Community: “Competitive Ecology”
B+

Community: “Competitive Ecology”

B+

Community

“Competitive Ecology”

Season 3, Episode 3

There. That’s more like it.

One of the things every sitcom eventually confronts at some point in its run (usually somewhere in seasons three through five) is the fact that, well, the characters within the world of the show don’t really hang out with anyone but each other. In a lot of ways, this is perfectly realistic. You probably have a small circle of friends and acquaintances you spend all of your time with, or at least the majority of your time with. But on TV, that gets edited down so these people spend all of their time together. And that makes them seem sickeningly co-dependent. The gang from Cheers spent all of their time at the bar. The Stivics didn’t seem to have any close friends that weren’t Gloria’s parents. The Friends never really had any other friends. Now, you could argue that we’re just seeing the moments when these people hang out, and, thus, we don’t see the other parts of their lives. But on a show like Community, where we’ve gotten brief peeks into the home lives of most of these people, that’s not really true.

There are two ways to deal with this idea. You either build something warm and cuddly out of the whole thing by saying that, sure, it’s a little weird, but it’s also pretty darn heartwarming that these people—who love each other’s company so much—have managed to find each other somehow. This is the approach most shows that confront this issue take. After all, some of the Friends might have other friends, but we don’t really need to see them. Aren’t Joey and Monica and Chandler the friends that really matter? And they might have a conflict every now and again, but it’ll all be smoothed over by the end. Now, this is really comforting to think about. It’s one of the reasons the American sitcom is such an elastic format, able to withstand hundreds upon hundreds of episodes. If you invent a warm and comfortable place to go every week, people are going to want to visit that place.

But the problem is that this is a little fucked up, too. The world of the sitcom becomes a place where only a small handful of people have any agency. Even on a show with a fully developed world and cast, like Community or Parks And Recreation or The Simpsons, there’s naturally a limit to just how many people can become fully-fleshed-out characters. There’s always a dividing line between our guys and the other guys, between the cast and the people who aren’t in the cast. As much as there’s a tradition of sitcoms creating safe spaces for the characters (and by extension the audience) to hang out in, there’s just as rich a tradition of sitcoms calling attention to how weird this all is. The gang from NewsRadio laughed about how little they cared about anyone who wasn’t them. Seinfeld built a rich, comic universe, but it often mocked the idea that everything came back to the central four. Arrested Development built the fact that the Bluths only cared about themselves into the fabric of the show’s humor.

Community is in this latter tradition, but it’s much more aggressive about calling attention to this fact, and it always has been. If there’s a moment that doesn’t really work for me in tonight’s episode, it’s the final scene where the characters decide to take all of the weaknesses and conflicts between them and project them out onto the invasive alien species that briefly lived among them—a character named Todd, who is, if we’re being honest, the greatest character in the history of television. The plot here is really quite smart. We think we’re being set up for an “everybody has to hang out with someone they don’t know, and they’re miserable about it” episode, before we get deposited into an “everybody has to work together in little sub-groups, and that leads to funny conflicts,” then finally left in a “nobody likes anyone else, and they angrily turn against each other” episode. The plot seems like it’s going to be doing so many different things that it never becomes wholly predictable, even though you’ve seen every single one of these episodes many, many times if you’ve ever watched other sitcoms.

It also helps that the episode is solidly, roundly, across-the-board funny. Where the first two episodes had occasional dead spots, this one is blessed with several sprightly scenes with the cast, then a very funny B-story (which we’ll get to in a minute). The centerpiece of the episode is a long argument in the study room, in which the group tries to determine how they all ranked each other in terms of who would like to work with whom. (It’s Jeff’s idea as a way to fairly split up the group—and Todd—for biology lab partners.) It’s a very, very funny scene, with great laughs piling up on top of each other, and every character getting at least one or two big laugh-lines. (My favorites included Jeff’s continued insistence that the real concern here was that someone voted him at the bottom of their popularity list and Shirley implying a community college entry-level biology class couldn’t answer for 2,000 years of miracles.) Nobody gets short shrift, and everybody’s behaving more or less like we remember them behaving over the years. It’s a great scene, and it’s also a comforting scene. Here are the people you love, doing exactly what you’d like them to do and being very funny doing it.

