Halfway through its third season -- and just a week away from what will be its final episode for who knows how many months -- Community is at something of a crossroads. It's not just that the show is struggling to find a lifeline at NBC and bring in a few more viewers (or, more realistically, cut its budget); it's that Dan Harmon and crew are caught between their ability to tell good stories and their desire to make those stories as insular and narrowly targeted as possible. The show's high concepts and gimmicks have always had the potential to be too clever for their own good, and several of them have come across not as storytelling devices but meager treasures never intended to be discovered. Episodes like "Documentary Filmmaking Redux" err on the side of trickery, but this week's "Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism" was a lot closer to the right mix of smart, sweet and wacky that makes for good Community and great TV. It veered into fantasy but never lunacy, and it pulled off ideas like Abed's Batman act by making them fundamentally about the emotions of the characters in question. Grace notes and Easter eggs are all well and good, but the best gags are always those that go back to character. When Community remembers that, it's just about untouchable.
That balance of wackiness and stability was paralleled on multiple levels, too. Broadly, the story of Jeff and Shirley's foosball game was the grounded one, while Annie and Troy watching Abed become Batman was (obviously) considerably looser. Yet Jeff and Shirley also oscillated between poignant moments in which they confessed their childhood pains and more cartoonish ones in which they battled a cadre of goofy Germans for rec room superiority. Plus there was their own animated head-to-head, in which they battled anime-style before realizing just how similar they really were and returned to reality, or what passes for reality at Greendale. The tension between emotion and the grand artifice with which it manifests itself on the show is part of what makes it unique, and this episode was wonderfully constructed to let that tension drive the story to a natural conclusion.
On the wacky side of things, it was fun to see Troy immediately disabuse Annie of her idea to try the old sitcom standby of replacing a broken object -- in this case, Abed's The Dark Knight DVD -- with a new one and hoping the owner won't notice, which led to Abed going full-on Batman to solve the crime. Abed's social awkwardness and flights of fancy are usually the parts of the show that push hardest at the edge of the universe Harmon has created, but they can also be some of the most rewarding. His stunt here at Batman was funny and a little over-the-top, but also believable for what we've come to know of Abed so far. Most importantly, it wasn't just a gag for the hell of it. Through the costume, Abed actually drove the story and wound up connecting with Annie instead of just retreating further into his own little world.
The heart of the episode, though, was the way Jeff and Shirley worked through some surprising mutually inflicted childhood torment to come out the other side closer than ever. Shirley's a mom, which means Yvette Nicole Brown plays her character a little older and wiser than Joel McHale's Jeff, even though they're essentially the same age. (In actuality, they're both 40, and Brown is only two months older than McHale.) It can be easy to forget that they're peers, and the revelation of their shared childhood packed more punch than would a similar story line about, say, Troy and Abed. Jeff and Shirley have also been opposite sides of the fence on just about everything in the show's history, and the gang at large has been a little additionally antagonistic about Shirley's faith this year, so bringing them together had the added benefit of mending a psychic and spiritual rift in the group. Watching them walk away together as the children they could have been was heartbreakingly perfect. Funny, smart, sweet and true to its characters: This was Community in top form, and this is what I'll miss when it's gone.
• Another killer guest spot from Nick Kroll. Choice line: "I wish there was a word to describe the pleasure I feel at viewing misfortune."
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• "That's like a $25 bit! It's not even funny!"
• Shirley got her own "Shut up, Leonard!" even as Leonard got the last word with his weirdly watchable pizza review. And speaking of Easter eggs, Leonard's Chuck Lorre-style closing card was pretty good. Check it out: