Tuesday, April 14, 2015

REVIEW: 'Community' - Hackers Attack Greendale as Britta Attempts to Defend the Group's Privacy in 'Basic Email Security'

Yahoo Screen's Community - Episode 6.06 "Basic Email Security"

Greendale's computers are hacked, and the hacker demands that the racist comedian scheduled to perform at Greendale be cancelled or he will release the study group's emails. The group refuses, their emails get leaked and they force the performance to go on.

As Abed notes in one of the final scenes of the episode, the plot of "Basic Email Security" serves as part of a trilogy of episodes where the group turns against each other after several of their secrets come out. The other two, of course, being Season 2's "Cooperative Calligraphy" and Season 5's "Cooperative Polygraphy" - both of which would likely make my list of the ten best episodes of Community. Because those other two episodes were so successful creatively, it's easy to understand why the show would return to this well again. And yet, the story has reached a point of diminishing returns. Yes, there are some fresh new faces and perspectives that keep the secrets feeling inventive and with purpose. But the stuff happening with the original cast members just felt like a lesser version of the jokes told in the previous two incarnations of this plot.

"Basic Email Security" does hold a certain level of relevancy though, in that it is a parody of the recent Sony email hacks. It's actually pretty hilarious that Community is mocking Sony even though if it hadn't been for Sony there wouldn't have been six seasons of the show. That's a meta joke the episode doesn't really go into - even though there are several callbacks to seasons past. When Abed makes the observation that this story has happened before, he has to spend time explaining the circumstances around those occurrences to Frankie and Elroy in order to maybe find some bigger meaning in what just happened in this episode. It's the show making allusions to the past for the sake of fan service. It's acknowledging that this has happened before. And quite frankly, the show did it better previously. So the show is actually directing the audience to remember those prior episodes which only makes it more apparent of how weaker this one was.

All of this happens because Greendale has been attacked by hackers who want the school to cancel the stand-up comedy performance of a very racist performer (played by frequent Community director Jay Chandrasekhar). In this instance, it's actually Britta who attempts to rally the group around the cause of not letting the hackers bully them into getting what they want. It's a perfect combination of aspirational philosophies and, well, Britta. She gets lost for a bit in trying to make a rousing speech. Annie has to get her back on track, but it's still enough to get the group to rally around her and support her in this cause. She's the one making a stand in this situation which is a good thing for the character.

And yet, all of it comes crashing back into brutal reality when the emails are leaked and everyone, of course, reads them. It's fantastic watching as each character walks into the performance room knowing very well that the emails were leaked and what their "friends" said about them while trying to act as if they don't have a clue. Abed is the only one who follows the rule of not reading them while Chang doesn't even try to hide how much the emails hurt him. It's all very true and honest character work. However, the actual reveals of the email content weren't as revelatory as in episode's past. The group testing Annie's blood for drugs is surprising but too similar and not as outrageous as Abed planting GPS trackers on all of his friends. The story does help establish Frankie and Elroy more as characters. She is outraged over everyone else placing bets on what her sexuality actually is. That idea has come up before this season and does have a meaningful payoff here where she tries to say that it's completely irrelevant to her ability to do her job and be a friend. Meanwhile, Elroy's story about how he has become a part of an adopted family by accident is endearing while the reveal of him trying to make molds of Annie, Britta and Frankie's bodies is disturbing.

However, the various bits of character work don't really work all that well because Frankie and Elroy continue to just exist as supporting players. The events of this episode could have made more of an impact if some previous story had been centered around Frankie and Elroy and their needs and concerns as character. Both have been decent additions to this season, but they haven't been the focal point of a story yet. They are just the new characters to join the group. The bonds of friendship between them and the original characters isn't that strong which makes the reveals of what everyone has been up to in their emails feel less earned. It's just a small problem because of where this episode aired in the season's order. I'm sure after the season is over this episode will play better upon re-watch. At least initially, the various parts didn't add up to something great.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Basic Email Security" was written by Matt Roller and directed by Jay Chandrasekhar.
  • It's great that Community lured CSI: Cyber co-star Charley Koontz back as Fat Neil for a story centered around another cyber crime.
  • Also, the cyber crimes division at Greendale is so new that it's being run by kids. And yet, that kid is way more effective (and exasperated) at his job than the campus security cop who's been a part of the show for years.
  • Jeff and Frankie are confused by what a chap stick lesbian and functioning alcoholic are. That bit works so well because Abed later offers Frankie some of his chap stick.
  • Frankie and Elroy being surprised that the gang used to be a study group for a class Chang taught was almost too meta. 
  • Crime doesn't pay, kids. That's really the only simply lesson to learn here.