The paintball war episodes used to be an annual tradition on Community, but it’s been a few years since the students took up the game. As the series quickly approaches the end of its sixth (and most likely final) season, it seems fitting to bring back such an iconic part of the show’s makeup in this week’s installment, “Modern Espionage.” And probably to end it once and for all.
Another paintball war breaks out on Greendale’s campus just as Frankie (Paget Brewster) has banned such things and is presenting an award to Deputy Custodian Lapari (Kumail Nanjiani, Silicon Valley, Portlandia). She begs Jeff (Joel McHale) to help her set an example and call the game off, and Jeff wants to help her. But he also doesn’t want to be the stick in the mud, nor does he want to let rival City College manipulate his co-workers and students into a losing battle. So he agrees to help the rest of the Save Greendale Committee, who are all active in the secret game, figure out who is behind the most recent contest and put a stop to it.
The result is a beautiful, stylized send-up of spy-type movies. Like past paintball outings, “Modern Espionage” doesn’t just tackle a specific film directly. Instead, it combines elements of a number of them such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, James Bond, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Die Hard, and various incarnations of Batman, presenting a homage, not a parody. There’s also a great speech about Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man worked in. Yes, some of these are superheroes, but Community is focusing on the spy and detective elements of the costumed vigilantes, rather than their super powered parts, so it fits.
As usual, some of the references are obvious, while some get pretty deep. Abed (Danny Pudi) and Annie’s (Alison Brie) style of combat at the gala is definitely from Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Dean’s (Jim Rash) ambush in the elevator feels lifted right from Winter Soldier, which in turn references Die Hard With a Vengeance. But did you catch the song playing in the elevator when the Dean is attacked, a melody used repeatedly in the show since season three? And while giving the Committee code names such as Bale, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, and West are obviously actors that played Batman, did you know that The Dean’s moniker, The Voice of Diedrich Bader, is because Bader lent vocals to The Dark Knight in Batman: The Brave and the Bold?
The plot of “Modern Espionage” is thoroughly entertaining, but also fully Community. The suspense of The Dean’s elevator scene is great, but the only way he can defeat his enemies, which he does, is accidentally, not because of any skills he possesses. Having Jeff and The Dean face Lapari in the hall of mannequins seems an obvious thing to do and is great on itself, but the twist in that showdown is a hallmark of the show, with ineptitude ruling the day. The story is predictable, but that doesn’t matter.
This half hour uses the recurring cast well. From Vicki (Danielle Kaplowitz) and Garrett’s (Erik Charles Nielsen) one-person shows, to Todd (David Neher) and Starburn’s (Dino Stamatopoulos) parking garage confrontation, to Koogler’s (Mitchell Hurwitz) Club Club, we get to see bit players get good material and nail it. This is always welcome.
I do have a couple of complaints about “Modern Espionage.” For one, I would have liked to have seen Lapari joined by other actors who have played custodians in the past (most notably Nathan Fillion), at least in cameos. That’s not a knock on Nanjiani, whom I absolutely love, but it would be nice if he didn’t shoulder the burden of representing the colorful group alone when it’s shown to be a deep bench in the past. I didn’t like Frankie making the Committee actual babies. I’m also disappointed we never learn who Silver Ballz is, a hanging thread unlikely to be followed up upon, sadly.
None of these is super important, though, because Community serves its main characters, and that’s what’s important. Not only do they have a fun playground to use this week, but we see Jeff standing up for Frankie and all of them being forced to grow up a bit, coming together for good. Paintball is part of who they used to be, and as they’ve evolved, it fits less and less into their personalities. Most of the group fully embraces it when it returns now, but it’s glaringly obvious that they have moved beyond such things and this is a reversion, one last bit of fun, before they become responsible adults. Plus, the conversation between Jeff, The Dean, and Lapari about what Greendale is feels very right.
We may be near Community‘s end, with only two more episodes and an as-yet unannounced movie (but there has to be one – #sixseasonsandamovie!) left in the story. I’m OK with that because of the arcs the show has gone through and the wonderful way these characters speak to audiences. “Modern Espionage” is an excellent episode that serves Community well in the larger scheme.
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