‘Community’ Recap: Competitive Ecology

Community NBCS3E3: Oh how the mighty have fallen. Somehow one of the best shows on television has suddenly become frustratingly mediocre. Where is the Community we fell in love with? Our characters’ absurdities can’t possibly have run their courses already. There should still be that element so unexpected and ridiculous we can’t help but laugh and the dialogue so tightly crafted that we have to wrack our brains to make sure we understand the references. It’s those elements that turn off many would-be viewers, and this season is admittedly an easier watch, but making things easier also seems to make things less fun. And what’s the point of television if it’s not fun in some way, shape or form?

“She was a dame. Legs that went all the way to the bottom of her torso. The type of arms that had elbows.” –Chang

The first element that really killed this episode for me was Chang’s storyline. By all rights this should be comedy gold. Chang, desperate for some real police action, starts up his own noir detective narrative in his head while he starts to investigate absolutely nothing. He literally has no mystery, he just sees random objects or people and asks the audience “am I crazy?” before connecting the item at hand to absolutely nothing. By the end, his haplessness causes him to accidentally burn down his secret closet apartment behind the Greendale coffee bar. Munez wants to get the police involved when he discovers the remnants of Chang’s little lair, but the Dean needs to cover the decision to secretly let Chang live there so he buys into Chang’s baseless conspiracy theory and Munez quits. Boom, Chang is head of security.

So what’s the issue here? The problem is that we love crazy Chang. He’s the unsung hero of Community. He’s someone you can’t wait to see do something inconceivable. This storyline was neither appropriately crazy for Ken Jeong’s talents nor appropriately indebted to pop culture or even literary references (Raymond Chandler anyone?) to make it worthwhile. It was easy and it didn’t make sense for the fantastic Chang character we’ve come to know and expect. “I need answers like a fish needs a bicycle…a lot?” Really? Since when did Chang become Kenneth from 30 Rock?

“You guys have weird reactions to stuff.” –Professor Kane

First, I’ve seen the error of my apparently aging ears: I know now that Michael K. Williams is playing Professor Kane, not King. That being said, I still think Williams is being wasted as some sort of accessory other than as a truly interesting character, which is a damn dirty shame. With that taken care of, we can get back to business. Professor Kane makes everyone pick lab partners for the year and our study group accidentally pairs up with strangers – oh the horror. New friends can be scary. They beg Kane to let them switch to each other after a self-indulgent rundown of all the show’s most interesting and grand adventures, which was pretty obnoxious on the writers’ parts. He agrees and they all pick each other, except they’re an odd-numbered group so Pierce is stuck with some random guy named Todd, which is, like, just the worst.

It’s not long before Britta gets tired of Shirley’s baby pictures, Shirley tires of Britta’s rants about “baby meth,” Annie gets tired of Jeff letting her do all the work, and Troy and Abed realize they’re spending way too much time together. Everyone wants to trade, so they call a meeting to fix the Todd Problem — which is really the study group problem and has nothing to do with poor Todd — and they get new partners. Only there’s an issue; Abed had everyone rank their partner preferences from 1-8 and he used a secret algorithm to decide who’s partnered with who. Troy is obsessed with getting Britta and he does, but they quickly find it was determined based on popularity and they find out who was first in popularity and who was last. Shirley gets the bottom spot, though Jeff seems more hurt by his 5th place than Shirley is by being last. Before long, the conversation descends into madness and Jeff tries to see the ballots so he can see who put him lower on their list. Britta acts wisely for once and burns the list, only she burns it on Todd’s turtle. Todd flips out and lays out his misfortunes – dead father, diabetes – and his admirable qualities – he says really wonderful things about his wife and kids – while delivering a speech about how screwed up the group is like he’s Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Womp, womp.

“If loving worms is stupid, I don’t want to be smart.” –Britta

“It is and you can’t.” –Annie

It’s really strange when the class buzzkill – Britta – is the only one making me giggle. And she’s only making me mildly giggle. With all this fighting, they not only waste all their time and have nothing to show Professor Kane in class, but they make Todd, the Iraq war vet, cry. Professor Kane, thoroughly annoyed with the study group, says they’ll all be partners and share the same grade, following it up with the fact that they all failed their first assignment.

They get to work in class, but immediately go back to bashing the sweet, unbashable Todd. Kane said they were the mean clique and it really seems like they are here. Granted, I’m sure it’s meant to be a commentary on the social norm that finds many people bonding more easily when they’re bashing random people outside of their insular groups. The problem is that this is a sitcom, which means this whole thing should be funny and it simply wasn’t.

Hell, the tag in which Britta reads scantron sheets as cartoons penises when there is absolutely no evidence of cartoon penises was the funniest part of the episode – and it wasn’t even that funny.

I get that they’re setting up the season and that they may be toning it down a bit for the network in light of lower ratings, but here’s the thing: they sure as hell aren’t going to gain more viewers by becoming vanilla. And set up is all well and good, but it should be fun to get through that set up – it shouldn’t feel like homework. I truly hope things pick up on this show. The last thing we need is for the series to give execs a reason to lose their faith in the program.