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Community: "Course Listing Unavailable" (3.18)

May 4, 2012  |  3:33pm
<em>Community</em>: "Course Listing Unavailable" (3.18)

Community’s third season has been interested in setting up long, serialized stories for the gang rather than allowing things to work as episodically as they did in previous seasons. And while this worked well for the somewhat brief feud between Abed and Troy, the much larger and intricate storylines of Chang’s attempt to take over the school and John Goodman wanting Troy for the air conditioning school are, well, rather stupid.

Not that stupid humor is necessarily a bad thing. Community’s ability to embrace everything from slapstick and puns to meta jokes and character-based humor has always been one of its best traits, but at times one aspect of these takes over the rest, and unfortunately “Course Listing Unavailable” became subsumed in the conceit that Chang could take over the school with his Changlorious Basterds. While the episode begins by trying to deal with Starburns’ death, it’s really far more about that plotline, which kind of meanders around without knowing where to go.

The odd thing is that each of the individual setpieces were pretty entertaining; it’s just that all in a row they felt unstructured and messy. The Greendale Seven starting a riot was very funny, as was the riot itself, but they felt a little bit off. It’s because we know these characters very well, and rather than acting exactly as it feels like they should, they acted in exactly the way this plotline needed them to. The convoluted Chang story came first, the characters came second, and this is what separates it from even the most convoluted of Community’s usual gimmick episodes. In those, it’s always character choices that feel like they drive thing, but here they’re just kind of pawns in a game. The episode’s odd ending is fitting since these characters don’t have much of a place in this storyline that’s really just about Chang, the Dean and Greendale.

This is an odd turn for the show to take, given how much emphasis it’s put recently on making Community about the main characters’ relationships with each other. Once it stopped being about Jeff early in the first season, it’s been about that dynamic and creating a surrogate family to help each character grow. Not every episode can, or necessarily should, use this as a starting place, but the Changlorious Basterds story is so strange and so unrelated that it feels like a big distraction from what makes the show so good. Yes, a lot of the jokes still hit, but without having characters we care about making them, they just feel oddly displaced, which definitely happened in “Course Listing Unavailable.”

I get the feeling that after two seasons, Community wanted to explore other emotions and storytelling techniques, and the show’s ambition has always been related to its greatness. But that doesn’t mean everything it tries will work particularly well, and unfortunately that’s the case with Chang’s storyline this season. Even more unfortunate is that this has such a large effect on the whole end of the season for the show, which looks like it will have several more episodes based on either his coup or the air conditioning repair school. I hope that both of these plots get better, but I’m not overly optimistic that any of the episodes about them will be the show’s best work. Instead they may end up like “Course Listing Unavailable,” thoroughly interesting, but certainly not everything we hope to see in an episode of Community.

Stray observations:
•So that ending video of Starburns was pretty much the best thing ever, right? When I die, I too want Abed to put together a retrospective video of my life.
•”Starburns died as he lived: in a methlab explosion.”
•”To be fair it was the crystal meth inside the stolen lab equipment that blew up.”
•”This is a funeral, let’s keep it light.”
•”Starburns, or Alex as he liked to be called.”
•Adult backrub?
•I wasn’t that keen on the callback to “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It mostly felt like a reminder of a better Community episode than anything that had a particular purpose here. I would’ve preferred a scene of the Greendale Seven coping with their expulsion that wasn’t so heavy on meta-commentary for its emotions.

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