So episode nine of Community is a bit…muddled. In my humble opinion. When the film started I was pretty instantly thrilled by an animated old west inspired opening shot. It immediately proved to be set dressing, but that was okay, it still clearly marked “Grifting 101” as a higher concept episode. The first scene saw the whole group in its new form sitting around and chatting about classes. Fans of the show have been pining about the days when the group used to take wacky classes together for a while, so the scene got interesting when they all started talking about taking a class called Grifting 101.
Jeff cautions them, pointing out the class is almost certainly a grift. The fact that to participate you have to buy grifting-certified suitcases from the teacher instantly confirms this suspicion. The rest of the group mocks Jeff for what they perceive as jealousy from someone who once grifted his way to being a lawyer. They literally point and laugh at Jeff. This scene gets props for using Chang well once again, as a dizzying conversation about his diabetes diagnoses takes place. The theme song kicks in and the music is changed, suggesting a concept episode too.
So these facts were piling up the excitement, and boy by the next scene did it ever seem like this was going to pay off. The guest star who played the grifting professor was Matt Berry, an insane comedic actor from shows like The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh. His involvement seemed to spell greatness. Upon closer examination however greatness may have been spelled a little folksily, like the title of some inspirational Will Smith vehicle. Matt Berry just sort of sits down and makes the class pass briefcases back and forth, telling them eventually they’ll graduate to using a second briefcase. Which they’ll need to purchase.
So the gang goes to Jeff for help. Jeff is content with I-told-you-sos and refuses to help them grift the grifting professor. So here I thought, “OK, Jeff gets some reason to get involved, they start grifting the grifting professor, but it fails, but it all turns out to be part of a larger grift.” In the very next scene Jeff ends up in his office, now shared with Matt Berry, who’s helped himself to Jeff’s scotch. Jeff tries to bond over their shared love of grifting, at which point Matt explains that what Jeff did wasn’t grifting. Saying what Jeff did was grifting is like saying a “bunch of paint and a paintbrush is the same thing as the Sistine Chapel.” Matt Berry views himself as God’s paintbrush. Then as God. “I’m basically God, which means I’m better than you.” Jeff is unsurprisingly offended and trots off to drown his sorrows by partying with Chang. Actually that’s a lie, he trots off to find everyone and explain he’s down for grifting the professor. At which point everyone jumps up and down, shouting, “Grift!” while the cafeteria awkwardly watches.
So then we get a rambling series of attempted grifts. These scenes really feel like they’re lacking forward momentum, although the fact that everyone commits to antiquated techniques is a nice gimmick. The first attempted grift is a telegram from Africa involving an inherited fortune. Matt Berry doesn’t fall for it. Then there’s a lottery ticket thing. Matt Berry doesn’t fall for that either. Then Jeff goes back to the group and explains that this is perfect and the professor has taken the bait by not taking the bait. This conversation continues on in a circular manner before the group realizes Jeff has no plan.
Except he does, and all this is part of it! Matt Berry comes in and mocks him, at which point Britta punches him in the face and chases him down the stairs. He trips, falls, and hurts himself. Rather than deal with a court case the school decides to pay him off. He walks away with a briefcase full of money and meets Britta in a back room, giving her some of the money. The show flashes back to reveal the injuries were faked and Britta was in on the plan from the beginning. Matt Berry leaves, and gets part way down the hall when he realizes his briefcase has been filled with the newspaper he was using in the grifting class. Britta leaves, carrying his briefcase, at which point Matt pursues her. Leonard and the rest of the school all interrupt Berry’s flight, carrying identical grifting briefcases of their own. Leonard’s dressed in an old-fashioned bellhop uniform, which is a nice touch. Matt Berry eventually leaves the confines of his wheelchair and chases Britta up the stairs to the rest of the group, the Dean, Franky, and the returning Officer Cackowski.
This is probably the best scene in the episode, as the group explains the situation and why Berry can’t do anything about it. It was all part of the plan all along, because of course it was. That’s the trouble with this episode; it’s a little too predictable. Not only that but the show already did an Ocean’s 11 spoof in season three, and managed the reversal of stakes joke and concept way better then. Despite the faint old west theme this episode doesn’t feel nearly different enough, except that it’s smaller scale and substantially less funny.
The end credits joke did have a nice Ryan Ridley cameo, and I’m always happy to see Cackowski again. He’s taking a macramé class at the school on the weekends. Still this feels like a bit of a subpar episode to me. It’s definitely possible, like a lot of season five, that subsequent viewings will alleviate this feeling. The depth of references and callbacks sometimes legitimately becomes more apparent later. Still I feel like this episode had a lot of good ideas, and some good moments, but that they were sort of like clusters of space debris that never quite formed a planet.