand by Me" and "Ordinary People" in the final scene? Alan, how can you possibly make a point of identifying those extremely vague references but not mention the clear nod to Psycho?

[Ashamed]Because I've never seen Psycho all the way to the end?[/ashamed]

Kendra Muenter said...

I really liked this episode, but it could also be because I make my living working in the sailing community. I nearly lost it when Troy said about needing to see a black person on a boat.

Anonymous said...

While I would go so far as to say I didn't like any episodes, I'm with Jobin. Last night's comedies were a bit of a disappointment. Even Archer, which I don't set high expectations for, managed to underwhelm.

debbie said...

I LOVED both the sailing teacher and the pottery teacher having posters illustrating their forbidden pop-culture references. It's like the "No Stairway" sign at the guitar shop in Wayne's World.

And I also liked the ending with the voiceovers...being used as crutches. Full circle.

Wade Kwon said...

The ending also reminded me of Ralph Wiggum being instructed by the Leprechaun, which still cracks me up.

themightypuck said...

Personal taste is so weird. I don't see what makes this an off episode. This was a bit more 30rocky with the more obvious setup/punchline jokieness but it was still sweet and funny which is pretty much what makes Community work.

Steve said...

this was, BY FAR, my favorite episode of Community so I'm surprised that you didn't like it, Alan.

- I thought the while Boating class in the parking lot was amazing. It somehow was able to be one of the most absurd ideas I've ever seen without venturing on stupidity. Just great comedy. I'm even starting to like Chevy Chase.

- The whole idea of "ghosting" in pottery class was fantastic, and I loved the comment that the poster was made before he died. I don't know if that would be considered a meta-joke or breaking the fourth wall, or both, but it was great.

And P&R was great as well.. I can't believe the first hour of Thursday on NBC is now more exciting than the second hour.

Anonymous said...

I thought that the pool ep was genius but this one actually had me laugh out loud at two of my least favorite characters: When Senor Chang (I know, everyone loves him - too over the top for me) says,"I got robbed at the YMCA ... again.". And Britta sailing past the classroom on a ship in a parking lot! She really sold the dramatic "looking for the man overboard". A show that makes you laugh with a weak character is alright by me.

tag said...

This episode brought me much joy. Even when I felt like it was my duty to roll my eyes (Pierce in a Dingy), I still found myself laughing instead.

I am such a sitcom snob these days, and regularly ridicule those who are entertained by the stale / predictable / over the top jokes of modern sitcoms, but Community really has my number. It is making a hypocrite out of me.

mtw said...

I really, really liked the Pierce/Jeff moment. Pierce's explanation for why he attacks life the way he does was so funny, yet also revealing of the character. That was great, great writing.

I also thought the "sailboat gliding past the window" shot was hysterical. That's one of the huge advances in TV comedy in my lifetime. When I was a kid, there were no (for lack of a better term) "filmic" gags that I can remember.

Christopher said...

this is two episodes in a row that I really enjoyed.

amongst: "I can swim, racist."; "I put it up before he died; it's not in poor taste"; the entire "dr. school/medical school?/pottery school/pottery school?/oh, pottery school" sequence (which rivaled the "Carl Gordon Jenkins" Better off Ted sequence for me); as well as the aforementioned 'Voiceover', 'Goldbluming', 'Annie/Pottery Wheel', and 'Pierce being left to die' bits -- there was a lot of laughter, for me, in this one.

David Glasser said...

Was this the first episode with a non-Abed/Troy closing credits moment? (It had Sr. Chang.)

Dan said...

[Ashamed]Because I've never seen Psycho all the way to the end?[/ashamed]



(Speechless)

Alan Sepinwall said...

(Speechless)

It became one of those things where, by the time I was in a position to see and appreciate it, I'd seen so many parts of it in excerpts, and read so much about it, that I just never felt compelled to actually sit through the whole film. Not my kind of movie. (Conversely, I've seen Rear Window and North By Northwest dozens of times each.)

Paul Worthington said...

I agree this episode was a little weaker than the previous stand-outs, but it still brought me much joy.
My favorite part was quite low-key but greatly ironic:
Annie's comment on the class on how to live in the moment,
"Which I will always regret,
and never do again."

jenmoon said...

Hey, you know who should date on this show? The pottery teacher and Dean Pelton.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with you on this one, Alan. It was a very funny episode. I normally don't like Jeff, but he was great here. I loved him riling up Buster and his Goldblum impression was hysterical. And Mr Guilt made a good point in that Community's pop culture references are often still enjoyable even when I don't know them. Unlike 30 Rock's.

Greg said...

If you watch it again, you can notice a tiny fly sound when Jeff responds to "Goldblooming."

I love details like that.

Name/URL said...

@Alan - I'm so happy to learn that I'm not the only one who can't sit through Psycho but has happily watched NXNW and Rear Window multiple times. I no longer feel ashamed.

@Lionors - "...also known as Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man."

You forgot to adjust for inflation. In 2009 the character is more properly referred as "Steve Austin, the Twenty-Four Million Dollar Man."

Ian C. said...

I side with the "didn't like it" sentiment this week. It just felt like the episode was trying too hard. Usually, the humor seems to come naturally from this show, rather than forcing a situation to be funny.

