So by this point in a season Community has normally had at least one great episode. Not this season though. It hasn’t had a bad episode either, just average episodes. Episode four, “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing”, is actually an interesting episode. There are some significant things that make this a unique episode of Community, and some very funny moments, it just doesn’t add up to a stellar whole.
This is actually the longest episode of Community ever, clocking in at over thirty minutes. As interesting as it is to see Dan Harmon explore the formatting freedoms afforded him by Yahoo screen, the episode does feel a little slack. It doesn’t ever feel padded, which is good. You’d have to go back to the script and rewrite it to shorten it; there aren’t a lot of superfluous moments to be found.
The group, after briefly sitting around the study table, quickly breaks off into three subplots. The episode sidelines Jeff, which is an unusual but interesting choice, and seems to be making an effort to establish some interesting new group dynamics. Abed and Elroy decide to work as the new IT department in order to fix the broken wi-fi. The set-up to this comes the closest to acknowledging Paget Brewster’s (now playing Frankie) IT lady from last season. Frankie says she tried to email the IT woman, but her emails just got returned in a different language, and when she tried to call the IT woman she just heard an oscillating whine that gave her a nose bleed. So Elroy and Abed find a bird’s nest where the router should be, and that sets up their subplot – protecting the nest. The Dean meanwhile is offered a position on the school board, with one major caveat, he has to come out as openly gay to get the job. The Dean is uncomfortable reducing his sexuality to such a straightforward label. The other subplot finally tries to bring Chang into the group, making him seem a little less insane. He and Annie end up in a theatre production of The Karate Kid, run by the new and abusive theatre guy played by Jason Mantzoukas.
Of these plot lines the least functional is probably the Dean’s. While entertaining at the start the whole scenario seems to be built around a paltry three jokes. The Dean’s strange sexual preferences, a “Gay Dean” song sung to the tune of “Jolene”, and the Dean’s speech about being openly political are all decent jokes (actually so is the Dean’s fake partner) but there’s not quite enough there to justify the screen time taken up. There’s something not quite properly dramatized about the whole thing. Maybe more time needed to be spent on the Dean’s initial trepidation, or even more stuff actually involving the school board? It never quite came together either way.
Elroy and Abed fair a little better, in part because they have the smallest subplot in the episode. Abed’s concern for the birds is sweet, as is the Dean’s incredibly understanding reaction. Abed talking Elroy down from his “baby bird murder monologue” is pretty funny too. I’m already growing fond of the current recurring gag exploiting Keith David’s face. There have been two notable moments during this season where we just watch Elroy silently react for an amount of time that would normally be awkward. They’re not quite normal reaction shots, instead they draw more attention to themselves, like there should be a joke there. They’ve both been pretty funny, but I’m generally partial to Community’s weird recurring jokes.
The best stuff this episode definitely comes with Chang and The Karate Kid play. Ken Jeong gets to do some of the most nuanced acting he’s done in seasons. The slightly less insane Chang makes for a compelling member of the group. Jason Mantzoukas is fabulous as the screaming and abusive director. He’s so impeccably angry and hurtful. Annie’s sudden obsession with the art of acting feels a little sudden, although I suppose the idea that Annie likes pretending to be other people has come up before. Still it never quite lands. The final performance of the play is engaging, although it maybe goes on a shade too long. There are only so many shots of the audience being REALLY INTO IT that are necessary.
Maybe the length and freedom is the problem with this episode? A lot of the best episodes and moments of Community have been fast. Carried by the compelling character work, but also by the density of jokes. Think about Jeff and Troy’s football/racists/homophobic exchange. Dan Harmon’s other show, Rick and Morty, gets a lot of mileage out of a faster pace. There are moments when the looser format does seem beneficial, but as a whole this episode feels a little slack.
Of course it’s hard to underestimate the issue of character writing. It’s been a while since the character dynamics clicked the way they used to. Or at least a while since they worked effectively with any regularity. A large part of that could just be the evolving cast. It’s hard to create character-based drama when you have to constantly introduce new characters and new character dynamics. Before there were preexisting dynamics and characters we knew through and through. We knew what they thought about other characters, and what they thought about themselves. This has all been uprooted by the cast changes, and unfortunately it shows.
Community is still good though. “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing” isn’t a bad episode of the show, not by any means. Even at its most mediocre this season feels head and shoulders above the non-Dan-Harmon season. It’s just not yet hit any great moments. Hopefully we’re just an episode away from the new character dynamics hitting their stride. Hopefully there’s another great episode around the corner. Only time will tell but it certainly seems like there’s still lots of potential here. We need an episode where ALL the characters get to interact and bounce off one another – that might help.