Episode 309: Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism
Community Season 3 Reviews – Episode 309
Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism is a relatively minor episode of Community comfortably nestled between what I believe are 2nd and 3rd best episodes of Season 3. Looking over my rankings from last year, I realized this was my highest rated post-Season One “pizza” episode (yes, that’s a lot of qualifiers). It’s not a game changer, but it’s just a blast from start to finish and it continues the major themes of Season 3, primarily exploring the dark side of the characters (and Greendale) and delving further into their secrets and histories.
I believe that Seasons 1 through 4 of Community were conceived as a complete story circle of Jeff’s life at Greendale. Mapping these seasons to Dan Harmon’s (Joseph Campbell-influenced) story circle, Season 1 was mostly about getting to know the characters and what brought them to Greendale (“Establish a Protagonist” and “Call to Adventure”), while Season 2 was about increasing the strangeness of this world and seeing our heroes face challenges and adventures together (“Crossing the Threshold” and “the Road of Trials”). Season 3 primarily corresponds to parts 5 and 6 of the story circle- “Meeting the Goddess” and “Meeting Your Maker.” This portion of the story concerns our protagonist(s) essentially staring into the abyss (and we all know what happens when you do that) and eventually facing death (or at least the Greendale equivalent, expulsion). Dan Harmon describes “Meeting the Goddess” thusly: “Imagine your protagonist began at the top and has tumbled all the way down here. This is where the universe's natural tendency to pull your protagonist downward has done its job, and for X amount of time, we experience weightlessness. Anything goes down here. This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability.” Major revelations. Total vulnerability. That sums up the episode nicely.
Basically Seasons 1 and 2 were about facing challenges from without (opposing study groups, City College, Pierce as the odd-man-out) while Season 3 is about facing challenges from within. This begins with Jeff literally facing himself in the season premiere. Evil shadows of our heroes appear throughout the season. It is only through facing and conquering the demons within that we can begin to attain higher consciousness and achieve self-actualization.
This episode embodies this grappling with our inner darkness in order to conquer it. Shirley, Jeff, Annie and Abed all succumb to their darker selves during this episode. Shirley explains to Jeff that he needs to tap into his evil to excel at the game of foosball. Our protagonists are so consumed by different personas, they become unrecognizable to their friends. Troy literally asks Annie “Who are you?” (Troy’s crouch before this line is an immaculate bit of physical timing.) Jeff, on the other hand, is so disturbed by his realization about Shirley, he claims the woman he’s come to know at Greendale is an imposter. He tells Shirley “All your fake sweetness and religion is just a veil covering a horrible monster.” Abed returns sans Batman costume at the end and Troy asks “Where were you?” Very funny, but also completely in keeping with the theme.
By the end, Shirley and Jeff come to terms with their inner darkness. They accept that it is a part of them but it does not define them, and this leads to a new level of maturity for both and brings them closer together. (“You’re a perfectly fine person!” “So are you!”) Some thought the last shot of them as children approached treacle, but I think it’s entirely earned. Abed and Annie’s story ends on a kind of truce, but I feel neither of them truly achieves higher understanding until Virtual Systems Analysis later in the season, and in Abed’s case, not fully until the Season 3 finale.
This episode is also a joy to watch because it’s a showcase for the 2 characters most consistently described as “underutilized” and “underwritten.” It’s Annie and Shirley’s time to shine! This episode could function as a highlight reel for Alison Brie’s comedic chops. Her “don’t say anything or I’ll kill you” glance at Troy. Her Walter White-worthy story about her grandmother’s pearl necklace. Her Christian Bale-as-Batman impersonation. The way she just keeps ratcheting up the lies (“It’s here alright, and it looks like he broke it!”). Yvette Nicole Brown is also given a juicy character revelation to sink her teeth into and again absolutely nails all the comedic bits (“Up yo ass, turkey!”) and the hurt and shame she feels when her shared history with Jeff comes to light.
In hindsight, the tightness of the storytelling in this episode functions as a contrast to the many miscalculations of Season Four. The writers here aren’t afraid to drop a couple characters for the majority of the episode. Britta and Pierce both get a few huge laughs in the cold open, then neither are seen again until seconds before the closing credits. For much of Season 4, the writers (or showrunners) seemed terrified of the 7 principal actors not receiving equal screen time on each episode, often making episodes feel bloated. Jeff casually tosses off an easily-missed “luftballoons” insult in this episode, a reference the writers returned to and beat to death in Alternate History of the German Invasion. The idea that Jeff and Shirley knew each as children feels like a fun nod to a well-used sitcom trope. The Season 4 writers would build a whole episode around this with Heroic Origins, and, once again, basically beat this idea into the ground.
But this is Season 3 we’re talking about here. A lot of people jumped ship during Season 3, calling it too weird, too pretentious or just not very funny. I think Season 3 is perfectly equal in hilarity to Seasons 1 and 2 and admirable in its often astonishing ambition. It’s a testament to how fantastic Season 3 was that Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism is maybe only the 8th or 9th best episode of the season. It isn’t the best or most ambitious episode of the season, but it’s a delight throughout and thought-provoking when you look below the surface.
Let’s have a big round of applause for Craig Cackowski once again appearing as… Officer Cackowski. I haven’t been keeping count, but IMDB tells us this is his 6th appearance on the show. This is some of his finest work and by this point his character feels as much a part of this universe as Professor Ian Duncan or Leonard.
Speaking of Leonard, the tag here introduces his online food reviews. “That Juliette Binoche… That's one frozen pizza that gets MY oven going at 350 degrees.”
As someone who’s had to deal with their share of terrible landlords and upstairs and downstairs neighbors, I can relate to “Look forward to owning a house and be glad he’s not into heads” more than I care to admit.
That’s Nick Kroll as the lead German. Many people have probably seen his own Kroll Show on Comedy Central, or know him from The League. I’m sure some people knew him long before that from his frequent Comedy Bang Bang (née Comedy Death Ray) appearances. I think he’s really one of the best one-off guest appearances on the show.
In case anyone missed it, the landlord Rick is apparently watching a Quantum Leap porn parody, or possibly a Quantum Leap episode that involves Sam boning hippies at Woodstock. I’ll leave it to the readers to discern if either of these things actually exist.
“I’m high as hell and you’re about to get shot!”
How does everyone feel about Britta and Pierce sitting this one out for the most part? Do you think their presence would have added to either plot or would they have distracted from the relatively purity of the storylines?
What exactly do you think Shirley did to Pierce’s hoagie?
I didn’t even touch on the anime bit. That cat! How do people feel about this sequence? An inspired bit of the surreal? A harbinger of an overly cartoonish tone that would take over the show?