If you’re just a casual TV viewer, or a rampant channel surfer, a college student with a light schedule or laid up in bed for some reason, procedurals can be a godsend. They’re very easy to dive into without requiring much fore-knowledge and without needing any place-setting, and pretty much no matter the time of day, it’s not that difficult to find one in reruns. Especially the Law & Order franchise.
Procedurals work because they all follow a basic formula. Even if you stop in on an episode of Law & Order that’s half-over, it’s not that difficult to figure out where you are in the story. Someone’s (usually) dead–if it’s SVU they may have been raped, or a child may have gone missing, but original recipe L&O deals mostly in murder–and there are suspects and witness interviews and dimly lit scenes where bit players in lab coats stand over bodies and computer screens to share exposition. There are district attorneys, also dimly lit, having late-night meetings over Chinese take-out to discuss circumstantial evidence and drink scotch. There’s local color and there are cheesy one-liners and someone is falsely accused. There are “chung chungs.” And whether or not the good guys succeed in nailing the bad guys for their crimes, episodes always end on some bleak note. The process grinds on, there’s always a call for more law & order on Law & Order.
The other side of the narrative coin is serial storytelling, where one week leads into the next, and the next and the next and the next. Show like Lost and Heroes were heavily serialized, and it made it very difficult to just dive in in the middle. If procedurals are the ultimate in accessible television, serialized shows are about as inaccessible as it gets. They cater to die-hards, the people who will tune in each week without fail.
Most television these days falls somewhere in between. Shows like Bones, House and Castle follow a case-of-the-week format, but they’re more concerned with their characters than the who-done-its, and shows like Veronica Mars and Life built season long arcs alongside smaller individual mysteries. Sitcoms are generally designed for syndication, so that even if you’re just catching an episode at the gym or turning on the TV while you fold laundry, you’ll be able to step in and then out of the story.
And then there are shows like Community.
Community is frequently excellent. It’s a very smart, rich series, it knows its characters really well, it’s not afraid to try unusual things–episodes that are war movies, episodes that are action movies, episodes that are done entirely in claymation, episodes in the style of Ken Burns documentaries, episodes where everyone sits at a table and plays Dungeons and Dragons–and it is very, very funny, but it is not remotely accessible. Unless you’re already in on the wonderful, weird world of the show, you can’t just drop in on episodes. Or you can, but you might hate them. It’s for this reason that Community is never going to be a massive hit. Its fanbase is small, but intensely loyal.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like Law & Order and Community have all that much in common. But Community doesn’t have all that much in common with Ken Burns documentaries, either, or with Apollo 13 or Star Wars or westerns or really any of the styles it’s aped over the last three years. Despite the fact that the series has tremendous respect for its own medium, and could not exist without shows that came before it like Spaced and Scrubs and NewsRadio, Community is a show that’s often best when it’s trying to figure out how to put a new spin on that medium. Sometimes that’s a clip show episode composed entirely of new clips. Sometimes that’s a self-aware bottle episode. Last week it was a thorough homage to the Law & Order franchise.
From its opening moments, “Basic Lupine Urology” was an episode of Law & Order. The direction, the tone, the performances, the costuming, the script–anyone who has ever spent Memorial Day vegged out on the couch could tell you that Community nailed the essence of the series. They even brought in one of the actual L&O medical examiners, they adopted the in media res scene-setting and handheld camerawork. But that alone doesn’t make an homage successful. That’s just fanfiction. Where Community truly succeeded was in the way it deployed its own characters, slotting them into the archetypes that make up the cast of any episode of the Law & Order franchise.
Logically, Troy and Abed step in as the detectives, with Shirley doing her best S. Epatha Merkerson.
Though the format of the episode is immediately apparent, Shirley is the one who establishes the homage to the other characters, confessing that she watches crime shows when she’s bored and then taking over the “crime scene,” assigning tasks to the rest of the characters. She’s the one who establishes the rules of the episode, rewrites the Miranda Rights, shares personal experience with her “detectives” so they know where to look, keeps a watchful eye over interrogations from behind a two-way mirror dirty aquarium.
