Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Retro Review: Community, Season 2 Episode 12 - "Asian Population Studies"

(I'm still a little burned out from writing my top fifty list, so instead of a new TV episode review I'm gonna chill out and post a review I wrote a while back for the Community message board on The A.V. Club, where I post under the screenname Eolith. The review includes "Stray Observations" and "Commentary Commentary" categories that aren't part of my regular routine but I did to fit into the board's review style guide, so don't be alarmed. We'll return to our regularly scheduled weekly episode reviews and Wednesday essays/lists next week.)

"Asian Population Studies," the kickoff of the gang's fourth semester at Greendale, is never mentioned alongside "A Fistful of Paintballs"/"For a Few Paintballs More" or "Curriculum Unavailable" when discussing Community's spiritual sequel episodes, but maybe it should be. The episode too directly echoes the previous January midseason premiere "Investigative Journalism" to be entirely an accident, both centering around the study group debating the merits of adding an eighth soul to their merry band as they return from winter break. But rather than a celebrity guest spot, the two men applying for group membership this time around are established characters within the show's universe: Jeff's offputtingly perfect pottery rival Rich and former Spanish teacher Ben Chang.

The episode, which sits roughly at the exact midpoint of the Dan Harmon era of the show, can also be used as a pretty accurate midpoint marker for the development of Chang as a character. His mental state and intellect seem to have dropped perilously from the teacher we were introduced to in early season 1 – a man who, while aggressive and strange, still had a real-world job and marital problems and could occasionally engage in what at least resembled an actual conversation – but he nevertheless seems orders of magnitude more sane than the man who will, a little over a year later, kidnap the Dean, recruit a child army, and attempt to burn down the school. The character here would seem near-unrecognizable to both someone who had only seen "Environmental Science" and someone who had only seen "The First Chang Dynasty."

But of course the episode isn't really about Chang, nor is it about the kettle corn-popping phantom Rich, who, by the way, has a landline and uses the word album. (In fact, I would say that in comparison "Investigative Journalism" is more about the one-off Buddy than this episode is either of them.) No, Chang and Rich are merely pawns in the ongoing drama of Jeff and Annie, which takes center stage here in a way it arguably hasn't since "Anthropology 101." Jeff hasn't changed his tune, exactly – Annie is still too young for him – but his tune has a new wrinkle to it in that he doesn't want anyone else to have her either, least of all Rich, and he will fight to keep Rich out of the study group and away from Annie even if it means subbing Chang in.

It's a story that's half rooted in protectiveness of Annie – after all, Rich is a man, and Jeff believes that men are monsters who crave young flesh – and half in good old-fashioned Winger selfishness, albeit a fairly relatable form of selfishness. While presumably under different circumstances and perhaps not even in reference to a person, who among us can say that we've never felt "If I can't have it, no one can!" It's one of the more universal kinds of selfishness there is, one not at all surprising to see notoriously self-involved Jeff engage in.

As for Annie's part, her attraction to Rich, while short of full-blown infatuation, does seem earnest and not in any active way related to trying to make Jeff jealous. Moving on from Jeff is probably the right thing for Annie at this stage in her life (after all, they did recently shoot each other… staged shooting, but still), though of course with the hindsight of episodes to come we know that things will get drawn out for at least a year or so more until "Virtual Systems Analysis." This episode does represent a small climax for the arc, though – there's still Annie bringing up "the Annie of it all" in "Paradigms of Human Memory" and their couch conversation in "Geography of Global Conflict," but, barring alternate timelines and vampire/werewolf fiction, "Asian Population Studies" is probably the most directly we ever see Jeff and Annie acknowledge and confront their romantic woes after the season 2 premiere.

Jeff ends the episode embracing selflessness and asking Rich to make him a better man. Of course, this being our Winger, this realization will last but a few episodes before he regresses and has to make it again – and still many more times in season 3, and, I'm willing to bet money, yet again in season 4 – but Jeff learning lessons about selflessness is something so hardwired into Community's DNA that I can't really muster any retroactive complaints about it in this episode. Barring Abed-as-Han Solo and the Black Rider, Annie's personal development of being ready to see other people hasn't really stuck either, but I don't think anyone wants a whole bunch of outsider love interests coming in and clogging up the show's pipes anyway, so that's fine. The drama of this episode, up to and including the notion of picking an eighth member, mostly plays out in a 22-minute vacuum with little effect on the series at large – except for Shirley's story, that is.

