‘Community’ Season 5 Episode 9 Recap: “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing”

Community is about as dialogue-heavy and joke-dense as any comedy on television, but sometimes, they earn their richest laughs by saying nothing at all. Two of the best moments in last night’s very good “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing” were pauses, perfectly timed and beautifully executed: the Dean’s deep and rather frightened breath before running out of the study room following a fierce and angry freestyle rap in a Payday candy bar costume, and the looooooong moment of Annie, Abed, Annie’s brother Anthony, and Abed’s girlfriend Rachel just staring blankly at the television, trying to wrap their heads around the “Pile of Bullets” VHS game. If there’s been a longer pause on network television, I’m not aware of it—but the indulgence of that pause wonderfully summarizes the spirit of the show this season. Ah, what the hell, it seems to say. It’s not like we’re scaring any new viewers off!

Speaking of which: how about those semi-obscure, geek-friendly guest stars? First of all, we had affable ol’ Vince Gilligan, the sweet, soft-spoken husk out of which the darkness of Breaking Bad crawled, playing the face of “the highest stakes 1993 VCR game of your young adult lives,” having a terrific time rattling off its utterly impenetrable rules. And then there was Gina Gershon as his wife in the 1993 flashback, encouraging him to dump that stupid job at Apple and become the Luke Skywalker of interactive VHS. And then there was PAUL FUCKING WILLIAMS (have you seen Paul Williams: Still Alive? See Paul Williams: Still Alive), as Britta’s “somebody that knows some people,” the would-be fence for that seemingly priceless cache of mint-condition Chemistry textbooks that turns a round of storage room cleaning into A Simple Plan (with a dash of Treasure of the Sierra Madre thrown in).

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The show’s most esoteric guest star, however, is Spencer Crittenden, monosyllabic and understated and very, very funny as Annie’s brother. The story on Spencer, in case you’re only a casual visitor to the land of Harmon: Spencer is a regular on Community creator Dan Harmon’s “Harmontown” podcast, a gig that grew out of him literally being a guy in the audience who volunteered when Harmon asked if anyone could be the “Dungeon Master” so they could play Dungeons & Dragons on the show. He ended up doing it every week, and going out on the road with them for their tour last year, which was documented for the Harmontown movie (which premiered last weekend at SXSW). And Spencer’s kind of the charming scene-stealer in that movie—as he is here.

But the real guest star thrill of “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing” is the triumphant return of Brie Larson as Rachel, Abed’s girlfriend for a month that’s been so well-done, it’s “the equivalent of a year,” he insists. Look, I get that us boy movie nerds get all weak in the knees over Ms. Larson, but she just plain kills it here, landing some of the episode’s best lines (“Are we sure this is a game and not some art film?”), geeking out charmingly (“I do not like that side of VCR technology. I am glad that it’s a dead medium”) and fleshing out her sweet chemistry with Danny Pudi’s Abed.

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This second appearance of the season is reportedly the last for Larson, but here’s hoping they’re doing whatever it takes to keep her around for the sixth season and the movie, because she’s a wonderful addition to the show—just as Jonathan Banks’s Hickey has turned out to be, to say nothing of the season’s many ingenious guest turns. The most meta line of the episode (okay, second most meta line, behind “I’m here to do my third act apology”) is Anthony’s comment about Troy: “I don’t know his name, man, I just know he’s clearly left some kind of vacuum.” As we’ve discussed, that vacuum has sort of been the undercurrent of the last few episodes, but it must be said: Community really hasn’t skipped a beat. Donald Glover (and, to a lesser degree, Chevy Chase) are certainly missed, but their short- and long-term replacements don’t have the musk of stunt desperation; they merely feel like the weirdo Greendale universe in the natural act of expansion.

(Side note: I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that Britta’s “EEEEVVVVERRYBOOOODDDYDYYY” was the second shout-out this season to Gary Oldman in “Leon” [aka “The Professional”], but I’d like to think it’s not, and that the entire study group will eventually get the chance to ape Oldman’s crooked cop Stansfield. Because why shouldn’t they?)