(Though I do agree that the sailing storyline was far funnier than the pottery class - with the exception of Annie's "vase.")

Owen said...

Dammit, I really loved this episode and laughed out loud many times. Now I find out it wasn't a good one. Oh well, live and learn.

One thing I love is when they use the community college setting to it's full potential. The pottery and sailing both did that.

Also I was impressed that Tony Hales's pottery teacher wasn't "wacky". His only wackiness was that is super into teaching pottery and is sick of every student making the same Ghost joke. That is totally the way a real community college teacher would be. And for those Strangers With Candy fans out there: I couldn't help thinking of Paul Dinello/Geoffrey Jellineck.

Owen said...

One more thing: my inner 14-year-old laughed when, following her suggestive "vaa-se" making, Annie described the class as "much harder" than she thought it would be. Heh. That's what she said.

Henry said...

For the second week in a row, I keep cracking up at a scene in Community. Last week, it was Britta getting the "switch" from Troy's grandmother. This week, it's when Pierce "goes overboard" ("AGH!") in the Greendale sailing class in the parking lot. Only on this show could sailing (and pottery class) be made hilarious.

I even love the end, where it's revealed that Rich is just as messed up as Jeff is.

Rinaldo said...

(boat in a parking lot on Cougar Town)... it's actually an ongoing gag (just one introduced months ago), as one of the characters lives on this boat. So there's a lot of parking lot boat humor on that show.

Right, I hoped I'd made it clear that I watch and like both series. But a lot of comic devices are common property without "belonging" to whoever got them onscreen first, and having seen something done before doesn't mean it can't be used by someone else in a fresh way, if they're good enough. And I found this plot so fresh and unexpected (Bobby certainly never attempted anything like this -- for him the boat is purely somewhere to live, not something to pretend-sail) that the comparison honestly didn't occur to me at the time.

WWWeaves said...

"Dammit, I really loved this episode and laughed out loud many times. Now I find out it wasn't a good one. Oh well, live and learn."

Snorfl!

I loved the ending, it made me feel sorry for a character I despised. In a comedy. I think that's impressive.

Cassie said...

This episode felt a little off, but I still loved it. It's great when a show is that good - it can be off but still very good.

When they first showed Rich (and Jeff's reaction to him), followed by the beginnings of a voice-over, I thought "hmmm, this is odd - they don't usually have voice-overs on Community" and then the camera panned over to Abed! I loved that - as well as the scenes in the library. They always crack me up.

The sailing seemed a bit out there, but it's Greendale! Of course they would have a sailing class, and of course they would be too far from any bodies of water. At first, I wasn't sure where the storyline was going, but it all came together. "Oh my god, Pierce is going to be the only person to drown in a parking lot, TWICE!". And Senor Chang telling Pierce to get out of his parking spot....

And thanks to Community, I've gotten into Parks & Rec (since it's right after) - I've watched two episodes so far and it's great. Much better than what The Office has become...

Anonymous said...

I disagree with you too, Alan. I loved this episode and thought it was much better than last week. Definitely one of the best episodes so far for me.

I didn't get the pop references, but still found the whole thing hilarious. The sailing class in the parking lot with Pierce drowning (twice!) was fresh and inspired. I also really liked the insight into Pierce's character, during his talk with Jeff.

Maybe it felt off to some because it was shown out of order?

Anonymous said...

I loved the episode. The scene on the boat where Pierce goes overboard was just a comedy classic. My husband and I were cracking up (and he claims not to like the show!). And no one has commented on how Shirley was given something more solid to do as the Captain. I thought that was great.
Great use of Lee Majors and Tony Hale.

Dennis said...

I liked the ep but it will take a lot of work before they beat the pool episode; that installment was flat out in terms of the frequency of laughs.

One thing that struck me while watching this was I think the Britta character is going to get lost. She had some juice early on with the blonde girl thing plus Jeff's interest and then dating the guy who doesn't wear a shirt.

But more and more the writer's are playing on the scalding sex appeal of Annie's innocence and I think they'll mine that for the near future.

I'm not saying I mind it or anything but there's been a progression with Brie at first not having seen a penis and then her and Jeff have some real heat during the debate; later on she sneaks more than a peek at jeff during the naked pool scene; she swooned over Abed's Don Draper and broke out her bedroom eyes and then they had her working the pottery in the last ep.

I have a feeling they are gonna push this and britta will get lost in the shuffle.

Ant$ said...

Alison Brie working that clay was the OMG moment of the episode...

Anonymous said...

That Swayze poster was so not from Ghost. I think it was from the Point Break days.

I'm only vaguely aware of The Captain and Tennille; I think that ref may be a little too old.

Anonymous said...

You missed it with "Goldbluming". I was absolutely certain it would be "just as soon as I ghost ride a jib".

Geoff said...

Under twenty-five here and I have to say, the joke about "singing with Tennille" had me going Did he say what I think he said? Rewind the DVR and... yep. Awesome.

"I can swim, racist" was another knee jerk laugh before feeling the awkwardness.

And really, the reverse of that was why I liked the ending moment so much. Because when something like that hits you, you don't even really laugh, you just scream, "whoa!" The shock of the moment elicits laughter at how bewildering the scene is.

The actor's expressions totally sold it; half-over-the-top, half-Psycho-serious.