Wow. That was brilliant.

Community has often employed outlandish plots and excessive surreality, but every once in a while, it can put out an episode like this: an episode that reminds us that the members of the study group are human, and like all humans, they have flaws. “Mixology Certification” was such an episode, at once bleak and hopeful, and a fascinating, satisfying character study.

The premise of “Mixology Certification” was simple enough: the study group decides to go out to a bar to celebrate Troy’s 21st birthday. (Troy mistakenly believing that he had been 10 for 2 years was both hilarious and poignant, by the way.) And that’s it –  no crazy plot twists, no stupid gimmicks – just a few friends trying to hang out at a bar.

From there, things sort of fell apart for the study group. Annie began using her cover persona as an excuse to pretend to be someone else, revealing to the audience the sense of ennui she felt at having planned and plotted out her life. There was some brilliant work by Alison Brie here. Sure, the Texas accent was incredibly fake, but that was kind of the point: Annie’s Caroline identity was artificial, a representation of her suppressed fantasies. Where Brie really excelled was not in stepping into the Caroline persona, but in portraying Annie as slightly envious of Caroline, which is really difficult to do when she was pretending to be Caroline. At the end of the episode, Troy resolved Annie’s identity crisis by reminding her about what made her who she was. The show could have easily exploited the scene for sexual tension, but instead, it made the right choice and used the scene as a nice moment between friends.

At the bar, Jeff and Britta got more and more drunk over the course of the night, arguing over silly and petty things. Their bickering never became mean-spirited or hurtful (again, an easy source of drama that the show thankfully avoided), but it did illuminate an interesting point: Jeff and Britta’s role as the “parents” of the study group is entirely arbitrary. They’re no more knowledgeable about the important things in life than any other member of the study group; age and wisdom aren’t necessarily correlated.* It was important for Troy to learn this lesson, considering how often he’s regarded as the “stupid one” of the study group.

Meanwhile, Shirley revisited a dark time in her life, when she turned to alcohol after her divorce. We’ve seen hints of her wild side before, like her pride in doing a keg stand in last season’s finale, but this showed us that that side of her is something that she wishes she could put behind her. Given that she took out some of her irrational anger on the study group, it will be interesting to see where her character arc goes from here.

Abed’s storyline was amusing, but also provided some insights about his place in the world. The guy who attempted to pick him up at the bar listened to him going on and on about Farscape, and though he picked up on the fact that the guy was trying to pick him up, he was just happy to be talking about one of his favourite TV shows. It was a little jarring to see a drink thrown in Abed’s face, but it showed us that a lot of people just don’t get or tolerate him. He is lucky to have a group of friends who care about him and listen to him, because the rest of the world sure doesn’t.

The Pierce subplot might have been the weakest part of the episode, but seeing him unable to maneuver his wheelchair will always be funny, and by the end of the episode, he learned that his pride could sometimes be impractical. I hope to see his broken legs playing a role in future plots.

The real star of the episode was Troy. His story was simple enough: while driving everyone home, he learned that the measure of adulthood isn’t the ability to drink legally, but rather, the ability to take on responsibility. Troy is usually the butt of so many of the show’s jokes that it’s easy to forget that he too is an important character. Donald Glover was on fire in this episode, bouncing back and forth between the dramatic and comedic moments with ease. It was nice to see him play the straight man for a change. (Hey, Donald Glover, I think I’ve found your Emmy submission episode!) “Mixology Certification” added some much-needed depth and humanity to what has arguably been the least-developed character on the show, and Glover played this development perfectly.

It would have been easy for “Mixology Certification” to fall into the “very special episode” trap by being overly preachy about the dangers of alcohol use, but instead, it opted for a simpler, truer message: drinking isn’t always as fun as it’s cracked up to be. Nobody drank enough to puke or pass out, and Abed and Annie’s decisions weren’t fuelled by alcohol. It turned out to be a very mature way of handling the subject of drinking.

As great as this episode was, I do have a concern. I’m worried that Shirley’s dark times will be glossed over or swept under the rug, given how cartoonish Community can be on occasion. Nonetheless, the Shirley storyline we got here seems like a terrific set-up for what’s to come, especially if it’s compounded with the potential Chang pregnancy scare.**

Given that this episode felt more like a dramedy than a half-hour sitcom, I expect that it will be divisive. But Community needs to do episodes like these every now and then to remind us about why we root for these characters in the first place. Besides, shows that don’t take risks and that don’t keep trying different things get stale after a while, and it would be a shame for such an excellent show to become boring.

 

* Before anybody jumps on me for my choice of words, I’m aware of the difference between dependence and correlation in the probabilistic sense, so you mathematical types can save your snark.

** Isn’t Chang married? So now he’s a fraud and an adulterer? Sheesh.

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