‘Community’ – ‘Asian Population Studies’: If I can’t Chang your mind, then no one will

Senior Television Writer
01.20.11 123 Comments

“Community” is back for new episodes in the new year, and I have a review of tonight’s episode coming up just as soon as I give you a gym bag full of nickels…

At press tour last week, there was much discussion about the balance of “normal episodes” versus “conceptual episodes” – as if you could ever have a “normal” outing for a show that features Troy, Abed and Pierce – and Dan Harmon noted again that because they did so many high-concept outings early in the season, logistics demanded that we’d get a lot of episodes in 2011 that took place closer to reality.

“Asian Population Studies” definitely had its feet planted on the more human end of the show’s emotional spectrum, dealing with Shirley’s feelings for her ex-husband, the complicated Jeff/Annie issue, and even Britta’s friendship with Shirley on a fairly down-to-earth level. One of the things I love about this cast is how committed they are to the emotional side of the show, so that when Harmon and company go for the sap, it feels authentic in some way. Yvette Nicole Brown gave this great nervous half-smile at Shirley seeing Andre return, and both Joel McHale and Malcolm-Jamal Warner were terrific in their conversation under the library awning.

And the episode proved that the human episodes could be just as much fun as the ones with zombie attacks and space simulators, with sequences like the run of nicknames (“Black Michael Chiklis” and “White George Foreman” being the same guy was my favorite) or Chang finally deploying the slow clap effectively with help from Jeff. There was reference humor where appropriate (Andre’s Cosby sweater was a gift from his dad, of course), strangeness that fit (Duncan’s explanation for his sobriety) and unexpected little character flourishes (the payoff to Britta’s earlier speech about the shameful stuff she’s done for “free softserve” from dudes).

What I’m not sure about, though, is how well the two different faces of the series interact with each other. I think it works when a reference-heavy episode like chicken fingers or paintball takes a turn towards a more emotional character moment, less so when a gag from a concept show – in this case, Shirley and Chang having sex during the zombie attack, then not remembering it thanks to the government’s supply of Rohypnol – becomes an important plot point in a more realistic episode. I loved the zombie show, and I also liked the idea of Shirley forgiving Andre under desperate circumstances, and Andre in turn trying to be a better man for her, but the scene where Pierce blabbed about what happened was taking place on a few different emotional levels at once, and they all started to clash with each other. Your mileage may vary on this, and I’m curious what others felt about it.

I’m also undecided on the climax of Jeff’s run through the rain. I felt pretty sure that “Community” wouldn’t actually go the dumb romcom route and have him profess his love to Annie, but at the same time, the scene at Rich’s apartment seemed to be about nothing but subverting that hoary cliche. Jeff goes on and on for a while about wanting to be a better man, but also about really only wanting to seem like one so he can be an even bigger bastard, and Jeff’s a conflicted enough character that I can see either interpretation of that speech as the right one. Mainly, though, it felt like a parody moment rather than a character moment, and the episode had been too good until that point – emotionally rich but still funny – to resort to that. But I’m willing to see where this story goes before passing final judgment.

What did everybody else think?

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