Community's first season was marked by episodes that started somewhat more normally before gradually increasing the rule-breaking cartoonishness of the show's world; I'm thinking of "Modern Warfare" in particular, which started out innocently enough before exploding into a glorious mash-up of modern action classics. But the second season looks more willing to jump right into the high-concept waters and not waste time on the more grounded set-ups. Case in point: last night's hilarious and lightning-fast "Basic Rocket Science," which played as a send-up of Cold War action flicks from frame one before moving on to hit everything from Space Camp to Star Wars. This is the kind of all-out "wacky" episode that you can only pull off once the characters have been firmly established, but because the series has taken the time to do that, the more gimmicky half-hours still work. You can't have episodes like last night's all the time -- the show would cease having any semblance of reality, and thereby lose its emotional connection -- but every now and then, they're perfect.
The opening conference between the dean and some nameless suits set the tone, with the dean warning of the launch of the City College Cosmic Pioneer. It's just a cheesy space simulator, but it's got the initials CCCP, which means we're firmly in the flashback/nostalgia mode that creator Dan Harmon has been able to mine for gold in episodes like "Contemporary American Poultry." The dean perceives the City College launch to be a (red) threat to Greendale's enrollment, which is why he recruits the study group to wash off and clean up a battered old space simulator sponsored by KFC. He ostensibly picks them as punishment for their submitting a flag bearing an anus for a school competition, but it's really because, well, these are our guys.
Everyone in the gang except for Abed winds up trapped inside the space simulator, which is just an RV with dated props and flashing lights. The plot mainly mixes Space Camp (misfits accidentally sent into space) with Armageddon (ragtag team bands together to do something important). They wind up getting towed, with Abed responsible for talking them through the simulation and getting home. His role is a blend of every mission control/field commander from movies like these, though it's clear he's modeled after Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon with a dash of Gary Sinise from Apollo 13 thrown in. Not to leave the references to the action genre, the episode also gets in a few Star Wars nods, notably Troy's "Almost there ..." while piloting the simulation and a shot of the RV cruising through the desert meant to recall a landspeeder moment from the first film. (I watched them a lot as a kid. A lot.)
The ending was no less fun for being predictable: The "ship" returns and is met by roaring crowds, even though they're just there cheering on people for pretending to go to the Moon. It was a remarkably breezy 22 minutes, even for Community, and that's because it relied solely on the meta-humor. That doesn't make it bad, or unfunny, just slightly less emotionally resonant than the other outside-the-box episodes I mentioned, which bent the rules like crazy but still managed to come back to a grounded center (Jeff's charity and relationship with Britta, Abed's loneliness). Yet it feels wrong to fault the series for just letting loose for a night, especially when it was so damn entertaining.
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• Chang had two golden moments last night. One was when he told Abed he'd found a way to reroute the RV's power; Abed replied, "Reroute to what?" and Chang just backed away, crazy smile frozen. The other was when he told the dean he hadn't been able to stall some City College with KFC because they thought he was doing product integration for KFC, at which point he took a bite of a KFC sandwich and praised it. This is the 30 Rock method of cashing corporate checks but having fun, too.
• Loved that the dean's map used penis drawings to rank local rest stops and public restrooms. This guy's becoming as creepy as another character played by the same actor. Jim Rash is fantastic.
• Suddenly Annie wants to transfer to City College? Even for a show as mercurial as this one, that's a little sudden. I know it was just a beat to move the story, but hopefully they'll be able to dig a little deeper or just let it go.
• Pierce had "space madness or something," but we all know it was space dementia.