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Saturday, 17 of April of 2021

Community – “Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts”

We all came so close to having one class that wasn’t about them.

I kind of stopped writing about Community this season, after “Advance Dungeons & Dragons.” Part of this was a time constraint that developed on Thursday nights and into Fridays, and the other part was that I found myself with very little to say after each episode. Having this time to take a step back was useful in the long run as I’m finding myself a teensy bit frustrated with the program.

It became crystallized for me last week during the clip show episode. I enjoyed the episode, and laughed at large portions of it, but was left a little cold by it. Two things generally brought this about for me: the reveal and quick disavowal of the Jeff and Britta hook-ups and then the acknowledgement by the characters that Jeff’s speeches, while well-written and delivered, don’t have any point since the group is never going to break up.

What both of these examples point is the show’s unwillingness to create stakes for the characters. It’s been a problem for much of the season, as the potential of Chang going to jail or Troy’s lying about being abused or Pierce’s general arc this season have all be woefully side-stepped quickly, despite the potential for something darkly dramatic to come from each of these plots.

By ‘dramatic’ I don’t mean the high drama of tragedy or the melodramatic turns of a regular TV drama, but I mean having the characters push themselves, for beats to have a meaning both within the episode and, in some cases, beyond that. The reveal of Britta and Jeff having naked sexy fun times all season means nothing since the two decide to dispense with it so quickly. It’s not even a return to the status quo since the status quo never really changed.

All of this leads us to Shirley’s stakes this season, which started with the zombie episode and have continued to influence events around the series, but have never, to me, really made Shirley the focus of these struggles. And that this is her child presents a  real is a problem.

Which brings us to this week’s episode. There’s plenty to like in the episode, and I’ll get to that, but the issue of Shirley’s baby really needs to be addressed. Despite being Shirley’s baby, the pregnancy has really been more about whether or not Chang could change beyond his sadistic and manic self. The season has made gestures to this, notably Chang’s full-on attempt to reform (which resulted in the aforementioned almost jail time), but never really committed to it.

And while some of the pregnancy centered around Shirley getting back with Andre, the focus was really on the paternity of the father, which is what motivated Chang’s stakes. But, like with the other potentially big changes in the narrative this season, the episode short circuits any potential change by having the baby be Andre’s (“And it’s also a black person! …Not that that’s important.” was a beautifully delivered line). So instead of pushing forward with a big shift in the show’s dynamic, it plays it safe and falls back to the status quo. And since Chang’s not the father, it’s easy enough for the show to go, “Oh, the new baby is off with Andre, so Shirley can easily have hijinks with the rest of the group, no problem!”

This isn’t to diminish the really very excellent work that Ken Jeong does in the episode, because he really is great, and the episode gives Chang some really nice beats. Chang is calmer and his weirdness is more underplayed thanks to the franticness of the episode. It felt like he belonged in this show more in this episode more than any episode this season, and it was the kind of subtle change in the character that show should’ve been striving for all season.

But I feel like it comes too late to matter, especially depending on how the next two weeks’ episodes go with the sequel to “Modern Warfare.” Will Chang’s disappointment at not being the father come through in his actions? Or will he go back to being insane and over-the-top? Can only wait and see.

I did enjoy the episode as a whole. Britta, faced with the process of birth totally caved in a wonderful way that gives her a nice beat in the episode, and Gillian Jacobs nailed it. Pierce pulling an Indecent Proposal with the Abed and Troy handshake goes nowhere, has no resonance, and isn’t terribly funny beyond having an excuse to have Troy cry-talk, something I always enjoy.

Jim Rash steps up his game a lot, doing his all to convey the world food riot happening outside, and it totally works for me, and Dean Pelton is well-used in this episode. Sometimes Pelton is overplayed or a little too wacky, but he’s grounded and he works here, and I put a lot of that on the reporter from Dean Magazine being there to keep him from going too far.

But as a wrap-up, I want to address the issue of stakes as a whole. Sitcoms often resolve conflicts within an episode, even among relationships, so the show can reset itself for next week’s episode. But Community is kind of different. Yes, it adheres to that structure fairly closely, but it does introduce moments in which its characters show possibilities for genuine change, be it Troy realizing he’s not sure of his adult role models, Chang’s desire to change, Pierce’s descent into bitterness, or Jeff’s seemingly forgotten goal to be a better person by learning from Rich (even  it was for evil).

And that the show attempts to follow through with these ideas is what sets it apart from other sitcoms (among other things). It wants these characters to change, and I want these characters to change. In a series that is as bold and savvy as it this, Community could be even bolder and have its characters and dynamics change instead of falling back to where it started the episode.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • “Throw paper balls at her head until she sits down.”
  • “Chang babies love the sauce. Alcohol and duck.”
  • Duncan’s anthropology “final” sounded awesomely interdisciplinary!
  • “I don’t want my child’s first memory to be Star Burns!”
  • “I didn’t even know there was a difference between North and South Korean food!”
  • “Let’s use ‘kerfuffle’ for now.”
  • “It’s Baby Greendale!”
  • The quote at the start of the post, and its follow-up (“Remember when they took that fishing class on St. Patrick’s Day?”) leads me to the overwhelming desire for a Day in the Limelight episode from Community.

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