While both Chang and Rich are unwitting game pieces in Jeff and Annie's drama, Chang is even more key to Shirley's story this episode, where the truth about Shirley and Chang's Halloween copulation comes out after a little detective work from Troy followed by Pierce revealing the truth to all in a fit of kettle corn-fueled rage. The aftermath of this revelation is pretty low-key and plays out in only a couple of scenes involving Shirley, Shirley's ex-husband Andre, and Jeff for Andre to bounce some thoughts off of, but it's nevertheless fairly sweet to see Shirley and Andre reconcile. (And the low-key nature of it fits a story that ultimately wouldn't come out to that much – something that may have led them to take the exact opposite approach and go full-on surreal and insane with Chang's arc in season 3, but that's a debate/discussion for another day.)

Malcolm-Jamal Warner is very nicely cast as new character Andre and makes a likable other half for Shirley in this and his three subsequent appearances. He's a decidedly down-to-earth presence by Community standards, but that's kind of a good thing because it would be stressful to imagine one of our beloved Greendale Seven having to go home to a more cartoonish, Greendalian personality at the end of each day.

While this episode marks the debut appearances of three separate supporting players in Andre, Fat Neil, and Quendra (which I suppose means credited writer Emily Cutler has gotten a lot of checks in the mail over the last couple years for these characters' various uses), it winds up being the swan song for swell old Rich, barring a surprise belated revival in season 4. While I certainly don't think anyone was rooting for him to join the study group or marry Annie or anything like that, I do think his sudden exit is a shame and leaves the character feeling incomplete, especially since the episode ends with Jeff making a new connection with the man which hinted at more to come.

Discounting "Epidemiology" since no one in the show remembers it and viewing "Beginner Pottery" as Act I and "Asian Population Studies" as Act II of the Rich Saga, I've always felt we were owed an Act III where his secret inner darkness was revealed to the study group. However, in lieu of this, one could choose to view the end tag, where Jeff has no time or patience for Rich's unctuous Troy and Abed in the Morning appearance mere seconds of screentime after pledging to become his pupil, as him ultimately rejecting Rich after all. Viewed this way it's one of the tiny handful of end tags to have plot relevance in the show's greater scheme.

Aside from its use of Rich and Chang and Andre, one of the episode's strong and enjoyable structural elements is that, rather than a lot of other Community episodes (and the vast majority sitcom episodes in general), the three major stories – the gang trying to decide who to invite into the study group, Troy and Pierce's knowledge of Shirley and Chang and the fallout between Shirley and Andre, and Annie's crush on Rich and Jeff's jealousy – are all intertwined into one big comedic tapestry, flowing in and out of the same big scenes without being cleanly divided into separate scenes. The episode is surprisingly complex and even a tad messy at points, but it has a great madcap energy to it – take the bathroom scene that starts with Jeff and Annie ("Well, Annie, when a man loves food and beverages very much-") discussing Rich, then segues smoothly into Britta talking to Jeff about Shirley, then a matter of seconds after that to Britta's unexpected and hilarious flashing of Fat Neil for mezzanine tickets. I love the way the episode keeps its foot on the gas.

And beyond all that, did I mention it's pretty funny? Between fun time snacks, overzealous use of spelling things with "Q-U," Cosby sweaters, Troy's botched attempt to weasel information out of Andre, and a great Winger speech, there's a lot to laugh at and enjoy here. It may not be destined to go down in TV history as a cream of the crop episode or one anyone uses to recruit new Communists, but there's a little bit more at work structurally and in its character work than initially meets the eye.

*begins slow clap*

Stray Observations

• Though its reveal is a gag that has never not made me laugh, Chang's perch on top of the bookshelf is something it's difficult to imagine every one of the Greendale Seven not seeing on their way into the study room (ok, maybe not Pierce), much less not even one of them.

• Jeff calls Abed "Brown Jamie Lee Curtis" in a completely delightful gag leading into the opening credits, a gag that will become part of the story of "Contemporary Impressionists" 23 episodes and 14 months later.

• I want to praise Fat Neil's introduction, with the character being mentioned in the opening scene in the study room, introduced in person in the classroom (and his discomfort at his nickname immediately established), then interacting with the study group for the first time as he's flashed by Britta in the bathroom. Even had this been the character's lone appearance, I still would have liked him a lot, but his appearance in "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" is much more powerful for the fact that we know him already, even this tiny bit.

• In addition to Neil, Quendra's first three lines - "My name is Quendra and I spell it with a Q-U." and "Are you Abed? I love Star Wars. [Jeff: "That's Troy."] I love footballs." and "I spell kettle corn with a Q-U." constitute one of the best introductions for a tertiary character in recent sitcom history. Using Quendra a little more often is one thing Guarascio and Port could do to get on my good side.

• Annie to those assembled at the meeting: "For the first semester you knew us as 'that' study group." This presumed hatred is later confirmed by Vicki and Neil in "Applied Anthropology and the Culinary Arts."

