Community's second season improves so dramatically on the first that it's hard to believe the show was already, pound for pound, the funniest series currently on air. While it lacks the depth and ingenuity of Louie, Community achieves such a rapid-fire rate of jokes that it rises over the current crop of excellent television to be one of the finest shows around. Balancing old-school sitcom narrative style (self-contained episodes of ludicrous adventures) with modern TV storytelling (long arcs of both character and narrative), Community often gets away with having its cake and eating it too. It offers episodes so outlandish that the show often breaks even the loosest connection to reality, yet somehow the show manages to consolidate even something as possibility-shattering as a zombie outbreak into the core story of the study group septet of varying ages and backgrounds that resembles more and more the most touching family on-screen as time goes by.
The previous season ended on an emotional cliffhanger not unlike the second season finale of the American version of The Office. A confession of love, a physical expression of another kind and various subplots resolved and opened new paths to be explored upon the show's return. From the moment Dan Harmon and his crew get back, they not only follow up on these stories but give unexpected spins on plots headed seemingly in the opposite direction. Where the series got off to a slow start with its first few episodes, the second season wastes no time assessing where it stands, where it needs to go and how it can get there in the strangest, most unorthodox way possible.
Given the alternately episodic and overarching progression of the show, discussion of Community necessarily falls to a focus on standout episodes even as that does not give an adequate overview of the show's more long-term strengths. Besides, it's an invitation to folly, as to talk about every episode of quality would force one to spend some time on each individual entry of this fantastic season, for even its isolated moments of weakness have enough jokes and/or development to make them worth several watches.
But let's talk about some of the finer moments for a sec. After two joke-heavy openers that reestablish this world of madcap humor and poke fun at the existing character relations, "The Psychology of Letting Go" moves away from filling in contextualizing blanks in the characters' stories to truly moving them forward. The death of Pierce's (Chevy Chase) mother prompts change, ironically, in several characters except Pierce, whose piety to a silly cult becomes deeply felt as a coping mechanism as the cynicism of some others sparks internal debates between showing Pierce the painful truth and respecting his means of self-comfort. Capturing the show's ability to turn between emotion and goofiness on a dime is an eerie yet sweet deathbed message recorded by Pierce's mom that ends with a punchline out of left field that turns a choked sob into a barked laugh, and Pierce's own reaction stands perfectly between sadness and comic oblivion.
That small-scale approach is then contrasted with wild genre parodies like "Basic Rocket Science" and "Epidemiology." The former uses a claustrophobic simulator to act out a parody of Apollo 13, while the latter features the aforementioned zombie outbreak at Halloween. In both cases, the writers find clever ways to justify such ridiculous subject matter, not merely as something that could conceivably happen in real life but something that comes about as the direct result of the cheap budget workarounds a failing community college could provide. Ergo, the simulator used in "Basic Rocket Science" is nothing more than an exhibition toy for kids that survived the '80s, inexplicably and hilariously sponsored and programmed by KFC. Such episodes continue the proud tradition of last season's "Modern Warfare" and "Contemporary American Poultry," broad homages that stylistically embody the sort of references that are spoken aloud throughout the series.
No less enticing, however, are the handful of episodes that manage to act out such parodies without going through budget-breaking grandstanding. With the Halloween episode and a two-part return to paintball madness for a finale, Community surely used up a great deal of its allotted money in a few goes, and it finds creative avenues for dealing with other types of film. This often has the added benefit of shifting the focus to character growth to fill the gaps left by bigger stunts. Take "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," an episode that uses a game of D&D to mock fantasy film but remains firmly within the library study room at all times without anything save good framing and camera movement to give the scenes any kinetic properties. Yet the episode proves not only to bring out some endearing humanity in these sarcastic characters but to develop a side character heretofore used only as a cruel punchline, and the character even enjoys a more prominent (if still tertiary) presence in the remainder of episodes. Likewise, one episode promises to be a full-on parody of Pulp Fiction before it derails almost immediately into a heartfelt dinner conversation between Jeff and Abed slowly revealed to be a parody not of Tarantino but the sort of movie one would never expect to be referenced in a freewheeling pop-culture explosion like Community.
Through it all, we see incremental growth in these people even as they deal with the same struggles that hounded them from the start. Joel McHale continues to sharpen Jeff's prickly warmth by pitting his sarcastic remove against the begrudging realization that the other six are really the only people he has in the world. The writers put Shirley's poison-tinged honey to the test with an unexpected pregnancy that pokes holes in her religious self-righteousness without mockingly pointing out hypocrisy; in the process, we learn more about her as well as the ex-husband whose mythic evil erodes in the face of reality. This nonjudgmental view of Shirley's unwitting contradictions is echoed in her secular foil Britta (Gillian Jacobs), whose feminist and liberal indignation increasingly seem a front for more conservative and harsh views that engender guilt in her. These deeper examinations demonstrate a logical progression, never reinventing characters and using even storytelling clichés like pregnancy to bring about gradual, contextual change.
As such, it's no wonder that the season's brightest light (among stiff competition) is "Cooperative Calligraphy." Though no less self-aware and parodic than the bigger episodes, this self-declared bottle episode uses its constricted setting and commentary on typical television tricks to clarify the shifting dynamics within the group and how those alterations both skew and reaffirm how these characters relate to each other. It even does so by undermining the show's usual tricks for getting out of a hairy emotional situation, knowingly sidestepping what was already feeling stale even as it inserts many of its usual elements such as a Jeff Winger speech, which is inspiring but dovetails off into exasperation and madness to leave the full payoff for later.
I admit I wasn't entirely on-board with everything this season. Pierce's descent into villainy is cartoonish without the tangible emotional payoff that tempers the show's other flights of fancy, and a humanizing touch inserted in the finale seems too small a gesture to combat the vicious unpleasantness Chase (with admitted skill and timing) plumbed in the latter half of the season. Furthermore, a few episodes hedge too closely to preceding half-hours, from an election episode that feels too much like lazy political commentary slapped onto the much-better "Debate 109." Having said that, the two-part finale mines the same basic setup as "Modern Warfare" yet finds a new stylistic inspiration (swapping out action movies for spaghetti Westerns and Star Wars) that makes it no less entertaining.
If Louie uses its episodes to deconstruct life and interpersonal comedy, Community takes the shallower approach of dismantling the funhouse mirror of televisual exaggeration. Nevertheless, its consistency in episode quality and character development make it no less than the third best show on TV after Louie and Breaking Bad. Whether hanging out with Troy and Abed or learning more about the hefty cast of background characters (many of whom openly resent how our leads hog all the attention), Community takes continues to turn what might be detached, self-satisfied hodgepodge of pop culture references into something resolutely sweet, perhaps the best and funniest "hugging and learning" sitcom since The Cosby Show's best days. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to watch a compilation of Donald Glover crying.