I guess I need to start my review of this week’s Community by acknowledging just how much I hate paintball episodes. To me, Community‘s bevy of paintball episodes represent a huge part of the show’s downfall: buying into its own hype and prioritizing high concepts and a shallow idea of “cleverness” over real character development or even simple joke density. My heart fell a minute into this episode when paintball guns were whipped out.
Did “Modern Espionage” make sure to include plenty of lines pointing out the fact that they’ve done paintball too many times and everyone is tired of it? Of course. Did that only make it much more annoying that they’re doing it yet again? Also of course.
With those disclaimers out of the way, I have to say “Modern Espionage” actually isn’t a bad episode. Although homage (in this case, to spy movies) and self-referential lines were part of the episode, it didn’t actually hang its hat on either of those things. Thank God.
The more substantial part of the episode was a simple emotional conflict of the group, especially Jeff, wanting to grow up enough to keep themselves from getting too caught up in the paintball competition and to avoid disappointing Frankie. They end up convincing themselves that participating in the paintball game will actually be best when they find out about a plot to crash Frankie’s Clean Up Greendale Gala, honoring the janitors. The lead janitor is Lapari, played by Kumail Nanjiani (seen previously in “Analysis of Cork-Based Networking”). Kumail Nanjiani is a great guest star and his down-to-earth performance is a nice contrast to the stylized episode that keeps it from becoming too much of an homage at the expense of humor.
The final scene is a stand off between Jeff, Craig and Lapari that has a very nice emotional resonance as it reveals that none of them is ready to do the work of becoming better people. Of all the paintball episodes, “Modern Espionage” has the most genuine character depth. By far.
It also packs in a lot of jokes, much to my relief since so many of Community‘s high concept episodes expect to get by on style alone. My two favorite bits from this episode: first, the group using Batman actors as their code names including, much to my delight, “voice of Deidrich Bader.” Second, at one point Lapari looks at Abed and calls him an Indian guy and when Abed replies “I’m Arabic”, Lapari does a double take and says, “Okay…let’s go with that.”