There were two halves of yesterday’s episode of Community, “Grifting 101.” There was the half that was a parody, kind of, of The Sting, which like a lot of late season Community parodies, the show actually calls out by name in case you don’t get what’s happening. That sort of underestimation of the audience is pretty pervasive not just here, but in the show’s general attitude these days. Sure, there are the outliers like last week’s episode, but on the whole we’re talking about a show that wants to announce what it’s doing so you know that it’s clever, rather than letting the material stand on its own.
And then there was the second half of the episode, which just consisted of Matt Berry doing seemingly whatever he wanted. It was great.
That was the tension of “Grifting 101,” the fact that there were some really clever things (mostly with Berry) going on alongside some very lazy material. The plot engine, for instance, worked well. In its second semester (which apparently we’re in now), a new professor is teaching the titular course. Obviously it’s a grift, and the main thrust of the course is selling students as many $150 briefcases as Berry’s grifter character can get away with. However, because he randomly decides that he hates Jeff, this starts a feud and Jeff decides to enact an elaborate, largely nonsensical grift back at Berry. This takes up a lot of the rest of the episode, and for what it’s worth, does a good job of parodying the genre, even if it goes on for a little too long and mostly just recreates the genre through homage, not parody.
The problem is that the entire Jeff-Berry rivalry feels forced in a way that should feel pretty familiar by now. As usual, the reason for Jeff acting vindictively doesn’t feel natural to this character, or at least not the Jeff established by the first few seasons of the show. Instead, he’s the same surly, largely unlikeable character who goes through life with little motivation besides his own ego, which seemed to arrive soon after Dan Harmon’s return to the show. His involvement in the story is mostly pretty annoying, and while there needs to be a reason for the Committee to grift Berry, they already pretty much have one. Why graft on this strange characterization?
That being said, Berry’s a wonderful actor and imbues this tiny part with an epic scope. Community usually does great work with its guest stars, and that’s no different here. While the extra length does Jeff’s unfortunate story little help, it allows Berry to have plenty of time to develop what could be a throwaway into a perfect Community character, broad and cartoonish but with nuance under the surface. His essential weirdness is a perfect fit for the show, and it’s unfortunate that he leaves at the end of the episode. His pitch perfect line readings, which felt so natural they seemed improvised, made up for a lot of flaws here.
So yes, another Community episode had a story that felt forced, which is mostly to say it was another sixth season Community episode. Still, the positives really outweighed the negatives. There won’t be many surprises here, but while Jeff remains a huge problem for the show, there was some recognition of what’s going on with other characters. Britta is starting to come together, and even Chang made sense for once. It’s unfortunate that large parts of the core cast, which is to say Jeff, Annie, and Frankie, are major problems for pretty much every episode because of how ill-defined they are, but so long as the show keeps writing around them, Community’s still worth watching. It’s not a great show anymore, but it still has a handful of great moments in every episode, and that’s enough.