Chang finally becomes a Raymond Chandler character, as Jeff & Co. learn about natural selection while competing for lab partners with Darwinian glee.
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC
McHale is the king of snark, which made him the perfect choice for prickly, self-obsessed Jeff Winger. But here's the surprise: As Jeff continued to…

Community is the weirdest show on TV. By default, in this new era of televisual blandness, that makes it one of the best shows on TV. Last week we were treated to a hilarious riff on that high school and college staple, the Model United Nations, that not only painted a vivid portrait of the ego-stroking and power trips that actually do prevent world peace from ever being achieved but also worked in a high-concept alternate-universe motif that was about as brain-bending as anything this side of Star Trek and proved Abed to be television’s heir apparent to Mr. Data. Tonight’s episode upped the WTF? factor even further. Fitting in somewhere between the respective oeuvres of Raymond Chandler and Thomas Pynchon, “Competitive Ecology” should really have been titled “The Lab Partner in the Lake” or “The Crying of Lot Greendale.”

It opened with an increasingly delusional Chang sleeping with “Veronica,” his mannequin leg that serves as female companionship, and the kind of nonchalant joke that’s so much funnier because it’s never explained. (Although, someone seriously needs to rent all the copies of A Christmas Story and Lars and the Real Girl in town, so the erstwhile Señor won’t get further ideas.) Come on, don’t try to deny you got chills when he sexily purred to Veronica, “Shhh…get some rest. You probably need it.” Like Pynchon’s great heroine Oedipa Maas, Chang began imagining himself in the midst of a vast conspiracy involving the Arizona Matchstick Company, Greendale’s new pay-water-fountains, Larry Bird, the local PD, and his boss, security chief Nuñez. (Not to sound like Mookie from Do the Right Thing all of a sudden, but, come on, what’s up with people’s obsession with Larry Bird?) This was a conspiracy that could only be unraveled by staring at potential suspects, imagining hard-boiled voiceover, and slowly wailing on a muted sax.

I feel bad for Chang. He used to be the ultimate observer—never a part of Greendale’s study group clique, but keenly aware of everything that was going on. Last year he could still be the racist-prover! This year, he’s regressed so completely into himself that reality outside of his warped headspace holds no value or interest for him. Instead, he sees a female student walk into his office and thinks, while silently moving his lips, “She was all dame. Legs that went all the way to the bottom of her torso. The kind of arms that had elbows.” Needless to say, if Magnitude represents the ultimate extrovert on the “Pop! Pop!” Scale of Outgoingness, Chang seems about as introverted and internalized as that little turtle Troy found on the Greendale lawn.

Meanwhile, as Chang skipped further down the rabbit hole of his own making, Jeff, Britta, Shirley, Abed, Troy, Annie, and Pierce were dealing with a relationship decision second only to choosing one’s soulmate: finding a lab partner. Originally, the newly paroled Professor Kane had paired everyone up with non-study-groupers, which was unacceptable. After all, that study group comprises the only living human souls to whom Pierce has confessed his lavatory liaison with Eartha Kitt. These are people who survived an Abba-scored zombie infestation, the transformation of the school into a paintball warzone, even a simulated trip to outer space courtesy of Kentucky Fried Chicken. But the only thing that seems to puzzle Kane more than Lego’s increasingly complex building-sets (what must he think of Lego videogames?) is Jeff Winger & Co, so he quickly agreed to their demand of partnering up with each other. How to determine who should partner up with whom? Leave it to Abed to devise an algorithm pairing the least popular with the most popular members of the study group. This would maximize each partnership’s audience appeal, and prevent two fans of Kickpuncher from ending up in the same group. It also meant a (gasp) outsider would have to be involved, since their clique numbers only seven.

NEXT: Todd almost becomes the Frank Grimes of the Community-verse.

That outsider happened to be a lovably easygoing turtle-lover and Iraq War veteran named Todd. Needless to say, nobody wanted to be paired up with Todd, not even Shirley, who’s naïve sunniness and obsessive rambling about her children seemed most complementary with his insouciant personality. Of course, someone was going to find out who was ranked the least popular…and it indeed turned out to be Shirley! “Et tu Brute,” she fired back with Caesarian outrage. Nobody else seemed to fare very well, though: Abed with his undiagnosably robotic personality, Pierce with his casual racism and contempt, Troy with his increasingly unjustifiable jock-itude, Annie with her pathological perfectionism, Britta with her bleeding-heart defiance and gutter GPA, and Jeff with his carefully constructed cynicism and deep insecurity issues.

In fact, this almost seemed to verge on being the greatest crisis the study group had faced since the loss of Annie’s pen (subsequently attributed to a thieving ghost), with Britta finally using her marijuana lighter to set fire to Abed’s friendship-threatening algorithm. Of course, she happened to set it on fire on top of the poor turtle, finally provoking true outrage from Todd: “Your love is weird and toxic and it destroys everything it touches!”

This may be the closest Community has come yet to its variant of “Homer’s Enemy,” the legendary season 8 episode of The Simpsons in which a complete outsider, Frank Grimes, infiltrated the world of Homer Simpson to expose his taken-for-granted absurdities and hypocrisies. Considering how insular Greendale’s study group has become, such a plot seems necessary at some point—it ultimately copped out tonight by painting Todd as just another weirdo—to add a splash of reality to the cockeyed internal logic of the series.

While Britta was lighting her reptile-torching fire, Chang’s utility closet lit up in an inferno of its own. Those several thousand matchbooks he ordered may not have helped. Veronica’s plastic life was snuffed out and Chang now finds himself homeless yet again. However, Dean Pelton quickly covered for him, since his sanctioning of Chang’s makeshift campus habitation clearly broke several safety regulations, and endorsed the idea that the police shouldn’t be contacted as they’d surely be in this plot too. Also, the unavailability of water—Pelton now charges for water-fountain use, because, like Billy Beane, he likes to keep the money on the field—may have been a factor. Nuñez resigned, and Pelton quickly offered Chang his job, though not without a tinge of regret that he hadn’t been there when the firemen showed up. Dean Pelton loves a man in uniform.

And now, to celebrate the solidarity of Greendale’s seven-man study group, here’s this week’s round-up of the seven funniest lines of the night:

7. “You’re just a good grade in a tight sweater.” Jeff to Annie, on why people would want to partner up with her for their terrarium assignment.

6. “I need to catch up on Breaking Bad.” Troy’s explanation to his lab partner for why he’s breaking off their partnership.

5. “It’s too late for flattery.” Annie, after Jeff calls her perfectionism “pathological.”

4. “The hair color concept intrigues me because that’s how I distinguish you anyway.” Abed on the selection criteria for his lab partner algorithm.

3. “If loving worms is stupid, I don’t want to be smart.” Britta.

2. “Well maybe your gay friend should mind his own business.” Shirley to Britta, after Britta suggested that her homeopath likens sugar to meth.

1. “I needed to know more about those firemen. Were they ethnically diverse? Did they bring a Dalmatian? Could I buy a calendar?” Dean Pelton, expressing his regret over missing the firemen through wistful voiceover.

Did you enjoy “Competitive Ecology”? Do you think Jeff & Co. learned some valuable lessens about Darwinian struggle? And is Community‘s weirdness still firing on full cylinders?


Episode Recaps

McHale is the king of snark, which made him the perfect choice for prickly, self-obsessed Jeff Winger. But here's the surprise: As Jeff continued to…
Joel McHale and Alison Brie star in this comedy about a community college study group that turns into a surrogate family.
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