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.

Stray Observations

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!”

Discussion questions

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?

On the AV Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/advanced-introduction-to-finality,97134/#comment-1028656772 (page 198)

09/03/2013 – 02:38 PM – 22 LIKES



  • I like that Officer Cackowski at some point in Season 1 obtained a promotion from campus police to actual police.

  • Too bad Liz Cackowski is married to Akiva Schaffer and busy raising kids because I would watch a show starring Craig and Liz.

  • SpongyandBruised

    You could murder her family, but it might not put her in an entertainment kind of mindset.

  • I originally gave this episode a B+, but it now looks better than some of the Season 4 episodes I gave an A- to.  (I didn't mean to grade Season 4 on a curve, but it looks like I may have!)  It's a lot of fun and tightly structured.  Annie's squeal is one of the funniest moments of the season. There always seems to be a struggle for putting together a good definition of "pizza episode," but this is a perfect example.

    The anime bit really threw me the first time I watched it.  I loved all the theme episodes up to that point and wasn't worried that they would be run into the ground, so it wasn't the experimentalism per se that made it problematic.  It wasn't even really problematic, just weird, which is weird, because the show itself was already plenty weird.  It was just so jarring, which I think may have been the point, i.e., a big, sudden burst of emotion is akin to the anime style.

  • Great review!

    I think keeping Britta and Pierce out of the mix this episode was the right thing to do, especially in the latter character's case as he frequently had little to add this season when not a direct participant in the action.I do think the most logical storyline to slot Britta into would have been Jeff and Shirley's, due to her unique relationships with the both of them. She would have happily seized on their shared childhood history and attempted to analyze the hell out of it, which would have been entertaining to us if potentially damaging to the trio's relationship. But that would have likely led to a nice reconciliation scene and further proof that Britta has chosen the correct major. As it stands though, her line about her one-eyed cat and the following scene with the Totorola phone were enough to satisfy.

  • I have to say that the Totorola joke is high on my list of the worst jokes Community has done. I just hate it. For God's sake, Britta is not only 
    perfectly capable of using a phone like every sentient human on the planet, but she even had a recurring phone throughout the series. You know, that stripey turquoise number from Comm Studies, Celeb Pharma, CFS, etc. Aside from that it's just a terribly unfunny joke.


  • Great work on the Doppeldeaner count, menocu. Shinigami has to be shaking in a corner somewhere. /kidding (is that right?). I do like your interpretation of the ep as the characters "meeting their maker" with challenges coming from within, albeit without the messiness of ongoing stakes; the conflicts arise out of situational plots but they still do the work of servicing characters. (This was pretty much the blueprint for season 4 but they couldn't even pull that off. Alas.) The downside is that it all feels inessential for an episode that dials up the emotions to 11 in the case of the Jerley plot. Jeff actually went as far as to say he used to measure his value as a man by foosball. Really, Jeff, foosball? So the climactic animation sequence, while really funny and cool, went to a place where the story couldn't possibly take any meaningful turn. It was a very quick and painless turn back to "you're a perfectly good person".

    Interestingly, Abed is very mature about handling the conflict in the B plot. I think he knew early on that Annie had broken the DVD and decided to let it play out, 1. because he likes roleplaying, especially as Batman and with Annie, and 2. to study his new roommate. I loved Abed accepting the apology at the end where he let Annie dump her guilt onto Batman so she wouldn't have to bare the shame of facing Abed. He understood that she'd learn the lesson just the same and gave his friend a break after the move-in debacle, while still having some fun with it. A similar show of empathy came in 307 where Britta lead the group in letting Jeff off the hook for ditching them. The problem with season 3 Abed is that he ping pongs (fooses?) wildly between this and trying to use a bonesaw on Jeff's arm.

  • The proper syntax would likely be "/kid" or "/joke".

    Oh, uh, good points re: all the rest, too.

  • I agree about not liking the Jeff/Shirley story. I wanted to, I tried to, and I will at least concede that it got funnier on re-watch, where the absurdity of the anime sequence was less jarring and I could see how it successfully expressed the emotions of the characters (it still smacks of concept-exhaustion, though, seeing as how the abrupt turn-to-anime bit on Clerks: The Animated Series happened over a decade earlier, and I thought of that immediately because I can't figure out how else this style-parody fits into the Community universe. Even when Futurama did a segment of it later on, it suited the show much better). When the ep first aired, I was REALLY annoyed that a major formative event in Jeff and Shirley's lives not only involved meeting each other, but also basically inventing their current personalities in opposition to their childhood feelings. Of course, it was never mentioned before and never important again afterwards. Still, it's a lot easier to take (or overlook) than "Heroic Origins."

