Community is a complicated series to defend. When folks, especially folks who don’t particularly care for the series, ask me why I enjoy the show, I usually go on a long and meandering spiel about how it’s a beautiful amalgam of sitcom and drama and cartoon and meta-commentary. However, beyond all of the pieces that make Community so great when it’s on its A-game, it’s the show’s emotional core of characters, new and old, and their relationships that makes me tune in week after week. When it abandon its emotional core in favor of the easy jokes, that’s when the series hiccups. (Looking at you, season 4.)
While I believe that season six has already started off to a very strong start, “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing” is the first episode since maybe the early part of last season that manages to take all of those disparate elements that make Community great and create a chunk of television (or web-ivision, whatever) that, to my tastes, is just about perfect. “Queer Studies” shows what happens Community embraces every one of those elements and doesn’t shy away from what it is. With a lot of the housekeeping and necessary plot points needed to introduce new characters and get the season’s narrative arc rolling out of the way, the show can focus on the individual characters themselves and focus on their growth.
While their respective journeys in this episode are very different in tone and nature, “Queer Studies” looks at the very nature of identity and how it applies to Dean Pelton, Ben Chang, and Elroy and Abed. All of these gentlemen have, to some degree or another, found themselves untethered at times to their world and have struggled with accepting who they are. In the primary story arc, Dean Pelton’s sexuality becomes a focal point, as the school board of Greendale Community College wants to manipulate the Dean through a bit of unabashed tokenism. The school is under fire from gay groups for cancelling a pride parade at Greendale and the board wants to add the Dean as a member to show that the school is gay-friendly. While Dean Pelton explains that being gay only comprises “about 2/7th” of his sexuality, he agrees to help as he sees the position as an opportunity to affect change. However, while he becomes a role model for Greendale’s LGBTQ students, the Dean feels like he’s compromising who he is for political influence. While much of the plot is played for laughs, at its core it mirrors a good deal of what many of us wrestle with on a daily basis: How much of ourselves do we give up for the sake of others and for something fleeting?
Compromise is something that Chang is also wrestling with over in the B-plot, as he auditions for the part of Daniel LaRusso in a community theater production of The Karate Kid. However, he’s instead given the role of Mr. Miyagi, which Chang assumes is type-casting, but takes the role at Annie’s urging. What Chang discovers is that the director, a Whiplash-style perfectionist, sees something in him that makes him believe Chang is perfect for the role of Miyagi, whom the director sees as the primary character and thrust of The Karate Kid. What follows is a performance that brings such a depth and humanization to both Miyagi and Chang that the Save Greendale committee and the rest of the audience are brought to tears. Aside from a few episodes in season five, this is the first we’ve seen of a grounded, human Chang since the beginnings of Community. Chang has already found acceptance among the members of the Save Greendale committee; now, maybe he can work on accepting himself and remembering the confident man he once was.
The C-plot is moved, in part, by memories and how they can shape us, years after we’ve thought we’ve put them to rest. Abed learns this in his adventures with the newly-appointed head of IT, Elroy. While looking for the cause of the school’s faulty Wi-Fi, the pair finds a baby-birds’ nest interfering with the campus’ Internet service. Elroy wants to move the nest, but Abed digs in his heels, objecting that the momma bird won’t have anything to do with the babies if they intervene. Although it was nice to see Elroy’s first one-on-one with an individual group member, what really shone with this little side plot was how it contributed to Abed’s emotional growth. As we learned in the season two episode “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” Abed has had a strained relationship with his mother, who divorced his dad, for some time now. His interest in the momma bird/baby birds dynamic is mirrored in his relationship with his mother. It’s as though he wants to do for the babies what his mother stopped doing there for him: being a connection and a means to leave the nest whole. In doing so, it appears that Abed got some of the catharsis he needed since his mother left. Moreover, the interplay between Elroy and Abed was welcome, as it’s the first pairing of Abed with another group member that hasn’t felt forced since Troy left Greendale. While subtle, this was a big episode of Abed in terms of emotional growth.
And, really, it was a huge episode for all of the primary players in “Queer Studies.” For the first time in a long time, Dean Pelton, Chang, and Abed were allowed to grow as people and move beyond their tried-and-true surface trappings. It’s a testament to the series that all of these seemingly cartoonish storylines can bring out such depth of character in folks who, in another staff of writers’ hands, could come off as very one-note.
- “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing” is officially the longest episode of Community, clocking in at just over 31 minutes. While I don’t know if every episode needs to be this long, it did give each of the three plots a chance to breathe and move forward without feeling rushed.
- The “Gay Dean” parody of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is surprisingly haunting.
- The return of Evil Annie: Annie Kim!
- I would totally play Elroy’s version of Donkey Kong.
- Jeff on the Dean’s sexuality: “I am so curious… intellectually.”
- Another return: Richie and Carl, those creepy bastards!
- “Let’s say you were right and like Sidney Poitier or Meg Ryan before you, you were cast for race.”
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