Tuned In

Community Watch: The Secret Garden

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Brief spoilers for last night’s Community coming up:

A good episode of Community is all a matter of how you see things. Literally. On one level, an episode like “Aerodynamics of Gender” can seem fantastical, what with Abed’s Robo-Bitch-vision and Jeff and Troy gamboling in a magical trampoline garden. But really what you’re seeing is how the characters frame their reality: an ordinary piece of athletic equipment, a simple case of people insulting each other in a cafeteria, is processed through filters of heightened reality, which gives the show the otherworldliness that makes it distinctive.

So when you see the trampoline garden, it looks like a heavenly paradise because that’s how Jeff and Troy perceive it; when the Mean Girls scenario becomes a kind of hell, that’s because that’s what the characters are making it. At Community’s best, the grounded characters and the fanciful writing and visuals turn mundane reality into something stylized and magic.

I wouldn’t call “Aerodynamics” Community at its best, partly because it sometimes felt—as sometimes happens on the show—that characters are being pushed in directions to serve the plot. I could buy that Shirley would embrace being a mean girl, maybe, or that Jeff would bliss out on the trampoline, but knowing what I know about each character, I’d expect some kind of resistance. And while I loved Abed’s transformation into a Queen Bee, it ended up completely overshadowing Britta, Annie and Shirley’s role in the story as they became what they once hated.

But the episode was generally so well executed that it overcame most of that for me. And that had to do not just with the funny lines or the visual gags but also the execution of the theme: that people, like the students on this campus, live their lives in the same ordinary humdrum world, but have the power to make it paradise or perdition depending on their behavior. And when you forget that, the payback is, as they say, a bitch.

Quick hail of bullets:

* I had actually expected some kind of joke on the racial overtones of Joshua the groundskeeper’s “natural jumper” line when he said it, and was initially suprised the writers passed on it. Nonetheless, I didn’t see the secret-racist twist coming at all, so nice job on that.

* I wasn’t especially struck one way or another by Hillary Duff in her guest role, but given how reliant the Thursday sitcoms have become—sometimes distractingly—on guest casting, I’ll consider that a plus.

* Last week, The Office and Community had the same Lady Gaga joke; this week The Office had a “mean girls” reference. One more week of this and I’ll start suspecting coordination.

* One of many treats of a visually packed episode was the Abed-vision, with its sidebar infographics (Annie and Shirley’s “cycles,” a synopsis of the episode itself); pause the clip above to see.