‘Community’ – ‘Course Listing Unavailable’: I predict a riot

Senior Television Writer
05.03.12 89 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Community” coming up just as soon as I’m Ted Danson at Whoopi Goldberg’s roast…

When “The Simpsons” does high-concept episodes in which familiar characters die, they take place outside the show’s regular continuity, and it’s easy for Groundskeeper Willie to return to the land of the living in the next regular episode. “Community,” though, has treated all of its episodes as if they take place in the same universe – even if the laws of that universe tend to vary wildly from week to week. So Star-Burns’ death in the “Law & Order” parody isn’t something to be quickly undone, or even ignored, but a jumping-off point for both an episode about grief and a new story arc in which Chang gets the study group kicked out of Greendale.

Though “Community” has dealt with death before, “Course Listing Unavailable” felt like it was trying to do more things at once than most of the previous episodes in this vein, and it was only successful at some of them.

The first section of the episode did a good job of balancing the darkness of Star-Burns’ death with some good character specific jokes, like Troy’s fixation on how one-armed the one-armed man was, or Troy being afraid for his Chinese pen pal, or Jeff acknowledging that Britta seemed smarter than him way back at the start of the series.

Things got wobbly after that. With Michael Kenneth Williams’ availability for the season used up with last week’s episode, we discover that Professor Kane has resigned because of Star-Burns’ death. But rather than bring in a new teacher to finish out the semester – which happened in both of the previous two seasons, including the firing of Professor Chang at a very late stage in season 1 – the class is canceled and everyone gets an incomplete, a weird contrivance to make Jeff and the others so bitter about Greendale that they incite a riot at Star-Burns’ wake. The wake itself had some good moments (Garrett’s horrible falsetto “Ave Maria” chief among them, but also Annie’s mic drop, among others), but if the show is going to reuse a plot device, it has to use it going with the same rules as the previous times.

And the riot in turn was an excuse to bring back Chang’s Army, which I’ve never been all that fond of. The show has struggled off and on with how to use Ken Jeong, but with the exception of the film noir parody back in the fall, Security Guard Chang has been his least entertaining incarnation. Even allowing for the elastic reality of this series, Chang as the fascist leader of an army of violent children – and kidnapping Dean Pelton to replace him with a lookalike – doesn’t seem to fit.

Yet if I didn’t like the mechanisms used to get the study group expelled from school, the aftermath scene at Troy, Abed and Annie’s apartment was fantastic: almost like a bonus scene from “Remedial Chaos Theory” (complete with many callbacks, including Britta’s attraction to the pizza delivery guy and that guy in turn again asking, “Wait, there are other timelines?”), sad at first but then turning happy when Troy(*) and then Abed convince the others that their friendship ultimately matters more than their enrollment at that ridiculous college.

(*) Troy’s been doing a pretty good job of being the leader when necessary, it seems, and often better than Jeff. (Note that the darkest timeline happened when Troy left the room, while the group was at its happiest when Jeff had to get the pizza.) I wonder if this is turning into a “Lost” situation where the guy every viewer assumed was the perfect leader at the start slowly turned out to be anything but, and we got to argue over whether Locke or Sayid (my pick) or Sawyer or Hurley would have done a better job.   

Didn’t love this one overall, but the last scene was excellent, and in turn sets things up nicely for a very strong episode next week.

What did everybody else think?

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