Community: Season 3, Episode 3
I love Community. Really, I do. I am the guy that wants the show to be the best comedy on television, not because of any critical bias but because I really think it has that much potential. At its best (and in half hours like "Mixology Certification," "Contemporary American Poultry," and "Cooperative Calligraphy"), this show is audacious, intelligent, moving, hilarious, and dedicated to telling an actual story. At its best, Community is everything I want from a sitcom, in ways a show like Parks and Rec isn't even aiming for (I mention that show because it is consistently much better than Community lately). "Competitive Ecology" is, as you might have gathered, not the show at its best. Instead, this week Community had most of the flaws I've been ascribing to Modern Family this season so far: it was redundant, played its characters to type with no subtlety, and worst of all, wasn't all that funny.
When I discussed the premiere a few weeks back, I talked about how maybe we had finally put the whole "the gang breaks up" story to rest and were going to focus on some new antagonists this season, some outsiders who were looking to do the group harm and who would force them to put this newfound love of theirs to the test. Early in the episode, Troy even explicitly says, "we love each other," but this episode shows anything but that. I have no problem with the members of this group having issues with one another and engaging in conflict, but the fight at the center of "Competitive Ecology" (who has to be paired with Todd, who the end of this episode suggests might also be an antagonist in the future) serves no purpose except to indicate that the ties that bind this group may be more tenuous than the premiere indicated. I had high hopes for this season to be focused on what this group's close connection will mean for them, but tonight was simply about how this connection might not be that close at all. This is a fine storyline to pursue, if the show decides to pursue it, and I could see a version of this show that has the group breaking up for a time before they determine they really do love each other, but that is not the show the first few episodes of this season have set us up for. Instead, this episode came across like a left-over from season two that had the characters stuck in place and squabbling meaninglessly.
I had very high expectations for the Chang subplot at the beginning of this episode, which I will freely admit is a rarity. I am a bigger Chang supporter than most (I loved his whole "let me in the group" arc last year and enjoyed the way the show dealt with his potential fatherhood as well), and the idea of Chang setting himself up at the center of a noir film had me thinking this might quickly evolve into a high concept parody like some of the show's best episodes. Instead, we saw Chang behaving like a completely insane person (which, to be fair, he is) and actually burning down his own room, before being elevated to head of security for some completely silly reason.
The best episodes of Community are character based at their core. They can be incredibly high concept ("Contemporary American Poultry," "Modern Warfare," or "Epidemiology 206") or condensed until they focus strictly on the group and their interactions ("Cooperative Calligraphy," "Mixology Certification," or "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons"). Either of those formats has worked excellently for the show in the past. What does not work is ignoring characters entirely and focusing strictly on format. Tonight, we had a condensed look at the group and their interactions and a high concept parody rolled into one, and while both had potential in some version of the show, both failed in what we got tonight. The character interactions felt stale and overdone in a way that not even this stellar ensemble could save, and the parody felt undercooked. like it either wasn't given enough thought or wasn't given enough screen time to work out.
Ultimately, I think the only way this episode makes sense is if it functions purely as a plot-moving episode. If "Competitive Ecology" was intended to tell us how the groups will be paired in future stories, intended to introduce Todd as a new villain for the show, or intended to move Chang to head of security, I may eventually be able to forgive it as a simple cog in a well orchestrated machine. This episode may, in hindsight, appear much better than it does on first viewing. But for now, this feels like exactly the kind of half hour the show does not need to turn in when it is looking for wider viewership and stronger support. For now, it feels like Community wasted a half hour reeducating us on things we already know all too well. I hope, and at this point believe, that "Competitive Ecology" is an anomaly in the still new season of the show (which is, admittedly, often a grower). What will keep me up tonight is the idea that the show may have taken us as far as it wants to, and that we will be stuck repeating the storyline of the characters wondering if they belong together until the end of time. This is not at all likely, but it is still worrisome, especially after last week's fairly mediocre episode. If Community knocks it out of the park next week, all its sins will be forgiven. If it continues down this path, however, we're going to have some problems.
-"I'm married to the job. And to a mannequin leg I found in the boiler room." "Home wrecker!"
-"As someone who just finished spending the majority of his life in prison, what happened with Legos? They used to be so simple." I love Michael K. Williams, but a lot of his delivery still feels a little stiff. He needs to loosen up a bit to feel at home in a comedy as zany as Community.
-"We're a study group." "It's kind of a thing. We've been through a lot. Maybe you've heard of us?" "The space bus." "Paintball." "I had sex with Eartha Kitt in a bathroom. THese are the only guys I've ever told." "We're kind of a family. We love each other." "Second paintball!" This was a fun moment, but in an episode of this, almost feels like the show is resting on its laurels.
-"Don't tell me what I'm feeling or thinking. Goodbye Todd."
-"We don't solve crimes. We barely prevent them." I'll miss Chang's boss. He was very funny.
-"...like a lobster claw letting go of a small balloon for lobsters..."
-"It's a Palomino!"
-"I had to get some answers. And I needed answers like a fish needs a bicycle. A lot."
-"You're just a good grade in a tight sweater." "Well you're just a BAD grade in a tight sweater. And who the hell are you texting? Everyone you know is here?" I love that, because I always think the same thing when the show does a "Jeff texts a lot" joke.
-"Pop pop!" "Nice work you two. You know they're just laughing at you. That's my theory."
-"Who did a butt?" "They're boobs. And I don't know."
-If you feel like I was harsh tonight, it's only because I love this show, and I expect better from it. Here's hoping I'm not as disappointed next week...