Watching the sweet, simple and almost shockingly enjoyable eighth episode of nuCommunity – not only easily the best of Guarascio and Port's Community but one I'd rank over a solid dozen or so episodes of Dan Harmon's Community – it occurred to me that the best thing Community's new guard can do (or rather should have done, since this whole season's been in the can for months) is stick to the sitcom basics. Be funny, be nice, draw story from character. It's simple, and, as "Herstory of Dance" shows, it works.
Now, don't get me wrong – I'm in no way advocating that Community morph itself into According to Jim. Or, to be less hyperbolic, even into Scrubs or Ben and Kate. Community should absolutely and always maintain its pop culture-infused tone and vibe, something that's been with it since Abed launched into a Breakfast Club monologue fifteen minutes into the pilot, and "Herstory of Dance" absolutely does. Abed's story, where he's not aggrieved but delighted to find himself reenacting a classic trope when he finds himself on two dates at once, is pure sitcom self-commentary, and Britta's whole Sophie B. Hawkins story is basically one long music reference.
But what made it work in a way that surpassed the Doctor Who/Inspector Spacetime jokes from "Conventions of Space and Time" or the Shawshank jokes from "Cooperative Escapism in Familial Relations" or the Changnesia documentary from "Advanced Documentary Filmmaking" is just how strongly every inch of it was rooted in character. Abed's internal fight between maturing and falling back on his love of sitcom tropes really let both the character work and pop culture references roll, and Britta's stubborn refusal to acknowledge that she'd accidentally said "Sophie B. Hawkins" rather than "Susan B. Anthony" even as things began to get out of hand was such a great distillation of Britta down to her sweet, clumsy and well-meaning if overly out-to-prove-something best.
Props should also go to Brie Larson's guest spot as Abed's new love interest Rachel. She was great in Scott Pilgrim and 21 Jump Street and I've heard good things about her in the upcoming dramas The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12, and in this episode she demonstrated within seconds the immediate, can't-take-your-eyes-off-her charisma of a rapidly rising movie star. In her hands, Rachel was a real character as opposed to walking romcom trope.
Also, can I just say that this episode's deeply warm, humane ending was just a couple minutes of great, great television? Community has of course always been a show of happy endings. In sharp contrast to, say, Arrested Development or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one of its signature elements is that it pretty much always brings episodes to some form of sweet, victorious resolution for our heroes, and in the few cases where it doesn't ("For a Few Paintballs More," "Digital Exploration of Interior Design") it's pretty much always part of the plot and continued on into the next episode, which then resolves last's episode's downer ending sweetly.
But even in that context, the final minutes of "Herstory of Dance," where Abed reconnects with Rachel and especially where Jeff sends his text redefining what it means to "Britta" it, evoked shades of some of the show's all-time best episode endings and were up there with bits of Bunheads and Parenthood as being among the most sincere, heartfelt and genuine TV of 2013. They weren't really "funny," per se, but when TV makes you feel so unreservedly good, that's ok. Tears damn near came to my eyes.
But there were some solid laughs, too, from the Dean's black and white costume to Troy's fake mustache and longing for wacky ice to YouTube celebrity Wendy McColm as Abed's manic pixie dream girl date. Granted, it wasn't as nearly funny as Community as its Dungeons-&-Dragoning, guard-chloroforming, insane-asylum-cutawaying very best, but not many things ever committed to screen are, so that's a ludicrous standard to hold it to. It was a damn funny episode that made me laugh a lot, and, even more importantly, made me feel content and happy, and I'd say that gets the job done.
Kudos to Gillian Jacobs and Danny Pudi and Brie Larson, kudos to episode writer Jack Kukoda (a former scribe for The Onion's videos, new to Community season 4) and kudos to the new guard for producing what is, ignoring Bob's Burgers and the ending stretch of 30 Rock, 2013's best half-hour of TV comedy to date.