Community’s Darkest Timeline (Season 3, Episodes 1-3)

Aug 15 2012

The third season of Community — now hitting DVD shelves — is surely the show’s darkest timeline. Not just for the characters, but for the series.

This was the season of the hiatus, the nasty Chevy Chase phone messages and, most controversially of all, the ousting of creator Dan Harmon as series showrunner. With new showrunners, the loss of Harmon and NBC’s decision to move the series to a Friday night slot, Community fans are getting a fourth season, but at a helluva price.

I’ve already gone on record about how much I love the show and that fourth season’s forever away (October? AUGH), so now’s the time to look back on this turbulent third season. While boasting some of the best episodes of the series, season three was not without its problems, all of which seem to be amplified in the first three episodes of the season.

 

Biology 101

Crib notes: Despite a major falling-out with Pierce (Chase) during last year’s annual paintball showdown, the rest of the study group is ready to accept him back in the fold. All except Jeff (Joel McHale) who maintains that Pierce is a selfish ass, not realizing that his own self-absorption is equal to Pierce’s. In one of 93 subplots, Ben Chang (Ken Jeong) throws a ham at Jeff and gets a new job as campus security. Plus, Troy (Donald Glover) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) try to help Abed (Danny Pudi) with a special problem. John Goodman and Michael K. Williams make their Community debuts as Vice Dean Laybourne, head of Greendale’s air conditioner repair annex, and Biology teacher Professor Kane.

Choice dialogue: “Monkey knockout gas. Now that’s the type of grounded, sensible idea I’m looking for this year”
-Dean Pelton (Jim Rash)

The first three episodes of the season followed a stated goal to be “less weird than the first two years combined,” and a more down-to-earth approach would’ve been a great way to follow-up the previous year’s finale. When we last left Greendale Community College, Greendale elder statesman — its Van Wilder, if you will — Pierce Hawthorne had come to such bitter terms with his friends that he walked away from the study group, vowing not to return.

And how did the show handle this huge conflict? It was quickly tossed aside with a few lines of dialogue. “Biology 101” had so much potential, but its execution was oddly listless. There was so much ground to cover (Pierce’s return, Abed’s minor breakdown over Cougar Town’s hiatus, Jeff’s isolation from the study group, Dean Pelton’s funding issues, Jeff feuding with the Biology teacher, etc.) that the episode should’ve either been longer or just narrowed its focus and developed one of its many plot threads into a strong A-story. There were a lot of very funny moments in the episode — the opening musical number, Jeff’s 2001-inspired monkey gas hallucination, Britta and Troy’s bickering, every scene with Dean Pelton, etc. — but the episode as a whole feels more like a collection of funny deleted scenes than a real story. By trying to set up so many future arcs, the end result is an episode that is so overstuffed with plot it isn’t really about anything.

 

“Geography of Global Conflict”

Crib notes: Annie (Allison Brie) meets a nemesis who shares her namesake and challenges her to a Model U.N. showdown. Meanwhile, Britta attempts to recapture her bygone days as a protester for social justice.

Choice dialogue: Everything Garret (Erik Charles Nielsen) says. Or Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) confessing “I far-ted” (it’s the way she said it).

Here we have more setup for the season, with Chang realizing the limitations of his power, Britta’s identity crisis, Annie’s lingering feelings for Jeff, etc. That’s all well and good, but this episode doesn’t stand out in any way. It’s bland. It’s the TV equivalent of boiled cardboard, or Ryan Seacrest’s forehead.

There’s been a dreadful trend in TV writing in the last 15 years where season premieres do nothing more than remind you of what happened the previous season. These premieres pad out a go-nowhere episode that only had 3 minutes of story. Suddenly premiere episodes stopped being an event and just became a series of disconnected scenes to play catch-up with the show’s cast. I remember Buffy The Vampire Slayer being the worst for this, as it was usually best to skip the first two episodes of each season even if it meant missing the odd Xander quote.

Defenders of this type of storytelling praise shows that lay the groundwork for a larger story arc, but if you’re going to do that, the individual episodes should feel like they have some sort of point to them. The first chapter of a book is seldom its most exciting, but it should at least be engaging.

Screw that! The “novel for television” idea doesn’t really work, either. They’re totally different artistic mediums that are equally valid. Having to wait five episodes for a story to start is not like the slow build-up of a novel. It’s like having to buy five mediocre books in order to enjoy three good ones.

Community isn’t The Wire or Breaking Bad. Those two shows excel(led) at slow-burn storytelling because the individual episodes feel like they have a point to them instead of its creators biding their time until they can afford to do something exciting. The first three episodes of Community, while setting up future stories, suffer from being alternately cluttered and undercooked.

