This post contains spoilers through the Oct. 6 episode of Community.
Last season, Chang came to feel, for me at least, as if he was Community‘s version of Sue Sylvester: an aggressively wacky character who doesn’t really fit into the core tone of the show and often leads it off in odd directions, but has an occasional big payoff. Unlike Sue, though, who is so monotone as to not be a real person, Chang sometimes feels like he’s a bunch of people all at once, and not just when he’s playing Gollum. That said, I actually enjoyed the time we spent in his head — and the storage space he’s crashing in behind the Greendale coffee bar — as Chang went through a day at Greendale as a cut-rate, Asian Sam Spade.
There’s something kind of wistful about his ascent over the course of this episode. “Really made my bones with that last collar, babe,” he tells the mannequin leg who’s sharing his futon in the storage closet. The parody of hardboiled dialogue veers between hit — “She was a real dame. Legs that went all the way to the bottom of her torso. Arms that had elbows.” — and deeply surreal — “Let her go. Like a lobster claw letting go of a small balloon. For lobsters.” And I wish the show had spun out Chang’s ascent a little bit longer. I’d like a realistic arc about him rebuilding himself after losing both his wife and his job, rather than a wacky co-dependent relationship with the Dean.
And just as the show found something good to do with Chang this week, it also seems like they’ve figured out a role for Michael K. Williams’ Professor Kane: as the person who, through his isolation from the outside world and general common sense, points out the ridiculousness of Legos, Greendale in general, the study group in particular. “As someone who just spent the majority of his life in prison, what happened with Legos? They used to be simple,” he asks at the end of class. “I’m not saying it’s bad. I just want to know what happened!” Then, when the study group crashes his office to ask if they can pick their own lab partners, he confesses his general bewilderment. “What is happening at this school? I have so many conversations that make no sense!” He even punctures Magnitude’s balloon
He’s not alone in his observation that the study group’s dynamic has gotten a little intense and weird, noting: “We had a name for people like you in prison. The mean clique.” And after he witnesses Britta accidentally incinerating a turtle, Todd, the Iraq veteran and other biology student who’s been temporarily absorbed into the group declares, “Your love is weird, and toxic, and destroys everything it touches!” It’s sort of true, and that’s an interesting dynamic. The show has flirted with the idea that people might need to move away from the group (Pierce at the end of last season) or from spending too much time together (Troy and Abed tonight) to move forward, but it keeps backing away from a definitive break. There’s a good, if more depressing, show in the idea that a group that initially helped people acclimate to a new and difficult situation is now bringing out their worst qualities. I’ll be curious to see if Dan Harmon’s willing to take the show in a darker direction. If he does, I hope there’s actual growth somewhere in there, not just mocking diabetic Iraq veterans.