Saturday, January 11, 2014

Thoughts on Community: 503 "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics"

Last week, Community returned in fine form, with laughs aplenty, recognizable sitcom tropes and a layer of snark both familiar to many modern comedies and unique to this show. Though the ratings were not strong, clearly the hour (particularly "Repilot") was meant to offer a bit of an open door to new fans.
Victim of the Ass Crack Bandit

This week, none of that: a darkly presented episode with few setup-punchline-laughter moments, grim visual style and--to newcomers of the show, anyway--a drastic change in format. It's something that longtime viewers of Community have simply come to expect: some weeks, the show is obviously a sitcom about students in a community college. Some weeks, the show becomes a western, post-apocolyptic zone, stop motion animated musical or alternate universe.

Not that I'm complaining: "Basic Intergluteal Nuismatics" worked, and worked wonderfully.

First, though, an explanation of the title. 

"Basic," naturally, suggests an introductory course (and foreshadowed the open ended ending). 

Intergluteal, or more specifically the intergluteal cleft, is defined in Wikipedia as "the natal cleft, the vertical gluteal crease, the gluteal cleft, and, colloquially, the "butt crack", is the groove between the buttocks that runs from just below the sacrum to the perineum, so named because it forms the visible border between the external rounded protrusions of the gluteus maximus muscles." (Wikipedia adds that "the intergluteal cleft is located superior to the anus." I'm sure that in this context, "superior" refers to it being above, but I had to chuckle from the wording nonetheless.) 

Nuismatics, also defined by Wikipedia, refers to "the study or collection of currency, including coins, tokens, paper money, and related objects."

So what is "basic intergluteal numismatics?" An introduction to butt crack money collection. And that is indeed what the show gives us, with the introduction off the Ass Crack Bandit who... puts quarters into people's hiney cleavage and dashes away.
The flashlights mean they're serious.

It's an amusing premise, and I cracked a smile while writing the previous paragraph. It was a curious decision, then, to mix the silly idea with the stone cold, SVU-style presentation of the episode. We see Jeff and Annie as the "investigative partners... or more than that?" detectives, down to lines like "We do it or it doesn't get done." Troy presented as not only victim, but borderline sexual victim. The latter is presented with iconography like the stereotypical post-attack gray blanket, wheelchair, and slap to the face of the (presumed) bad man who did the bad thing.

Terribly British
The show breezily reintroduces John Oliver's Professor Duncan, with the passing excuse that he was caring for his mother. For the last two seasons of absence. It is to the show's credit that he indeed does wander back in; it appears that he's back simply to help right the ship after last season... until he becomes a suspect later on. Naturally, none of that can be suspected as the show takes a kind jab at Chevy Chase's absent character: Duncan blithely mistakes (or "mistakes?") Professor Hickey to be Chase's Pierce. That too is setting up story for later in the episode.

But before all that, the show delves into its procedural exploration, with the aforementioned attack on Troy (and others), as well as the investigation unfolding. The show has an absolutely wonderful moment as school officials prevail upon Abed to try--just try!--to use his unique senses to decipher the situation. His response: "Mildly autistic super detectives everywhere... broadcast, basic cable..." and he walks out. Between Sherlock and Elementary, he's more than right.

The show also touches (though more gently than a quarter in the butt) on the lengths we as a society will go to protect ourselves, on the idea that we'll give up liberties in order to be free. In a classic Harmon move, Troy calls for cameras in every bathroom, an idea that we're meant to find abhorrent. But(t) he explains himself, saying "A camera in the bathroom is better than a quarter in your butt." Touchy... but touch√©.

Escape in progress
Community seemingly gives us our baddie in due course, by way of the triumphantly insane return of Starburns (seen trying to ride a sleigh pulled by kittens drawn forth by a fish on a string). In the moment, it feels madcap and a fitting return for the once-presumed-dead and beloved side character.

Quickly, though, Jeff and Annie pick it apart and realize Starburns couldn't have done it; he eventually quietly confesses that the Dean made a deal for Starburns to take the fall. Annie first suspects Duncan in a scene that encapsulates this episode's odd tone. We have all the bits of reveal as we've seen them before in countless cop procedurals: a slip of the tongue where Duncan reveals he's a Dave Matthews Band fan, just as the Ass Crack Bandit is and Annie spies a roll of quarters. John Oliver portrays Duncan here as perfectly creepy, particularly once Annie drops her keys. Is he leering, or being silly... we can't be quite sure, as the show is also continuing the SVU flavor to things, so Duncan also comes across as, frankly, a bit rapey. (That he previously corrected himself and gave an "American high five," not the implied British one where a hug is exchanged with a woman, only adds to the rapey bit.)

With that, the episode starts to conclude: do we see a slip of the keyboard suggesting it was the Ass Crack Britta? Or was it Shirley, who had to raise prices in order to not give out change? Suspicions increase... but then we're told that Pierce Hawthorn, the Chevy Chase character that we loved to hate played by an actor that we learned to hate, is dead. 

In Pierce's death, the show offers no comedy, no rattatattat. It is a moment that feel tremendously earned--a chance to say goodbye to a character that brought some great moments to the show, even while the actor proved to be a block-headed, foul mouthed egoist.

The show ends with hard lighting, a grim reminder that there's been quite a bit of serious business in this episode... all brought forth by the Ass Crack Bandit.

Seriously funny
And that's the magic of the episode: it truly jams an hour's worth of story, of twists and turns, into 22 minus of NBC primetime. In that sense, it's a fantastic episode; while not tremendously funny, "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics" represents a high wire act of astonishing writerly daring, particularly from a show that... you know... might at least try to grow its audience. But no: Dan Harmon et al write for us, those of us watching.

Those of us who get the joke that Community doesn't always need to be funny to be a great sitcom.

Last week's Community article can be found here.

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