Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Community, angry voicemails and showrunner drama aside, we're oh-so-happy that you're coming back next year. But even if you weren't, ending your season finale with a satisfying montage and a loving nod to your fans -- #SixSeasonsAndAMovie -- was a classy move. Thank you for proving to a small (but dedicated) portion of this world that great comedy doesn't always have to be before its time (Arrested Development), and thank you for creating a show where an 8-bit Gus Fring is possible. From alternate timelines to Dick Wolf-inspired courtrooms, this season has been a joy to watch -- and it's been an honor fighting the good fight with you.
Truly, the last two minutes of "Introduction to Finality" -- the third segment of last night's Community triple feature -- could have gone either way. If the show had been cancelled, fans would have been satisfied with their favorite characters' fates: Shirley and Pierce would run their sandwich shop together, Jeff would finally search for his father, Troy would live happily with Annie and Abed as the "messiah" of air conditioning repair school, and Chang would continue to mess with the study group from afar -- well, from as far as City College. Oh, and Starburns would be there too, as we saw him poring over a book called The Science of Death-Faking. We'd be happy to know that somewhere, somehow, things were still absolutely banana-pants over at Greendale -- where Britta would still be Britta'ing things up. Luckily, things didn't quite turn out that way, and instead we have some major seeds planted for future action in season four.
Since an hour and a half of oddball action is difficult to discuss in detail, let's just stick to the basics: Episode one, "Digital Estate Planning," diverted from the expelled Greendale Seven plotline to take us on one final grand adventure -- in an 8-bit, side-scrolling-adventure-slash-RPG game. See, back in 1979, Pierce insisted to his domineering jackass father that video games were the future. Since the crotchety moist towelette man disagreed, he created a game (from that era) that could possibly serve as his son's downfall. The rules of the game were simple, Hawthrone explained, even if its gameplay was not: Pierce and seven of his cabal of "freaks, junkies, and sluts" ("Her name is Britta!") would enter Mr. Hawthorne's imagined universe as avatars, and the one who first made it to Hawthorne Castle (going through Gay Island and the Black Cave, natch) would nab Pierce's inheritance.
Of course, none of Pierce's friends would actually steal his inheritance. But since Levar Burton was busy that day, the role of the seventh friend was assumed by the nefarious Gilbert Lawson -- known to most as the half-faced Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) from Breaking Bad, and eventually revealed to be Pierce's long-hidden half-brother. The game was hilarious and compelling, and it had our favorite characters doing what we love best: Sitting around and talking with each other, just in a much more ridiculous setting. And guess what? In a pinch, they can always count on Britta to mess up making potions in the best possible way.
Yes, this episode was a stand alone budget-stretcher that didn't quite fit in with the next two installments, and it was the exactly the kind of "f--k you" episode that Harmon regularly airs in spite of the fact that it alienates new viewers. I loved it regardless, and in the midst of all the distracting 8-bit action, there was substantial evidence brewing that Pierce was re-emerging as a valued member of the study group -- he even showed some empathy by letting Gilbert take the prize. The gang has had their differences throughout the year, but when a member of the group is threatened like Abed was last week, they always come together to fight for the good of the Greendale Seven. And if Abed meets a recently-orphaned milkmaid named Hilda whose dialogue options are all pre-programmed to eliminate any element of surprise -- well, then, all the better. "Die, racism!"
Next up was "The First Chang Dynasty," the episode that finally answered the question: Where the eff is the Dean? (In the central air room, under the cafeteria, shirtless.) But more importantly, it finally gave the Greendale Seven the chance to re-take their former school, in an elaborate Jeff-created heist that put Ocean's Eleven to shame. Of course, "Benjamin Franklin" Chang took on the Andy Garcia role, while the halls of Greendale represented Las Vegas' Bellagio. Same thing. What I loved most about this episode was not a shirtless Joel McHale in goth attire, or even the mention of a photo booth with props: It was the fun of seeing our gang take Greendale by storm for the third year in a row, without using the same paintball gimmick. Bravo to Harmon and co. for creating a great tradition and making it even stronger, and Brava to Britta Perry for having the ability to seduce a pre-teen boy in ten seconds.