But it’s also a richly dysfunctional scene. These people may be best friends. They may even love each other. But they’re awful at expressing it. All of the time they spend together probably isn’t terribly beneficial for them as people or as a group of friends, yet they keep spending time together because, well, they like doing so. But they’re also television characters, who have to keep hanging out until the show ends because that’s what we want them to do. When Professor Kane describes them as the “mean clique” (apparently what they called groups like our group in prison), there’s an element of truth to it, at least insofar as they treat the other people they come in contact with, but there’s also an acknowledgement that these people are often just as mean to each other. (And thank goodness this episode figured out a better use of Michael K. Williams than was offered in the premiere. His speech about Legos was pretty funny.)

It’s a tricky balancing act Community has to pull off here. It’s constantly letting us know that the people our group makes fun of are fascinating people in their own right. Could a series about a young father just come home from Iraq and attending a weird community college work? Absolutely. How about the head of security at a community college who’s realized everybody working around him is insane? That could be funny, too. One of the strengths of a good story is when the side characters could, plausibly, be sent off into their own adventures. I’ve always felt like Community has been good at suggesting so many of these people have lives outside of Greendale, where the group sort of doesn’t. And yet at the same time, the show is always putting us inside the group, which lashes out at anybody outside of it and rejects foreign organisms that try to enter. When Todd tells the group their love is weird, he’s right, of course, but the group closes off against him even more. There’s something mean and petty about all of it, but there’s also a whiff of the way we like our TV comedies to be. We don’t need any interlopers.

The B-story doesn’t really have any of this thematic richness or commentary on the way TV works, but it doesn’t have to have that: It’s just really funny. Ben Chang has decided he wants to go from security guard to security guard detective, and when he’s turned down, he starts trying to connect the dots in a very strange parody of film noir that has him picking up random objects and trying to make them fit into some grand, overall pattern, as well as offering up some of the most nonsensically quotable voiceover in quite a while. In the process, he starts his activity closet apartment on fire (thereby killing his mannequin leg girlfriend, who got mixed up in all of this), causes his boss to quit, and somehow gets into a voiceover-off with the Dean. It’s a bizarre story, made all the better by Ken Jeong’s just slightly unhinged performance. (I know a lot of people prefer Jeong when he’s aggressively courting laughs, but I’ve always liked when he seems just slightly off his rocker.) The scene where he just stares at the woman who stops in his doorway is a masterful bit of purely visual comedy, and his facial expression is one we’d all do well to perfect. It’s also nice to see the episode marrying something more conceptual—a film noir parody—to the more typical sitcom antics of the A-plot. That feels like a structure the show could use more of going forward, and it’s very reminiscent of things The Simpsons used to do.

I wouldn’t call this the best episode of Community ever made, but after a couple of episodes that had some pretty significant flaws, it’s just nice to see an episode that does everything it sets out to do and does it well. This isn’t an episode of Community we’ll all be talking about when the show comes up years from now and we’re remembering our favorite moments. But it is the kind of episode the show needs to be able to do from week to week to keep us tuning in without worrying about here all of this is going or when we’re going to get another paintball episode or something. This is just funny, solid television, and that’s not something we should turn up our noses at.

Stray observations:

  • Only a few quotes this week, since my usual setup was disrupted by… tornadoes in the Upper Midwest (no, really). I watched most of the episode on the East Coast feed, but my viewing was interrupted at least once by a weather-caster interrupting the action to stand and stare at the camera while aimlessly swinging her arms. For a minute or so. Good times with South Dakota stations.
  • In case you were wondering, Todd was obviously based on me, a known turtle aficionado who has served many, many stints in Iraq. (No, I’m not the basis for the character, though I like to assume that all of the dialogue about how Todd is the worst is taken verbatim from the show’s writers room. I can have a dream!)
  • My favorite Chang scene was probably where he was poring over the giant pile of matchbooks he’d acquired and bemoaning how he had to pay money to get them.
  • I’m going to miss Chang’s boss, who’s one of my favorite supporting characters on the show, though damned if I can’t ever remember his name.
  • A really nice moment of physical comedy from Alison Brie toward the end, when she fell out of her chair after being told that the group was going to be failed on their projects.
  • Our first Magnitude sighting of the season, and he’s laid low by Kane. Stay strong, Magnitude.
  • I hope the turtle becomes a recurring character. It’s just what this show needs.
  • "While he was spying I found a turtle!"
  • "If loving worms is stupid, I don't want to be smart."
  • "Well he is right about one thing: You're all terrible people."