Review: Community, “Competitive Ecology”

How many times can you do a story or tell a joke before it becomes stale or obvious? Television is defined by its formulaic nature and its ability to tell the same story over and over again, only with enough variation to make things seem different. Check out any police, medical and legal procedural on television and this is basically what you’re going to get. But the consistent similarities across episodes are just as present in comedy. Nearly every episode of the first seven season of The Office is powered by Michael doing something inappropriate/awful/misguided, Dwight doing something inappropriate/awful/misguided or a combination of both. There’s nothing inherently wrong with formula on television, it is the nature of the beast.

But when you’re a series that often bucks formulaic storytelling or repetitiveness, it becomes more obvious when you start to beat the same drum multiple times over. Community is definitely in this position and “Competitive Ecology” represents the series’ pickle nicely. The dominant thrust of season two focused on the group slowly realizing that while they might tend to argue a lot and generally appear to hate one another, it is all part of how they’ve learned to care. The study group is full of miserable, weird and kind of awful individuals, but they all see the value in sticking together. By the end of season two, they were finally awake to this and willing to let Pierce back in, despite all of the horrible things he did. Now the group is in this sort of quasi-honeymoon phase where they are more aware of why they are the way they are that’s all well and good.

Nevertheless, what happens to the honeymoon phase when it’s put to the test and when it is part of a series that requires conflict, however minor, on a weekly basis? If “Competitive Ecology” has any answer, it’s the all the lovey-dovey “yay group!” rhetoric quickly goes out the door and everyone in the group immediately realizes that there are dozens of reasons why they kind of hate one another. So on a basic level, “Ecology” isn’t that different from a number of season two episodes – most notably “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “The Paradigms of Human Memory” – in that it focuses almost entirely on the group self-destructing over the littlest of things, over-analyzing how and why the exist and then eventually realizing that the self-destruction and the over-analysis are all part of the journey.

It is, without a doubt, repetitive. Community has done this before. However, “Ecology” still works for a number of reasons; primary of those is because it, like “Memory,” embraces how repetitive this all is and just how phony the study group is in a lot of ways. After all their talk about how much they love one another and how cute it is that they can set each other up for jokes or all laugh simultaneously, all it takes is one small shift in dynamic, in this case the presence of biology classmate Todd, and everything that the group thinks they stand for quickly crumbles and everything devolves into loud, manic and hurtful chaos.

The events of this episode have one primary point to get across and that is that the group will never consistently get along and even if they do love one another, these sorts of things will always happen. Pierce might be back in the group and Jeff might have come to terms with that and his own desk-related issues, but that doesn’t solve it all, and maybe doesn’t solve anything. Britta is still annoyed with Shirley’s baby fever, Abed and Troy can still realize that they spend too much time together, Annie is still frustrated with Jeff’s lack of desire (in so many ways, if you know what I mean) and most notably of all, Pierce is still completely left out. The group thinks things have changed and might be more aware of certain small shifts in the abstract, but NOTHING has changed.

And I really love how the series acknowledges the external constraints on a television series and its characters in relation to formula and repetitiveness and then just embraces them in a totally logical, believable way. Real life doesn’t change in a two week span. We fight with our friends and loved ones, we make big speeches, think everything is ok and then realize the next day we still kind of hate them. Eventually, something good might happen, but even if it doesn’t and you and those you call your BFFs are stuck in a malicious circle of yelling and making up, that’s kind of fine too. As Todd says near the end of the episode after the group has been yelling at one another literally all night, “your love is weird.”

Todd both completely undercuts and reaffirms the group’s strength. His presence and blow-up points out how fragile everyone in the study group can be and also how miserable the group can be to anyone outside of it. Nevertheless, the group is so miserable to everyone else because they think only other members of the group truly understand them, which only makes them feel stronger. The final sequence is a great example of this. They’ve realized their errors, but quickly pass the buck to Todd because he wasn’t there for the bottle episode or for the haunted house or for the St. Patrick’s Day boat mishap or in Mexico when Pierce was held hostage by cartel members. He can never understand and therefore A.) whatever he says doesn’t really matter and B.) he sucks. The group finds solace and bonds in putting a fence around themselves.* “Your love is weird” is basically the thesis statement for the entire series and though it is simple and regularly hammered home, it works very well for Community, both on a thematic level and because it leads to very funny sequences.

*Of course this is both a good and bad thing as well. Because they’ve become so insulated in their love-hate study group ecosystem, no one in the group is particularly functional outside of it. They’re all extremely co-dependent on one another, so even when they are fighting, the tension basically fuels the group’s energy and bonds anyway. Basically, all seven of these people are extremely screwed up and even with some moderate growth, that isn’t going to change. But I’m pretty sure that’s the point and I love it.

Even the most unpredictable, risky and innovative television series is going to have its conventional stories and comfortable rhythms and structure. “Competitive Ecology” is yet another iteration on the same basic point about the group’s fragile composition and even more fragile individual relationships within it, but thankfully, Community knows how to hit the same beats with slightly different approaches and shadings. Putting the group together in a room and allowing them to argue over the simplest and dumbest of things is always a recipe for success and “Ecology” does just that while also pointing out that the big resolution from last season isn’t really resolved at all.

Other thoughts:

  • The Chang B-plot was very funny, I’m definitely sold on the idea of Chang in the campus security guard role. This episode did a nice job of showing how quickly Chang can escalate things – you know, because he’s insane – when he’s given even a modicum of power. In three episodes he’s gone from lowest on the security totem pole to highest and although it was a short and flame-induced journey to the top, I like that the first three episodes created a nice little arc for him. I’m guessing that now that he has more power, he’ll be causing more trouble for the study group. The hard-boiled detective riffs were obvious, but still pretty funny.
  • Michael K. Williams’ Professor Kane felt much more natural to the series’ world in this episode. It’s clear now that his extremely grave and serious tone is purposeful and while Kane isn’t the most successful supporting player they’ve had on the series, I like him and his no-nonsense attitude quite a bit. Although this episode tells a different story, it sure feels like that with Kane, Chang and John Goodman’s Vice Dean character, most of the antagonism is going to come from outside the group this season – which makes an episode like this even more important. Re-strengthen those bonds, a storm’s a comin’!
  • Who is Jeff texting? Is this something we’re actually supposed to wonder about? (Probably not.)
  • Danny Pudi had a number of great silent facial expression reaction shots in this episode. He’s so wonderful.

 

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