After two episodes of extracurricular adventures, “Alternative History” returns to the Greendale campus, and the history credit that was such a preoccupation of the pilot. Not only did they blow their shot at that History of Ice Cream class, but upon their arrival at European History, the Greendale 7 find themselves face to face with the sneering German students from the Season 3 episode “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism.” Their professor (Malcolm McDowell, amusing if underused) encourages them to look at history from all perspectives, but when the trio of Germans tries to steal the study room, they’ve got a world war in miniature on their hands.
The episode’s B plot is frankly a dud, which is unsurprising considering it centers on Chang, who’d only been briefly glimpsed in the season’s first episode (and the show was no worse for his absence). Since the (admittedly brilliant) twist of unmasking Chang as a fraud back at the end of Season 1, Community hasn’t really known what the hell to do with the character, and maybe this “Changnesia” things is no worse an idea than making him a student or a security guard. But it looks like another dead end, the subplot done no favors by writer Ben Wexler too often going for the easy jokes with Dean Pelton.
Wexler is new to the show this season, his previous credits running mostly to traditional (and frankly, mediocre) three-camera fare like Still Standing and Nikki. In fairness to him, there are a few laughs in this episode: Abed and Jeff’s response to the contention that Germans don’t hold grudges (“Unless you’re talking about Die Hard 3” “Or the 20th century”); Troy’s accurate description of their second-tier, flickering fluorescent alternate study room as “like a Darren Aronofsky film”; his throwaway Burn Notice joke; the way the Germans refer to Hogan’s Heroes as Hogan’s Villains; McDowell’s immediate directive that his students’ projects include no dioramas.
But “Alternative History” is a weak episode, probably the least successful of the season to date. Pierce’s cartoon electrocution gag may be the show’s comedic nadir (and it feels exactly like the kind of wacky Chevy idea that we heard him berating Dan Harmon for cutting out). The “war for the study room” framework and on-screen text recalls the Ken Burns-ish “Pillows and Blankets” episode from Season 3, with none of that show’s wit or ingenuity. And the feel-good ending plays icky, the kind of heavy-handed “I think we all learned something today” pap that the show usually either sends up or works through so poignantly as to transcend moralizing.
“Alternative History,” though airing fourth, actually bears the production code 402, meaning that it was meant to air second in the season. It makes much more sense there — the callback to History of Ice Cream isn’t such a stretch, and it’s not so peculiar that Troy and Britta (who we’ve now seen post-coitus) seem to barely glance at each other. But it’s easy to see why it was moved to this later slot; following the weak season premiere so closely, without the stronger Halloween and Spacetime convention episodes as buffers, this episode would’ve had fans ready to revolt.
But there’s something instructive in what has and hasn’t worked so far. The season’s two best episodes got the Greendale 7 away from Greendale, and were better for it — they felt like expansions of the canvas, in the same way that last season’s episodes at Troy and Abed’s apartment did. The weaker installments are those that stay on campus; when they’re at Greendale, the contrast between old and new Community is clearer, particularly when they’re explicitly referencing classic episodes like the Dungeons & Dragons game or the “bottle episode.” Community still has some life left in it, but it would do well to get out of its own shadow.