Dan Harmon is a big believer in the wheel. It's an eight-point breakdown of a basic narrative arc, and he uses it for every episode. For those too lazy to click out, it goes:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort 2. But they want something 3. They enter into an unfamiliar situation 4. Adapt to it 5. Get what they wanted 6. Pay a heavy price for it 7. Then return to their familiar situation 8. Having changed
This is nothing new -- in fact, it's about as old as you can get, and Harmon's talked about it plenty -- but it's Harmon's religious adherence to it that makes every episode of Community work on a mechanical level even when it doesn't quite connect on an emotional one. And a large part of this week's episode, "Competitive Ecology," felt more like a technical victory than a comedic one. Chang's story hit every beat with crystal clarity, and the study group moved dutifully from stasis to chaos and back again, but the execution was a little too robotic.
There were some great jokes in the episode, to be sure. Chang's absurd slide into full-blown, by-the-book insanity was delirious and gleeful, and the faux-P.I. speak outdid every parody of the noir genre to date. ("Like a lobster claw letting go of a small balloon for lobsters" is a phrase that should be taught in schools.) The study group clicked on occasion, too, especially when trying to figure out how to reconcile themselves to the presence of an outsider like Todd. But the episode on the whole felt just the wrong side of funny, as if it was trying to make an academic point about the study group instead of telling a story about them. There are times to make those big declarations, like the musical number that kicked off the season. But every episode can't be a mission statement. Sometimes you have to dig in and move forward.
Last year was about the group redefining itself by going through a civil war, with Pierce pushing everyone else well past their breaking points. But this year is about the group functioning as a unit again to combat external forces. The cost of that this week, though, was the realization that these people really can be assholes most of the time. They care about each other, and they don't want to be with anyone else, but Professor Omar wasn't wrong when he said they were what convicts call "the mean clique." Todd's kiss-off -- "Your love is weird and toxic and it destroys everything it touches!" -- was equal parts funny and depressing, when you think about it. The gang will always be together, but they're trying to stay a group at the cost of the happiness of those around them. It'll be interesting to see how that focus on their unity above all else plays out for the rest of the year, especially once John Goodman's character reappears.
For now, though, we're in a slight holding pattern. This week's episode was a table-setter, a slightly padded half-hour that was mainly meant to bump Chang to head of security and keep the study group as one tense mass in their biology lab. That's the power and promise of a show like Community: Some of its risks pay off in amazing ways, while others fall a little short. This week's episode worked, and it got us where we needed to go. It just wasn't a ton of fun getting here.
• "You're pathological." "It's too late for flattery."
• Chang telling the mannequin leg she could use the rest was probably the most unsettling thing I have ever heard. Overall, though, Chang's moments worked better than anyone else's this week.