I’m a little late in mentioning this, and you’ve probably heard this elsewhere, but the most recent episode of Community was one of the best efforts by a show that’s improved steadily all season, and one of the funniest episodes any show has done this season. A lot of discussion of the show revolves around how self-aware it is (Abed is not the only character who compares everything to TV and movies; every character is defined, to an extent, by his or her pop-culture knowledge), but it’s managed the tricky task of weaving pop-culture references into actual coherent stories.
I didn’t even recognize a lot of the action-movie references they were making in this episode — and some of the movies I did recognize, I don’t particularly like — but it didn’t matter. The storytelling and visual clichés they were spoofing were recognizable in a general way, without being tied down to one specific movie; everyone was in-character once you accepted the overall conceit that they were all taking this paintball game way too seriously; and the story worked as a story, with a conclusion that worked both as a movie parody (hero is last man standing, kills the evil traitor masterminding the conspiracy) and a sitcom episode (hero does the right thing, proves yet again that he’s not such a jerk). And it managed to get the necessary action-epic look on a TV budget, shooting mostly on their regular sets — that’s impressive enough that the episode’s director, Justin Lin, imported for his actual action-movie experience, has a definite shot at an Emmy nomination.
One other thing that made the episode work was a storytelling decision that is very helpful to half-hour comedies, but is adopted by too few of them: it had no “B” story. There was one story, which pulled in all the characters. Like most episodes of ensemble comedies, it wasn’t really about all the regulars; only two of them were the “stars” of the episode, and the plot was set up in such a way as to eliminate (literally) each of the other characters after they’d had their requisite funny bits. But what it did not do was what a comedy usually does for the characters who aren’t involved in the main plot: give them their own little plot which can be intercut with the “A” story.
(The only bit that wasn’t related to the story was the tag, which was therefore an example of the stand-alone joke tag, almost unrelated to the episode as a whole.)
There’s long been an idea that comedies are supposed to have more than one story per episode — why and how this came about is a long story, but it’s been going on since shows like M*A*S*H and Barney Miller introduced the modern “B” story. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the writers come up with cool ways to tie the different stories together, but sometimes it doesn’t work: with running times getting shorter, putting two or three plots in the episode makes it difficult to spend enough time on any one of them. And (this is an old hobby-horse of mine) cutting back and forth between different plots makes it that much more difficult for the episode to have a unity of style and approach. (One of my least favourite examples of that is in the Frank Grimes episode of The Simpsons, where the episode proper has a very specific, unique style, but the little Bart/Milhouse “B” story is in a completely different style — severely weakening the episode overall, in my opinion.) Some shows have rebelled against the “B” story and gone back to the old ways, particularly Everybody Loves Raymond, where the creator sensibly decreed that there would be one story per week and all the characters would react to the main situation. But it hasn’t caught on as much as it should have.
Community hasn’t eliminated “B” stories entirely, and maybe it shouldn’t — but then, maybe it should. Anyway, this episode was a lot stronger because they didn’t try to have a sub-plot where none was needed. Not just because the episode felt more of a piece, but because it freed the other five characters up to spend a chunk of time commenting on the situation of the two main characters. And they were actually a lot funnier doing that then they would have been, I don’t know, trying to get candy out of the machine for 5 of the show’s 20 minutes. And, of course, because there was no other story to worry about, there was a buildup of tension (suspense-wise and other-wise) that is very difficult to achieve when one scene of one story is always followed by a scene from another story, as if every television show is trying to be a Robert Altman movie. By having each scene grow out of the previous scene, they can avoid the feeling of choppy, rushed storytelling, while still giving all the characters enough material to keep the actors happy.
Just as an illustration of the way single-story episodes get the other characters involved, here’s the first act of an old WKRP that’s kind of an extreme example: the episode is about a character thinking he’s heard God’s voice, so the entire first act (after the teaser, where the plot is set up) is just him getting the opinion of the other characters. They have no plot of their own, they’re just offering comments on his plot.