by Thom Yee

Community images courtesy of Sony Pictures Television.

Community images courtesy of Sony Pictures Television.

6×09: “Grifting 101”

Something that’s been hard to track throughout the last two seasons of Community is the progression of the school year. Without the benefit of a year-round/fall-winter release schedule, thirteen episodes can go by relatively quickly in about one semester’s time, and this year and last have also been without markers like a Halloween or Christmas episode. When the topic of picking new classes from this semester’s new course catalogue comes up, as is the starting pitch for this week’s “Grifting 101”, the whole thing sort of feels out of left field. On the other hand, we’ve already gone pretty far in abandoning the central conceit of school uniting our characters anyway; classroom settings rarely show up even as framing sequences anymore. And since when was Chang a student again? Hasn’t he been the math teacher since last year? And even then, along with photography and martial arts, shouldn’t that assignment have gone against every fibre of the mysterious, inscrutable nature he may have but doesn’t want to have any conversations about? Maybe I’m just living in the past (I miss 2009, when twenty years ago was still the 80s).

This week, our heroes are instantly smitten with the prospect of taking a new class on grifting, something Jeff declines both because he’s a teacher now and because he’s convinced the class itself is a grift (not to mention the group already has all the reason it needs to stick together as the “Activities Committee”). As the only person at Greendale even close to being a proper grifter, Jeff at first chooses to accept the new grifting professor, Roger DeSalvo, only to find himself at odds with the professor after he refers to Jeff’s grifting exploits as mere lying.

The best thing about “Grifting 101” is that there’s a consistent undercurrent of whimsy throughout the episode, a commitment to the bit that feels genuine even if the plot goes almost nowhere with the subject. With its consistent use of iris slows (central holes getting bigger or smaller) and 1930s-esque hand-drawn illustrations for scene transitions and openings, there’s a level of effort throughout “Grifting 101” that is appreciated, as are the occasional laughs at the expense of classic grifting movie plots such as Matchstick Men and The Sting (“So much construction!”).

Doesn't he just look like someone you're supposed to laugh at?

Doesn’t he just look like someone you’re supposed to laugh at?

Unfortunately, the episode is also extremely underdeveloped, almost deliberately lazy as the story leads the Activities Committee to pull a grift on the grifting professor himself. Generally for any villain to work, the villain has to be likeable or relatable in one way or another, and this week’s (played by Matt Berry, who a certain subset of you will no doubt recognize because you think you’re so great) is entirely undercooked. As portrayed, I have nothing against the character or the actor, and I actually wouldn’t mind seeing him explored further in a later, better episode, but “Grifting 101” leaves Professor DeSalvo so one-note (he’s broadly aware of when he’s being grifted and looks down at our group’s attempts at grifting for its lack of artistic merit) that it’s hard to care about the character (or really anything happening). And what’s even worse, he’s right! There is no craft in any of the grifting the committee attempts, least of all the grift they ultimately use to fool Professor DeSalvo. Based on appearance alone, DeSalvo’s practically screaming for attention, and it’s hard to imagine the actor not being utterly hilarious in most of the other comedic roles he’s been cast in.

Eventually the Activities Committee stands triumphant over Professor DeSalvo’s attempts to grift the school out of a $50,000 out-of-court settlement for damages due to negligence (he fakes falling down the stairs after slipping on a wet floor), but it doesn’t feel like a victory for Greendale, as has been the rallying cry for most of the last two seasons, and more like further stroking our group’s individual egos by allowing them to win no matter how clumsy or how out of their depth they are now that they’ve faced down five-and-a-half seasons of fairly out there plots.

Remember when this show was about a community college instead of a loosely connected group of people watching movies to make sense of their world? Me neither.

Remember when this show was about a community college instead of a loosely connected group of people watching movies to make sense of their world? Me neither.

There’s a great attitude and tone all throughout “Grifting 101”, and that’s what saves the episode, but there’s no depth or detail worth noticing. It just sits there, relying on the natural charms of the group we’ve all come to grow dependent on in the twilight years of the series and our fandom. I liked “Grifting 101”, but I didn’t really have a reason to. And for those of you who think that might be the greatest grift of all? It isn’t. The show isn’t that smart anymore.

Community “Grifting 101 final score: 7

Items of Note:

  • “I’ll get it from your parents.” “I’ll get a high five from your parents.” “Britta, pay your rent!” I’m getting pretty sick of Annie’s tone towards Britta.
  • I’m ashamed to admit that I might’ve liked Professor DeSalvo a little more if he was a little thinner.
  • It would be weird to see one class full of students where every one has a brief case.
  • So is Britta still running Shirley’s Sandwiches? Is it only open when Britta’s not in class? And what classes is Britta taking?
    • What class is anyone taking?

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