    The Annie/Abed/Troy plot I really liked, though. It was fun and worked for the characters. Abed-as-Batman may've been a little over the top, but it worked much better for me than the anime stuff because I think the whole idea of super-vigilantes and secret identities is very open to prodding and light satire. Light being the operative term, as I don't want to see Abed physically attacking someone he thinks is "evil" or whatever, and they avoided that and kept it in the show's wheelhouse.

    I was really excited about the possibilities inherent in Annie moving in with Troy and Abed. While I don't know that s3 ever dealt straight-ahead with both how fun and kind that could be and how incredibly awkward (and how much it could change all three of them), all the stuff involving those 3 under one roof lived up to my hopes. This was definitely one of the best Annie eps of the season/post-"Mixology".

  • menocu

    Definitely agree that the Annie/Abed/Troy storyline was the stronger of the two and I feel like several full episodes could have been devoted to them and their crazy adventures.

  • Excellent review, menocu .

    Especially good points about how the episode works with the oft-overlooked Shirley and Annie, and how it's willing to temporarily discard Pierce and Britta in a way s4 wasn't. 

    As Harmon has noted, Shirley is a very difficult character to hit the sweet spot of, where she's not a stereotype of a self-involved ignorant religious person, but also not a stereotype of a kind, mothering person either. s1 seemed to get there without really trying, but since then the efforts have shown a little strain. Which is why I want to respect the bond she forms with Jeff in s3, one that takes Jeff to a slightly more mature place and is about his decisions as an individual rather than as the center of a chaotic social dynamic (i.e. the study group). Still, I think this plot never worked as smoothly as I wanted it to, it always felt like it was trying a little too hard.

    Also, as much as I like Nick Kroll's inclusive, pleasant anti-comedy, I never really understand why shows use him to play funny ethnic characters. Like, the joke is supposed to be how not-German he is, that eludes me a little. If they used an actor who I believed was German, that would make more sense to me. Maybe that's dumb, but it was glaring to me the whole ep, like we were watching an in-joke that undermines the actual attempt to be funny when it came to the hyper-competitive Germans.

    One thing I've come around on as funnier than I first thought is the anime sequence. A lot of that has to do with people making screencaps and discovering the gargoyle who rips his own arm off. Just to be clear, the reason this is so hilarious to me is because it's a parody of over-the-top "dark" and "grimy" worlds that can be instantly generated in a cartoon and try too hard to convince us of how gritty and post-apocalyptic they are, as if it's meant to be a comforting trope somehow. The gargoyle just looking right at us and dismembering himself is just a perfect distillation of that to me. (As opposed to the CGI baby-suicide in DEP, which in a way kind of ruined the ep for me when it was found out…I know that's a little wrist-slapping/judgmental of me, but the joke there is how exploitative an efficient person like Abed will become given the free reign of a video game and it grossed me out a little, especially in light of him falling in love with another game character.)

  • So is it a common reading that Kroll's character is not German? I thought I was one of the few who read it that way despite how obvious it is, but the S4 ep using "real" Germans implied that the writers wrote Kroll's deutschebag as authentic and thus didn't get their own joke from the beginning(?).

  • Hmmm, I guess I saw it as the character was supposed to be German, but clearly played by someone who isn't German as an intentionally hacky trope. Which is odd. But maybe I just assume everyone who watches Communityknows who Kroll is, and actually the show meant for him to seem "authentically" German? It doesn't seem that way from watching it, though, and it bugs me.

    The fact that Childrens Hospital cast him in a second role as a tough Eastern European, then had that character reference his first role as a giant baby, might be influencing how I see it, since there the joke was obviously intentional. (Plus that Kroll's stand-up and sketch characters often seem to be making fun of their own hacky concepts.)

  •  Great review!

    This is indeed a perfectly enjoyable slice of pizza that doesn't do anything earth shattering and seems content with simply exploring the characters. And, for an extra treat it gives us one of the rarest, funniest pairings on the show: Jeff and Shirley.

    Even if the reveal tha the two of them had met before feels pretty forced (though it becomes positively Shakespearian when compared to "Heroic Origins" – sorry, I just couldn't resist some S4 bashing), it ties in beautifully with the dominant traits of their relationship (Shirley not only brings out the worst in Jeff, but she's also the dominant one in the pairing), not to mention reveal some pretty dark aspects of their personalities. It roots Jeff's reflexive, almost subconscious defense of the bullied in his own childhood trauma. Most importantly, it gives us a remarkably complex origin story for Shirley. So far we could assume that her thinly veiled rage issues were a result of her sad family life (after all, being left to raise two kids by a philandering husband can make anyone bitter), and her constant judgementalism was fed to her by her church. The brilliance of "Foosball" is that it flips our assumptions on their head. Instead of indulging in her worst impulses, Shirley now appears to be constantly struggling to repress them; motherhood, family and church are what keeps her darkness at bay rather than feed it; and her willingness to compromise and understand (as seen before in "Comparative Religion" for example) appear heroic rather than half-hearted.

