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‘Community’ Season 4, Episode 10 Recap: The Darkest Timeline Update

After creator Dan Harmon was unceremoniously dismissed from his role as showrunner at the end of Season 3, Community ‘s loyal fans feared its departure would plunge the show into what Abed Nadir would surely call “the darkest timeline.” But despite our concerns, we hold out hope that the new showrunners and their stable of writers are able to make the best of this worst possible role of the dice. This week’s episode, “Intro to Knots,” the Greendale gang’s Yuletide celebration takes a decidedly dark turn.

The fact that we’re getting a Christmas episode in April is, again, a result of NBC yanking Community from its planned October season premiere (from which the producers presumably painstakingly timed the airing of these holiday shows) to its eventual February berth. It’s also worth noting that it’s been well over a month since we saw the Thankgsiving episode, due to a rerun and some shuffling of the shows’ airing order (last week’s puppet episode, for example, was apparently going to be the season finale—thankfully, cooler heads prevailed).

The good news about “Intro to Knots” is that it is both better than the Thanksgiving episode and better than writer Andy Bobrow’s last credit, the strained season premiere. The episode’s primary flaw is that it feels like five pounds of flour in a three pound bag—there’s good stuff here, but just as it gets going, it has to hurry up and end.

The good stuff first. We get a lot of primo Annie in this episode—so much so that we start to realize how Alison Brie’s been rather underused this season. Her entrance (in the midst of a very fancy long-take opening shot; kudos to director Tristam Shepeero) and charming play-house dress-up of Jeff’s bachelor pad (“just to make the place look a little less… corporate short-term housing”) is adorable, and the fierceness of her harrowing tale of professorial malice is one of her best acting beats in recent memory (the fact that Shirley “intimidates him with her sexuality” is a nice touch). And speaking of underused, here’s Malcolm McDowell again, and utilized much better than in “Alternative History of the German Invasion.” He proves himself a good Community utility player: appropriately villainous, admirably game, and smooth with the transitions into pathos. (Also worth noting is Chevy Chase’s absence, weakly explained by Pierce going to “sensitivity training.” This is apparently one of those episodes that wasn’t yet in the can when he got the boot late in the season’s production cycle.)

The idea that the gang would basically kidnap a professor strains credibility, sure, but the situation is well handled by writer Bobrow, and it sets up a pretty juicy central premise: testing the group’s loyalty to each other by allowing one of them the chance to get an A—if they’ll betray the others. In all fairness, that conflict is rich enough that it might be too big to fit into one 22-minute episodes, particularly with gift-giving jokes and Chang’s half-hearted evil storyline angling for screen time. And thus, when Jeff’s big speech arrives, it’s just too sudden; as has often been the case with his Message Monologues, the shift is so jarring that it spotlights the formula machinery at work.

Still, this is a pretty decent episode—snappy, energetic, nicely claustrophobic, and with a few very big laughs (this viewer’s personal favorite, juvenile though it might be, is probably Troy’s knowing correction to “E Pluribus Unum”: “I’m pretty sure it’s anus”). Good wind-up, even if the pitch is a little too hastily delivered.

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The innocent sweetness with which Annie asks, “You’re F-ing us?”
  • Her response to Jeff’s crack about grades not mattering: “That’s a lie they tell dump people when they’re fitting them for work boots!”
  • The Dean, spending his evening with “my two irresistible lady friends, Rizzoli & Isles!”
  • Not a lot of laugh lines for Danny Pudi this episode, but the cheeriness of Abed’s cutaways (particularly a big thumbs-up at the end) got me every time.

LOWLIGHTS:

  • I’ve got a feeling that when this Chang-is-still-evil stuff pays off at the end of the season, it’s not gonna be worth the wait.
  • The reference and cutaway to “the darkest timeline” was harmless enough, but does reinforce my previous assertion that direct callbacks like these only highlight the drop in quality this season. So we should probably be worried that this darkest timeline stuff reportedly comes back in the season finale, right?
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