Friday, October 7, 2011

3x03 "Competitive Ecology" (The Mean Clique)

"Competitive Ecology"
Original Airdate: October 6, 2011

Let me preface this review by first saying that the third episodes of Community have always remained far down on my personal list of "favorites." For 1x03, "Introduction to Film," I felt that the episode was good, but forgettable. I did love that it introduced us to the character of Professor Whitman - who is eccentric and hilarious - but apart from that, the episode didn't quite... do anything for me, I suppose. It didn't stand out as an episode that I would re-watch over and over again (like episodes later on in the season). 2x03, "The Psychology of Letting Go," was one of my least favorite episodes of the second season (forming a three-way tie with "The Aerodynamics of Gender" and "Competitive Wine Tasting"). Again, I felt that the A and B-plots weren't as funny or memorable as they could have been. The storyline with Pierce's mother was good, and there were certainly some decent scenes in the episode and some real laughs, but again - the episode in and of itself was nothing spectacular for me. Why is this important for you to know? Because, as a viewer, this was my mind-set going into the third episode of season 3. Now, I know that I shouldn't let my expectations of an episode precede the actual viewing, but this is an intriguing case because the episode that aired last night as 3x03, was actually supposed to be 3x04. So really, I suppose I should save my "third episode judgement" for next week. ;)

Right. Well, now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's move onto the episode itself. I've read some reviews about last night's episode, and most of them are pretty harsh in regards to the characters of the study group and also the B-plot of Security Guard Chang. So I'm going to take a different approach - highlight what I feel worked in the episode, while undercutting it with why I feel like others did not care for the episode. I took a plethora of notes last night, so be prepared for some of those as well.

We open this episode with Chang's storyline, but I'm going to choose to place this on the back burner for now, and instead discuss the A-plot of the episode: the study group. We meet up with the group as they sit in Professor Kane's Biology class. Kane tangents the discussion about their terrarium project by asking about what happened to Legos while he was in prison. (I can tell you what happened - we built a theme park revolving around them!) The study group then finds out that they are going to be partnered with complete and total strangers for the remainder of the semester, and gosh darnit, that just can't happen. Let me take a step back and discuss why I loved this element (apart from Donald's delivery of "Who are these people?") of the episode and subsequently everything that follows. As viewers of any television show that focuses on a group of individuals in an established setting, we come to obviously consider that group the focal point. In our own suspension of disbelief, we forget that other people exist besides those that we watch from week to week. It's like watching Friends or How I Met Your Mother - we forget that other people frequent Central Perk and MacLaren's. And other characters who we, the viewers, are unfamiliar with, would never dare to sit in the couches or the booth that these characters sit in. Why? Because we're conditioned to narrow in on that particular group of individuals, and only them. The thing about Community is that - unlike those other shows - it is very meta. It takes time to acknowledge the fact that the study group is the focus of everything (see: Vicki, Neil, and Starburns' discussion in "Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts" or Annie's mention of the group being "that study group" in "Asian Population Studies"). Community knows that the focus is always on these seven individuals. But like I mentioned in my first post about "Biology 101," this year it seems that the group is being forced to deal with the fact that they are not the only people in the school, and therefore not the center of attention (and this concept seems to unsettle them). And maybe the disconnect in why people didn't like the episode - or chastised the group for being too mean to Todd - is because we, the viewers, have not actually accepted these "outside" characters yet either.

But I digress. The study group approaches Professor Kane after class and asks that they be paired up among themselves, rather than with complete and total "strangers" (you know, the other people who actually attend Greendale). The excuse that they give is that "[they're] like a family; [they] love each other." (And we will return to that concept later on in the review). The following scene is of each study group member "breaking up" with their current lab partner (Troy's Breaking Bad excuse is my favorite). Pierce is in the process of breaking up with a guy named Todd when we see that everyone within the study group has already paired off - Jeff and Annie, Troy and Abed, and Shirley and Britta. I like the pairings because to me, it represents the first feature of the group: familiarity. Each person pairs off with the person who they feel the most comfortable with, the person who would be the most natural choice (and naturally, Pierce ends up outside of the group paired off with Todd). Jeff and Annie have always been very familiar with one another, while Troy and Abed are obviously the best of friends. Shirley has always gravitated toward Britta rather than Annie out of the girls in the group, so it would make sense that the two of them would be paired together. It's ironic too that the people they feel the most comfortable with, the ones who are the most natural to be with, are also the ones who they are going to get sick of the most because of that. This leads to a funny scene in which the group members attempt to inconspicuously swap partners (Britta/Troy, Shirley/Jeff, Annie/Abed - which, to be honest, would be my choice for pairings in the class). This leads to Pierce indignantly wanting to swap out Todd (no offense Todd), who has pretty much become the Gary of season 3.

