"A Fistful of Paintballs" changed that.
This is not to say that Community is off probation — Dan Harmon and his writing staff have a long way to go to regain the trust I had in them during season one (they're crestfallen by this, I'm sure) — but "Paintballs" was everything that made season one great, with none of the season two problems.
Here's the thing: Harmon has created some stakes this season. Pierce was a dick; Shirley had a mystery pregnancy; Jeff and Britta were apparently sleeping together. And, um... yeah, that's about all. By structuring season two around the worst characters (Pierce, Chang, Shirley), and by shying away from any kind of sexual tension among the lead triangle (Jeff, Britta, Annie), Community became a show about nothing... with some Troy/Abed stuff sprinkled in for laughs. If you drink the Community Kool-Aid — if you think everything Harmon writes is hilarious (fake flashbacks, bottle episodes, conspiracy thrillers, oh my!) — then you've probably liked this season of laziness. If not, you're like me.
Which is a long way to say that "A Fistful of Paintballs" was totally perfect. Was it "Modern Warfare"? Not even close. But it didn't really try to be either. There was the backdrop of paintball, of course, but this episode was more about the group, and more about the relationships that were so important during season one: Jeff and Annie, Troy and Abed, everyone against Pierce.
It's true: the group has attacked Pierce on more than one occasion this season, but normally it has been forgotten about like nothing happened. Or, worse: Pierce has acted horribly and had no real comeuppance. Again, lazy. Not in "Paintballs." Whether or not Community follows through on what was set up in the first part of the finale remains to be seen (to be fair, it probably won't), but after weeks of wheel-spinning, it appears that something will come to a head: the group is done with Pierce, and he could be on the way out. It would be a bold move (and one teased often), but it feels legitimate this time, if only because where else could this show go?
Speaking of which: What of Jeff and Annie? "Paintballs" remembered that these two share a crazy amount of sexual tension whenever they're alone together. Jeff can call Annie a kid all he wants, but there are a few things inescapable about their relationship: 1.) Joel McHale and Alison Brie have great chemistry. 2.) Jeff and Annie have great chemistry. 3.) Community can pretend that Annie is some 19-year-old kid, but she looks and (mostly) acts like a 27-year-old adult. There is nothing predatory about Joel McHale hitting on Alison Brie. Get over this nonsense and hook these two up for real, emotionless television series! No, scratch that: Get over this nonsense and let Jeff and Annie have a will they or won't they relationship that will give the show some stakes.
Stakes. There's that word again. As I said, "Fistful of Paintballs" had stakes. They were basic — surviving the paintball competition, winning the $100,000 prize, figuring out who the ultimate bad guy really is — but they were bigger than anything Community tried this year. Face it: Shirley's tale of two daddies didn't go anywhere, because no one cares about Shirley or Chang. There was more passion in the 22 minutes of "Paintballs" than the weeks of the pregnancy plot, because it focused on the people who matter. Oh, yeah: And it featured Sawyer! That's a can't-lose proposition.
Community could lay an egg next week in the season finale — or Community could suck again in season three — but the first part of "A Fistful of Paintballs" reminded me that this was a show I adored last year. Perhaps that feeling can last for more than one night.