Spoilers for this week's "Community" after the jump:
After last week's high concept semi-failure of an episode, we're back with a more character based outing for the Greendale gang, and a much stronger episode as well. Of course, all episodes of "Community" are character based, but installments like "Competitive Ecology" are far more obvious about it since they're basically devoted to letting the characters interact with each other. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. After all, the group's trip to a bar for Troy's birthday was one of the the many highlights of the second season. I wouldn't put this episode quite at that level, but it's a very strong half hour of comedy nonetheless.
Our central premise is that Dr. Kane is assigning everyone lab partners. The group goes to see him and he agrees to let them choose their partners from within their ranks. Predictably Troy and Abed partner up, as do Jeff and Annie as well as Shirley and Britta. Pierce is left to fend for himself, leaving him stuck with a guy named Todd. A terrific running gag throughout the episode is the way everyone in the group says mean things about Todd while in his presence (remarks he takes "no offense" to) despite the fact that he appears to be a pretty good guy. It serves as a reminder that the study group's members can (and often are) self absorbed or else just plain mean. And yet somehow we still wind up liking them by the time all is said and done.
Anyway, they soon find out that their "dream" partnerships aren't all they're cracked up to be. And so we head back into the study room, where everyone attempts to switch partners without hurting the other person's feelings, while at the same time trying to avoid getting stuck with Todd (who remains in the room for all of this, of course). Feelings do wind up getting hurt, particularly after Abed comes up with the idea to rank everyone by their popularity. It would be a depressing scene if it wasn't so funny, but somehow "Community" is able to take a scene like this and make it hysterical (and yes, even kind of lovable) even as we're getting increasingly annoyed with the characters. That reaches an apex with Britta dropping setting the lists on fire and dropping them in the wastepaper basket that contains Todd's turtle.
At that point Todd's had enough. He calls the group out on all their nonsense and walks out with his thankfully unharmed turtle, reminding the viewer of the reality of the situation: which is that these people have been acting like complete idiots. Usually when this happens there's a "Jeff Winger motivational speech" bringing the group back together. Not so this time. Instead they reconcile during class (after failing the assignment they were supposed to be working on) by blaming Todd for everything. And, you guessed it... he's right there in the room. I'm not sure what the message is of all this, other than that the bond between the group has grown so strong that maybe they don't need speeches anymore. (This was hinted at in "Paradigms of Human Memory".) Regardless, I thought it was an effectively low-key way to end the episode, and also doesn't exactly let the characters off the hook for their behavior.
Okay, I've spent a lot of time talking about the group, while neglecting the Chang storyline. I found the subplot with him and Britta deeply irritating last week, but this? This was hilarious. His nonsensical lines during the detective-style voiceover narration were perfect, as was his eventual promotion as a result of the fire he himself set. Here's a high concept plot done right (in other words, the way "Community" usually does them), which to me further establishes last week's mock UN battle as a outlier, a la "Basic Rocket Science".
Solid episode all around. "Competitive Ecology" doesn't have any moments quite as funny as Jeff' taking an ax to the table in the premiere, and it's highly unlikely it will be remembered as one of "Community's" all-time classic installments. It's more on the level of something like "Accounting for Lawyers": a very enjoyable half hour simply devoted to testing the bonds of the group and finding that... yes, they're still pretty strong. I'm good with that.
- Was Dr. Kane serious about giving the entire group a grade? I don't think teachers are allowed to do that, but correct me if I'm wrong.
- "Abed, you're a computer." (Love the way no one even comments on this remark, including Abed. It's simply accepted as a statement of fact.)
- The only thing funnier than Britta's comments about worms was Annie's retort to those comments. Probably the two best lines in the episode.
- "... or maybe I'm just crazy." Yeah, that would be my guess, Chang.
- Dean Pelton's first idea to make money: making people pay for water from the fountains, with a two-drink minimum. This is a terrible idea, which is of course what makes it so awesome.