Paintball and Pathos: Why the action-packed 'Modern Warfare' is Community's greatest episode
It flopped with audiences, but won my heart
It’s been eight years since it debuted and two since it was cancelled, but Community - a beloved sitcom about sitcoms that ran six seasons (three of them brilliant) and 110 episodes - is not actually that funny.
But I remember it definitely being funny. I remember waiting for each episode I still feel protective over it, like the music I loved as kid. Things were different back then, I was different back then. I was obsessed by Community: obsessed with its obsessiveness. It was a series of half-hour Infinite Jests for unbearable Millennials with a boner for metatextuality who loved using the word reading tvtropes.org or arguing on iMDB forums (a website on which ‘Modern Warfare’ currently has a 9.9/10 rating, making it the joint highest rated bit of television ever, by the way). It was a show about the internet and how we connect to things we love; not necessarily people, but the things we’re obsessed with. How this obsession changes, enriches, or can destroy us. I would think about it all the time. I couldn’t stop. It was smug, self-righteous and very, very pleased with itself. It constantly removed emotional (and sensical) beats from storylines so that it could fold in two and fellate itself for being such a clever boy… but who hasn’t felt similar themselves? I loved it: it was smart and fun and made me feel the same. Like many people feel about BoJack Horseman: Community is not funny because it’s not supposed to be funny.
The only difference with Community is that it actually was trying to be funny, but in a way that wasn’t funny… that also said something about being funny. I accept that it feels like I’m now the one Marilyn Manson-ing a rib out of the way so I can double over on myself, but there’s something about the stupidness of this comedy about comedies not really working as a comedy that will always warm me to it. It also denotes such a specific time in my growing up, and in the history of (at least American) comedy in the twenty-first century.
For me, the episode ‘Modern Warfare’ was the series’ peak. The twenty-third episode of Community’s first season, it’s “The Paintball One” or “The Action Movie Episode” or “The One Where Britta and Jeff Have Sex”.
It had overblown action sequences, slow motion, and loads of death scenes (including Shirley’s “I’m going home… No, really, I’m going home.”). It had Annie hiding in a bin dual-wielding guns; it had pre-Atlanta Donald Glover wearing football pads and a large plastic groin cup over his clothes; and it had Jeff and Britta finally banging. They did it right there on a desk while nobody else was around, just like that. It wasn’t treated like some perfect, special thing, despite the show building up an intentionally-forced romantic narrative between the two, but something that might happen between two friends who are both hot and single.
The episode is so packed with detail and in-jokes that it rewards repeat viewers ten times over, and it’s hard to describe how totally unfunny it is but I absolutely love it. Every single joke is a joke about jokes in a way that you would only allow yourself to indulge in aged eighteen, sat in your room with a hot and whirring external hard-drive at your feet, beaming HDTV-rips of American sitcoms at 3am in your bedroom in your parents’ house. Have you ever known someone who says “that’s funny” instead of actually laughing? This is for them. It was a show for awful people you wouldn’t want to actually be friends with, but for people we all once were. These were jokes of a simpler time, when reference comedy reigned supreme.
References in American comedy are barely any more subtle than Peter Kay bellowing “REMEMBER CRIMEWATCH?” at a crowd of pensioners, and in ‘Modern Warfare’, the visual references come thick and fast. But these are not blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter Eggs, but more like someone showing you their beloved DVD collection:
The episode featured Jeff walking across the deserted campus like in 28 Days Later, Abed saying “come with me if you don’t want paint on your clothes” like in Terminator 2, Shirley referencing Vin Diesel’s sniper in Saving Private Ryan, several reworkings of Die Hard (“No paintballs, Hans?”) and Rambo: First Blood II, Senor Chang dressed like Chow Yun Fat in Hard Boiled and The Killer, spinning around like John Leguizamo’s Tybalt in Romeo + Juliet and dying like Scarface, Troy saying “Jeff! You son of a bitch!” like in Predator…
Take this quote from the beginning of the episode from Abed:
“To be blunt, ‘Jeff and Britta’ is no ‘Ross and Rachel’. Your sexual tension and lack of chemistry are putting us all on edge, which is why ironically — and hear this on every level — you’re keeping us from being Friends.”
