There’s a palpable difference between episodes of Community that the show’s creators lavished attention upon and those, like last week’s, that seem to have slipped by on “just good enough.” Not to say that the show hasn’t always been somewhat uneven, but the later seasons have really taken this to the extreme. “Modern Espionage” ignored all the tedious baggage that’s made so many episodes a letdown lately, and instead just focused on doing one thing really well: telling a spy story.
“Modern Espionage” was yet another take on paintball, and fortunately it continued taking this concept in new directions. While the first paintball episode was about doing an action movie on a weekly television show, since then Community’s creators realized something pretty important, which is that there are a whole lot of guns in a lot of movies. Spy flicks were a pretty natural fit for where the show is now, since rampant destruction of the campus goes against everything the Committee to Save Greendale is, theoretically, about. Realizing this worked wonders for the episode and meant that for once characters didn’t need to be forced into their roles, instead it all fell naturally.
The plot itself was clever, even if its ultimate reveal was pretty easy to guess. Paintball has been banned on campus, but someone is still running an underground tournament and despite their better judgment, everyone in the Committee except Jeff and Frankie have been playing. Jeff convinces the rest of the Committee it’s in their better interests to help them shut down the tournament, which leads to exactly the type of over-the-top spy movie story beats you’d hope for, to the point where they spend time locating a munitions dealer (played by Mitch Hurwitz’s Koogler) and then have a fancy banquet to attend to, before it gets destroyed by a paintball player who uses silver paint to mark his or her targets. It’s one cliche after another and it’s glorious.
I’m going to spoil things and mention that the villain turns out to be a janitor played by the always superb Kumail Nanjiani, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise given that Community is intentionally playing by the rules here and making the guest star the villain. It’s not supposed to be a real surprise, instead it’s about the chase and the ridiculosity of Nanjiani’s motivations. The show isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, it’s trying to give a good spin on a spy story, and here as in every way, it actually succeeds. Kumail’s motivations are dumb, and the chase to shoot him is even dumber, but it’s the type of fun and silly dumb that the show does so well.
What makes all of this work is that it removes the bickering and pettiness of so much late season Community. There’s no therapy, instead it’s the group working as a team to accomplish something, and in this everyone is fun to watch. Abed only peeks in intermittently with his fourth wall jokes, the Dean dispatches a gang of henchmen drunken master-style without knowing what he’s doing, and Annie… wears that black dress. The focus was on the story, not giving these characters ridiculous (and almost always bad) motivations. With this, there was also an ease of jokes, no pauses to tell us where a joke should be, instead it needed to run through things with the speed of 30 Rock in order to get through so much plot. The episode glided by without struggling to give us important lessons or reveal things about characters no one cares about anymore. It told a story well, and with that as a foundation, everything else pretty much fell into place.
Not everything worked. The credits sequence was crazy levels of bad, and the baby punishment was just… it was something. In fact, the very end of the episode kind of fell apart in every way, but that didn’t matter. The pseudo-espionage was incredibly fun while it was in motion, and its way of incorporating Community’s past with its present was weirdly flawless. Once again, a paintball episode may be the season’s highlight, but after last week, who saw that coming? Looks like the season may still have some surprises yet in store.