    The beauty of the episode lies in just how understated this all is (anime cat notwithstanding), and how subtly it is tied with Jeff's own arc. The two of them are the same – they have to keep fighting the same demons of sufficiency and entitlement, even as they really, trulywant to do good. This saves that final shot of Tinkle Town and Big Cheddar from being maudlin or emotionally manipulative: like Pierce, the two of them are still, deep down, little kids.

    Oh, and the anime? I really like it: it's so crazy and random, while simultaneously underscoring both the sheer intensity of Jeff's and Shirley's emotions and their ridiculousness. Oh, and there's also some kind of claw coming from under the table to catch the foosball, but there's no fishtick of it, so you'll just have to take my word. They're superfluous details (like the cat or the flying monkey demons), but I like them because they provide a fair bit of world building for barely 10 seconds of animation.

    "You called me turkey. I love it."

    "She married a count. He was blind. He loved her for her mind."

  • Why do you think Shirley brings out the worst in Jeff? I don't think she does.

  • Worst, not in the sense that he's actively hurting anyone, but rather that he indulges in impulses he'd normally probably try to repress: gossip, hypercompetitivity and so forth. I know Jeff is perfectly capable of that on his own, but the fun part of his interactions with Shirley is that she alwayspushes him into it (which is especially ironic, given how many disappointed "Jeffrey"'s she's said on the show). That's why casting her as a recovering bully was such an inspiring bit of retconning.

  • I don't think Shirley necessarily pushes him into it so much as he just feels most comfortable around her to do that stuff because around Shirley he's liberated from having to be the center of the group (as Eric said) or having to play the horndog, the father/big brother, the alpha male, etc. He has no such implied dynamic with her to maintain.

  •  Great point– I concur with this on Jeff's feelings towards this aspect of his relationship with Shirley.

  •  Yeah, Shirley to Jeff is like Rob Lowe to James Spader in that 1990 movieBad Influence. She can vicariously vent her more selfish impulses and thoughts through him without feeling guilty (even if it's for not feeling guilty). 

    And as she has pointed out on many such an occasion, they're very close in age so having them share a similar upbringing with mutual necessity to succeed in some hobby hits the target dead center on crafting a back story that informs and expands upon our characters without feeling too contrived.

  • Great review!

    I've always liked this episode, and thought it was probably the best example of the "darker, but simpler" episode that Season 3 tried a few times. Admittedly, I don't have a lot to say about it, other than that it made me laugh a lot and put the characters it used to good use. It's especially a good episode for Shirley, who is maybe the only character who actually got her best development in Season 3. The show was able to put the silly Chang baby sideplot behind her and really delve into her character this year. I've always felt Shirley is sort of the hidden gem of the show – she certainly doesn't get the most attention, but she's often the most reliably funny character and brings something to the table that no one else in the group does – a sense of stability. Of course, beneath the surface stability there's a lot of darkness, which just makes her an even more interesting character.

    As for Britta and Pierce, one of my favorite aspects of Community – and the reason why it's truly one of the best ensemble sitcoms of our time – is that it almost always puts everyone in its ensemble into good use. But even Community can't perfectly utilize its characters inevery episode, so I didn't mind them sitting out too much. Trying to shoehorn in characters often makes sitcom plots seem wobbly and overstuffed.

  • menocu

    Tangentially related to all this: Assuming that Dan Harmon indeed intended seasons 1-4 to be a complete story circle, season 3 would by definition be the darkest and weirdest. The story circle is divided horizontally between the Overworld and Underworld. The 5th and 6th sections of the circle involving plunging into the deepest depths of the Underworld. Season 4 would have then followed 7th and 8th sections which would see our heroes returning to the Overworld with the knowledge they have obtained. Basically if Dan Harmon had remained showrunner for season 4, we likely would have seen a return to the lighter, less insane tone of season 1.

  • Thank you so much for your outstanding review of this underrated gem, menocu.  On the surface, there's not much going on, and there are some great lines/imagery here and there but it seems to go from Point A to Point B and that's it.  But the real exemplary nature of this episode comes out when viewing it against the whole of these characters' arcs and Season 3 as you have so splendidly done.  Thank you.

    With the emergence of this "Tinkle Town/Big Cheddar" origin story, we now have Jeff at this stage of his Neil-esque journey:



    "You made up Fat Neil?!?!"

