Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Community: "Environmental Science"

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As it wraps up its appearances in November sweeps, Community is really on a roll. That's, by my count, four straight really good episodes, with at least three of them being all-time keepers (especially last week's terrific half hour). The series seems to have worked out its kinks, and now, it's a pretty lean show, pared down to just what it needs to get laughs. Tonight's episode felt weirdly like a season finale (especially in its closing moments), so it's possible this was the last episode filmed of the initial 13-episode order (just in case this was the last time we'd ever see these characters) and there's more episode shuffling, which would indicate some lackluster half hours still out there, but if this is the last week see of the show until next month, the series has picked a great way to pack out its first big sweeps month.

I've noticed that there's a pretty sharp divide over Ken Jeong's Senor Chang in the comments section. Actually, I don't even know that "divide" begins to describe it. Most of you just can't stand the guy or Jeong's performance as him, which is easily the show's most over-the-top and occasionally grating element. If Community has been doing a good job of deepening all of its character types into actual characters, Chang is the exception, the guy who's still playing by the broad, over-the-top rules of the show's earliest episodes. Jeong also tends to play him at one note - borderline insane. It's very much the most abrasive element of a show that is really good-natured much of the time.

"Environmental Science," then, is the episode where we're going to learn more about Chang, through the eyes of Jeff, who's trying to get him to drop a particularly terrible Spanish essay at the behest of the other group members. Chang's marriage went kaput a little while ago (and I loved the "small things" that led Jeff to this conclusion, including Chang taping a bubble reading "Enjoy it while it lasts" coming from his wife's mouth on a photo of the two), and now Jeff is going to try to get him to move on, starting from his usual selfish place and gradually moving to a more altruistic one. It's the same journey the character makes in every other episode, but damned if it doesn't still work.

That said, whether or not you liked the story of Jeff eventually winning over Chang after becoming friends with him and then fixing the teacher's marriage (only to see Chang turn it right back on him) is going to depend almost entirely on how much you like Chang. He's still the show's most problematic element - a character that stubbornly remains huge and broad when the rest of the show has moved on to more nuanced character work - but this episode is probably the best showcase he's had yet. Was the concluding dance with his wife really necessary? Probably not, but most of the other stuff he did in the episode was solid, and Joel McHale and Jeong continue to be a good comedic team.

It's possible I'm so fond of this episode purely because it managed to tie everything up with an American Tail montage at the end, as Abed and Troy tracked down the wayward rat Fievel, Shirley finally took Pierce's speaking techniques and made them work and Jeff reunited the Changs. A lot of the show's episodes have had some funny storylines, but they haven't found a way to tie them all together on either a plot level or a thematic level. This one, however, got everyone involved in that closing montage (which was surprisingly funny). Just seeing Abed and Troy singing "Somewhere Out There" together was worth at least a few laughs.

I also liked the rat plot. While it's kind of a familiar gag to make a tough guy scared of rodents, seeing Troy jump up on the desk at the rat getting free was very funny, and so was Abed's attempts to recruit him to help round up the little guy. It's entirely possible this was much, much funnier to me than it was to anyone else, just because the rat was named Fievel and the whole thing will prove that I am a complete liar when I say that pop culture reference gags are one of the lower forms of sitcom jokes, but, dammit, I saw that movie when I was a kid, and I liked it.

I was less certain on the Pierce and Shirley storyline, but the show sort of figured out what to do with it as the episode went on. It was a much more classically constructed sitcom plot, where one character's wacky suggestions are first tossed aside and then gradually revealed to be the very things that should be followed, especially as the final montage showed just how amusing it would be for Shirley to follow his advice verbatim. Shirley's been kind of backgrounded in the last few episodes, so it's nice that she's gotten something amusing to play in this one.

But the main storylines weren't the only things that were humming along here. You had that great scene where Pierce sat in Jeff's chair and immediately began making wisecracks that were like lesser versions of what the real article might say. Or there was that entire runner about how Greendale was going to celebrate "Green Week" by being renamed Envirodale and having a free concert from Greene Daye (some sort of Celtic folk band, I gather). Every character, even Britta, got something funny to do, and when the episode ended with all of them dancing to Greene Daye, it was proof of just how far all of them have come, just how much goodwill the show has built up for all of them in its short running time.

Since this episode feels like a capper for some reason, I'm tempted to say that I'm really impressed by just how far Community has come in its first season and wish it luck in the second. But that the show is here roughly midway through its first season is an even better sign that some great episodes are just around the bend. Community had one of the highest degrees of difficulty of any promising new show this season, and it's impressed me with just how willing it has been to mesh all of those difficult pieces together and create something exciting and new. Here's hoping for another 12 episodes of hilarity to come.

Stray observations:

  • If this piece seems later and more scattershot than usual, well, it is. DVR quirks led to a late watch time. My apologies.
  • "This is Spanish 101. I know how to say hello, tomorrow and that tables are female. That's the only Spanish you taught us."
  • "You're the one with the silver tongue." "Yeah, go tongue Chang!"
  • "Well guess what, handsome hobo. Your gravy train's leaving the station."
  • "Hm. This better not awaken anything in me."
  • "I believe that fusing brownies with the Internet is going to create the next Napster for brownies."
  • "All I ask is for you to keep fusing the void in my soul."
  • "Real friends help me with things, not vice versa."
  • "I know your secret. I know about the chair."
  • "Who put pepper in water?"