‘Community’ Season 4, Episode 3 Recap: The Darkest Timeline Update

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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, “Conventions of Time and Space,” finds the Greendale 7 attending a geeked-out celebration of Inspector Spacetime, with varyingly successful results.

With no less than four separate plotlines occupying its seven central characters, “Conventions” is a strikingly busy episode. This is good, inasmuch as it causes director Michal Patrick Jann (a member of The State and frequent director of Reno 911!) to default into the snappy pace at which the show always works best anyway. But it also makes it a shallow half-hour, with the secondary stories given little room or time to develop much beyond their broadest strokes.

Most of the episode is spent on the burgeoning relationship between Britta and Troy, and their struggle to develop it without rupturing the bond between Troy and Abed. The opening scene, which discovers Britta and Troy in the early morning afterglow, offers a bit of a visceral charge (yep, they’re doin’ it), and some inspired slapstick in the form of Britta’s elaborate prep routine (and I’m not just complimenting the scene because it offered up underwear time for Gillian Jacobs). The best line, however, is Britta’s reaction to an episode of Inspector Spacetime, one familiar to anyone who’s watched an episode of Spacetime inspiration Dr. Who: “Oh wow, there are fifty years of these?”

So Troy and Abed and Britta are off to the Inspector Spacetime convention, with Jeff and Annie riding along to go skiing, and Pierce and Shirley following because they feel left out. Once there, the latter duo is pulled into a focus group for a Spacetime adaptation on American television. The slopes are unexpectedly closed, so Jeff and Annie part company; she finds herself enjoying the hotel staff’s assumption that she and Jeff are married, while he is first embarrassed, then pleased with his uncanny resemblance to a Spacetime actor.

Alison Brie’s hotel room daydreaming is pretty delightful (asked by room service what kind of Scotch to bring him, she responds with a perfectly timed “the… good… kind…”), but the Jeff/Annie byplay late in the episode is forced and hokey, both in theory and execution. The attraction between the two characters has been present since clear back in season one, episode five (“Advanced Criminal Law”), but the urge to finally pull the trigger on it is one the show should continue to resist, particularly now that Britta and Troy are an item. The last thing we want is for Community to turn into the kind of endless pairing-off that helped make later seasons of The Office such a drag.

But the strained love-and-friendship triangle stuff mostly plays, thanks in no small part to Donald Glover’s particular (and peculiar) skill at playing overemotional beats both satirically and genuinely. He’s making fun of the pathos, yet using them at the same time, which makes his weird emotional instability both poignant and funny. Jacobs is a good sport—I’m still not sure I buy this relationship, but she does, and that helps. Danny Pudi’s elegant underplaying was particularly useful this week (and his Joel McHale impression is mighty impressive).

“Conventions of Time and Space” was penned by Maggie Bandur, a Community producer since season three who also wrote that year’s third episode, “Competitive Ecology.” That’s a half hour about which I can remember next to nothing—a point I make not to be mean to Bandur, clearly a serviceable writer, but as a reminder that all of our hand-wringing over the loss of Harmon shouldn’t mask the fact that Community wasn’t exactly full tilt every week, particularly in its junior year. Harmon didn’t write every single episode of the show, and consequently, though his absence is felt, it’s not as blaringly obvious as what we saw in the Sorkin-free West Wings, or that terrible Palladino-less final season of Gilmore Girls. Community is, clearly, not what it used to be. But there’s still plenty to like about the show, and about an episode like this one, from the unexpected closing credit cameos (perfection) to the throwaway dialogue gags (yes, Jeff says he has to “call Science”) to the genuine affection the characters share for each other, and for their audience.