• I've no particularly intelligent analysis to give this (though Donald Glover does - see Commentary Commentary below), but Chang's slow clap scene is far and away my favorite Chang gag of the season. It's the rare sitcom joke that still makes me laugh, over a year later, just thinking about it completely out of context as I go about my day.

• Abed, Troy, and Britta all clap after Jeff's Chang monologue, but only Abed and Britta vote Chang. This may suggest that Troy loves kettle corn more than Jeff, but as we all know, food smells are one of Troy's many distractions.

• Ludwig Göransson's "Running Through Raining" cue from this episode is wonderful, one of my favorite of the second season. Basically no other sitcom on the air does music like that (including the other ones Göransson works on). I have this essay in the back of my mind about how, in addition to all the other things it does right, Community might be the best-scored sitcom ever, but I'm afraid I lack the musical theory vocabulary to put my thoughts into words.

• Jeff says to Rich at the end, "I've known you for almost two years now." "Beginner Pottery" aired on March 18th, 2010. "Asian Population Studies" aired on January 20th, 2011. Methinks Jeff needs to dedicate some of his final two semesters worth of credits at Greendale to Remedial Calendar Reading.

Commentary Commentary

Participants: Yvette Nicole Brown, Donald Glover, Ken Jeong, Danny Pudi, Anthony Russo

• Donald Glover and Danny Pudi were not originally supposed to be in the commentary session, but Yvette forced them to come in. Danny: "They had to fashion a microphone for me to speak."

• The actors all seem to particularly enjoy Black Michael Chiklis and White George Foreman being the same person and Chang on top of the bookshelf.

• Danny got a haircut before this episode that came out a bit shorter than intended (though I cannot say I personally noticed it while watching the season). Yvette and Donald needle him a little for it.

• When they see Charley Koontz in the background of the classroom scene, they break out into a brief discussion of the Dungeons & Dragons episode instead of the episode actually in from of them, (probably correctly) identifying it as the fan favorite episode of the season.

• The Russos got to know Greg Cromer (Rich) through working together on commercials.

• Yvette attempts to the explain the seven-people-all-squished-at-one-small-cafeteria-table scenes as the characters all just loving each other that much, but Anthony Russo puts it more heartlessly and correctly: "It makes it really easy to shoot."

• Yvette was concerned about embarrassing herself in from of longtime real-life crush Malcolm-Jamal Warner, so she established the onset safeword "green grass" to be whispered to her when she was veering in that direction.

• However, the cast agrees that Ken Jeong loves Malcolm-Jamal Warner even more than Yvette.

• Donald on Troy talking to Andre about post-Halloween friskiness: "The way he chooses to say things is just really weird. … That's something a murderer says."

• Ken Jeong on Quendra: "She's cute with a Q-U."

• Donald on Chang's slow clap bit: "Dan Harmon is a genius at pointing out things that we instinctively know but don't know we know. Like it's like we know you can't do that but no one's ever really said it."

• Danny on Jeff's big monologuing scene: "These are always the most fun days as an actor; when I just get to sit on a table and watch these guys go crazy."

• Jeong on what Jeff says about Chang in the monologue: "This is my character bible right now. Whenever I reference my character I just think of this monologue."

• Apparently there was some onset difficulty getting Chevy to say "kettle corn."

• Yvette on Britta flashing Neil: "This explains a lot about who Britta is."

• The Jeff/Andre scene under the awning in the rain was a long, late shoot on a Friday night, due to the difficulty of working with fake rain machines, and they had to keep waking Malcolm-Jamal Warner up.

• Things oddly break out into a brief conversation about the J.J. Abrams film Super 8, which Donald hasn't seen yet. The film also comes up in the season 3 commentary of that season's big Chang episode, "The First Chang Dynasty."

• Danny on Abed's outfit: "That's a repeat T-shirt, which is kind of nice, because Abed's unlimited wardrobe makes you think he's really wealthy. He's never worn the same thing twice."

• Much praise, especially from Donald, for Ludwig's "Running Through Raining" cue.

• Donald on Jeff and Rich at Rich's door: "This totally sets up in season 3 when they start dating."

• Yvette mentions that Rich's craziness at the end of "Beginner Pottery" never came up again, but Donald responds "Rich is way scarier [than Chang], because it's all deep in there. He'll come to school one day with a shotgun. Chang has a shotgun already, but it's filled with soap."

• There is an unused take of the tag where Rich playfully chases Troy and Abed around with the wooden kettle corn paddle.

Not an especially meat-and-potatoes behind-the-scenes commentary compared to some (partially because Anthony Russo is very quiet), with lots of the cast simply laughing and talking about how much they like individual jokes and bits, but still an enjoyable, stress-free listen. Commentary MVP would have to be Donald Glover for his insight into Harmon and Rich, which makes me bummed that he's absent from the season 3 commentaries.

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