‘Community’ – ‘Pillows and Blankets’: Civil war stories

Senior Television Writer
04.05.12 132 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Community” coming up just as soon as I buy a thumb icon at the app store…

The best “Community” parody episodes tend to remember that they’re an episode of “Community” first and a parody of something second. One of the reasons the space bus episode last season didn’t quite click is that there ultimately wasn’t a strong character story for anyone amid all the references to “Apollo 13,” Colonel Sanders, etc.

“Pillows and Blankets” is a note-perfect spoof of Ken Burns’ documentary style in general, and his “Civil War” in particular, as it applies his lyrical approach to the incredibly mundane, silly story of Blanketsburg feuding with Pillowtown. It gets the look and sound and editing style exactly right, and even where it deviates – like the use of the regular cast’s voices for the narration(*), when Burns would’ve hired celebrities – it acknowledges that it’s happening, and why. The animated maps, the reliance on older voices (including Leonard and the very Buck O’Neil-esque Harry Jefferson) to explain what it was like, the reading of texts and Facebook status updates (where Burns relied on old-fashioned letters), etc., were all spot-on. And they were mixed in with enough non-parody jokes – Troy thinking that “ultimatum” is “all tomato” (“you give me the whole tomato or else”), Pierce claiming to suffer erectile dysfunction after an early battle, Abed complaining about the titling of the John Rambo movies – to hopefully carry things for viewers who didn’t know who Burns was and/or had never seen one of his documentaries.

(*) Not counting, of course, Keith David, who was the chief narrator of “Ken Burns’ Baseball,” co-star of Abed’s third-favorite television show, “The Cape,” and here the main voice moving the story along (before Jeff confronted him about #sixseasonsandamovie). 

And yet I started to get tired of the whole gimmick about halfway through – which is conveniently when the focus of the episode shifted away from paying homage to both the Civil War and “Civil War” and got back to the reason behind this whole mess and the crumbling state of Troy and Abed’s friendship.

Because what “Community” can do that I always find so remarkable is take an incredibly self-conscious bit of pop culture goofiness like a Ken Burns’ parody or a “My Dinner with Andre” homage involving “Cougar Town” and invest it with real emotional stakes for the characters we’ve come to care about. Everything about this episode is ridiculous, and then all of a sudden Troy and Abed are using their knowledge of each other to be as specifically cruel as they can possibly be. The show doesn’t play their argument off as a joke(**); they cut each other very deeply, seem to pass the point of no return and are only saved because Jeff has one of his occasional bouts of pure altruism and makes them admit they still care about each other, even after all that’s been said and done. Some very good writing and acting in those final scenes that found a way to get at some emotion even while Troy and Abed were dressed that way.

(**) Though it does keep inserting jokes even amidst the pathos, like Troy crying as Keith David tells us, “Unfortunately, the only photographer there to capture the scene is Britta Perry.”

And going the other way, Jeff’s heroic moment was a great example of using the gimmick to make sure things didn’t get too sappy. Jeff admits that he walked all the way to the Dean’s office, spent time looking for the invisible friendship hats, etc., but the very fact that he’s sharing this diary entry with the documentary crew shows you that he’s only absorbed so much of Annie’s lecture. He helps out Troy and Abed because he does care for them, but he’s never going to be able to get go of his need to impress other people. He’s better; he’s not perfect.

What did everybody else think?

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