Community Review: “Alternative History of the German Invasion” (Season 4, Episode 4)

Hmm. One of the side effects of not watching TV live is that you can’t altogether avoid seeing others’ reactions to an episode before watching it. That’s what happened with me and this week’s episode of Community, and while I liked this episode as a whole, I can’t help but keep the mixed reactions to it from other corners of the web in mind. But more on that in a bit.

This episode was apparently the second one produced for season 4, which explains why the study group is just starting the “real” history class they’re supposed to be taking. But right out of the gates, one of my favourite things about the episode overall is that the gang is back to carrying out various campus shenanigans! Yay! Not that Pierce’s mansion or the Inspector Spacetime Convention wasn’t fun, mind you, but I did miss seeing the Study Group back in their original community college setting.

Speaking of comebacks, the German trio from season 3 (of the “that was like a $25 bit and it wasn’t even that good!” fame, natch) is back, and they have a new leader named Reinhold. Together with his minions, Karl and Luis, Reinhold takes over the study room from the study group, who then stage an elaborate ruse involving a mini-Oktoberfest to reclaim their study space. They’re successful, of course, but that leads to a reactionary protest from the 99% of Greendale (hah) against the perceived tyranny of the Greendale Seven. And, in accordance with the conventional history class motif that “history is written by the victors” which frames this episode, the study group realizes that they may have been the Greendale counterpart of the Nazi Germans all along. So they make retributions to “give back” to Greendale, and earn back the study space that they have come to regard as their second home.

That’s pretty much the A-plot in a nutshell. And I guess, when I put it that way, the narrative just seems kind of predictable, with a pat resolution – complete with Winger speech and all – to wrap it all up in a neat bow and keep us sympathetic towards our main characters.  But I think that’s what the old Community has done, time and time again; the magic of the show lies not in its use of cliche plot devices, but in how it puts everything together in a way that feels fresh and innovative, while doing homage to a wide variety of things in pop culture.

This episode certainly has its share of that magic. There were a lot of great one-liners (just to name a few: “I don’t get history. If I wanted to know what happened in Europe a long time ago, I’d watch Game of Thrones.” – Troy; “So, let me get this as straight as I can get things…” – Dean Pelton; “Oh, cool! What are we protesting?” – Britta), and if Community is consistently great at anything, it’s zippy dialogue. Yet I mentioned in my season premiere recap that the episode felt lacking in spite of the zippy dialogue…so what made this episode any different? Here’s one thing: the characters felt authentic and more like their old selves from seasons past. And I think those one-liners I picked out (and, yes, the motivational Winger speech at the end), as well as little moments like the dean really highlighted that.

Also, I don’t know how you all feel about the foosball episode, but I loved it. The Germans were hilariously haughty, and proved a fun opponent to Jeff and Shirley back then – as they do in this episode. There’s an additional element of camaraderie between Abed and Karl here, though (Karl saved Abed’s life in a video game they play together), which complicates the otherwise-completely-antagonistic dynamic a liittle. But anyway, the point is, the Germans bring the funny, and I was pleasantly surprised to see them make a reappearance in this episode.

As for the B-plot: Chang is back! And he really does seem to have “Chang-nesia,” despite Dean Pelton’s initial suspicions to the contrary. The Greendale schoolboard allows Chang back on campus to help recuperate his memory, to the dean’s chagrin. When he lashes out at Kevin/Chang for what he did to the school last semester, Chang actually turns himself in (to jail, that is). And that’s enough to make Dean Pelton eat his words and accept that Chang isn’t faking anything. How the Greendale Seven will react to his reappearance still remains to be seen, however…

There’s not much to say about this subplot, because I think I have to see more episodes with Chang to actually assess how the writers are handling his character this season. I have my doubts about the whole amnesia arc still, but again, we’ll have to see where it goes from here.

Now for the more troubling aspects of this episode: to begin with, while I did enjoy seeing the Germans again, was it really necessary to perpetuate the World War II tropes (Germans = Nazi Germans, get it?!) so much? I mean, I understand that they wanted to emphasize the history theme – which, being a bit of a history geek, I do appreciate – but the heavy stereotyping was a bit too one-dimensional and over-the-top.

On a related note, the minor characters’ protest against the study group had one too many parallels to the Todd-turtle episode in season 3 for my liking. I thought we’d already established in that episode that the study group may be the oppressive “victors” in someone else’s story, and it felt like we were essentially treading a lot of old territory. So the episode drew out the historical revisionism theme pretty well, but it didn’t really do anything new with it. In fact, if it weren’t for the inclusion of the Dean Pelton/Chang subplot, the episode didn’t seem to move the overall plot forward much at all.

I’m a pretty avid fan of Community, and despite my reservations for this season I’m gonna continue watching. But I do have to echo some questions that a lot of others have asked about season 4 – is the show simply a shadow of its former self? Can it ever recapture all of its former glory? Tentatively, I want to say yes. But we have a few more weeks to find out if that will really be the case.

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