Over the last few episodes, one thing about Community has become crystal clear: doing stories in the school goes a long way. There’s something about Greendale that makes the more goofy aspects of the series acceptable. It’s been that way since Season 1. As soon as you set foot outside the school – into the real world – it becomes harder to justify how regular people can act so strangely. “Economics of Marine Biology” wisely keeps the bulk of the storylines grounded in the weird world of Greendale, where an entire school will cater to the wants of a single 22-year-old burn out with rich parents and classes such as Physical Education Education are taught in utmost seriousness. This might be my favorite episode of the season so far and for good reason. Out of all seven episodes that have aired, “Marine Biology” felt the most like a classic episode of Community. And when I say “classic” I mean this took me all the way back to Season 1.
This is the first episode of the season that exclusively built its storylines from a central problem the school was dealing with – the aforementioned rich kid, Archie. The Dean wants to show him a good time by turning Greendale into a constant party, hoping bending over backwards like this will inspire Archie to come to Greendale and spend his parents’ money on classes for years. It’s not the strongest plot – the Dean practically carries it by himself while Annie remains on the fringe – but it was simple, to the point and made the most of itself. It ended in a way that seemed too easy, but getting there was filled with enough laughs – I was stitches over Magnitude’s crisis over finding a new catchphrase – to make it seem worth the shallowness. Jim Rash has been a shining star in some of these weaker storylines. He really knows how to sell even the lamest lines.
The other two storylines – three if you count Abed’s running gag – branch out from this central concept. I’ll knock out Abed’s bit first since it’s the simplest. After hearing the Dean make a throwaway comment about Greendale not having any fraternities, Abed latches on to the idea of doing a “Dean shutting down a fraternity” story and founds the Delta Cubes. He appears randomly throughout the episode to deliver a quick joke and for the most part it’s funny. It was one of the things that made me think of Season 1, partly because we saw Abed get up to some collegey antics in “The Art of Discourse.” This time around, the joke was more focused on the one aspect of college life and it does have a decent pay off at the end when Abed leads his fraternity to pants the Dean, Archie and Magnitude.
The Shirley/Troy storyline was equally reminiscent of Season 1; specifically it reminded me of “Beginner Potter” due to Shirley’s surprising excellence at a random class she takes. In this case, she and Troy can’t help woo Archie because they enrolled in P.E.E. (it started off as a typo, but became one of Greendale’s more successful classes). It’s a class that teaches students how to be teachers of Physical Education. Here we have a classic role-reversal; Troy, assuming this is a typical gym class, tells Shirley he’s not going to help her because gym is about “survival of the fittest.” Almost immediately the tables are turned once it becomes clear Shirley’s role as a mother gives her a natural gift to boss around unruly gym students and Troy’s childlike mentality leaves him at the bottom of the class. As much as I enjoyed getting a story featuring both these characters together, the jokes weren’t as inspired as the main storyline; that is until Chang entered the fray. Seeing Troy at the bottom of the class, Shirley coaches him to coach Chang, the unteachable. The montage and accompanying music was a perfect caper to this story.
Finally, we get a return of the Jeff and Pierce relationship that was tragically left behind when the show started to venture off into a more detached direction. Tasked with distracting Pierce while the Dean shows Archie around the school, Jeff goes to a barbershop with him and the two get along swimmingly. Pierce has had practically nothing to contribute to this season, so it was a nice surprise to see him paired up with Jeff and actually have them enjoy each other’s company. I miss the father/son dynamic the two shared in the show’s early run, particularly Pierce’s surprisingly wise portrayal. It’s a part of Pierce that’s been mostly cut out of the show since Season 2 and it hurt the character immensely. It makes me almost sad knowing Chevy Chase has long since left the show. There was hope for his character, even if it was just the smallest ray.
“Marine Biology” leaves me feeling like Community might be finally finding its way again. I’m not surprised to find its best episode had more ties to the first season than any other. After how self-indulgent Season 3 became, the smartest move the writers could make is to pull back and get back to the simpler times of 2009. This episode felt right if not perfect. At the very least it puts the show on the right path toward perfection. There is still so much good to be squeezed out of Community before the end. Just remember this one thing: don’t underestimate the importance of Greendale. I’ve seen episodes improve greatly just by being set within the walls of the school. I know the writers want to prepare audiences for a Community post-graduation, but the fact remains there is magic inside Greendale you can’t find in the outside world.