Community: “Competitive Ecology”

It was always a given that the season-opening musical number, in which the Greendale gang ebulliently vowed to sweet and mainstream this year, would be proven a big ol’ lie. “Mainstream” simply isn’t in Community’s DNA, and the sweetness it evinces, while not uncommon, is typically tinged with darkness.

What I didn’t expect is how quickly and how aggressively the show would double down on the traits it melodically rebuked. Take Chang, who for the first season and a half or so skirted the border of mental instability and floated into and out of that terrain as the story required, and who now seems firmly entrenched in psychosis. That may be fine in small doses, but it becomes off-putting awfully quickly when he’s left to his own devices as he is this week.

I thought recasting Chang as a security guard would be a good way to finally re-ground the character: restore him to a position of quasi-authority which can channel his nuttiness and provide chances to harass the study group. Of course he would have a deluded sense of his own importance and authority; that’s nuts, but it’s still a plausible character. On the other hand, carrying on a relationship with a mannequin leg and immersing himself into a concocted fake mystery all for the sake of a film noir parody* is genuine dementia. I think you can either dial up Chang’s prominence in the show or his craziness, but you can’t do both successfully.

*I’ve grown so used to Community’s Mobius strip of self-referentiality that I don’t even know where it ends anymore. Chang’s hard-boiled detective schtick had a few good gags (like supplying his own moody sax accompaniment), but it was so over-the-top gazoinksbo that it began to feel like the show was poking fun at its own penchant for genre parodies. Anyone else think so? 

Community: "Competitive Ecology" - Ken Jeong

Chang’s off spiraling through his own B-story because the study group is yet again enmeshed in a story that emphasizes its dysfunctionality and near-misanthropic insularity. Yes, there were many good jokes (perhaps none better than Britta completely flubbing the “shoot down all your fingers and leave the middle one standing” bit), but I’m a little over these State of the Union episodes. The set-up, selecting and then rearranging biology lab partners, could’ve just as easily have lead to some refreshing one-on-one interactions, exploring character and comic dynamics that we don’t see often. Why not pair up Abed with Shirley, or Britta with Pierce, or Jeff with Troy, and see what happens? Why immediately throw them all back into the study room to tear into each other again?

Community’s philosophy is that when people connect, it’s rarely ever a perfect fit, like two jigsaw puzzle pieces (or simple Legos, if you prefer). Even the closest bonds are slightly askew, leaving dark nooks and crannies in between. The show likes to examine those recesses, and it’s often done this very well (“Comparative Religion” and “Cooperative Calligraphy” spring to mind, as does even “Modern Warfare” to some extent). But there’s a point at which too much darkness, too much infighting, risks turning the study group into a seven-way version of one of those TV marriages where the husband and wife don’t really seem to like each other at all. Sometimes it’s nice to see that these characters are friends, and by choice rather than default, that more than just Troy and Abed can enjoy one another’s company and gain from one another. (Last week’s “Geography of Global Conflict,” for its faults, displayed this well, albeit briefly.)

Community will never be a highly rated program, but there’s a sense in an episode like “Competitive Ecology” that its deliberately avoiding accessibility. Can new viewers really get a foothold if every other week the characters are exploding seemingly endless reservoirs of tension?  Poor hapless Todd becomes an audience cipher. He ultimately reacts to meeting and engaging with this group of people at this point in time the way anyone trying to do so would react: with baffled, scarred rejection.

I sorta can’t blame him. Because I have a connection to these characters and this writing staff, I found a lot of what happened in “Competitive Ecology” funny. But because I know they can do more than this, I didn’t find it satisfying.

Other notes:

  • “Who’s Nick Nolte?” “Awwwwww.”
  • “Homewrecker.”
  • “Your first major lab assignment is to construct a terrarium. It’s kind of like a diorama.” GROAN. “You guys have weird reactions to stuff.”
  • “What happened with Legos? They used to be simple.”
  • “Who are these people?”
  • “What is happening at this school? I have so many conversations that make no sense.”
  • “I need to catch up on Breaking Bad. Sooo…”
  • “You’re also a very strange-looking man.”
  • “The kind of arms that have elbows.”
  • “Wait, these pictures are out of order. These are the same cupcake.”
  • “Before you all go putting Todd down last, don’t forget, he comes with a turtle.”
  • “Please, Jeff. It has feelings.”
  • “I’d need a notepad. Maybe a blazer.”
  • “Who the hell are you always texting? Everyone you know is here!”
  • “Don’t get your Number Four stink all over this, Todd.”
  • “Your love is weird, and toxic, and it destroys everything it touches!”
  • “That was a test and you all penised!” Britta continues to be the MVP of season three, y’all.

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, Oct. 8, 2011.

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