For the past few years, I’ve been doing a year-end list of 10 best episodes as well as 10 best TV series. I resisted doing the episodes list at first, because I’m lazy and because there’s too much out there for me to pretend my list is really comprehensive. But I’m glad I do it now, because it makes a useful point about the difference between a show that makes great individual episodes and a show that’s great as a series over all.
“Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism” is a good example of this. It’s one of the last Community episodes before the show goes on hiatus (the Christmas episode airs next week), and while it would not make my all-time list of individual Community episodes, it’s nonetheless the kind of episode I hope the show makes more of if it returns and sticks around.
Over its two seasons-plus, Community has produced several amazing, mind-blowing best-episode contenders. And I love it as a series too, but one thing I feel has held it back in that measure is that it hasn’t developed all of its central study group characters as well as others. It’s spent a lot of time unpacking Abed, Jeff and to an extent Annie, for instance, but Britta and Shirley tend to hit the same notes: self-righteous hipster, self-righteous Christian.
“Foosball,” however, was one of the best stories Shirley has had in a long time, if not ever. To be fair to the show, it has always given a sense that there is a lot more behind Shirley’s tightly wound “That’s niiiiiice” than she lets on. (Going back to the pilot, there were indications that she had anger issues, though those hints receded into the background for a while.) So it was about time for the show to start digging into her past, showing what exactly Shirley created her sweetness-and-light persona to deal with. Having her backstory intersect with and complement Jeff’s was an intriguing twist, but one that deepened her characterization rather than shift the focus to Jeff’s, because it forced her to literally confront her past.
It was a stronger episode for character than for sheer density of laughs (the Abed-is-Batman B-story didn’t do much for me on either front)—not to say that there weren’t a lot of very funny inventions: Nick Kroll becoming a human foosball (“That was like a $25 bit! It wasn’t even that good!”), for instance, and seeing a German wish there were a word for laughing at the misfortune of others. Above all, the bravura anime showdown between Jeff and Shirley sent me straight to Tinkletown.
But in a way it’s more important for episodes like this to do the work of expanding on the core characters, because that’s what makes a greater series, and more laughs, possible in the future. Here’s hoping Community has a long future ahead.