Despite the problems I have with these two episodes, I still feel they did their basic job because I did laugh, just not that much. The first two episodes of season three leave me wanting, thinking to myself “it was funny, but…” It’s like watching a recent episode of The Simpsons: it’s not a waste of time, but you know the show has done so much better in the past. By setting the bar so high in its first two seasons, an okay episode of Community just won’t do. Being underwhelming doesn’t make “Biology 101” or “Geography of Global Conflict” bad, just disappointing. We wouldn’t get a bad episode of Community until…

 

“Competitive Ecology”

Crib notes: The study group reluctantly accept an eighth member, Todd (David Neher), in order to complete an assignment for Professor Kane’s biology class.

Choice quote: None that I can think of. There’s a nice gag about Dean Pelton installing pay drinking fountains to cover Greendale’s budget problems, but that’s it.

In a rare and colossal misstep, Community stages an episode that makes the study group look unbearable and annoying. An episode like this is a missed opportunity. The show’s writers could’ve deconstructed the series from an outsider’s perspective, like The X-Files’ “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” or The Simpsons’ controversial Frank Grimes episode. Instead, we see the gang acting like one-dimensional caricatures in an episode that feels like an overlong and mean-spirited Community parody. The final scene in Kane’s classroom, as the Greendale gang rag on Todd as he cries alone, is like something from Mad TV.

Community has already done much better episodes about the group’s weird, toxic love (as per Todd’s words), such as season two’s “Paradigms of Human Memory” (the fake clip show) or “Cooperative Calligraphy” (the bottle episode). The show would even visit this theme with greater success in the two episodes that directly followed this one: “Remedial Chaos Theory” (the multiverse episode) and “Horror Fiction in 7 Spooky Steps” (season three’s Halloween episode).

At no point do we really get a sense of Todd being slighted by the study group. He just takes their abuse in good humour until his final, seemingly random meltdown at the end of the episode. There’s no sense of escalation. The episode goes out of its way to make Todd a saint, so he never comes across as a believable character. This should’ve been a story about a nice guy who’s simply unable to handle the group’s eccentricities and cliquishness. What we got was the study group acting like the Sluggo and Mr Hands to Todd’s hapless Mr. Bill.

This episode wouldn’t have been a total wash had there been a strong B-plot to hold our attention. No luck, friends! Instead, we got Ben Chang stuck in a nonsensical film noir parody that was so unfunny I started to feel embarrassed for everyone involved. This is especially unusual given that the cast and crew of Community are beloved for making the best damn comedy on television, while I’m justly obscure by even in the stringent category of people who are paid to watch TV and write about it on the internet.

Chang’s storylines are a recurring problem for me. The character’s devolution from season one’s Senor Chang (a bitter, eccentric “Spanish genius” with at least one ex-wife who got away) to season two’s Student Chang (pathetic loner who just wants to make friends with the study group) to season three’s Security Chang (a delusional wage slave who plots to blow up the school) is hard to sit through. Ben Chang’s story pretty much ended with season one’s “English As A Second Language” once he was revealed to be a fraud and got fired from teaching Spanish. This was a disappointing turn of events given his hilarious introductory speech in “Spanish 101″. Naturally, the Community folks wanted to keep Ken Jeong around, but the increasingly contrived methods of keeping Chang in the series haven’t really paid off.

Chang had his moments of season two, usually when he was squaring off against Professor Duncan (John Oliver, sadly absent for season three) or Annie’s Boobs (the name of the monkey that lives in the vents). Yet, the bulk of the character’s screen time has him either appearing crazy or pathetic, turning one of Community’s strengths into a recurring annoyance. Rather than seeing Chang again, the production team could cut their losses and have Jeong simply show up during the end credits and improvise something. Just make it a segment called “Ken Jeong Is Funny For Two Minutes”. I’d rather see that than Ben Chang’s continued transformation from a mad bastard to a generic, purposeless wacky character.

In terms of characterization, Annie and Pierce fared only a little better than Chang for much of this season. Pierce was all over the place: sometimes bitter and excluded, sometimes mellow, sometimes crazy and drinking ink from a pen. Nonetheless, Pierce had a few strong episodes over the course of season three, at least one of which is a contender for the best episode of the series (more on that next week). I found it kind of intriguing that Pierce would tell characters “we’re the same” much to their revulsion. I was hoping to see the other characters find some common ground with Pierce, both good and bad.

Season two’s storyline of Pierce becoming increasingly villainous brought some brilliantly funny moments to the show. It also gave Pierce a purpose in the series by replacing Chang as chief antagonist, even if it made viewers question why any of the characters would be on speaking terms with him.

Pah! Of course they’d hang around him. You can’t leave a guy who tells a suicidal, overweight D&D nerd to “soak [his] chubby cheeks in tears of gravy” all by himself. He might kill someone! Or get killed! The study group felt responsible for him, which made for a great dynamic. Most of the time in season three, Pierce was a doddering old fool and nobody cared. He’s always been racist, sexist, homophobic, ill-informed, privileged and boorish, but he’d previously been allowed to have dignity and even show some insight from time to time. Like his speech to Jeff when he rows his way back to his shipmates in the Greendale parking lot in season one’s “Beginner Pottery” or even the punchline to “English As A Second Language”, where it’s revealed that Pierce is the main reason the study group passed their Spanish exams.