Troy and Abed, meanwhile, live their lives like buddy cops, and they’re pop culture-vores. Out of all of the characters on the show, Troy and Abed are the ones who can best see the procedural structure that has taken over their lives. They try and out-zinger each other, switch out on good cop/bad cop (“I’m sorry about my partner, he’s been on edge ever since we switched,” may be my favorite line of the night), and, once the premise has been established, they start showing up dressed like Lennie Briscoe, with bad ties and oversized overcoats. They’ve been playing make-believe more than usual this season, using their dreamatorium to turn their lives into episodes of Inspector Spacetime, and they’re more than happy to do that here as well. They commit to the structure because that’s what Troy and Abed do, and that commitment is what makes the episode hum.
Annie and Jeff, meanwhile, stand in as the crack legal team, the ones who discuss their case over Chinese take-out containers. Jeff actually is a lawyer, kind of, and knows what it takes to win a case, what questions to ask the witness, what to look for with the testimonies they hear, and Annie is just the sort of driven second-chair he needs to back him up. She’s motivated after all–if they can’t find the culprit she’ll have to take a C, which is about as bad as getting “pregnant at a bus station.” And the over-enthusiastic dance she does when she gets her confession is what manages to push the moment from Law & Order to Law & Order parody, while remaining completely in character.
Britta and Pierce aren’t given much to do, with Britta stepping in as one of the techs, who can’t do much with a photo alibi except turn it “old west color,” and attempt to offer her opinion as a psych major. Pierce is, naturally, the first suspect. Though neither of them has more than a scene in the spotlight, they both embrace their roles. The skill is in the details. It’s in the way Britta carries her mug to the computer, in Pierce’s visor, in the way the tech tosses self-deprecating quips at no one and the first suspect immediately passes the blame onto someone else.
Plenty of Community‘s supporting players are brought in to flesh out the episode: Garrett and Magnitude, Todd and Starburns, Professor Kane and Vicki, Fat Neil. Most of them are suspects, which makes sense given the way the study group tends to treat people who aren’t in the study group, especially their arch-nemesis Todd.
The detail that really makes the episode sing, though, is the final moment, the bleak note that is such a Law & Order staple: as the characters debrief and unwind in the Dean’s office after the “trial” is over, a call comes in on the Dean’s phone. The meth lab that Starburns was building in the trunk of his car, a detail established when he was questioned by Troy and Abed, has exploded in a car accident. He’s dead. And cut to “special thanks to Dick Wolf.”
A few extra things:
- I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to figure out where they got the episode title.
- There were several pitch-perfect references I couldn’t fit in above: the cops and lawyers meeting at Garrett’s hotdog truck, repeated references to Todd’s time in Iraq, “Whoever did do this does owe you guys a letter…an A,” Fat Neil walking around the main office with his arms full of folders, Annie stating that “the case really was about biology,” the entire courtroom sequence, from Todd’s war stories on the stand to Annie withdrawing accusations to Todd’s outburst to the way Annie encourages Todd to “diffuse the I.E.D. of dishonesty”…and plenty more.
- “Why were you late?”/”I fell asleep in a sunbeam.”/”Likely story.”/”Actually it is. I used to live with him. It’s kind of adorable.”
- “Keep the change Garrett. You know what, keep the hotdog.”
- The tag was completely disconnected from the rest of the episode, as is generally the case with Community, and while the abrupt departure from the style is a little disarming, it’s worth it for the Dean’s incredibly creepy singing voice. “Sweet Deans!”
The reason I love Community so much is because of its ability to totally commit to being ridiculous while still being self-aware. This episode, to me (I caught an SVU marathon over a long weekend in high school, and it's been a love affair ever since–strengthened by last night's Van Der Beek extravaganza), was a perfect example of why Community, while I agree it will never have real mass appeal, deserves to be on the air.