This week’s episode of Community addressed two recurring issues of the series head-on: the insular quality of the study group, and what I’ll call “the Chang situation.” Ever since the end of the first season, Community has struggled to find a place for the Chang character. Where does he fit in with the group? And, after being fired in season one, why is he still hanging around the school?
Despite some standalone great moments in the second season, Chang’s place in the Greendale universe never really made sense. This year, however, they established in the season premiere that Chang was hired to be a Greendale security guard. I’ve actually been on board with this new storyline, although this week’s made-up conspiracy plot didn’t quite deliver. It’s the kind of thing that should have been funnier, and I’m not sure why it didn’t click. In a nod to both detective films and TV procedural dramas, Chang focuses his strange brand of intensity on a matchbook he finds in the men’s bathroom. The episode follows him, and his many voiceovers, as he puts together an entirely imagined mystery at Greendale.
In biology class, the new professor, who’s increasingly baffled by his strange interactions with the weirdos at Greendale, tells the students that the semester’s kickoff assignment is to create a terrarium, which is met with a collective groan by the class. (“You have such strange reactions to things!”) He also announces that the people sitting across the table from one another will be lab partners for the rest of the semester. Somehow the gang didn’t see this coming, which means they’re all paired up with “non-groupers.”
The group’s revulsion is obvious and immediate, right down to Annie’s barely concealed horror when she whispers “Who are these people?” They make a quick visit to the professor to get permission to pair up with each other, only to realize that they have an odd person out (Pierce, obvs). Pierce ends up sticking with his original lab partner, Todd, who is quickly subjected to frequent and harsh insults from Pierce and the rest of the group. After pairing off and getting more intensive “quality time” together, everyone realizes that they hate their partners. Troy and Abed realize they spend too much time together, Britta’s sick of hearing about Shirley’s baby, and Annie doesn’t want to have to do all the work for Jeff.
There’s no other way to solve things besides a big showdown in the study room, dragging Todd along with them. Abed, who’s a computer after all, comes up with a popularity-based algorithm to decide upon the ideal lab partner pairings. No one can handle their ranking (besides Annie, who was #1) and the meeting devolves into a shouting match.
Todd, played by an impressively game, puffy-haired guy in a short sleeve button down shirt, is of course a great lab partner. He’s nice, cooperative, and during some downtime while Pierce is scheming against the group, he catches a turtle. But everyone’s too wrapped up in group loyalty and self-promotion to realize it; that is, until he flips out and screams at them about how messed up they all are. They are only able to patch things up with a mutual discussion of how terrible Todd was.
Did the ending remind anyone else of Always Sunny a little bit? The mean-spiritedness of the whole thing reminded me of my favorite depraved anti-heroes, but Community has always been far more earnest than Always Sunny. When we’ve spent two and a half seasons being told to take the characters’ feelings and reactions to be earnest, it was kind of strange to throw in an ending with the group being selfish jerks. It will be interesting to see if that goes anywhere.
I am kind of hoping we see Todd again. Maybe he’ll be this season’s Fat Neil.