Let’s talk about Chang, he’s a divisive character in the world of Community fans, it’s mostly a love or hate thing and while I thought that his part in tonight’s episode, “Competitive Ecology”, was very funny, it’s the first time I’ve ever been truly unable to comprehend just why he was part of the show. He’s certainly had trouble fitting in before, and the second season struggled every once in a while when he existed on the fringes of the group but had no direct reason to interact with them asides from a desire to become their friend, but “Competitive Ecology” makes no attempt to integrate his story with the group’s at all. While I suppose there’s a light thematic parallel to be drawn between the stories in that they’re both about the ways that Greendale can enable toxic people/behaviors, I still don’t really know why it was in this particular episode. It’s so removed from anything else going on that it could have fit almost anywhere a B-plot was needed and that bugged me. I certainly laughed, but in the end I was left scratching my head about just what this episode was going for.
Chang’s story is a Film Noir homage complete with Chang narration but, sadly, lacking any black and white photography. Now that Chang’s a security guard working for room and board at Greendale he’s made his home in a boiler room and is married to a mannequin leg. Chang’s always had mental problems, but this episode truly gets at the depths of just how crazy Chang is. (The answer is crazy enough to stare at his own reflection and wonder, “Why is this guy staring at me?”) Chang’s delightfully nonsensical ramblings that show only the briefest flashes of coherence and an utter lack of understanding for what other people are thinking or doing sends him off after a crazy conspiracy predicated on a student saying nothing was wrong. Before long he’s ordered huge cases of matches, burned down his room, scared off his boss for good, and been promoted to head of security.
Jeong makes the most of the spotlight and this ends up being a pretty funny storyline, but like most of the episode it just kind of peters out as it becomes clear that there isn’t much of a point to what’s going on. Certainly the final story beat where the old head of security quits not because he’s unpaid but because the Dean won’t discipline Chang highlights just how dysfunctional Greendale can be, but that just doesn’t feel relevant enough to the rest of the story and it doesn’t help that the Noir style of storytelling doesn’t leave Chang’s half of the story. The episode never felt unified and that hurt any sort of thematic through line it might have been attempting to draw.
The other half of the story is about the study group having difficulty deciding who will be lab partners with whom, a problem made even more frustrating by the fact that there’s only seven of them and one will have to pair off with Todd. Todd’s a seemingly nice family man who is unfairly demonized by the group as they all passive aggressively vie for their preferred partners. It’s not a bad setup simply because Community always manages fun moments when it sticks its cast in a big room together simply because this is a group of actors that are all very, very funny and work exceedingly well with each other. The storyline even gets in a few moments that are nicely reflective of some issues the show has had in the past, most notably making Shirley the least desirable lab partner in what I assume is a mea culpa from the writing staff for using her far less than just about every other character. (The meta aspect of this gag is driven home even more effectively when Abed notes that his reason for pairing people came from wanting to put the highest and lowest ranks together so that people would be interested in any potential twosome.)
While there are moments that work the plot ultimately falls back on some tried and true Community go to’s such as the gang being mean to outsiders and the study group becoming fairly dysfunctional when things start to go wrong. It doesn’t help that it also falls back on some standard characterizations such as Jeff being an egomaniac and Pierce being overly rude. Everything in this plot just feels a little too safe for my liking and the things that it sets up that are interesting, Shirley’s lack of a presence and Abed and Troy realizing they may be spending too much time together, never amount to much. I’m not all that worried though because despite being underwhelmed by the first few episodes of the third season they’ve still been funny and I think they’re setting up where this year of Community will be going as a whole, but I’m just not able to see that larger story yet.
There’s a long speech that Professor Kane, ably played by Michael K Williams, gives early on in the episode about how he’s perplexed by the ways Legos have changed since he’s been in jail. He talks about how they’ve shifted from a simple toy for children to a complex object focused on recreating scenes and buildings from things like Harry Potter. He’s not mad, or saying Legos are worse than they used to be, he just wants to know why they’ve changed. It’s a strange little bit of writing, and it’s hard not to apply it to the show after these first three episodes. Dan Harmon seems intent on trying new things this year, and I’m just not sure what he’s going for yet. Community got out to a slow start last season before kicking into high gear around the Halloween episode and never really slowing down after that. I’m hopeful the same will be true here, but for now I’m wondering just what kind of show I’m watching this time out. It’s still Community, it’s still funny, but it’s also different in some way I can’t quite wrap my head around yet.
- “On the Dean low.”
- “I’m married to the job, and to a mannequin leg I found in the boiler room.” “Homewrecker.”
- “I need to catch up on Breaking Bad.”
- “My own words rang in my head, like a bell in my head.”
- “Legs that went all the way up to her torso, the kind of arms that have elbows.”
- “Let her go, like a lobster claw letting go of a small balloon, for lobsters.”
- “The hair color concept intrigues me because that’s how I distinguish everyone already.”
- “I think you need to take some time off.” “You’d like that wouldn’t you.” “Yes, very much so.”
- “He’d thank me at the detective awards.”
- “This list stinks like a butt convention.”
- “Pierce wake up, Jeff is gonna heal us!”
- “You know they’re laughing at you, don’t you? That’s my theory.”
- “We had a name for people like you in prison. We called you the mean clique.”
- “I can deal with the not getting paid, but I draw the line at enabling this man.”
- “This was also a test and you all penised… passed.”