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The signs of destruction are everywhere.
Overturned tables and chairs, books strewn about haphazardly, reams of toilet paper catapulted across the room and paint splotches splattered on every visible surface — from walls to floors to furniture. Stage 32 on the Paramount lot has become a war zone.
Even Yvette Nicole Brown, one of the cast members of NBC’s Community, here on this Friday afternoon in March to finish filming the show’s second season finale, Modern Warfare: Part 2, is a little concerned.
“I’m really disturbed. No one else seems to be bothered, but I’m thinking that I need to get a tetanus shot or something before I walk through here,” she jokes as she steps gingerly through the set representing Greendale Community College’s library where they have been working all week.
It’s not like she hasn’t seen it before. An episode late last season, Modern Warfare, saw the cast, led by Joel McHale, engaged in action-movie style combat as they attempted to annihilate one another in a ferocious game of paintball — all for the chance to win early registration at Greendale. It was so much fun — and so successful (the episode was one of Community’s Top 5 telecasts in its first season among men 18-34 and 18-49)— that the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, 38, decided to do it again.
“It was a good thing to do last year and because it was a good thing, that either makes it the dumbest thing to do (again) or the smartest thing,” he says. “My instinct is to just do it.”
Harmon has been taking creative risks since before the show premiered on Sept. 17, 2009. Pulling from film and television conventions that made an impression on him growing up — Star Wars, Back to the Future, Taxi and Cheers were favorites — first-time showrunner Harmon (Monster House) and his writing staff have crafted a series that stands out because of its genre episodes.
“We look for opportunities to be different from episode to episode in style,” says Joe Russo (Arrested Development), who has been directing the series with his older brother Anthony (Welcome to Collinwood) since 2009. “It’s running against the grain of what is traditional in television.”
“As we started to explore this world that Dan had created,” Anthony Russo adds, “it just lent itself to a wide range of exploration because you’re at a community college — anything could be going on there, any type of class, any type of subject.”
And explore they have. Memorable episodes have included one that was filmed documentary style, another that saw the cast acting out a game of Dungeons and Dragons, yet others that had Halloween, Christmas and space themes, and, of course, the action movie style of the first paintball episode in which the school was laid waste.
Now it’s happening all over again — but with a twist. This time, the finale (“grittier” than the first season’s, according to McHale) is an homage to Sergio Leone Westerns — and there’s a lot more paint.
In another part of the cavernous soundstage, separate from the decimated library, Greendale’s cafeteria has become Ground Zero for the paintball cowboys — and at the moment, this is where all the action is taking place.
Chevy Chase, as the clueless curmudgeon Pierce Hawthorne, is decked out in his finest Western wear — longcoat, blue vest, bolo tie. A gun will be thrown his way during a standoff in a later scene to complete the look, but now, as he sits with his equally Westernized fellow cast members — McHale (Jeff), Alison Brie (Annie), Gillian Jacobs (Britta), Donald Glover (Troy) and Danny Pudi (Abed) — in the dimly lit cafeteria that’s brightened only by a burning trash can, he’s trying not to flub his lines.
Chase keeps tripping over “More things flow through these parts than paintball and pee pee,” which writer Andrew Guest repeats to him from the next room where amused co-stars, extras and guests observe the proceedings. Half a dozen takes later, he nails it with just the inflection Joe Russo wants. The lights come up and the rest of the cast — including guest star Josh Holloway, who plays a mysterious figure — convene in the cafeteria to rehearse the next scene.
In early March the Internet lit up with reports of the Lost star joining the show for the finale and the cast seems to be as enamored of him as any fans.
“Two nights ago I was going back to my trailer from the set. It was late at night. It was raining. There was fog everywhere and out of the rain and fog comes Josh. It felt like a deleted Lost scene for a second,” recalls Ken Jeong (Chang), a diehard aficionado of the departed ABC series. “It was probably the most sublime experience I’ve had on the show off camera.”
Considerably less sublime is the fact that it’s going to be a long night. By 9 p.m., guests are gently shown the door so the finale’s big reveal isn’t leaked before the two-part episode airs on May 5 and 12, but the cast and crew are just getting warmed up. The word is that they won’t leave until the sun comes up on Saturday morning.
But they’re game for anything.
“This week we’ve been doing a lot of things on the fly, sort of adding lines in the scene,” Brie says, who splits her time between her Community role and that of Trudy Campbell on AMC’s Mad Men.
“We feel like we’re sort of in this rogue college program right now where it’s sort of like ‘let’s figure this all out together,’ ” adds Pudi, adjusting his Clint Eastwood-esque outfit.
Sure to appreciate their efforts is Community’s small but passionate legion of fans — which averaged a 2.1 in the 18-49 demo and 4.7 million viewers even before the show was renewed for a third season on March 17.
“Fans really love the sensibility of the show and how great the writing is, how original the characters are and just how funny it is,” says Glenn Adilman, executive vp, comedy at Sony, which produces the show. “We’re really proud of it.”
“We’ve got a certain number of people that appear intent on watching the show no matter what,” Harmon says. “We have definitely survived through the grace of four million people that think about our show a lot.”
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