One of the things Community is pretty good about is either subverting cliché or “hanging a lantern,” as it were, on the clichés it does use. The show has rarely met a typical sitcom plot point that it couldn’t make grist for its mill, and I mean that as a high compliment. This is a show that is deliberately figuring out a way to have its goofiest, most disconnected episode this season have direct, emotional bearing on the back half of the season, a show that’s paying off a gigantic zombie attack with a very sweet story about a man who doesn’t know who his ex-wife’s child is but determines to raise it anyway, just because he wants to be a part of her life again. It’s a show that’s dedicated not just to playing around with pop cultural tropes and self-aware gags but also making those gags matter. A lot of the show’s critics have trouble getting past level one to get to level two, but that’s sort of built into the premise of the show. The audience is self-selecting. You know if you “get it” or not.
On the other hand, I think the show sometimes tries a little TOO hard to beat back sitcom cliché. When Jeff went on his run through the rain at the end of tonight’s episode, I had no real fears that he would end up professing his undying love for Annie. I don’t think the show would do something like this and make it so rote. (I can see a full episode, say, where Jeff runs to tell Annie he loves her, and obstacles keep getting in his way, and I’ll stop before we’re writing fan fiction, huh?) Furthermore, the speech Jeff gave to whomever answered the door was so deliberately vague and could have applied to so many different people that it was obvious there was a punchline coming, that someone other than Annie was listening. This is all well and good (and, honestly, I kind of thought it might be Chang listening to what he was saying, logistics be damned), but it was something of a disappointment to have the guy listening be … Rich. I laughed at the reveal, but it ended up feeling a little hollow. We have so little emotional investment in Rich (or in Jeff’s hatred of him) that this feels like a beat the show has played before. My antipathy toward romantic comedy clichés aside, I almost wish he HAD been talking to Annie.
Like “Mixology Certification,” “Asian Population Studies” plants its foot firmly on the more realistic side of the Community divide. Nothing in it that happens is terrible “meta” (as the kids are calling it nowadays), and the episode has a minimum of pop culture gags (though, of course, if you’re going to have Malcolm Jamal Warner on, you pretty much have to put him in a Cosby sweater and have him say his dad wore it). It’s more sprightly than “Mixology,” with most of the emotional beats being more about people choosing to do the right thing than with people sinking into a mild funk. The big revelation of the episode—that Chang slept with Shirley and may be the father of her unborn child—is something that seemed like it might have been a far bigger development. Instead, it comes out, Andre is disappointed, but everything works itself out in the end. Outside of the ending, it’s mostly just a reminder of these characters and why we enjoy hanging out with them.
Among other things, this is a great episode for Pierce, who hasn’t always gotten the greatest jokes in the show’s history. His intense anger at the idea that Shirley could vote for Chang instead of Rich when it comes to admitting a new member to the study group, coupled with his love of Rich’s kettle corn and his general inability to keep quiet the fact that Chang and Shirley slept together, make for lots of funny moments for Chevy Chase to play. (I particularly like how he provided an instant echo for Annie when Rich leaves the room.) I’m also glad the show didn’t keep the secret of Chang and Shirley’s coupling for too long. I had this vision of the secret slowly spreading throughout the group, but now, it’s just out there in the open, and that should make for a more interesting dynamic now that Chang’s a part of the group.
Speaking of which …
A lot of whether or not you like this episode is going to hinge on whether or not you like Chang as a character or Ken Jeong’s performance as same. Chang has always seemed to be a uniquely aggressive take on a character that would have been the “breakout” character on another sitcom, the wacky teacher who says whatever comes to mind and antagonizes his students simply because he can. But if there’s a complaint I have about season two, on a more overarching basis, it’s that the show has seemingly had absolutely no idea what to do with Chang or Jeong. Jeong’s a strong comic actor, but he’s often best used in small doses, particularly with this character, which makes it hard to work him into the study group on a more permanent basis. The question about Chang has always been what it would be like to have a weirdly aggressive sitcom character in your life, and the answer to that has always been that it would be awfully annoying. Thus, incorporating him more means either giving the show over to him—probably not the right choice—or modulating him—something I don’t think the character is capable of.
On the other hand, this was the strongest episode for Chang in quite a while. Jeong’s reactions when Jeff is trying to get Chang into the group mostly by talking about how awful Chang is were very funny, and the idea of him hiding out on top of the bookshelf was a great sight gag. It also helps that having Chang around gives Jeff something to rail on about. As the show has become more and more of an ensemble show, Jeff has drifted somewhat into the background in some episodes, but this was another strong episode for Joel McHale, who tends to be really good at delivering these long, courtroom argument monologues. I don’t know where the show goes with Chang from here, but I’m finally willing to see him as a member of study group, which is progress.
And then there’s Rich. Theoretically, I liked the idea of the mixer to invite several people into the study group, and I thought when all of the characters were in the room, including Rich and Quendra, the scene hummed along. But I’ve never found Rich as funny as many of the show’s other recurring characters, possibly because his whole shtick is being impossibly virtuous, in a way that doesn’t set him apart from the many other versions of this basic character type who’ve appeared on television since time immemorial. Sure, he works as a foil for Jeff, but basing a whole plot around whether Jeff could somehow talk the study group into accepting Chang instead of Rich was kind of a fait accompli. (This is the sort of plot where it might have been nice to have one or two asides from Abed about how the situation paralleled a TV show.)
On the other hand, this was another episode that took the characters and their emotions seriously. When the news about Chang and Shirley came out and Jeff continues to act as if he’s in some sort of mock trial, the reminder that things had stopped being silly and gotten serious might have felt too over-obvious, but the actors sold it. Similarly, I liked the moment that followed, with Andre and Jeff talking about the love of a good woman beneath the outside awning. Honestly, this is the sort of thing that could feel really cheesy, but the actors’ devotion to the writers’ idea that this is a world where anything can happen, so long as the emotions play realistically, usually makes these moments work, and these did. On the other hand, there WAS that ending, which wrapped things up in somewhat disappointing fashion. “Asian Population Studies” made a few missteps along the way, but it was a sweetly funny return to the world of Greendale on the whole.
- Abed pretending to have malfunctioned to get people to stop talking to him is a gag that needs to come back.
- Also a very good episode for Gillian Jacobs, who was mostly on the edges of the storyline but had lots of big laughs, particularly her delivery of the line, “MEZZANINE?!”
- And while we’re at it, it was a great episode for Donald Glover, too, especially in his long, increasingly creepy line to Andre, trying to figure out if he gets extra turned-on at Halloween.
- OK, I don’t like Rich all that much, but I did love his giant, kettle corn-stirring paddle.
- No episode that features Troy And Abed In The Morning can get anything lower than a B+. Pretty sure that’s a rule of the universe.
- "I couldn't watch it but it sounded sexy. Laserdisc."
- "Is it black Michael Chiklis?"
- "It makes me so Chan-gry. Oh God, it's happening to me."
- "I don't remember anything we can remember."
- "You can expect both this class and my penis to be more focused and rewarding."
- "30-something, I'm assuming. He has a land line and uses the word album."
- "One time, it was a gym bag full of nickels."
- "Help yourselves to tropical Skittles, cigarettes, or mouthwash."
- "My name is Kendra, and I spell it with a Q-U."
- "I spell kettle corn with a Q-U." "Well don't."
- "It's not even clever. You keep using it as the world change!"
- "When he talks, he over- and underemphasizes words, seemingly at random."
- "Who is this kettle-corn-popping phantom?"
- "I wish I could give you an answer that makes sense, but relationships are complicated, and we're in the men's room."