    Now, the difference here is that Shirley had no idea Jeff was Tinkle Town when agreeing to help him succeed, but she was combating her own inner demons about victory at all costs and how she'd needlessly damaged Tinkle Town's self esteem so long ago.  So we have the arcs of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons subtlely connected with both some sports movie cliches (the dark past tragedy, the training sequence, learning the Cool Runnings' lesson that "if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it"), and the overt Germans as the bad guys antagonism.


    But again– you got it all covered succinctly– for all the bombast of the Germans, their actions are minute– it's all about conquering inner demons.  And here Jeff may not reach his "for my turn I pity Pierce Hawthorne" phase, but I feel he DOES start to shed that "IN YOUR FAAAACE!!!" aspect of his old persona, finally (which ironically, he DOES scream in the AD&D episode).

    By the end of the episode, instead of needing to vent his rage at his would-be modern bullies, Jeff transcends this AoG moment:

    And instead of matching his combatant's immaturity and making himself the fool in public he so loathes being at times, he avoids this outcome as well:

    As for Annie/Abed– again on the surface we have a wacky Three's Company sitcom plot, but underneath the surface we have the start of the tug-of-war between Annie and Abed that would culminate in VSA.  Annie is the extrovert trying to circumvent Abed's world so she doesn't have to feel conflict (from being confined by his rules and to avoid feeling guilt about accidentally breaking his DVD), and Abed's the introvert trying to make sense of his friend's betrayal the only way he knows how– through the zen of The World's Greatest Detective. 

    So unlike the earlier parts of Season 3 where we have all these jarring elements with some poignancy in the center– here we something far less earth-shattering– but the conflicts and torment right beneath the surface really starts to rear its ugly head.  This isn't the Abed/Batman from Intro to Statistics— he NEEDS to be Batman here just to cope with the situation.  I mean, Abed at this point is doing Dreamatorium calculations on top of calculations on top of calculations and he couldn't even protect his DVD from a foot!  Batman is one hell of a course correction– and instead of being a stabilizing element, Annie is inadvertently combating Abed's feng shui as it were. 

    Answers to your excellent discussion questions:
    I concur with the majority here– they got some good bits in the beginning– marginalizing them for an episode helped give the rest of the story time to breathe and delve into the conflict better.  Sure, we didn't get much of a Harmon-Sigh© as it were, but we're not supposed to here– this is more about foreshadowing and place-setting.  Origins of Vampire Mythology and Virtual Systems Analysis are the Harmon-Sigh© for the elements sparked here.  And with Britta and Pierce off doing their own thing– it can symbolize the slow fracturing of the group (they don't need each other ALL the time) while at the same time helps make this seem like part of a larger world (something Season 4 utterly failed at doing– it's all about suspension of disbelief– if you don't believe/invest in this world and its characters, how can we?). 

    With regards to The Hoagie Incident, I think that's best left to the imagination and between Shirley and her god /comfort.

    And vote me for loving the anime bit– it's there EXACTLY where it needs to be.  We have a mini-version of AD&D mixed with sports cliches only THESE ARE REAL, FLESHED-OUT people.  They ram into their past childlike personas– they temporarily regress and butt-heads, the world around them shifts ever so quickly to utter chaos and HYPER-DRAMA, until they realize:

    "WTF?  We're not those people– we don't need to win this to be good or right– we're OK on our own.  Where did those bad feelings come from?" The anime sequence pops up to emphasize how on the precipice everyone is this season, only to show time and time again it only takes a moment to get things back to normal.  It all connects to the end of the season with Jeff's speech– in one move you can change the whole game.  And here, Shirley and Jeff do that and become closer because of it (which, come to think of it, is part of why Jeff can't use Shirley to look good in front of Alan even when she tells him to do it– trying to be a good influence on him instead of pushing him to fight Alan fire with fire). 

    So yeah, loved the anime, loved the cat– loved it.

    Doppeldeaner Count for this Episode:  You already covered this and then some, so I guess this post is a doppeldeaner to your comprehensive analysis /praise.  I guess we can have the Germans next to the loser kids from Intro to Discourse, the child forms/anime forms/and aggressive forms of Shirley and Jeff, Annie and Abed's alter-ego stories and delusions, and Troy as the one trying to mend/break down Annie's delusion whilst trying to enable and re-enforce Abed's delusion (IE he still can't see the negative consequences to this, brought up later, BY Annie no less, in Contemporary Impressionists).  And let's just imagine a dark timeline where Britta has a cat WITH a monocle and DOES look pretentious. 



    Thanks for the great read!  And Ziggy says there's an 80% chance you can't leave Woodstock until you bone these hippies!  OH BOY!. 

  • All the /praise for the Cool Runnings connection

  •  Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme– get on up, it's Bobsled Time©! /cheer