‘Community’ – ‘Basic Rocket Science’: Never give up. Never surrender.

Senior Television Writer
10.14.10 63 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Community” coming up just as soon as I get my flavor heading up to Delicious…

“Basic Rocket Science” is going to be compared to the paintball episode. And that’s not unfair. It wants to be compared to it. Like “Modern Warfare,” it’s an episode that’s all pop culture, all the time, where you don’t necessarily need to know all the references to appreciate, but which is a lot more fun if you do.

Now, I love my astronaut movies almost as much as I love my action films (“Die Hard” and “Apollo 13” for years rotated – with a “Shawshank Redemption” chaser – as my go-to films when packing for a move). So I got the references from start (the guy running down the hall is from “The Right Stuff”) to finish (the crash-landing and triumphant exit from the spacecraft is from “Galaxy Quest”(*)), and was nodding and smiling and/or laughing as I did so. (I particularly loved the Chang/Dean Pelton exchange about re-routing power from the auxiliary, which was riffing on several different “Apollo 13” scenes, including the square peg/round hole C02 canister bit.)

(*) “Galaxy Quest” and “Community” actually have a lot in common, in that they’re spoofing very familiar aspects of popular culture while at the same time asking you to take the characters and the story seriously. “Galaxy Quest” is one of the best “Star Trek” parodies ever, but it’s also one of the 3 or 4 best “Star Trek” movies ever, period. It makes the turn from silliness to sincerity just as adroitly as, say, “Community” did last week with the message from Pierce’s mom.

On the comedy end of things, “Basic Rocket Science” definitely worked, at times even without the references. It’s a tradition of space and sci-f films that one member of the crew will lose his mind, but you didn’t necessarily need to know that to appreciate Pierce going insane and assuming the delightfully 8-bit animated SANDERS was talking to him, just like Wesley Snipes on his audiobooks. (“Well, he sure does hate the government.”) And one of the funnier running gags, involving Dean Pelton’s specially-coded rest stop map (“Those aren’t thumbs”) wasn’t a space movie reference at all.

It was on the character front where this one fell short of the very high bar set by “Modern Warfare,” I thought. “Modern Warfare” took a character arc that had been building all season in Jeff and Britta’s sexual chemistry (or lack thereof) and used the episode’s post-apocalyptic setting as an excuse for them to finally act on it. It was, like the best “Community” episodes, satisfying as both parody and a story of people coming together and learning about themselves.

In contrast, the character work in “Basic Rocket Science” was pretty thin. Though Annie had already threatened to transfer once before to follow Vaughn, her desire to do it again out of frustration with the group’s lack of school spirit felt too new to hang the whole episode on. The problem is that in this kind of episode, the parody has to dominate most of the screen time. “Modern Warfare” could do that because its personal storyline was something the show had been building to all year, whereas this was a conflict largely invented for this episode, and needed more time than was available to be interesting.

Turning Abed into Ken Mattingly, the Gary Sinise character from “Apollo 13,” worked a bit better, in that it played off of what we know about his lonely childhood, but I think given the time allotted, the show might have been better off picking either Annie’s story or Abed’s and trying to make that one a little deeper while scrapping the other(**).

(**) As mentioned last week, I was hanging around the “Community” offices on a day the writing staff was breaking the outline for the Halloween episode, production was filming the Annie/Britta oil fight, and Dan Harmon and some of the other writers were working on a later draft of this episode. At that stage of the draft, Abed wasn’t channeling Ken Mattingly, but Gene Kranz (the Ed Harris character), barking out orders in the fake Mission Control. Harmon wanted to move away from the idea because it seemed both obvious (of course that’s how Abed would react in this situation) and just another joke in an episode packed with them. The Ken Mattingly idea (which at one point was going to be used for Troy) was a way to add some depth. Seeing the final version, I think the initial Gene Kranz plan might have worked better, because Abed becoming Kranz would have required less time and no explanation (because, again, that’s how Abed would react in this situation) and that extra time could have been devoted to beefing up the Annie story.

What makes “Community” special, and elevates it over most of the other shows on right now that love to do shoutouts to the writers’ favorite ’80s and ’90s movies, are those character stories. The jokes are great, but there has to be some kind of emotional story for one or more of the characters. Some weeks it can be a problem invented out of whole cloth; in the end, this probably wasn’t one of those weeks.

What did everybody else think?

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