Greendale Meets ‘Apollo 13’ In Another ‘Community’ Epic

Last season, NBC’s much-beloved comedy ‘Community’ got a lot of attention and earned many new devotees by dovetailing the character arcs of the ensemble cast with amazingly well-crafted movie-parody-style riffs – for example, Goodfellas, Casino and other mafia movies were incorporated in the study group’s dastardly plan to corner the market on cafeteria chicken fingers, and action movies like Die Hard, Predator and John Woo flicks were referenced in an epic paintball game that sprawled all over the Greendale Community College campus.

So what could top that for this season? “We’re going to the moon,” revealed Gillian Jacobs, aka Britta Perry, from the set of this Thursday’s episode entitled ‘Basic Rocket Science.’ “I think it’s kind of perfect because after the paintball episode last year, people were like, ‘Where else can you go?’ The logical answer is the moon, so here we go!”

“We’re kind of genre parodying Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff,” explained Donald Glover, who plays quirky jock Troy Barnes. “A bunch of good, old fashioned space movies, I guess, which is really fun to do, especially when you were a boy you watched Apollo 13 a billion times because your teacher made you. It’s fun, it’s been really cool.”

Pierce (Chevy Chase) and Annie (Alison Brie) in 'Community' (NBC)

Pierce (Chevy Chase) and Annie (Alison Brie) in 'Community' (NBC)

Yvette Nicole Brown, who portrays the motherly Shirley Bennett, teased the show like a pro. “There’s an event that happens at Greendale that causes the gang to be trapped in what looks like a spaceship. Will they make it home in time? Will they make it out? All of these questions will be answered in the episode… and there’s space suits-ish. Everything at Greendale is sort of an ‘ish.’ The whole team dynamic is turned on its ear, so there’s a lot of stuff like that going on in this episode.”

The thing “what looks like a spaceship” is actually an antiquated space simulator left over from the 1980s and was somehow sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken. That particular fast food franchise is no stranger to working some product placement into TV shows (as evidenced by a great bit in last Friday’s episode of The Good Guys), and show creator Dan Harmon has taken it to a whole other level.

The Kentucky Fried Chicken Space Simulator in 'Community' (NBC)

The Kentucky Fried Chicken Space Simulator in 'Community' (NBC)

“There’s a very funny KFC angle to this episode that is very organic,” Brown said. “It’s amazing the way the writers have integrated such silliness and wrapped it around a product. So it’ll be interesting to see if people catch everything. Our set designers and our prop people are amazing, so anytime you see something like a KFC bus on set, pay attention to all the little signs. There’s biscuit thrusters and gravy throttle. The attention to detail is amazing. The seven herbs and spices are listed in different places. It’s amazing. You’re going to love it.”

“Dan Harmon is a true mad genius,” adds Joel McHale, aka morally ambiguous ex-lawyer Jeff Winger. “The stuff that he comes up with and the stuff the writing staff comes up with, I am always astonished by. The KFC Rocket – the stuff that gets shoved in there, the 80’s references. One of the jokes when I walk into the thing for the first time, I’m like, ‘Wow, this thing is pretty well preserved for something that survived the 80’s,’ and then I go, ‘and a transient who liked to collect doll heads.’ And there is a rack of the scariest doll heads you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Glover is thrilled with Troy’s role on the pseudo-astronaut crew. “I get to be like the captain,” he told us, “and it’s really awesome because at certain points I’m telling Jeff, ‘I hate to pull rank on you, but…’ It’s awesome not only because it’s Troy getting be a badass, but also because I get to tell Joel McHale what-for. In real life, that wouldn’t happen. A guy like that would just beat me up. He’s 6 foot 4, very strong.”

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With an episode like this, though, we have to see where the hyper-meta fourth-wall bender Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) fits into things. After all, he’s been wanting this kind of paintball-style escapade since the season opener, and he filters his entire life through the pop culture prism. Unlike last week’s episode ‘The Psychology of Letting Go,’ where Abed’s entire story was hidden in the background so subtly you might have missed it, this time he’s crucial to the action.

“This is a very exciting time for Abed, of course, because he’s just like, ‘Holy crap.’” Pudi explained. “It’s almost like a live video game with all the functions. It’s a giant Atari game. Something happens where basically Abed has to go into Mission Control, so in some ways I’m playing sort of an Ed Harris/Gary Sinise type character. Kind of a blending of those characters all in Mission Control with the short sleeved shirts, the ties, the black glasses, sweating and hot and always trying to put things together. So there’s a lot of those fun elements where we’re on the phone and we’re doing those kind of things, which you see in Transformers and every movie. I’m basically an OnStar technician glorified.”

If you’ve seen the clips that have been running on NBC, you’ve surely seen that there are hints of something new developing between Troy and Britta when the simulator shakes things up and she falls on top of him and they have a bit of a spark. The two characters had a moment early in Season 1 where they bonded over their shared shame over their shared love of dance. Thus, it looks like they may be heading in that direction after the messy resolution of the Jeff/Britta relationship. When we talked to Jacobs and Glover during the filming of this episode, it was a very new and unexpected turn for them as well.

