The criticism that Community has long suffered from is that its gimmicks overshadow its characters, that if you’re interested in a spaghetti western done as a sitcom, it’s a good show for you, but if you find that sort of thing irritating then it’s not. This has never been my concern. I have a love for the gimmicks, not just in and of themselves, but also how much they rely on what we know about the show’s characters already. The zombie invasion Halloween episode was fun, but I find myself wondering how comprehensible much of it was to people who’d never been introduced to the cast before, and frankly I kind of prefer that opacity.
What disappoints me about Community is the same thing that disappoints me about any other show, which is mostly to say repetition. Unfortunately, “Competitive Ecology” was one of those episodes that, while not strictly a repeat, had enough familiar elements that I was left wondering why they chose to make it. Here’s a show that’s always striving to do something new, not just for itself but also for the format, yet delivering the same basic observations we’ve been given before about a strikingly similar situation.
Like a lot of Community episodes, “Competitive Ecology”’s main plot is pretty simple. Biology professor Marshall Kane needs to assign lab partners and the study group is disappointed to receive partners from outside the group. Not content with this, they obtain permission from Kane to reassign themselves, only now they need to pick their own partners. After their first choices all go awry, they decide to re-pick, but this just causes more disputes. The group is in fact so unable to choose their groupings, instead spending the entire evening arguing with each other, that they ultimately fail on the assignment altogether.
Community loves to tell us about how dysfunctional it thinks its cast of characters is, and this tends to come through having an observer taking stock of their bickering. This time it’s Todd, who’s necessary because the study group has an odd number of members. Todd himself is passingly interesting, in a Ned Flanders sort of way, but his position isn’t new. We’ve had people sit in with the group before (the best instance of this came in last season’s “Dungeons and Dragons”), with largely the same results.
We’ve also had entire episodes about the cast’s dislike for one another in various guises as well. The show’s famous bottle episode “Cooperative Calligraphy” did this sort of cast dispute wonderfully. Here, though, it felt like they were once again doing the same thing. We already knew that they fight like this, what’s the point of showing it to us again? Particularly disappointing here was that the characters seemed to revert to versions of themselves they’d already passed. The Jeff Winger in this episode was interchangeable with the Jeff Winger of, say, episode 2, and the same feels true of the entire cast. Normally episodes where everyone’s together are my favorite because it allows everyone to pipe in with great lines. That certainly happened here, too, but other than that there wasn’t much recommending this storyline. It was a clinic in great joke-writing, but it felt kind of empty.
The other half of the episode was focused on an entirely unrelated story in which Chang becomes a film noir-style detective… but only in his own mind. It’s unfortunate that this story never came anywhere close to the rest of the cast (I always find myself wondering why stories like this are in the same episode together if they’re not linked in any way). Otherwise, though, it was pretty entertaining, particularly to fans of the genre being parodied. Noir detectives have always considered whether they’ve gone over the line into insanity; what’s great here is that Chang has that same question while the audience doesn’t: we know he’s just plain-up insane. This all serves to illustrate how he rose to be the head of Greendale’s security, which hopefully means he’ll actually interact with the rest of the show more soon.
As usual some of the episode’s individual jokes were still wonderful. Todd, for instance, despite his intentional blandness was very entertaining. But that a random observor was the most entertaining part of the show’s central argument says something about how standard these things have become. Community’s now three episodes in and is yet to have a great, or even near-great episode, and the repetition we’ve seen so far makes it feel like the show’s really struggling with where it wants to go next.
•”I’m married to the job… and a mannequin leg I found in the boiler room.”
•Having Michael Williams do a Legos monologue works great with his inherent gravitas. More of that, please.
•”We don’t solve crimes… we barely prevent them.”
•”And here he is with another cupcake. Oh wait, these pictures are out of order, that’s the same cupcake.”
•”While he was spying I found a turtle.”
•”Abed, you’re a computer.”
•”I needed answers like a fish needs a bicycle: a lot.”
•Learning that the saxophone is diegetic sound is a wonderful joke. Really, this plot needed more time. Who wouldn’t like a full episode of Chang’s adventures as a security detective?
•”I need a notepad… maybe a blazer.”
•”Who the hell are you always texting, everyone you know is here.” – As I’ve been reminded, Jeff does now kind of work for a law firm now.
•”You tu, brute?” (or is that u2 brute?)
•”Pierce, wake up. Jeff is going to heal us.” – It’s been a long time since that’s really worked out for the show… and as stupid as it sounds, Community could use more of that.
•”You know they’re laughing at you, right? That’s my theory.”
•”We had a name for people like you in prison: we called you the mean clique.”
•I liked the iris out. It’s intentionally hokey, you have to appreciate that.