It’s a tribute to Community’s writers that after more than 100 episodes they’re still able to come up with strange ideas that haven’t been done before by either Community, or any other television show. However, it’s not the concepts themselves that are problematic for the show; it’s their execution, more and more of which rely on cliche and and pastiche for every single event. It’s far from a good thing that, regardless of whether there are aliens, or a trip to Atlantis, or just characters hanging around in their apartment, you can be pretty sure of where an episode of Community will start and end. The high-concept ideas that fuel the show are excellent, but their structures are getting staler with every passing episode.
For instance, “Laws of Robotics and Party Rights” has two pretty great ideas for storylines, and unfortunately it fails to make either one particularly funny. The more strange of these concerns Greendale’s decision to let prisoners take courses with the assistance of what were essentially Segways with iPads mounted on them. It’s a neat concept, and I was impressed by how reasonable Community managed to make this feel. As far as the production side goes, the show pulled this off beautifully, which is no mean feat considering that Community looks like it’s received a budget cut every year it’s been made. Better yet, one of these prisoners is played by the talented Brian Van Holt, best-known as Bobby Cobb from Cougar Town, who actually just finished an appearance on that show’s finale, where he also appeared only via iPad. Despite being a mere digital presence there, he nearly stole the show, and his comedic chops remain intact for his performance here.
That concept in and of itself isn’t a story though, and the drama comes from Van Holt’s character hating Jeff’s terrible teaching. As with Community’s rampant alcoholism, this is irritating because we’ve never had it set up before that Jeff is a terrible teacher. In fact, I’d kind of assumed the opposite because, as he says later in the episode, he loves his job. Needless to say, this feels completely artificial, and Jeff seems to be terrible, not because of any real reason, but simply because the plot needs him to be. When Van Holt tries to kill Jeff, it’s hilarious, but everything after that, with his character kicking Jeff out of the school and then replacing Jeff in Dean Pelton’s heart, is just tedious. These are by-the-numbers story beats, and while the concept and ridiculousness of characters fighting with iPads is almost good enough to almost imbue these scenes with humor, the cliched nature of everything else keeps the story from taking off. As things return to how they were at the end of the episode, the cast itself essentially shrugs, and it’s hard not to agree. If Community were willing to stick to its weirdness, letting the convicts keep attending Greendale for instance, it would be one thing, but instead it’s another case of just going full circle.
The other story was somehow even less inspiring. Britta wants to throw a party, but Annie stops her, and the only way she’s able to overrule this is to convince Abed to make a film about parties.
Again, this story is based on a whole ream of characters acting not at all like themselves. Since when does Britta love parties (or even know enough people to invite to a party)? Since when does Annie hate them? Why would Abed be the boss of the apartment? Why, when Abed has finished dozens of films throughout the show, is he unable to complete this particular one? With so many characterization problems, everything falls flat, and while there were a handful of entertaining gags (I enjoyed the cast doubles), it wasn’t nearly enough. When the story ends due to essentially a semantics issue, I was both dismayed at how idiotic Community suddenly made Abed, and relieved that at least the story was coming to an end.
“Robotics” wasn’t disappointing in the same way as a fourth season Community episode, which were essentially dead inside as they went through the motions. Instead it was filled with good ideas that were poorly executed. Once again I suspect part of the problem is length, because for every good joke there were three bad ones, giving this episode a kind of Airplane! approach to humor. But more than that, the show just seems to be losing its conception of who these characters really are. Post-Season Four, Community has had a strange identity crisis. The writers know what the show should be, and aren’t willing to simply regurgitate ideas, but conversely they seem to have lost track of who these characters are. As a result, the show, and its humor, suffers because without any real motivation or internal reasoning for the cast to do what they do, Community really is just a world of goofy tics and affectations.