‘Community’ – ‘The Psychology of Letting Go’: You just broke my force field

A review of tonight’s “Community” coming up just as soon as I take liquid form…

Season one of “Community” established a lot of small running jokes and rivalries – including Annie’s “schoolgirl sexuality,” Pierce’s weird cult and the Chang/Duncan rivalry – that “The Psychology of Letting Go” wisely picked up on and wove into a funny and sweet story about mortality, grudges and other things we have to let go of. And it managed to do that all while weaving a hidden story in the background of Abed befriending a pregnant student and then helping her deliver her baby in the Greendale parking lot. (Birth… death… the circle of life!)

One of the things I admire most this show is the way it manages to balance absurdity with sentiment without selling either side out. Pierce’s religion is ridiculous in every possible way, and yet the scene where we hear the farewell message from his mother is played with complete sincerity. Troy and Jeff are moved by the message, and though Pierce remains in denial, it’s no longer a joke, but an honest moment about how some people use religion as a mechanism for coping with the inevitability of death. And then before things get too sappy, the rap song kicks in. Of course.

We’ll see how John Oliver works out long-term as the Anthropology professor (though the funny Betty White/”Inception” tag suggested that she was happy with the experience and would be amenable to coming back at some point). I’m not sure the gags here about him being both a disinterested drunk and clueless about the subject matter will play for a long time. We did, after all, spend a season with the study group being taught by an incompetent. But Duncan discovering and then abusing the power of the restraining order was a nice piece of physical comedy, and a good vulnerable moment for Chang.

And while the season premiere dealt with the respective Jeff/Annie and Jeff/Britta issues, the third side of that triangle needed to be addressed eventually. That story felt a bit abrupt in spots, but I enjoyed their dueling impressions of each other in the cafeteria, and their realization that all men – particularly the dudes leering at them(*) and making it rain with dollar bills – are far grosser and lamer than they could ever be.

(*) So… Back in August, I was hanging out at the “Community” production office to work on a behind-the-scenes feature about the Halloween episode, and producer Neil Goldman told me that he was going over to the set, that Annie and Britta were about to wrestle in oil, and would I like to join him? And who was I to say no to such an offer? And who was I to say no when, on the set, Goldman and director Anthony Russo invited me to be an extra in the background of that scene?

Actually, in this case there were perfectly good reasons to say no, but I was there, I like the show, and so I just went with it. I was told when and where to go, and to just leer and encourage the two women in their fight. They did a rehearsal, and as I was doing whatever I was doing for my reaction, I heard Russo call out, “Alan! Smaller!” As I am the length and width that I am, I assumed he was telling me to dial back the performance, which was both embarrassing (I was going for something more nuanced) and oddly nostalgic. It was the first bit of direction I’d taken since freshman year of college, when playing the lead role in the Penn experimental theater company’s production of Edward Bond’s “Lear” convinced me that I was much happier writing than acting. After the scene finished, I apologized to Russo for my untrained hamminess, and he said, “No, you were fine. You fit in perfectly with all those guys.” Outstanding. So rather than end my acting career as the king of England, I could end it as an apparently well-cast, sleazy, too-old community college student drooling over two women wrestling in oil.

They shot a lot more material with all us gross jerks that unsurprisingly got cut, but what bums me out a little is that there was only time for one of a very long series of improvised John Oliver lines in which he cheered Annie and Britta on. (The one I remember was him half-heartedly saying, “No. Don’t. Stop,” followed by, “No, I mean it. Don’t stop.”) We all had trouble maintaining character as he was going on.

A few other thoughts:

• Boy, the streets of whatever Colorado suburb Greendale is in sure look a lot like LA, don’t they?

• “You in the boobs.” Heh.

• Patton Oswalt reprises his role from season one as Nurse Jackie, meaning that between this and “Sons of Anarchy,” I’ve been seeing a lot of Nurse Jackies this week without seeing Edie Falco. It’s very confusing. But I particularly enjoyed Jackie’s comparison of human aging to movie franchises, both of which “eventually collapse into sagging, sloppy, rotten piles of hard-to-follow nonsense.”

• After the wrestling match scene was filmed, I did a quick interview with a drenched but amused Gillian Jacobs.

What did everybody else think?