A quick review of tonight's "Community" - followed by an anything-but-quick discussion between me and Todd VanDerWerff about the current state of the series - coming up just as soon as I have a multi-cultural evil twin...

Given the lousy ratings the season premiere got last week, Todd and I wound up taking to Twitter this afternoon to urge people to watch tonight's episode (and tonight's "Parks and Recreation") live. I hadn't seen "Geography of Global Conflict" in advance, and while I enjoyed parts of it - Annie's tantrum, the floating heads of squeaky-voiced Garret, the first Chang/Britta scene with the eaten, half-swallowed warning note - it did feel a little lightweight compared to some of my favorite episodes of the series, and not necessarily the one I would have raised a This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things call to arms about. (Though I apparently got a few of my Twitter followers to check out the show for the first time, they didn't seem impressed.)

And that got me thinking about a subject we talked about a lot last year: this ongoing shift between the high-concept episodes of "Community" and more normal episodes like this one that are just about life at a community college - albeit a strange one populated by strange people. And I began IM'ing with Todd - who, like me, loved the second season and its push deeper and deeper into the conceptual waters - about whether we'd reached a point where, for us at least, episodes like this one simply feel lacking compared to the ones where the study group is being attacked by zombies, turned into Claymation holiday figures or appearing in a fake clip show. And after a few brief exchanges - and Todd finishing up his own review of the episode for The AV Club - we realized it might be useful to start over from scratch, talk at greater length, and record the discussion for posterity. So here's what we had to say about The State of "Community" Season 3 - or whatever it is we can glean about it after a measly two episodes:

Alan: Let's start here: while there were some amusing parts of this episode, I was not in love with it overall. You?

Todd: I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either. It struck me as a perfectly acceptable, middle of the road episode, of the sort the show seemed to briefly forget how to do down the stretch of season two.

Alan: Okay, but here's what I'm curious about: the season has now opened with back-to-back episodes that, for lack of a better word, we could classify as "normal" episodes of "Community." No high-concept, no unique structure or tone, no modeling the entire episode around a well-known movie or TV show. And though both have had their moments, neither one seems likely to wind up on any fan's Best Episodes Ever list. So is this just a case of the season taking its time getting into a groove (like, say, the first few episodes of this season of "Breaking Bad"), or has the show reached a point where it doesn't know how to do the non-conceptual episodes as well as the wacky ones?

Todd: We were talking about this a little earlier (and I was talking about it with Alyssa Rosenberg as well), and I got to looking at old seasons on Wikipedia, and I realized something: EVERY season of Community has started slow, relative to what came later. Every season starts out laying the groundwork for what's to come, then starts to go crazy around episode seven or eight. I think that season two just went so far over the moon that we've forgotten that that season, too, started off in a relatively grounded place. Even the space shuttle episode is nowhere near as audacious as stuff that came later.

Alan: But Apollo 13 was the fourth episode, zombies the sixth, the bottle episode - which was "normal" in terms of taking place only in the study room, but which called attention to itself for doing so - was the eighth, conspiracy thriller the ninth, etc... It may have taken them a few weeks, but then they started banging out those puppies with great frequency.

Todd: Sure. But the first two were both "normal" episodes (or, more accurately, "low-concept" episodes). And I think if we're comparing this to a typical "normal" episode in season two, I'd take either the premiere or the second episode over something like "Competitive Wine Tasting," which really felt phoned in. The show really seems to be TRYING this year, trying to win over some of the people who wrote it off as too weird. And while that might end up creating episodes that seem to be straining too hard to seem normal, there's more thought put into them than into the relatively listless "normals" from the back half of season two.

Alan: It did seem like there was a schism between fans last season. Some loved the audaciousness and execution of the high-concept episodes and thought it was a season for the ages, while others missed the season one feel where things were (relatively) normal before chicken fingers and paintball showed us the extremes to which the show could go. And I have to confess that I fall into that first camp. When we were talking earlier, you said that the second half of season two had some issues, and I rattled off a list of great episodes, all of which were the high-concept ones (D&D, documentary, My Dinner with Abed, etc.), and while I know I enjoyed some of the "normal" episodes, I've largely forgotten them.