Pierce shouldn’t be a redemptive character and I don’t think he was created for that purpose. I mean, Archie Bunker only worked when he was, well, a working-class Pierce Hawthorne. No one loved the kinder, gentler Archie Bunker from the short-lived Archie Bunker’s Place. Pierce was a little too one-note this year.

Oh, let’s not forget the Annie of it all. Though this season saw Annie move in with Troy and Abed, those stories were never that focused on her. She was usually just reacting to the other characters, particularly Abed. Even the episode about Annie’s move is usurped by better stories involving Shirley and Britta’s run-in with a hitchhiker and Jeff singing “Kiss From A Rose” with the Dean.

The only real Annie story of the year was the aforementioned “Geography of Global Conflict”, but it never really amounted to much more than “Annie’s jealous of an Annie-type (conveniently named Annie) until she decides not to be”. Oh, and could they have picked a more wooden actor to play said Other Annie? Any tension between the two Annies is sunk by Irene Choi’s sub-porn performance as Annie Kim.

Despite the recurring plot thread of the supposed romance between Jeff and Annie, Community opted to be coy. The show needs to write a story about this or drop it altogether. Seeing this plot thread resurface makes me feel like I’m watching a rerun from week to week. It never develops. I’m not the kind of person who watches TV shows to see who will start dating who, but I’d like the Jeff-Annie thing to be put to bed, so to speak.

That said, Britta and Troy are perfect for each other and if you can’t see that then I wish a plague on your house.

Wrapping up this rundown of the season’s shortcomings, it must also be noted that the more story arc-driven nature of season three was an experiment that didn’t really pan out much. John Goodman’s appearances as Vice Dean Laybourne were sometimes awkwardly shoe-horned into episodes. Michael K. Williams never seemed to have any sense of comic timing and his conflict with the study group never added up to anything anyway. Williams’ departure from the show was so graceless, I figured the episode would cut to a title card that read “Professor Kane died on his way back to his home planet”. Similarly, references to Jeff’s deadbeat dad, the school’s financial problems, the Annie-Jeff thing or Jeff’s harmful effect on the study group were raised early and subsequently dropped with no fanfare. These dead ends in the narrative made the season a little frustrating at times.

Next week: How, in spite of starting out so weak, Community‘s third season shaped up to be one of its best.

4 responses so far

  1. I actually preferred the mellower season three Pierce to the over-the-top evil season two Pierce. I thought Pierce had plenty of purpose without having to replace Chang as the antagonist, which felt really forced and unjustified and ultimately unfair to him. Season one Pierce was the best – the perfect mix of out-of-his-element antagonistic with unexpectedly compassionate sharing of elder experience and knowledge. It was refreshing to see Pierce calm down a little in season three and return somewhat more to form. And if he was still the villain we might never have gotten his line about falling asleep in a sunbeam – my favourite little Pierce moment of the season.

    You totally had me thinking of The Wire just before you referenced it as a slow-burner. Season two of The Wire was actually a little overkill on that aspect. I tuned out nearly halfway through for a good few months, only to come back to an episode called All Prologue which basically acknowledges how long they spent setting the scene for that season. It all paid off like crazy, but it’s a bold move for any TV series to take that long setting things up, and I agree Community just isn’t the kind of show to be doing that.

    I was super bummed by Michael K. William’s lacklustre performance. You summed it up here perfectly. Especially loved the reference to Poochie.

    Looking forward to the next instalment! Just, uh, try and lay off Buffy next time, yeah?

  2. I died at that sunbeam line.

    While I loved Pierce’s increasingly hostile and paranoid behaviour in season 2 (favourite moment: Pierce running against Vicki in the elections simply out of spite), that story needed to be resolved. I, too, liked Pierce in season one and was looking forward to more of that. I was hoping season three would show the characters realizing how much they’re like Pierce, just better guarded. I was hoping Pierce would actually be considered a friend again, but we only saw that acceptance occasionally. For the most part, Pierce was just the butt of the joke.

    Do you have season one on DVD, Darcy? There’s a really interesting alternate version of the storyline with Pierce writing Greendale’s theme tune. The original version had Pierce lashing out more and more at Annie because he was failing, foreshadowing his behaviour in season two. This was reshot because, while Dan Harmon and the writers wanted it, NBC hated it. That was early enough in season one when Harmon would acquiesce to the network’s wishes.

  3. I don’t have it on DVD, but I would love to see that. It’s a crime what happened to Harmon.

    I think at least part of my problem with where they took Pierce is that I just don’t think Chevy Chase has the chops to play what he was given. Maybe there were more dimensions to Pierce’s villainy that I just wasn’t seeing because I couldn’t see past Chase’s two dimensional performance. The villain is one of the harder parts to play, and I just don’t think Chase was ever up to the challenge.