Community 2.12 “Asian Population Studies” Review

There’s been a lot of discussion about the two different kinds of Community. It’s not quite ‘3 Glees‘worthy, but critics and fans can obviously see how this series can present us with high-concept, meta-driven episodes like ‘Epidemiology’and then follow it up with character-driven efforts like ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’or even ‘Mixology Certification.’What’s interesting is that up until now, the series has done a really good job of separating those different sides to the series – for the most part. Obviously episodes like ‘Epidemiology’work so well because they include character-driven moments and ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’still hammers home some upper-level stuff while exploring the tensions with the group.

But Shirley’s pregnancy and her relationship with Chang (and the events of the zombie episode as a whole) have carried over in a different way. It’s a weird development from a high-concept episode and now it’s been handled here in a completely straight-forward and emotionally honest way. This carry-over is new for the series, particularly when the thread itself and the tone it’s being executed in don’t really fit together on paper.

Dan Harmon apparently doesn’t care though, as it pops up here to drive a lot of the drama. Community is a series that isn’t afraid to embrace character progressions and various ongoing plot developments, but the pregnancy and Shirley/Chang is just so odd and specific that it has felt like this creepy thing hanging over other episodes. This isn’t a series built on secret-keeping or something like that, but Troy’s been holding on to this bombshell for eight weeks and the occasional mentions to it have continued to build Shirley’s pregnancy up as an important event. This is unlike Jeff’s hookup with Britta or his make-out session with Annie. Certain characters knew those things and certain did not, but there was never a sense that those people holding it in were really struggling with the information.

Troy, on the other hand, has clearly had some issues with this secret and it’s interesting that the reveal comes in the exact same way as the Jeff/Britta/Annie drama in ‘Anthropology 101.’Clearly a good number of the series’biggest moments have happened and will continue to happen in the study room, but I think there is something really intriguing about the placement. The emotional drama is played at the same level in both episodes. Just as the group fell apart in ‘101’³ appeared to be completely serious and intense, Pierce’s horrible decision to let it out that Shirley had sex with Chang and now might be pregnant with his child is played with the exact same stakes. But where the story in the premiere was fairly serious and straightforward from the beginning dating back to the pilot and ‘Debate 109,’the conception of Shirley/Chang has always felt offbeat and less humanistic than it’s played for here.

And yet, ‘Asian Population Studies’handles the revealing of the secret with a raw energy that’s still sort of funny, but ultimately unfortunate and sad. Troy should have never told Pierce and Pierce most certainly shouldn’t have blurted it out to Shirley, Chang and Shirley’s new-to-the-group ex-husband/current boyfriend just because he’s mad. But those are the mistakes that happen when emotions get heated, now matter how petty or how ridiculous. Oddly, the results are a lot like the results of ‘Anthropology’as well: Andre’s hurt, Shirley’s devastated, hell even Chang is confused, but by the time it’s over, Andre recognizes the error of his ways and he and Shirley plan to stick out no matter what. Therefore, something that started as a shocking gag and became a catalyst for emotional deconstruction, but still folds into a logical character development. Honestly, this story feels messier and tonally inconsistent as the moment in ‘Anthropology,’but it’s a hard tightrope to balance in the least. For the most part, ‘Asian Population Studies’pulls it off.

I’m going to guess that this might be something of a divisive episode and a lot of that will be entrenched in how you feel about the handling of Shirley and Chang. [UPDATE: Sepinwall discusses this exact thing in his review and doesn’t seem to be as positive as I am.] I like it and it suggests that the series will be willing to mash these two different sides of itself together more often moving forward. And in general, it’s obviously just fantastic to have Community back on my television series.

Other notes:

  • It’s weird that I talked almost exclusively about Chang, Shirley and Andre even though it really only took up a small section of the episode. The other thread here focused on Jeff and Annie’s possible romantic entanglements and how the glorious return of Rich throws a wrench in that. Annie’s charmed by Rich and clearly Jeff can’t deal with that and craziness ensues. Interestingly, Annie is less overtly competitive with Jeff than Britta would be and she instead just drops the games and comes out with the truth for Jeff: Either admit that he likes her or stop getting worked up over her possible feelings for other – and possibly older – men. I’m not sure what this means for their relationship, though this season is definitely more intrigued by Jeff and Annie than Jeff and Britta.
  • Similarly, the final scene of this episode could be another divisive moment. It’s an apparent riff on the romantic comedy melodramatic ending, but it does feel a bit forced. At a certain point, Jeff running to Rich’s apartment in the rain after he turns down Annie in hopes of learning how to be more good/cool/nice so that he can exploit that persona feels hollow. I understand the desire to keep Jeff a bit on edge and not fully reformed considering we’re only at the mid-point of a second season, but it might have actually been more risky to completely embrace the romantic comedy cliché and see where a real attempt at Jeff and Annie would take the series. I think we’re still headed there, but sometimes the series tries too hard to subvert expectations that those subversions become expected.
  • Quiet episode for Abed, but Danny Pudi’s really figured out how to make an impact when just lying low. He’s a master at physical comedy – most notably pointing and nodding – when someone’s making a fool of themselves or giving an impassioned speech. Plus, the conversation between he and Jeff right before he goes on his run is a nice reminder that the two of them are extremely close, despite their obvious differences.
  • I said this on Twitter, but it’s a testament to the series that they let the Chang puns simmer during the first half of the season instead of introducing and running them into the ground in just one episode. It’s a nice execution of a small running gag becoming important to a goofy plot.

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