Monday, May 2, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts”

There’s so much to distract our attention on Community that it’s easy to forget fairly major incidents (which may be their way of escaping from some of the quagmires I felt they wrote themselves into with certain characters earlier this season).  I, for one, hadn’t even considered the fact that they would probably want to deal with Shirley’s delivery prior to season’s end.  Had I thought about it, I would have guessed it to be a good season finale topic given the rather interesting controversy at its center.  I much preferred the use of it tonight, though, as a straightforward premise to bounce pretty much every character on the show off of one another as they gather in the Anthropology room for the arrival of Shirley’s (and possibly Chang’s) baby.  It made for some great self-aware moments regarding this small study group taking over everything that happens at Greendale (the birth disrupts a non-existent final exam and puts the dean’s big article in Dean Magazine at risk) as well as some really clever pop culture riffing, and of course it all managed to wrap up with a sugary moment between mother and father and baby…and Chang.

Some of the best material tonight played to the thematic idea introduced last week that TV shows are populated by characters who only exist in the moments where the show exists, which makes them devoid of a real history, and the minor supporting characters devoid of any real existence at all.  It made for an excellent shared moment between Starburns and some unnamed bit players tonight when one of them observes that “we came so close to having one class that wasn’t all about them” and Starburns excitedly brings up a St. Patrick’s Day trip they all took together, which of course happened only in the imaginary realm where such characters exist at the periphery of the show’s reality.  To hear the minor players gripe about the obnoxious omnipresence of fellow classmates who seem to take over every room they enter into is a near breach of the fourth wall tonight, and it played really well.  Especially when accompanied by the non-starter subplot of (correct me if I’m remembering his name wrong) Neil and the girl next to him seemingly on the verge of falling in love (which Pierce, of course, has to insert himself rudely into the middle of—he’s a member of The Group, after all).  The structure of the gag is simple, but the idea is sort of elegant:  Neil was enough of a player in one episode that it seems momentarily conceivable that the show might follow him on a journey of love (especially since he was depressed and isolated before); instead, Shirley disrupts him on the verge of love with her water breaking and the class dissolving into turmoil centered around the same group of characters it always does.

Pierce’s more relevant role tonight, relatively speaking, was in the “Indecent Proposal” style undoing of Troy and Abed’s sacred ritual of the chest-pat high five that has been their trademark since somewhere early in Season One (I’m in the midst of rewatching that season on DVD and it seems like the ritual really did just pop up between the two of them without explanation or origin).  At any rate, Pierce’s ploy to rid them of what he finds to be an obnoxious little gesture (it was nice to discover that, for once, Pierce’s motivations weren’t bred of jealousy, though it seemed so at first) on their part.  The fact that Troy and Abed immediately recognize his $1000 offer to engage in the gesture with one of them to be an “Indecent Proposal” scenario and are eager to take the cash anyway is mildly funny as a pop culture reference, but quite surprising in that it seems to reveal that Abed is great at recognizing pop culture parallels in reality and explaining them after the fact, but he clearly learns nothing from pop culture in a thematic sense.  I’m inclined to believe it was more of a case of him being blind to the implications to serve the need for a throwaway B-story about him and Troy losing their mojo, but it nevertheless brings up an interesting question about Abed.  He’s been successful at interpreting his life through comparison to works of pop art, but it seems possible that he doesn’t actually learn from art in the sense that art offers us a new way of looking at life and modifying our approach to it.  I’m sure it’s nothing, but it sure felt weird to find Abed tricked into a scheme which Pierce openly admits up front he’s stealing from a movie.  Whatever the case, it was fun while it lasted.

