Tuesday, May 5, 2015

REVIEW: 'Community' - Jeff and Britta Attempt to Grift a Grifter Who Wants to Manipulate the Gang in 'Grifting 101'

Yahoo Screen's Community - Episode 6.09 "Grifting 101"

When a clever con man, Professor DeSalvo (Matt Berry), uses his class to cheat the study group, they enlist Jeff to get revenge. The situation goes awry as Britta and Dean Pelton get involved in Jeff and Professor DeSalvo's scamming competition.

Throughout Season 6 of Community, Jeff's character arc has been chunky and perfunctory. There really isn't anything that is driving that character forward at the moment. So whenever a story bases an emotional beat around him, it's typically about his jealousy when he's no longer the coolest person in the room. That has always been Jeff's greatest character flaw. He views himself as a charmer and the coolest person at Greendale. When someone new comes along to challenge that title, he acts and tries to prove that he is the cool and cocky charmer that Greendale deserves. It's a story beat that has been used several times this season. It worked when he was battling Brian Van Holt via robotic iPads. It hasn't worked though when the struggle is purely internalized. How all of these feelings effect Jeff on an emotional level is important to the character but the show hasn't handled it all that well. The story and emotional structure of "Grifting 101" is no different than last week's episode. And that definitely extends to Jeff's internal character struggle not being as earned as the show thinks it is.

The problem with Jeff this season has been that plot beat being the only thing asked of him. He struggles with the idea that he'll be stuck at Greendale for the rest of his live. That gets even more daunting when some new professor or student shows up and takes all the attention away from him. And yet, it is still the same story being told over and over again with the same kind of resolution. Jeff will always be the last man standing at Greendale. But all these crises of conscience aren't really adding up to anything. They are simply being presented as the story the show knows how to tell with Jeff. But it isn't making sure enough gets added with each succeeding episode to make it be adding up to something greater.

That character problem doesn't take a whole lot away from the main story of "Grifting 101." The rest of the gang are able to call Jeff out for his tendency of having to be the coolest person in the room. But the overall story of the episode is essentially a parody about grifters. It does call too much attention to that fact - Abed name-checking The Grifters and The Sting and the entire gang later watching The Sting to learn how to grift. It makes it apparent right away what the core dynamics of the episode are going to be. Everyone was aggressively trying to grift and not be grifted. It made it so that the audience couldn't trust whatever the characters were doing.

All of this is brought about by Professor DeSalvo (a great Matt Berry), the new Greendale professor on grifting. He has such a strong commitment to the art of grifting and arguing over what qualifies as grifting and what is just lying. Jeff points out right away that the gang shouldn't trust anything in regards to DeSalvo's class. That makes the audience suspicious right away. Is DeSalvo grifting the class or is he simply being mysterious? Is Jeff capable of grifting the grifter? Or is he just making up stuff in the spur of the moment? It's all a tad too complicated - with Britta being able to lure DeSalvo in with her romantic charms. The plot hinges on DeSalvo and Britta making that connection. And yet, they hardly spend any time onscreen together. The episode cuts away from them the moment they meet in Greendale's underground bar. That made it apparent right away that whatever the episode hinged on would come from that moment.

This is yet another fantastic Britta episode. Gillian Jacobs truly is the MVP of Season 6 so far. That's entirely because she has been given a character arc that doesn't just rely on where the character has been in the past. Yes, the joke where she yells "I lived in New York!" has been done many times over the years. And yet, it is still very effective especially when she's yelling it with indignation towards DeSalvo for calling her a "Midwestern floozy." But the running joke about her asking other people to buy the items for the class for her only for them to say they'll get the money from her parents is deeply rooted in an emotional and grounded story established throughout this season. That's what's making her the most interesting character right now.

"Grifting 101" is too busy trying to pull a sleight of hand by saying everyone (except Chang) was in on the grift the whole time. If that were true, then why did they have that whole argument in the middle stretch about Jeff not knowing what the next stage of their plan should be and then watch the movie whose concept they were parodying? It's purpose was to set up the later event of the entire school helping the gang get the grift over DeSalvo. That was fun and hilarious. And yet, the basics of the plot didn't fully add up to something great. It was probably because the episode was a tad too long. The comedic beats probably would have landed much stronger with one or two less minutes in the total running time. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Grifting 101" was written by Ryan Ridley and directed by Rob Schrab.
  • Frankie was just as enthusiastic about taking the grifting class as the rest of the gang. And then, she just disappeared for a long stretch of the episode only to pop up again in the final stages of Jeff's grift on DeSalvo. It was just too problematic and noticeable.
  • Jeff tries pulling off his former job as a lawyer without having a law degree as a grift. And yet, DeSalvo accurately points out it was just lying. 
  • Elroy trying to understand the dynamics that brought the study group together in the first place was great.
  • The episode's writer, Ryan Ridley, appears as the man who delivers the telegraphs and is the subject of another hilarious parody in the episode's tag as a man destined to eternal servitude to Jeff because Jeff saved him at the gym.
  • Annie declaring that Britta has been at Greendale for six years and in three more years she'll be able to get her two-year degree was such an easy and lackluster joke that felt too exaggerated.