Community: A Very Special Episode

Community's greatest strength is its ability to do the exact opposite of a traditional sitcom and get equal or better results, especially when it comes to broadcasting its intentions. What I mean is that an old-school sitcom would never announce to the viewer that it was trotting out a bottle episode; it would simply do one. By calling attention to itself, Community gets to have the cake and eat it, too. But the trick works both ways: Classic sitcoms had a habit of being upfront about their Very Special Episodes, both in the ads leading up to their airing and in the suddenly serious and maudlin way they dealt with, I don't know, homelessness or eating disorders or something. In such overplowed ground, Community treads softly, and its episodes that most closely fit the Very Special template don't act like it at all. That's what we got last night with the fantastic "Mixology Certification," a sweet-natured half-hour that never once felt pandering or cheap. The core of the episode was as emotionally honest as any of the show's better moments, but it was supported by such humor and wit and speed that it never felt forced.

This is how you make great TV.

The episode revolved around Troy's birthday, and though he initially thought he was turning 20, he was actually turning 21. He hadn't known because he'd repeated fifth grade and subsequently believed his mom's lie that everyone stays 10 for two years because fifth grade is a challenge. (This reliance on his mother's teachings was a nice way to springboard into his later evolution into a grown man.) The gang heads to a bar to celebrate, where they split off into various side adventures before coming back together.

Those various adventures were all comic ones lined with sadness: Shirley, it turns out, was quite the drinker before finding her faith, and she spends the night trying in vain to remove the Polaroids of her that litter her old haunt. Annie and Abed have their hands full with alternate personalities. Annie pretends to be someone different and finds she likes it, while Abed is mistaken for someone he's not (a gay man) and goes along with it just to enjoy some companionship with someone new. Annie's adorable Texas accent and weird sayings started out as a way for her to live up the fake ID Britta had acquired for her, but soon became a way for her to realize just how unhappy she is with the decisions she's made academically and professionally. And Abed, of course, walked right into another round of rejection when the man hitting on him finally bailed after Abed said he wasn't gay but just wanted to keep talking about sci-fi TV series. That's a hilarious moment that's also really, really depressing, and Community succeeds because it balances the two extremes so well.

Troy's story, though, was the episode's beating heart, and his decision not to drink because he sees how sad and depressed it makes his friends feels like a natural decision for him to make in the moment and not some preachy stance woven into a script. He just doesn't want to. He'd been excited all night about becoming a man, and he became one when he realized that the people he'd been idolizing were just normal people like himself. He got to be the dad driving everyone home, issuing advice and lectures but never sermons. Jeff's line about him finally being a man hit the button a little too hard, but by then the episode had earned a little direct sweetness. Another typically great outing.

Scattered thoughts:

• Don't let four paragraphs of emotional analysis fool you: This was one damn funny episode. The character comedy was rock solid, and Troy and Abed each had some great observational jokes that killed. Troy's referring to alcohol as the "Lifetime Movies of Beverages" for the way it makes people sad was great, as was Abed's mildly distressed meta-claim, "This seems like a really dark chapter in our group story."

• Here in Houston, the first 20 seconds or so were cut off a bit by a commercial for the local news. I hope it was worth it, Dominique Sachse.

• Great supporting work by two wonderful stand-up comedians: Paul F. Tompkins as the gay geek hitting on Abed, and Tig Notaro as the bartender. If you don't know them, get on it.

• "Who the hell was that?" Perfect delivery by Joel McHale, as usual.

• "Would you like to have gay sex with me?"

• "I really, really like talking about Farscape. It's a really good show."

• Loved getting to see Pierce break down and ask for Shirley's help. Deep down, he respects her, and deep down, she still cares for the gang, even though they embarrassed her when they found out about her old drinking days. Nice moment.

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