Spoilers ahead. Watch on Hulu and NBC.com.
Following the relatively strong “Economics of Marine Biology” two weeks ago, it seems with “Herstory of Dance” that this Dan Harmon-less season of Community is finally starting to stand on its own two feet. Rarely during this episode was I reminded that I wasn’t laughing, which is something I can’t say for some of the earlier episodes this season. There were plenty of moments that made me laugh out loud, whether it was Chang’s overly sweet apologies about his inability to DJ effectively, the brilliant spoof of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or the subtlety of Troy’s hilarious Instagram to Abed. However, aside from the laughs there was a much more important improvement in tonight’s episode. “Herstory of Dance” marks the first episode of this new season where the writers seemed to pay attention to the development of the study group’s preexisting character arcs.
Say what you want about Dan Harmon, but the guy knows a thing or two about plotting character and story development. While it’s difficult to attribute credit for quality in a TV show due to the number of minds and talents working under one creative roof, if there’s an area where I think Dan Harmon’s oversight is most obviously lacking, it’s in the realm of the overarching story, the story of Greendale, the study group, and the individual characters. It’s strange how little thematically has happened this season when you put it in context of how many events have happened (Jeff meeting his father springs to mind). After watching each episode this season, I usually come away feeling like I just witnessed the study group in some strange state of limbo, where each character exists as pre-established versions of themselves: Abed references TV, Jeff is narcissistic, Troy is a lovable fool. It’s as if the writers know they have these great characters, but they are afraid to actually do anything with them.
Uncharacteristically for this season, “Herstory of Dance” provided two interesting areas of character development, the first being Abed’s foray into the world of romance. When Abed is presented with the opportunity to take two girls to the dance, things seem to play out in typical Abed fashion, and he’s off setting up the “double date” sitcom trope complete with mistaken names and hiding under tables.
It’s hard for me to complain about Abed’s reliance on pop culture references in the show because half the time it works so well, and when he’s teamed up with Troy, I’m usually willing to go along with any of the antics the two of them have planned. It was interesting, then, how the writer’s set up distance between Abed and Troy this episode, the latter bound more to helping his girlfriend Britta and the former acting out his antics alone. It highlighted the otherness of Abed that has existed throughout the show. Abed doesn’t so much experience the growth that the rest of the study group experiences as much as he comments on it and catalogs it. He isn’t interested in entertaining or catering to others, he’s really only interested in entertaining himself, a trait which although sometimes hilarious often ends up manipulating, abusing, and hurting others along the way.
Because of this trait, It was a strange turn to see Abed’s budding romance with Rachel, someone who seems to have real chemistry with him, someone who can interact with him in his peculiar mental plane of existence and ground him a little as a character. Rachel seems like she is willing to be a surrogate Troy and engage with Abed’s imagination, but she also seems to expect a little more humanity from Abed than Troy would, forcing him out of his comfort zone but to a place, I think, Abed has been trying to reach for a long time despite his nature. For the first time this season, I’m actually interested in how things are developing for a character beyond the credits of an episode, which is a great sign.
The other area of interesting character development is Britta’s battle for self worth with her spiritual nemesis, Jeff. When I first began watching Community, Britta started off as my least favorite character, but as she developed over the course of the first and second seasons, by the third season she was my favorite character (maybe tied with Troy, I’m never sure). There is something so lost about Britta, so well intentioned, so hapless in all of her noble-at-heart endeavors. In the Community universe, her name is literally synonymous with failure. She is always one step behind the times, always trumpeting last year’s causes. Her insistence on protesting something so trivial as the Sadie Hawkins dance is a perfect encapsulation of how misplaced her zeal is but also how dedicated she is to her sinking ships.
On the other side of the coin, we have Jeff Winger, the personification of modern cynicism right down to his apathetic disregard for everything that’s not an Iphone screen. I love any episode where Britta and Jeff clash because it’s not just a clash between two characters, it’s a clash between two ideals, two frames of mind, and it’s a clash I find extremely relatable. For me, it’s too easy to be cynical. On paper I want to care about the things that Britta cares about, I even want to care about them as much and as blindly as Britta does, but the older I’ve gotten and the more I’ve seen of the nature of the world the more I tend to lean towards Jeff’s perspective, to mock and disconnect. That’s why Britta is such a great character to me. She always engages and it’s always 100%, even when it ends up making her into a fool for everyone else.
It was nice to have an episode where, for once, Britta is rewarded for all the caring that she does (even if it’s as obscure and oddly moving a reward as the unexpected arrival of Sophie B. Hawkins). Britta’s plot line in this episode felt very in-touch with the spirit of Community past, and I hope it’s a sign of more good things to come in an already improving but sadly half finished Season 4.