“That was a surprise to me in a rewrite of this episode,” Jacobs told us. “So I was just skimming, and I was like, ‘What?!’ I think it was so great, that moment we have when we sat around the table and each one of us looked at each other as a potential romantic interest, and I really think that that would be fun if that actually plays out in that way. I couldn’t be a bigger fan of Donald Glover, so any time I get to be romantically close to him is fine with me. I had so much fun doing the dance recital with him, and I think there is potential there with us. I don’t know any more than you do. Thus far to me, it’s just a moment on a script. It could be a red herring, it could be something to get the fans talking or maybe it will actually be something. I don’t know.”

Glover had no idea where it was going either. “It was funny because we read that in script and both me and Gillian called each other and were like, ‘Did you read this? This is crazy!’ I guess we were about to do the romantic fall in a scene or two. So I don’t know what that is. I don’t know. I know I’m not complaining. Is anybody here complaining? No, I don’t know what that is, or if it’s more of a setup for Joel because then Pierce [Chevy Chase] falls on Joel. So we’ll see where that goes.”

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As much as these kinds of episodes excite the rabid cult following this show has, don’t be afraid that you won’t catch every reference it throws at you – a lot of the stars don’t even catch every joke, either. “I’m not always the most astute when it comes to the references, so sometimes I have to quietly ask someone what we’re referring to, but I really enjoy it a lot,” Jacobs admitted. “I think it’s the sort of thing that reaches out to the fans, and they respond back in kind to us. I think it’s a really nice feedback loop of love. It’s fun. And I think that I take comfort in the fact that my mom doesn’t know anything about pop culture, and she still enjoys every episode. My friend watched paintball last night because it was a rerun, and she’s like, ‘Every episode of your show, I enjoy it the second time more than the first, and I find other things and other jokes hit me.’ I really think it’s such a rich show.”

“It’s so fun,” chirps Alison Brie, who plays the adorably repressed young Annie Edison. “One of my favorite things to do – nerd alert – is research, so I really like when there’s stuff like this. It gives us as a cast the opportunity to go out and watch these movies again that you love but you don’t remember every part of them and think about which character is like you. Not that we don’t have to do research for every episode, because the references are constant and above my head a lot of the time, but it’s great. It is so fun also to just depart from straight comedy, I suppose, which is also great, but it gives us a sense that we’re not just working on a comedy show. Like last year, this week we’re doing a cop movie and this week we’re doing an action movie and now here we’re going into space. It really feels like we’re getting so much bang for our buck here.”

Pudi shared her excitement. “We’re always excited as actors just to read and be like, ‘Holy crap, we get to do this!’ And it’s like the best job in the world where your homework is, ‘I gotta get home tonight and nobody bother me. I’m watching Apollo 13 tonight.’ And you’re watching that for homework? That’s my job? My job is to make sure I pay my Netflix account.”

This won’t be the last epic episode of ‘Community’ either – this kind of big-time saga of goofiness is becoming their niche. “The space bus is the first big one, but there’s been rumors of at least three other really big ones coming,” Brown revealed. “I think Dan Harmon said that people loved the chicken fingers, and they loved the paintball episode, and he figured if people like that, then why make it just an even once a year? Let’s throw in them as often as we can because he’s created an environment at Greendale where anything can really happen. Have you met our dean? Our dean is insane. Jim Rash who plays Dean Pelton is amazing. He’s personally my favorite character on the show, and every episode, he comes up with something else to keep the kids crazy and involved in something. In fact, the Apollo 13 homage we’re doing in this episode, it begins with the dean. It always begins with the dean. So, yeah, there’ll be more episodes like that.”

Jim Rash as Dean Pelton in 'Community' (NBC)

Jim Rash as Dean Pelton in 'Community' (NBC)

There’s already talk of a glorious zombie movie spoof for the Halloween episode, but the cast definitely has opinions of what they’d like to see next.

“I would love if they did some real brightly colored romantic comedy,” said Brown. “I think Shirley’s character lends itself to hope and faith and sunshine and rainbows, and if she did get a love interest, I would love if it was an homage to While You Were Sleeping or Sleepless in Seattle and the whole look of the show changed for that one episode so that it’s just sunny and bright and pink and whatever. And it was Shirley’s dream come true as she finds the love of her life.”

Glover, a former writer on ’30 Rock,’ (who even got a shout-out in last week’s episode) would prefer a different direction. “Back to the Future. I want to do Back to the Future. I would pay money. I would pay them. I would give up my salary. I want to do Back to the Future. I love Back to the Future so much, and I think it’s so cool. I don’t know how they would do it, but that’s not something I have to worry about because I’m an actor now. I’m sure it could be this cool thing where maybe Troy thinks he’s in the past but he’s not. Because his parents are divorced, maybe he thinks if he can get them together, his life would be totally different. So I think that would be cool. I think I just broke an episode.”

As for the ostensible series star McHale? “I’d like to see us do an Inception parody,” he said, before sarcastically quipping “That wouldn’t require a lot of time and money.” He may have to settle for the tag at the end of last week’s episode, where suspended anthropology teacher Betty White is explaining Inception to a remote tribe in Africa.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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