Abed Nadir - a character whose sole personality traits are “remembering things” and “comparing things to things he’s remembered” - is talking about Jeff and Britta, the show’s central will-they-won’t-they pairing who won’t stop bickering.
“They have referenced a thing that I am aware of,” I thought to myself. “I was not expecting this, and through my surprise at this occurrence, humour derives.”
And, as it turns out, that… is… the… entire… premise… of… the… show: someone makes a reasonably subtle point about the show’s double-bluff plotting, makes sure you understand it, and then tells you that the intention is for none of us to ever really get along.
In the cold, cynical light of 2017, none of this is particularly smart or clever, but still gives me the warm, fuzzy feeling of kinship. And ‘Modern Warfare’ was Community at its most obvious. So why does it work? Well, Dan Harmon - better known as the co-creator of Rick & Morty - is a very good writer. He’s also more than happy to exorcise (or exercise) his demons in public, and watching Community back now feels less like a sitcom and more like a weird kind of group cognitive–behavioural therapy.
You’d better sit down because it’s time for another episode of everyone’s favourite: This Pop-Culture Thing Is Actually About Depression.
All the main characters are lonely and sad and pretending not to be. Everyone drinks too much and can’t express their emotions in a way that’s particularly healthy or helpful. Even the show’s theme song - ‘At Least It Was Here’ by The 88 - is one of the darkest in recent memory (“We could be roped up, tied up, dead in a year/I can’t count the reasons I should stay/One by one they all just fade away…”) dressed in a cute little outfit, like a rabid bunny in a silk hat. From the top down - showrunner to characters - this was not a ‘healthy’ show. It’s about displacement, about being thrown into a situation where you are alone. It’s about trying to find someone you can connect to when you’re not very good at that whole ‘connecting’ thing.
When you’re all depressed and cannot leave your bedroom for days on end - or, at least, when I have been like that - your experiences become somewhat limited. None of the characters on Community besides Pierce (a caustic old racist who made millions but has nobody to love him) and Jeff (a caustic middle-aged tosser who looks a bit like an American Tim Lovejoy and was a hotshot lawyer before losing his job and now he has nobody to love him) have done much with their lives. Even Shirley, the only character with a family of her own, feels alone. What we’re left with show about collecting as a proxy for actually living: Annie collects neuroses; Troy and Abed collect pop-culture references; Britta collects bad habits; Shirley collects stories about her children; Pierce collects offensive outbursts; and natural leader Jeff collects followers.
Defining yourself by your collections, creating a little nest of Stuff in which you can be safe, feels important when the inside of your head is in turmoil. The Stuff the characters collect is often not a physical thing, but something they hold inside. Stuff that won’t ever leave them…
Sometimes we give too much credit to creatives we admire, loading them ever higher with symbolism and pathos like a plate at a buffet, but there’s still a part of me that wants to give Harmon the benefit of the doubt. The spareness of the jokes, the show’s deliberate pacing and endless ‘lampshading’, the way that everyone and everything in the show kinda just sits there and says to you “So what do you think of that?” makes me think all this can can only be deliberate. It takes the sitcom trope of always replying to jokes with jokes - a world where nobody ever stops to laugh - and turns it in on itself. The trait ends up saying something about the protective nature of banter: you never have time to look in the mirror and wonder what you’re hiding from when you’re too busy trying to be funny.
This is not a show that holds up particularly well. This was not even a show that was a safe bet to recommend to someone at the time. It started strongly with two great series and then a tumultuous production sent it into a spiral through a bizarre, lacklustre year (referred to, affectionately, as the Gas Leak Year or the Darkest Timeline) when NBC sacked Harmon to when they rehired him and it all disappeared into its own arse anyway…
Under-watched at the time, those it was for, found it. In its own smug, self-fellating way, it felt personal to every person who found it, got it, and loved it. Even while its fans couldn’t help but fall away in the final stretch, Community was something that belonged to all of us.