Now that’s more like it. After a pilot that seemed worse the more I thought about it, the only place Community could go was up, and last night’s episode, “Spanish 101,” did just that. There were jokes that actually made me laugh, and the premiere’s mean-spiritedness subsided and made way for (gasp!) a little dose of sweetness. Most importantly, I had the sense that Community was finding its groove. The pacing was less frantic, and the humor was given more time to breathe. If the pilot episode was like a sugar-addicted 6-year-old running around while spitting out every joke he knew, “Spanish 101” was more like a 16-year-old — still awkward, yes, but well on his way to figuring out who he is and his place in the world. By next week’s episode, who knows, Community could very well make the leap into adulthood.
The show still has some blemishes, though. For one, I don’t get its insistence on calling attention to its own artificiality. This isn’t a Tarantino movie, and while Community is obviously in debt to many prior sitcoms and movies, it doesn’t gain anything by pointing that fact out. This element of the show has so far been handled entirely by Abed (Danny Pudi), and at least Pudi has fun with the tedious observations, such as the one in which Abed explains why he likes the dean’s frequent announcements: “It makes every 10 minutes feel like the beginning of a new scene of a TV show. Of course, the illusion only lasts until someone says something they never say on TV, like how much their life is like TV. There, it’s gone.”
The major highlight of last night’s show was Señor Chang, played by Ken Jeong, who’s appeared in more things this year than Jude Law did in 2004. Chang started his lecture with a monologue about why a Chinese man was teaching a Spanish class, and any speech that culminates with a statement such as “My knowledge will bite her face off” is going someplace special. Also, one of the coolest characters in TV history was attending this Spanish class — Star Burns. Those who watched the episode know who I’m talking about; for the uninitiated, Star Burns is some sleazy guy with star-shaped sideburns. Chang anointed him with the nickname, and Star Burns just shrugged as if it was the first time anyone had noticed that he had ginormous stars for sideburns. Star Burns, keep doing your thing, man.
The bulk of the episode dealt with the strained friendship between Jeff (Joel McHale) and Pierce (the dependable Chevy Chase). The two had to prepare a Spanish presentation, and while Jeff wanted to get the damn thing over with as quickly as possible, Pierce insisted on imbuing the project with costumes and an elaborate story with an apparently anti-Israel theme. After two hours of going nowhere, Jeff decided to abandon Pierce and join his love interest, Britta (Gillian Jacobs), in a protest against the murdering of journalists in Guatemala. Jeff explained his plan in a brilliantly constructed line: “The woman I kind of like is out there in the moonlight caring about something stupid, and this is my chance to show her that I care enough to act like I care about it too.”
Pierce’s feelings were hurt, causing him to make a drunken fool of himself at the protest, and the next day in class, Britta made the observation that Pierce was probably a lonely guy longing for some sort of family. Cue the sweetness. Pierce was about to start his Spanish presentation all by himself when Jeff insisted on joining him. The decision represented the first time on the show that Jeff acted out of genuine concern for someone else, and sure, it was corny or hokey or whatever you want to call it, but it made me smile. The episode’s best line quickly followed. Señor Chang noticed that Pierce and Jeff brought costumes for the presentation. “Guys, why are there costumes involved?” Chang began. “These are short conversations. They’re not supposed to take…” And then Jeff finished Chang’s line with “…your breath away.” McHale’s deadpan delivery clinched the joke, which then transitioned into a one-minute montage set, inexplicably, to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.”
PopWatchers, did last night’s episode elevate your opinion of Community? And has anyone ever seen a Star Burns in real life? I’ll leave you with a clip of the Spanish rap by Abed and Troy (Donald Glover) that played during the credits: