Last season Community decided to return to one of its better concept episodes – Dungeons and Dragons. The results were mixed, feeling like a slightly fruitless attempt at recapturing the glory days. When I heard that this season was going to have a new paintball episode I was suddenly struck by a nauseating sense of deja vu. The first season’s paintball episode was an instant classic, a thrilling and hilarious homage to action movies that melted into the fabric of the show like crayons left in the dryer. It was so good they did it again next season. The returns were instantly diminished. The new paintball episodes were hardly bad, in fact they were pretty good, shifting the action movie motif over into more specific western and Star Wars inspired territory. It may have felt like a bit of a retread in a season with several groundbreaking new episode ideas, but it was still effective, and made for a nicely climactic finale. Then some utter twats took over for a season. Season four was pretty much shite, and its finale was also paintball, and felt rather like a inebriated monkey doing an impression of Dan Harmon. It simply didn’t work, for a plethora of reasons. Still though, paintball was over. In a season three episode, Abed even says they should never do paintball again (they did, but the gas leak year doesn’t count).
So returning to that particular conceptual starting point was a pretty ballsy move. I sat down ready to have a pleasant, inoffensive television experience that occasionally would remind me of better times. Here’s the thing though, Dan Harmon kind of pulls this off. That’s not to say this is better than past paintball episodes, but those episodes were the show at its best. Instead we get an above average episode, maybe even when compared to other seasons.
The clear improvement is the concept’s adjustment. This episode doesn’t reference Die Hard, or westerns, or Star Wars, instead it sets its sights on a different action genre – the spy thriller. Yes this episode owes more to Mission Impossible and James Bond than it does George Lucas. The set up is clever, there’s a good guest star, the jokes land, the new length is well used. It’s a very well rounded episode of the show.
The premise of “Modern Espionage” is that Franky has banned paintball on campus. It makes a mess of the school and she wants to tidy the school up. This is also why she’s decided to honour one of the school’s best custodians, which gives the show a chance to bring a previous character played by Kumail Najiani back. Now that paintball has been banned, a mysterious secret paintball game begins to take the school by storm. The episode actually opens in media res with an awesome sequence that starts at Vicki’s one-man show, follows Starburns as he leaves, and concludes with a gunfight between Starburns and Todd. I’m no longer sure Garret is to be this season’s big villain, however, maybe because of some of the unfamiliar cast members, I really like this season’s commitment to incorporating bit characters. Starburns and Todd both get shot by a mysterious figure using silver paintballs. Cue the genre-specific version of the opening credits. The next scene is Jeff talking with Franky about her anti-paintball agenda. He’s onboard with it, saying they’ve outgrown the game. He then sits in the library with the rest of the group, which almost immediately devolves into a shoot-out and drags Jeff into the paintball game.
Also that ear game makes a return.
The group confers and begins to uncover the shady secret at the heart of the game. Essentially an anonymous website backed by real tech knowledge and money, two things that couldn’t have come from Greendale, organized the game. They also seem to be the ones behind the mysterious user named Silver_Ballz. Further investigation almost immediately reveals the figure’s backer. Yes City College has started yet another paintball game in order to spite Greendale. The nefarious school gets relegated to the background however in favour for the central mystery surrounding the identity and chief target Silver_Ballz.
Unfortunately this plot line gets a twist that only kind of makes sense. Basically they find this clue that leads them to suspect one character is a target, and then there’s a twist (it’s a spy movie homage, you should expect a twist) and the target is revealed as the perp. The problem is the clue is never adequately justified. And while I’m nitpicking lets talk about this episode’s character stuff. Jeff gets some nice characterization, and a bit of an arc. The Dean gets…what I’ll call an external arc, he gets to go from quivering to badass but it’s not really founded on his development so much as it is the situation’s. There’s some hinted at stuff between Annie and Abed (again, seems to be a thing this season, one that will surely never go anywhere, but I’d rather that than the nonsensical alternative). It’s more genre heavy than character heavy, although generally Jeff’s stuff feels like enough of a backbone.
The backbone leads to some great stuff too. Like the series of great environment gimmicks in a Custodial Museum, including a wonderful mannequin joke reversal that has to be seen. Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator of Arrested Development, gets to return to a character he played in a past cameo, which is not only a nice callback but actually funny. The spy stuff is really nicely done too, although if I was the nitpicking type, and I am, then I would wonder why there wasn’t any kind of gadget-based scene. It seems to me a spy movie without a little tech fetishization is an unusual one, probably a pretentious one too. For every nitpick one could levy at this episode however there’s a scene where Todd flips off a car and shoots at Starburns’ decoy, or Annie and Abed dance while shooting. It’s an episode that feels more vibrant than some this season, and that energy pays off.