The only thing holding back the pace of the proceedings this week was the dean, who continues to be a character best delivered in small doses, and best used for throwaway jokes about his fascinating sexual ambiguity and fetish-filled personal life.  His presence is deflating every time they make his subplot about his insecurities regarding the college (yeah, there have been a few good lines sprinkled around, but it’s mostly a boring tack to take with his character), as they do tonight amidst an interview with a journalist from a magazine about deans.  The joke of the magazine is a bit broad and not particularly amusing, nor is his Leslie Knope inspired effort to micro-manage the wording of the article to be written about him.  It’s funny when Leslie Knope does it because she’s a micro-manager who is actually highly competent at her job and knows that the local press neither understands the value of her work nor respects what she’s attempting to do.  Contrast that with the dean tonight:  He’s driven by insecurity to question everything the journalist writes down and panics mostly about the journalist observing events which are beyond the dean’s control, and which really aren’t that bad to begin with—a group of students rallying together to deliver a fellow student’s child seems like a wonderful angle for a story about highly competent community college students.  Meanwhile, his panicky, pathetic reaction to everything that unfolds in the episode smacks of thin caricature and sitcom characterization without any hint of the irony which accompanies other “traditional” sitcom characters on the show.  It deflated some otherwise great moments (I’m glad his Prius got overturned though).

The arrival of Ben Bennett (it’s better than actually being related to Chang, right?) was handled with about as much chaos as you’d expect from these guys.  In fact, given our expectations for shenaniganery these days, you could argue that it’s becoming harder for the writers to exceed our expectations.  To prove they’re up to the task, they do things like cuing up the “monolith” sequence from the “2001:  A Space Odyssey” soundtrack as Britta checks to see how dilated Shirley is.  The main title sequence of music from that film is probably more famous as a humorous musical cue in goofy comedies than it is for its use in the film itself, but the cue used in tonight’s episode was such a subtle reference that I doubt the joke hit with more than 20% of viewers.  The writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 used to be fond of saying that they wrote the jokes knowing that only 10% of viewers might get some of them, but that for that 10%, it would be the best joke ever.  I like that Community is not afraid of reaching out to similar niche groups for a great joke.

The real key to this episode though, at least for fans who tune in at least partially out of love for the characters, was how they decided to handle the daddy mystery involving Chang.  It seemed unlikely he’d be the father, and it was easy enough to explain away with a funny line tonight, but it was a possibility they certainly wrung some bonus drama out of tonight by using the vitality and resilience of “Chang babies” to suggest for most of the episode that the baby seemed to have some awfully Changy tendencies.  It made for some great lines from Chang (see below), but it was more charming as a wonderful way to endear Chang to Shirley even as he’s ruled out as the father.  Shirley’s panic at giving birth in a classroom is alleviated only by Chang’s insistence that if this IS a Chang-child, then she’ll have no trouble delivering since they shoot out “like bullets from a gun” and that it will be strong and healthy and entirely untroubled by the unfortunate conditions of the delivery.  It allows her to resolve herself to the task, and it’s entirely fitting of Shirley’s character that his supportive words and (I suppose unintentional) votes of confidence in her ability to pull through this result in her naming the baby after him for helping her get through a horrible situation.  The final close-up of Theo (you know my policy), Shirley, and Chang admiring the new baby is a moment well earned by the long buildup of the storyline; I can’t think of a more satisfying payoff.  And for the record, I thought the baby said “Chang” too.

Overall Rating:  9.1/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot and Occasionally What-Have-You:

“Chang babies love the sauce, you know?  Alcohol and duck [takes a shot of duck sauce] zoink!”

“This is not your baby.” 
“How do you know?” 
“There’s no locusts.”

“And that is what Jews do at weddings.  Anthropology!”

I love that Professor Duncan pats the dean on the head as he leaves the room.

I missed the full quote, but Chang babies come early—how early depends on “how much of the mother they eat”.

“Let me guess who paid for that study…big antacid?”

“And you’re gonna squat in a babbling brook and a beautiful star child is gonna slide out on a ray of sunshine while your cats each half watch because you’re so natural.”

“Can someone please get…every mop on campus?”

“A Chang is hearty to the core.  That’s why there’s so many of us.  You ever try Googling me?  It’s impossible.”

“According to my watch, it’s 1000 o’clock.”

Pierce’s “something awesome” is “Betty Grable.”

Pierce’s face as he gets his high five is hilarious; Troy closes his shirt in shame.

“Try not to look at the door because that’s bad luck and Chang babies are very superstitious.  Also if you can picture a rabbit riding a dragon it increases chances of winning the lottery.”

Exchange of the night goes to Jeff and Britta:
Britta:  “Are you saying I’ll be a good mom?” 
Jeff : (laughing) “No.  You will really force anything won’t you?  Go force that baby out of Shirley.”

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