If you have not seen this episode yet and don’t wish to be spoiled, don’t continue reading.
I love Christmas episodes of TV shows these days. No one wants to do the typical cheesy magical Christmas episode anymore, so many of the darkest, most cynical stories are often saved for Christmas. Shows are trying hard to be the antithesis to the Christmastime cheese, and it usually yields more creative results. Community is no different, with the last three years’ Christmas episodes twisting a common holiday trope (season 1’s religious tolerance beatdown, season 2’s claymation via a family-fueled mental breakdown, and season 3’s hilariously imaginative musical and Glee/Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody.) But a common factor is that each and every episode still ended with a warm and fuzzy ending bringing the group together; there’s plenty of Christmas cheese and sappiness, it’s just earned after the darker journey to get there.
“Intro to Knots” is a little different, but does follow the same “darker spin on Christmas followed by a warm ending” formula, albiet not as overtly and not with anything specific. It’s nowhere near as funny as “Regional Holiday Music” nor as introspective as “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” but it’s still smart and not necessarily boring. The trouble is that it is kind of slow, but it’s no doubt a necessary evil that comes with the surprisingly subdued real-time Hitchcock parody here. That idea in and of itself is ridiculously clever; while barely acknowledged onscreen, this is a straight homage to Hitchock’s real-time film Rope, which is certainly not as well-known as Hitchcock’s other films that are often parodied. But then again, we also got an homage of My Dinner with Andre a couple of years ago, so clearly anything’s fair game. In any case, we go through a kidnapping and attempted psychological beatdown of the group before getting to Dean giving everyone kittens.
Jim Rash—or should I say Academy Award-winning Screenwriter Jim Rash—wrote the episode, and the writing is easily the best part of it. This an excessively talky episode of the show, but not in the typical way. The focus is less on witty one-liners and fiery back-and-forths, and more on long-winded monologues from Cornwallis and the group’s sometimes-equally long-winded reactions. The back-and-forths were still there, but the snappiness is substituted for some more subdued (though still funny) observations and exposition. That exposition admittedly holds the episode back sometimes, but it also gives it a “slow burn” feeling that Hitchcock’s films often have. On one hand, there’s a nice build-up of events and set-up before crap hits the fan, creating plenty of forward momentum even in the slow pace. But on the other hand, while it fits the theme, and commitment to that theme is great, it unfortunately drags the episode down a bit at times because of it. The best effort was obviously put forth, but this kind of episode just might not fit for this show, at least now.
On the upside, timing it in this season does provide a spotlight on what’s going on with the characters now. There’s good character work here; Jeff might have made a jerky move by shrugging off his part of the paper, but he does seem to feel guilty, which old Jeff wouldn’t have. And the newfound tension between Annie and Shirley is a welcome development. Their Valedictorian struggle is both a surprise but understandable, and it’s a decent way to throw in a graduation-related conflict that might carry through the rest of the season, other than “we won’t get all our credits on time!” And even the less development-y stuff was fine, as Rash wrote the characters impeccably well. Danny Pudi was absolutely adorable as Abed, for example, whose wonderful Die Hard references and glee at the escalation of events were at their best (likely thanks to Rash’s script.)
Much of the romantic tension has been put on the backburner this season—and probably for good reason, considering it’s not always handled well when it’s brought to the forefront. But, while I’ve harped on how much I wasn’t a fan of Annie’s “playing House” with Jeff in “Conventions of Time and Space,” it’s nicely addressed here, even as it’s laughed off a bit. There’s clearly tension because of it, and it’s better that the show is dealing with Annie’s immature trying-too-hard-to-be-grown-up attitude and Jeff’s uneasiness about (yet toleration of) it than sweeping it under the rug. However, it’s slightly frustrating that an apparent love triangle between Jeff, Britta and Troy was teased, but was swept under the rug in the same episode. The show has certainly shied away from taking the relationships too seriously, and there hasn’t really been much tension between the three in the past, so it seemed a little weird to bring that up, treat it like it might mean something, but then ignore it directly after. I don’t much like the idea of that kind of love triangle, a trope with the show already pretty much exhausted with Jeff/Britta/Slater in season 1, but dropping bombs without addressing them is obnoxious.
The biggest problem “Intro to Knots” has, though, is that there simply isn’t much of a hook here. It’s a solid episode of the show, for sure, but there aren’t any moments that let it stand out amongst the rest of the show, even with that Darkest Timeline tag. I enjoyed everything, but little of it resonated afterwards. The character developments were good, but they weren’t big enough to feel like this was as important as it tried to be. The laughs were there, but it’s a struggle remembering any jokes without taking notes on them. And that might not have been necessary if the half-hour itself was non-stop fun, but its slower, talky pace meant it needed the bright spots to make it something special. This is one of the better episodes of season 4 in terms of consistence and quality, but it’s doesn’t beckon multiple viewings like the previous Christmas episodes did. ”Intro to Knots” is a good episode of the show, but unlike it predecessors or the unsurmountably memorable episode preceding it, it’s not a great one.
Odds & Ends
- UPDATE: Fact-checking faux paus here. Andy Bobrow is actually the credited writer this week, not Jim Rash. Rash was previously billed as writing “the tenth episode”—next week was technically the tenth filmed—and was listed as such on IMDB until a couple of days ago. But everything I said about Rash applies to Bobrow, too, who deserves credit for the great script here. And now I can reuse ”Academy Award winning screenwriter Jim Rash” next week!
- What is there to say about the Darkest Timeline? It was great, Jeff’s “I wish you were younger” comment is great, everything about it is great. It’s pandering to the fanbase, but whatever. It’s totally welcome.
- Sad as it is to say, this episode is a strong indication for why the show still works remarkably well without Chevy Chase, who’s absent while Pierce is at “sensitivity training with Gilbert.” Like an episode missing Ken Jeong or Jim Rash without mention, if no one had mentioned Pierce at all, I might not have noticed. Which is both good and bad, but mostly depressing.
- This is perhaps the first time since perhaps season 2 that a guest star was well-utilized. McDowell didn’t do much in his first appearance, but he sells the creepy, silver-tongued manipulator McDowell has become known for in his later years.
- There’s no direct Jehovah’s Witness reference for Troy, but Abed does note that he’s ”getting really good at Christmas.” We’ve essentially watched a character playfully lose his religion over four years and everything’s warm and fuzzy because of it.
- Asparagus wrapped in salmon?!?!?!
- Gotta love Britta’s judgy face.
- Annie’s fabrications of Cornwallis’s drunken rage is great.
- “This is amazing and possibly all in real time!”
- “Jeffrey, I know you’re there! I can smell you!”
- “I’m a blast at Christmas parties!” I like when fanservice is subtle like this.
- “A gift doesn’t create the obligation, it’s the obligation that creates the gift.”