With Dean and the Seven out of the way, Chang was ruling over Greendale with the same kind of care and compassion you see from King Joffrey over on Game of Thrones. As Britta put it, "It's just like Stalin back in Russia times." To cap off his ultimate triumph, Chang was throwing the most elaborate, budget-busting birthday party the school had ever seen. Included on the roster: A dance-off, a sundae bar, one of those Ed Hardy street magicians, and a photo booth with props. This gave the show the perfect opportunity to provide brilliant Troy and Abed caricatures and bits with Jeff and Britta in sexy costumes -- all in an elaborate attempt to thwart Chang's teen militia. Of course, Troy could just join the Air Conditioning Repair Annex to save the Dean, but that would mean giving up his life with the Seven.
Sadly, despite a hilarious hodge-podge of typical heist tropes, (costume changes, fake-outs, a victory that seemed like a failure that was actually really a victory) the Seven found themselves locked in the basement with no hope. Troy knew that the all-powerful Air Conditioning Repair Annex was always watching, so he sadly nodded to indicate his willingness to give up his freedom to save his friends. Troy and Abed hugged goodbye, and the hero sadly packed his bags. And here began the final (and best) chapter: The Final Final-ness of the Greendale Seven.
It was now the end of summer, and with Chang locked up in the vents of City College, the only thing on Jeff Winger's mind was finally passing biology class. Everything seemed to be status quo, and Shirley had even received some good news: The cafeteria Subway shop had closed, to be replaced by "Shirley's Sandwiches." But underneath their apparent happiness, a deeper emotional trouble was brewing -- Abed was deeply suffering without his best friend, and Troy was suffocating under the militaristic vents of the AC Repair Annex. "Psychologist" Britta tried her best to pull Abed out of his funk, but all this did was bring out Evil Abed, who made Britta feel even worse about herself. ("I'm the center slice of a square cheese pizza. You're Jim Belushi.")
If fans were expecting a Community-brand banana-pants blowout to end the season, they weren't going to find it here. As I said before, this could potentially have been Community's final episode, so using it as a touching vehicle to bring the divided gang back together again was the perfect choice. Without the strength of his community, Jeff had again become selfish. His agreement to represent Shirley in "Greendale Court" as she fought Pierce for the right to sign the dotted line on the Sandwich form was more out of annoyance than anything else. And Abed was completely malfunctioning: The chaotic Evil Abed was now running the show, planning to bring darkness and destruction to the current timeline.
The severely bruised and divided gang would need a swift kick in the ass to bring themselves together, and luckily they got two: First, Murray from the AC Annex murdered Vice Dean Laybourne, resulting in the need for a death match via the "Sun Chamber." Troy and Murray would battle head-to-head in glass boxes pumped full of hot air, until one of them yielded from the heat. Second, Jeff's old nemesis Alan Connor (Rob Corddry) returned to represent Pierce in the Sandwich trial. If Jeff didn't throw the case, preserving Connor's wealthy client, he wouldn't get his job back after graduation. It was a lose-lose situation.
Except, no -- it wasn't. Shirley told Jeff that sacrificing his career wasn't worth it, so she would gladly allow Pierce to sign the dotted line. And Troy won the Sun Chamber match using literally no effort, effectively becoming the all-ruling messiah of the AC Annex. As both of these cases came to a close, a once-again-changed Jeff waxed poetic on everything he (and we) learned this season. "The truth is, the pathetically, stupidly inconveniently obvious truth is, helping only ourselves is bad, and helping each other is good," he said. "Now, I just wanted to get out of here, pass biology, and be a lawyer again instead of helping Shirley. That was bad...But now, Shirley has gone good. Shirley is helping me. It's that easy. You just stop thinking about what's good for you, and start thinking about what's good for someone else -- and you can change the whole game with one move."
It should be the easiest concept to grasp, but nothing seems that simple when we're in the middle of our own real or self-created problems. But Harmon nailed it on the head: Like the study group, if we could all take a f**king second to think about someone else for a change, the world would be a whole lot better. After Jeff's motivational speech, Abed snapped out of his funk, Troy re-joined the group, and even Pierce contributed to the love by defending gay people. It was a beautiful moment to top off a troubled but ambitious season. Lots of love, and prayers for a brilliant and Harmon-ious season four.
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[Photo Credit: NBC]
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