Episode 123: Modern Warfare
123 Modern Warfare
Full disclosure: I have absolutely no idea how to write a proper television review. None whatsoever. So, naturally, when the opportunity to do so for one of the most revered episodes of one of the most adored shows of our time came up, I whole-heartedly volunteered. Apparently, I’m a masochist. I know we all love this episode very much (as was recently proven by the results of our rankings) so I will try my very best to do it justice.
There have been so many spectacular episodes of Community that pointing to only one and saying “that’s it; that’s the episode” seems not only foolish, but impractical. After all, how can a show with installments like Cooperative Calligraphy, Mixology Certification, Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, Remedial Chaos Theory, Contemporary American Poultry, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Critical Film Studies and Debate 109 have a single stand-out? The short answer: it doesn’t. And yet, I cannot help but feel like Modern Warfare really was a defining moment in the series. I know that is a very bold statement to make and some of you may disagree, but this is my review, so tough bananas! Seriously though, this was the episode that proved Community could go completely nuts and still manage to tell a grounded, relevant, and essentially character-driven story. Speaking of stories, I will now stop rambling, and get to it…
We begin with a shot of the Spring Fling banner and pan downwards to focus on Jeff and Britta who are engaged in another one of their ridiculously entertaining banter sessions. By this point in the season, it’s been fairly well established that there is mutual romantic interest between these two. I think the writers felt like it was time to properly address this and figured there was no better way to do so than with an awesome action movie backdrop to offset any mushy stuff. Before paintball even begins, the stage is set via a table scene in which the entire study group discusses Jeff and Britta’s relationship. In a lesser sitcom, this most likely would have been used to sell the audience a particular point of view. I’m imagining a quip about how their constant bickering obviously means they secretly love each other or something along those lines. Thankfully, we are instead treated with dialogue that hangs a hat on what some viewers had been sensing for a while: Jeff and Britta are probably not going to be an epic love story. This is cemented by Abed’s Ross/Rachel comparison and Shirley’s Sam/Diane allusion. Personally, I really appreciated this. Jeff and Britta clearly have some sexual tension and they obviously do care about each other, but the fact that the show was not going to force them into a typical arc was quite refreshing to me. I’m personally okay with a little romance on sitcoms as long as it does not overtake the series and I felt like this was Community’s way of doing just that. It is also interesting to note that approximately one year later, the study group would find themselves having a similar conversation about how Jeff and Britta’s relationship damages the fabric of the group in Paradigms of Human Memory. Food for thought.
Once Dean Pelton comes along and explains a nice game of Paintball Assassin will be part of the Spring Fling festivities, the real fun begins. I’ll take this opportunity to say that I found the direction in this episode really well done. The image of a post-apocalyptic Greendale was one of the coolest things to grace my television screen during 2010. The plot moves along nicely here, coupling pertinent bits of information with dazzling action sequences. As Jeff makes his way through the desolate campus he quizzically encounters Garrett, narrowly escapes Leonard, is EPICALLY saved by Abed, and finally learns about the coveted grand prize of priority registration from Troy. After forming a tentative trio, Jeff, Troy and Abed make their way through the school, taking out the chess club in the process. They then meet up with Pierce who double-crosses Starburns (I always get a chuckle out of the way he nonchalantly shoots him in the back) and enter the washroom completely unaware that Britta, Shirley and Annie are lying in wait. The scene that ensues includes what would become a staple of the future paintball episodes: people popping out of garbage cans. Everybody then joins forces and plays out the rest of the game together. It’s also fun to note the differences between the original alliances when comparing Modern Warfare to A Fistful of Paintballs. This episode opts for the boys vs. girls strategy. Considering these people have known each other for less than a year, this may have been the simplest tactic for everyone to fall back on. However, in season two, things have changed: Jeff and Abed are still together, but Troy teams up with Shirley and Britta (who in turn report to Pierce) and Annie is initially all on her own.
I should also mention that this episode was genuinely funny. There are a lot of great one-liners (some I have listed below) and it also really excels with physical and situational comedy. I often forget this marks the first run-in our study group has with the (in)famous Glee Club. Troy, Pierce and Annie all fall victim to their dulcet tones. Hit me with your best shot, indeed!
