Chang and the Dean, the Dean and Chang. Both characters have been around since the show’s start, hanging around the edges of the group, always good for a bit of drive-by absurdity, and occasionally hitching their trailer to whatever adventure the main cast is engaged in. They can both be hilarious but only in moderation, lest they be the ingredient that overpowers the rest of the comedy stew. “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing,” however, gives them more front-and-center attention than they’ve gotten in seasons. Not only is the episode built around these two, it’s the longest one in the series, clocking in at over 30 minutes thanks to the near-infinity of the internet. Each of their plots attempts to turn the characters on their sides, taking the broadness that generally defines them and rotating it so it becomes depth.
The episode begins with Chang practicing lines with Annie for the Greendale stage production of The Karate Kid, hoping to be cast against race and age as Daniel-san. Meanwhile, Elroy takes over the role of the campus IT girl, tasked with fixing the school’s wi-fi, which can’t be any harder than creating the seminal arcade game Construction Snake. The look of awe on Keith David’s face when Elroy realizes technology has leapfrogged into the terabyte era is fantastic, and I’m starting to love the just-resurfaced-from-a-bomb-shelter aspect of his character.
The Dean meanwhile is hit by a bombshell of his own when the bros of the school board arrive to give him a promotion. Since the Dean has never done anything even remotely deserving of a promotion, he suspects a catch and rightly. It seems that by cancelling a pride parade in favor of a “school board parade,” they’re now in need of an openly gay board member to mitigate criticism. Now, the obvious way to go with this plot is to have it put pressure on the non-ambiguous ambiguity of the Dean’s sexuality, having him hem and haw about finally stepping out from the doorframe of the closet. The character has never openly identified as gay so it’s easy to read him as a Tobias from Arrested Development, a man whose gayness is suppressed by his own obliviousness, where the joke is skirting the line as closely as possible with innuendo while never going over.
That kind of is-he-or-isn’t-he joke tends to be fairly one-note because it’s predicated on an unanswerable question much like, say, the is-he-or-isn’t-she joke of Julia Sweeney’s Pat character from SNL. However, instead, the plot immediately found another tack: “gay” is way too narrow a window through which to fit all of the Dean’s proclivities. In fact, it only just about covers 2/7 of what it means to be a Deansexual. So it turns out that the Dean was never wrestling with admitting his sexuality as much as defining it in easily digestible terms. Like Walt Whitman, he contains multitudes of which only part is being gay. This is all great food for thought, but of course it doesn’t come close to hearing “Gay Dean” sung to the tune of “Jolene.”
Meanwhile, Chang ends up cast as Mr. Miyagi opposite Annie’s gender-flipped Daniel. He’s bummed that, like Sidney Poitier and Meg Ryan before him, he was cast for race until it turns out that the play’s intense director (Jason Mantzoukis channeling R. Lee Ermey) considers Miyagi to be the heart of the story. Annie is eventually replaced by Annie Kim—and her Sweathog-borrowed accent put in its place—when she tries to stand up for him. This was the most empathetic the show has allowed Chang to be in a long, long time, and when everyone shows up opening night to support him, they’re shocked by the fact that he’s actually managed to do a great job without destroying the whole production with his insane entropy.
A lot of this episode deals with identity and, because it’s Community, specifically identity on TV shows. With all the discussions of network diversity going on, this episode points out both that seemingly stereotypical roles can be redeemed by actors (like Chang and Pat Morita) and that putting characters into boxes just so you can check them off is equally harmful to real diversity on an individual level. Putting a big pink neon label on the Dean doesn’t let us understand him better, it only reduces his inherent Deanness. Although, that plot’s eventual payoff with him coming out as a politician felt like a half-clever cop-out, even if it did dovetail into Abed and Elroy’s subplot about saving the nest of birds that had been disrupting the campus wi-fi. The ending where Abed releases the bird to the awws and applause of his friends echoes Chang’s moment of success a few scenes earlier, underlining the tenets of interpersonal support, kindness, and empathy that Community stands for. It’s never been the kind of show that would actually believe a baby bird murder monologue, after all.