The following scene is of the group in the study room with "this outsider, this non-grouper" Todd attempting to discover the best - and fairest way - to pair off for the project. The first thing to note is that Jeff is still insecure. To me, this is going to be a running theme and I am glad that it has carried over into this episode as well. When the group decides to pair off using Abed's system, this leaves Jeff paired up with Todd. And this unsettles him because he has a fear of being apart from the group. And really, aren't we all that way too, to an extent? When paired up for group projects, we're always afraid that if our best friends are in another group that we won't understand their new inside jokes or that they'll become better friends with other people apart from us. Jeff protests and asks how Abed came about his system (which we discover is on a system of ranking of popularity. Annie, we discover, is the most popular in the group because she will do all of the work, while Shirley is the least popular - and honestly I was surprised that Pierce beat her out. Pierce, the guy who destroyed the group last year, basically), and then the entire group dissolves into chaos which is reminiscent of "Cooperative Calligraphy."

Here is a note that I had made last night after a second viewing of the episode: "The study group threatens to break down over everything and always blames their problems on everyone else. It's amazing that they're forced out of their personal comfort bubble this semester, don't want to be, realize that they can't stand being together, accept that they are toxic and need to be with others, and then revert back to blaming their problems on everyone else." Essentially, this is the core of the study group. Todd was completely right about the group - their love for each other is toxic, and weird and it DOES destroy everything it touches. And the group, in and of its core really IS selfish.

You're probably thinking: "Woah, back up, Jenn. I thought you loved this show. I thought you loved this group." And before you all jump down my throat for bad-mouthing our favorite characters, let's just remember what I said at the beginning of the review: we're conditioned to love these characters, to defend these characters, and to support these characters. We're conditioned by television throughout our entire lives to consider people who are not Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Monica, or Joey to be "outsiders." And we, much like them, don't really like the outsiders. Until we come to the realization that these "non-groupers" are really the majority. Until we realize that our group is not perfect, that it is flawed, and that it is a minority in a school that has many more than 7 people in it. The group is flawed. They call other people "outsiders" and "non-groupers." Maybe the study group DOES need to be brought down to earth. No one in this show is ever presented to be perfect, and that's awesome because no one is, in real life. Here is what I decided last night: Todd is the scapegoat for the group's problems. Britta and Shirley have the right answers at the end of the episode - they want to acknowledge that they were wrong and that ranking people over one another caused the group to dissolve into dysfunction. They don't want to address their problems though. Addressing problems can usually lead to further problems - a la "Paradigms of the Human Memory." And really, how much has the group managed to resolve between themselves? How much have they swept under the rug and ignored?

Jeff was the one who - instead of acknowledging that the group has a problem and attempting to solve it - pinned their issues on poor, unsuspecting Todd. So was this just sleep deprivation and a cop-out of giving a Winger speech? Or, can we accept what I stated above? That the group, at its core, does not want to address its own problems. That every character relies on a crutch and if last week was about getting rid of certain crutches, than maybe this week is a lesson in the need to acknowledge certain crutches' existences? I suppose that will be answered throughout the season. I don't find the group's  behavior excusable, because they treated Todd poorly. But what else do we expect the group to do at this point, if we are being honest?

Now that we have addressed the major focal point of the episode, I'll discuss Chang's storyline. Here is my thought progression: Chang storyline by itself? Meh. I wasn't super impressed and if the A-plot hadn't been super-involved and intriguing to dissect, this episode probably would have fallen back to where I usually keep the "third episode rank." It's not that Ken Jeong is not talented, because he is. It's not because he isn't hilarious, because - let's be honest - Chang is fantastic. It's not even necessarily the writing of the storyline, because it had potential. But... maybe it is just that my interest in Chang is piqued more when he interacts with characters who are intriguing (sorry, other security guard guy). I find his dynamic with the study group to be the best. That's why season 1 and 2 Chang was so hilarious. It's not that I feel that he cannot carry a story by himself, but I just don't find it as pertinent to the overarching story of Greendale. Now, the Dean and Chang together have potential, and I wish that their dynamic would have been explored more throughout the episode.   If we are going to see him delve into more of the crazy, power-hungry man that I know he is, I'd like to see how this affects the people around him. And yes, perhaps this will solidify my theory regarding "non-groupers" (so take note, those of you who didn't care for the storyline either) but I wanted to see him interact with "our" group and people who I have developed an interest in. Perhaps that's the bottom line: we didn't care as much because Chang interacted with those who "didn't matter" to us. And yet, isn't it ironic that many were so quick to defend Todd? What makes us care about one "outsider" and not the others?

I don't think that this episode was terrible, by any means. There were quite a few fantastic lines and scenes delivered by the actors. My theory is that this episode caused too many of us to question the morality and essential goodness of the study group and we didn't like that. We don't like "our" group being cast in a negative light. We want to see them for the lovable band of misfits that they usually are. And yes, we know that they are occasionally mean-spirited, but they would never be that way on purpose, right? (Don't we all make excuses like this on a daily basis with those around us?) So when a professor calls the study group the "mean clique," we Annie-gasp at the injustice of it all. But is it true? And if it is, can we deal with that? I suppose that's a question we will all have to answer.

Additional de-lovely aspects about last night's episode:
- Fandom's suggestion, Mr. Harmon, is that an anti-study group exists with: Todd, Rich, Asian Annie, Vicki, Magnitude, and Fat Neil. Thoughts?
 "You're just a good grade and a tight sweater." "Well, you're just a BAD grade and a tight sweater."
"This is why you're the stupidest!" "If loving worms is stupid, I don't wanna be smart!" "It IS. And you CAN'T be!"
"Arizona backwards is still Arizona. It's a Palomino." (I love palindromes - my e-mail references one! - so this KILLED me)
- Shallow note: Joel looked very good last night. Blue shirts and belts, wardrobe department. Keep it up! :)
"When did you even have time to do that? You're pathological." "It's too late for flattery."

Next week, "Remedial Chaos Theory" will air, which was supposed to air last night, but NBC swapped it out. Apparently this episode deals with Troy and Abed's apartment-warming party, and how one night can go in different directions. I tweeted Dan Harmon a while ago about this, asking if it resembled a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, and he said that it had that sort of appeal. So I am ecstatic, obviously. Until then, friends!

P.S. This review is dedicated to Jaime, who is currently sitting on a ten-hour train ride from Pittsburgh back to New York. Hopefully this helped pass the time! :)

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I too felt that this episode was reminiscent of “Cooperative Calligraphy.” Obviously, it wasn’t a bottle episode, but it was clear that the study group spent hours (a whole day, in fact) in the study room hashing out the Todd problem.

    I agree with you about the Chang storyline by itself. It was funny, but I can’t wait to see Head-of-Security Chang really interacting with the group (not just Britta) and shutting down their crazy antics. I think that has real potential. How are they going to deal with that next week, when Chang will not yet be Head of Security?

    I’d also like to echo something that many other reviewers have said in the past: I’d love to see an episode centering on the “supporting cast” (Vicki, Neil, Garrett, Starburns, Magnitude, etc.) where the Study Group is placed in the background. I think it would be hilarious to only get a glimpse of their antics while the main plot revolves around the minor characters. House did something like this in Season 6 that focused on Wilson, and it’s one of my favorite episodes ever.

    Random note, Professor Kane’s reactions to the group, and his ability to view things as an objective outsider were my favorite parts of the episode. I guess it’s part of the show’s “meta” quality, but I think by the third season, it’s good to have someone sane commenting on the absurdities of Greendale.

    I just realized that there was really no “Winger speech” to wrap things up, other than Jeff blaming it all on Todd. Also, Joel ALWAYS looks good :)