Fans of Community have come to expect a lot from it, under less than ideal circumstances. With a visibly small budget, Community’s creative team has churned out two seasons of playful, contemplative, and self-referential television, unusual by network TV standards. And so there was cause for concern when this third season kicked off last Thursday, with a lush, full-cast, Glee-style musical number declaring that everything’s going to be “more fun and less weird than the last two years combined!” Who would ever want Community to be less weird?
The song and dance spectacle was followed by a very un-weird explanation, that it was just a daydream, imagined by Jeff (Joel McHale) as he gathered with his classmates in the library study room to prep for the year to come. They’re all enrolled together in Biology 101, but in the first episode, were still trying to resolve that lingering matter from last semester: after an elaborate showdown, Pierce (Chevy Chase), their “oldest, closest, craziest, most racist” friend, is no longer part of their study group. Except now he wants back in.
Pierce returned from a summer of “intensive soul rezoning,” and found himself wait-listed for Biology and approached the group, hoping to find another class they might all share. Using his typical lawyer-speak, Jeff convinced everyone that they’d all evolved past needing to study for the same class in order to hang out: they’re all actually really friends now. Bewildered by Jeff’s manipulation, they decided to agree they’d evolved, declaring, “We’ll see you when we see you, Pierce.” And with that, Jeff got his way and the new semester for the study group began, less one old crazy racist.
Still, the other usual crazies made their presence known. Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) burst in to explain that this year everything’s different (and to prove it, he’s grown a bizarro world goatee). He said he means to run a tighter ship with less “National Lampoonery,” starting with a buckling down on the budget over at Greendale’s Air Conditioning Repair School Annex (run by a fantastic John Goodman). But no sooner did the dean leave the room than ex-Professor-turned-student Chang (Ken Jeong) emerged from an air vent to confess he’d been living in the ceiling ducts all summer, thus explaining the sounds everyone thought were caused by Troy’s rogue monkey, Annie’s Boobs (“named after Annie’s boobs,” as Troy [Donald Glover] has explained). Unbeknownst to Chang, his new crib was about to get fumigated with “monkey gas.” So much for less weird.
Most weird, however, was the introduction of the group’s super-serious Biology professor, the significantly named Dr. King (Michael K. Williams). An ex-con who got his PhD while incarcerated, he didn’t mug for the camera or do anything grossly inappropriate or make any pop culture references (except for “Ya feel me?” a nod to his role as Omar on HBO’s The Wire). Instead of employing lampoonery, Dr. King spoke eloquently and passionately about his subject — in short, he seemed like a real professor. Dr. King is a black ex-con in a position of authority, enriched by a hard-won education and life experience. Jokes regarding his achievements and obstacles overcome were buried deeply between subtexts, but it’s clear enough that Dr. King embodies all kinds of possibilities for Community to think about race and power.
In the season premiere, Dr. King did wield great power over Jeff. After repeated cell phone interruptions, the professor kicked Jeff out of class for good, thus allowing Pierce to enroll. Without a tangible connection to the group, and with the help of his own exposure to the hallucinogenic monkey gas, Jeff was forced to accept that perhaps the group hadn’t evolved, or more precisely, he hadn’t evolved. Jeff, power-hungry and insecure, simply wanted Pierce out of the study group.
Evolution, biology, power and prison and monkey gas: this is typical of the kind of amusing thematic density that Community manages week to week. We never know how fully such a mix might develop, and in this episode, it seemed undercooked by the end. Jeff’s big epiphany seemed too easy, exactly the kind of sitcom trope that Community regularly parodies. It’s almost as if the show itself has pulled a Jeff Winger, convincing us that something means one thing, when the gut says that it’s not quite right. One can’t help but wonder, is this what the show does when it’s being meta or just being lazy?