Todd: Oh, season two is, to my mind, so much better than season one, which is a very good season of television, definitely, but doesn't have the sheer love of "can you believe we're DOING THIS?" that season two achieved. What I'm hopeful about is that the show can blend the tone of season one--sweeter and more wistful--with some of the structural audaciousness of season two. And I wouldn't mind a few more visits to the melancholy the show expresses so well when it wants to, something that informed last week's musical number but then seemed to largely disappear.

Alan: But where's the ultimate balance? Obviously, the show has some ratings issues, and obviously there's a split (percentages unknown) even among its small number of fans. What number of "normal" (if there is such a thing) episodes vs. abnormal ones is acceptable to everyone? I like the idea of trying to marry the best of both worlds, and I think they did that with a number of the high-concept episodes last year. "Mixology Certification" and "Critical Film Studies" are both very, very character-driven, even as they're tonally unlike anything the show did before and, in the case of the latter, modeled very heavily on a cult film classic. But not everyone liked even those, and I worry that for the people who've grown to love the cuckoo bananas episodes, it's hard to take as much satisfaction out of a well-executed episode with a more traditional structure and tone.

Todd: Sure. That's the question, isn't it? Once the show does a high-concept episode so well, do you ever even WANT a low-concept episode? Or put another way, I gave both this episode and the space shuttle one a B. But I know which one I'll be more likely to remember when thinking about the show later on down the line, even though I'd say they're roughly the same (and this one probably made me laugh more).

At the same time, though, it's obvious that if the show just follows the high-concept episodes down the rabbit hole, that eventually leads to a series where it's all but impossible to care about the basic reality of the show or its characters, something that became too much for a lot of viewers--and critics I really respect--last season.

I, personally, love shows that could be a different KIND of show every week, but for a lot of people, that violates the bond they make with the show. So the tricky thing to do is figure out a way to be Community but also be, recognizably, a more "normal" sitcom.
I'm not sure it can be done, but I think the premiere, especially, showed a way to do it.

Alan: True, the premiere did manage to tell a few actual Greendale stories while working in a musical number, a "2001" homage, etc. But I also thought it got a little bogged down in plot at times. Maybe my concern is just that we've started the season with two good-but-not-great episodes that also fit into the somewhat misshapen box we call the "normal" episodes. The second episode of season 2 (the second one they showed, anyway; I know there was some shuffling) was "Accounting for Lawyers," which I would probably also stuff in that box, but it had one of the single funniest scenes in the history of the show with Annie chlorofoming the guard.

So it's entirely possible I'm just overreacting to these first two episodes, rather than it being part of a larger trend where they're having trouble making the non-concept episodes work

Todd: It's also just, generally, hard to start a comedy season well. I didn't like the Parks & Rec premiere very much, outside of the Leslie and Ben scenes (though I'll admit tonight's episode is a stone-cold classic). It's so tough to make sure you've got the storylines spinning along, while also getting the jokes in there.

I've found that "Community" is at its best when it isn't trying so hard. Now, that sounds paradoxical, given all of the crazy stuff the show does. But when it just settles down and accepts that sometimes it does episodes with zombies in them, and that's OK, it tends to make better episodes. I have so much faith that we'll look back on this momentary hiccup like we're doing with "Breaking Bad" now, where we see all of the groundwork these episodes are laying.

It could just be that I read a whole bunch of stuff into the season premiere, but it really does feel like this season is trying to build a big story about acceptance and how we define ourselves and how those definitions change. And that wouldn't be easy to set up in five episodes, much less two. But these first two episodes laid a tremendous amount of plot, character, and thematic pipeline. Maybe it won't pay off, and we'll all be ruing the missteps of the season. That's always the danger with stuff like this. But I really feel like we're going to be pleased with how this all works out.