As night approaches, Jeff, Britta, Shirley and Abed seek shelter in the cafeteria and talk about what they would do if crowned the winner. Their responses are very in character: Jeff would attempt to graduate sooner and get out of Greendale a year early; Britta would take classes that involve the least amount of effort; and Shirley would make a schedule that allows her to spend more time with her kids. After electing they give the prize to Shirley if they should win, Britta’s sugary sincerity is scrutinized by Jeff, which makes way for a very crucial conversation later on in the episode. Keeping that in mind, I still found Abed to be the most interesting here. We never get to hear his initial plan, but he immediately agrees with Britta’s suggestion. I do not doubt he did so because he’s a genuinely nice guy, but I also think Abed probably didn’t really care about priority registration in the first place. He saw the entire scenario as a way to live out a real life action movie and fully devoted himself to the role of hero it required. Since heroes win, he was highly motivated to do exactly that, but I feel like it was not for the same reasons as everybody else. Unfortunately, in the midst of all this, the foursome is ambushed by Disco Stu and his posse. Abed and Shirley don’t make it, while Jeff suffers a minor flesh wound.
Jeff and Britta proceed to the study room to tend to Jeff’s injury and here is where their earlier disagreement becomes very telling. Britta admits to being phony due to a fear that she may not be a good enough person. Oppositely, Jeff responds that insecurity about his own morality is what motivates him to publicly criticize hers. How ironic is that? Both are urgently trying to justify who they are and how they behave. Jeff doesn’t want everyone to think he’s a jerk by comparison, so when Britta makes a grand gesture he attempts to undercut it. Britta believes she always needs to be a selfless, humble, kind person, so she wears that mask and plays that role with the hopes it will eventually become true. They may go about it in completely different ways, but in the end, they’re striving for the same thing: validation. Now, just to clarify, I love Jeff and I love Britta and in no way think they really are bad people (I simply think that is how they see themselves). This interaction serves as a catalyst of sorts and they eventually have sex on the study table. As soon as it’s over, they’re all about paintball again, cleverly using the urgency of the current situation to cover up whatever real feelings they may actually have about being intimate.
The climax of the episode is most definitely the Chang showdown and it totally delivers. After being enrolled as a student by a desperate Dean to swiftly end the game, he bursts into the library in fully-fledged gangster mode and just lights the place up. Well, I guess technically he paints the place up, but you know what I mean. The slow-mo retreat of Jeff and Britta diving for cover is another example of excellent direction, as is the stand-off between Britta and Chang that results in both being eliminated. A sniggering Chang then monologues the twisty truth that there is no such thing as priority registration and proceeds to blow every viewers mind by revealing a hidden paint bomb inside his suit. In true Community fashion, this is perfectly insane and therefore surprisingly believable and leads to the moment I most associate with Modern Warfare: the piece de resistance. Narrowly escaping complete annihilation, Jeff stumbles into Dean Pelton’s office and demands what is rightfully his. After effectively channeling his inner John McClane, he emerges victorious.
The following day, the school is in clean up mode and so are Jeff and Britta. They decide to pretend like nothing had ever happened and chalk it up to a crazy night of paintball. Still, something he learned from the previous day's events sticks with Jeff and he surprises both Britta and himself by offering the priority registration form to Shirley. He really is a good guy after all. D’awww.
Jeff: Raisins don’t belong in a chocolate chip cookie
Britta: It gives them depth.
I want TBD! Is that new?!
Okay, we get it: YOU’RE YOUNG!
He said, fully erect.
Come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes.
FREEZE MAMMA JAMMA!
Troy made God mad!
That is so uninspired!
WRITE SOME ORIGINAL SONGS!
It’s blood! I thought it was paint, but I’m just bleeding. Talk about luck!
Additional Notes (don't worry, I won't attack anyone with them):
- Fun fact: when Jeff tells Pierce “well, you also put hydrogen in blimps and that was bad” during the opening scene, Dean Pelton enters the room on the word ‘bad’. He’s always right on cue.
- There is a poster advertising Transfer Day just above Annie's head on the announcement board.
- This is awesome.
- So is this.
- Can you spot all the dalmatian paraphernalia?
- Chang's golden guns say 'El Tigre' on them.
- The gun taped to Jeff's back should probably be visible in a couple of shots prior to its reveal… but it's not! Dun, dun, duuuuuun.
- Outtakes for this end tag are some of the best ones from the entire season. BACK THE FUCK UP!
- Everyone on the commentary said they still find random specs of paint on set.
- This episode used real paintball guns but had them altered so the shots wouldn't hurt as much. Even so, a lot of people got bruises and Gillian specifically pointed out that Alison developed a huge welt on her chest after the scene where the Glee Club shoots her.
- Unlike in A Fistful of Paintballs and For A Few Paintballs More, none of the paintball shootings are computerized.
- The production code for this episode is actually 119, which means it was the first 'high concept' episode filmed.
- Movie references I spotted are from: Die Hard, Hard Boiled, The Warriors, 28 Days Later, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Predator, The Boondock Saints, The Matrix, Pitch Black, Scarface, Rambo and Battle Royale. I'm sure I've missed some, so please talk about any others in the comments!
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-460990660 (page 158)