Alan: No, I'm not incredibly worried overall. I'm just going to be curious, going forward, to see how the show works that balance of tone and style, and also whether they can find ways to please fans of one brand of episode when they're making the other kind. Again, allowing that both kinds are incredibly fluid. You and I can't even agree on which category to put "Mixology Certification" into.

Todd: And there are absolutely plenty of people who strongly dislike "Mixology" (an episode that improves for me every time I watch it). It's a show that tries so many things and succeeds at so many of them that it will inevitably end up disappointing at least some viewers with every episode. I'm already getting people Tweeting at me about how this episode blends season one with season two in a way they really enjoy. But I do hope the show finds a way to stick some of the craziness back in, while keeping with the more grounded tone it wants this year. A whole season of "Mixology"s? I could definitely handle that.

Alan: Well, in terms of what you say about what you see as the big themes of the season, this does seem a crucial time for the series, whether we get additional seasons or not. The characters have been together for two years now. They've matured, come to accept each other, etc. - and the show has commented on those changes. Jeff gave a big speech in the clip show about how he can't solve every problem with a big speech anymore. Jeff and Annie talk here about how their friendship needs to evolve (if not turn into the romance that some fans want). Britta's freaking out about growing up and tries to retreat back into her anti-establishment poses, even if it's in a totally defanged way that's as much about making Chang feel better as herself. But lots of these devices - the speeches, the Jeff/Annie sexual tension, Pierce being a racist jackass - have been pretty consistent sources of good comedy and/or emotion for the show. How do they let the characters grow up without altering the chemistry of what worked? I know this is a problem that LOTS of TV shows (virtually anyone with even the slightest bit of ambition) deals with at some point or another, but it feels especially tricky here because the show and the characters are so damn self-aware. If Jeff and Abed weren't constantly commenting on the nature of the action - whether in high or low-concept outings - would this be as big an issue? And how much will that maturation complicate this attempt to blend the two sides of the series?

Todd: This has always been the problem with the show, at least since they figured out it worked much better an an ensemble show than as a "Jeff Winger is Bill Murray circa 1982, and everybody's going to make him a better person" show.

There needs to be a certain degree of maturation that, nonetheless, leaves room for comic hijinks, which are necessarily immature. And because the show is always cognizant of how far its characters have come (and how far they still have to go), it's always going to be at war with some of its own comedic engines. And that drives a lot of uncertainty for fans of the show sometimes. It's a problem that a show like Happy Endings--much as I laugh at that show--will never have, and it's a problem that even shows with similar levels of ambition to Community don't have to tackle in the same way. This is a show that's always had a lot of character ambition, but to alter the characters too much will damage the show's ability to be funny. And I admire that the show is tackling that head-on this year.

Alan: So what we have here are two separate but possibly interlocking problems: 1)How do we please a split fanbase that prefers one kind of episode over the other (and make each kind as effective as possible, regardless of audience preference)? and 2)How do we let our characters grow up without taking away the things that define them (plus all the butt jokes)? Two episodes is a pitifully small sample size, and as you say, comedies - particularly quasi-serialized comedies like this one - tend to take a while to get going each season. So do you feel confident extrapolating anything about the season's creative prospects from these 2 episodes? Or should you and I just shut up and wait to see the inevitable tribute to "Just One of the Guys"?

Todd: I think we're dealing with the show finally digging into just why these people matter to each other and where this journey will go for them, ultimately. I alone seemed to read the musical opening last week as sad, but I think if you listen to the lyrics, it's all there. This is a season about what people wish they were--happy, an activist, someone who gets all the gold stars--and how far they've fallen short of that. And how Greendale lets that be OK. Maybe the show will fall short of that. Maybe it will simply cease being funny and become too pretentious. But I do know that I think this season is building to something special, and I hope we'll all have the patience to wait and see what happens. Just reading the episode descriptions indicates some pretty cool "high-concept" type things coming up. Here's hoping they show that this show hasn't lost it.

So that's enough us. What did everybody else think of the episode? And how are you feeling about the show as a whole right now?