Season Premiere review — Community, “Biology 101”

If you’ve read any of the articles, spoiler dumps and interviews with the Community cast and crew published since season two ended, you’ve probably gathered that season three is going to be more character-based and less “big event”-based. In the most simplistic terms, you could say that Community season three is going to be more like season one than season two. While I am someone who adores season two of the series like no other individual season of a comedy, I understand that slight shift and I also think it makes a lot of sense. My hope is that all the great things the series did in season two — risk-taking, plotting — can be applied to the more Greendale- and character-centric vibe of season one. To truly pull of what I think Dan Harmon wants to pull of with these next 20-plus episodes, Community is going to need to balance itself between the kind of stories it has been telling the last two episodes.

The great news is that “Biology 101” does a pretty damn good job of accomplishing just that while simultaneously setting up a boatload of new plots and nicely tying up last year’s biggest one. This is a busy episode, sometimes somewhat too busy and often too on-the-nose with its dialogue, but “Biology 101” is also consistently hilarious, sharp and kind of sad — which is the best kind of Community as far as I’m concerned.

Instead of coming out swinging with a massive theme episode or gimmick (well, aside from that very fun song and dance meta dream sequence), this premiere makes the biggest impact on the character level. It wastes no time diving back into the group’s problems with Pierce and instead of trying to really rehash that plot again, Garret Donovan and Neil Goldman’s script branches off of those issues and projects them onto Jeff. After finally recognizing that he wants to be around these people in the study group, it’s clear that Jeff thought he could do so in peace, meaning without Pierce around. But as soon as things turn against Jeff and he’s kicked out of Biology by Professor Kane (played by Michael K. Williams of Wire and Boardwalk Empire fame) for his phone and generally being a douche. Although the series explored Jeff’s issues with letting people in, being a real friend, etc. numerous times before, I quite enjoyed how this episode went about mining it some more. Typically, we see Jeff get worked up and ditch the group for whatever stupid reason and by the time the episode is over, he’s realized that he needs them more than he thought (the Valentine’s Day episode from last year is the first one to come to mind).

But here, Jeff’s biggest wish for so long — that the other members of the group would become self-actualized and mature enough to not need to be around one another ALL. THE. TIME. — becomes his greatest fear. They are upset that Jeff won’t be taking Biology with them, but they trust that his “I’ll see ya when I see ya” comment holds true. Unfortunately for Jeff, he’s spent so much time in his life cutting people out that the time he’s spent recently to change that actually damages him in a situation like this one. Now that he’s growing more comfortable with caring about others and being cared about, he’s more sensitive to anything that gets in the way of that. Deep down, Jeff knows that if he keeps purposefully pushing people away or using them for his own nefarious reasons, he’ll end up like Pierce — who just happens to be the person he hates the most. And although Jeff thinks he’s tried to become better at these things, or the anti-Pierce if you will, it’s still not enough. Change is gradual and it is constant. That kind of messed up psyche and self-loathing is what Dan Harmon clearly wants to explore with Jeff this season (there is mention that we will finally meet his father) and I think it is off to a very intriguing start here.

Of course, all of those complex issues are played out through the prism of a 2001: A Space Odyssey homage, the ridiculousness of a “Monkey Gas” and the mysterious magic power of the study room’s desk. As this fantastic profile of him discusses and I have argued before, Dan Harmon obviously wants to depict a world where not only do characters interact with one another and work out issues through popular culture references, but the storytelling itself relates to the audience and works through big issues with said references. So sure, Jeff spends the second half of this episode drenched in Monkey Gas — I just love that Chang could immediately identify it as such — carrying around an ax, ranting about the magic of the desk while experiencing a toxic dream about his subconscious fears of becoming like Pierce, but it all makes a hell of a lot of sense when put together with what we know about this character and what we know about the guy masterminding this in a writers’ room. And might I add, Joel McHale did a really great job working through all of beats required for this kind of episode.

And again, exploring Jeff’s issues is kind of the perfect way to start off the season because it also reflects some of the shifts in the group dynamic and the maturation process of the individual characters as well. The season two premiere was all about how the group both created and responded to conflict and it kicked off a long, tough season that eventually showed these people that they needed one another no matter what obstacles they had to face or created themselves. All the fighting made them stronger (though not entirely free from conflict, obviously) as a group and individuals. It sure felt like this premiere piggybacked off that realization. After a summer to think things over, Pierce recognizes both where he went wrong and how he failed the group. He still wants to be part of the group, but he’s also less worried about whether or not he was invited to something and willing to lie to make Jeff look better. I’m not sure that Pierce will be in this kind of positive haze all season, but he certainly can sympathize with Jeff, despite all his homosexual-related protesting. I like this version of Pierce and Chevy Chase was pretty great here.

Other characters are less reliant on Jeff and seem to be ready to make big decisions for themselves as well. Britta has decided to major in psychology, which is hilariously perfect for her. Troy and Abed are living together. Shirley and Annie don’t have a lot to do here, but I’m sure their stories will come.

The point is that moving into a third year of college, people need to start making some real choices. You’re more than half-way through your experience. When you were a freshman, maybe you stuck to your friends, your tight circle and things felt relatively fun and comfortable. As a sophomore, you branched out, took some risks and made some big mistakes. Now it’s time to really figure out what you learned from those mistakes and how they’re going to shape you as a person moving forward in the rest of your life. It sure feels like season three of Community is going to embrace the “junior year” experience, both the good and the bad and sure as hell cannot wait. I am so excited to have this series back.

Other thoughts:

  • I spent almost 1,300 words talking about the premiere and I didn’t even get to the episode’s B- and C-plots. The expressed re-focus onto college-y things includes the introduction of the air conditioning repair annex and the vice dean played by John Goodman. Exploring the innerworkings of Greendale sounds like a fantastic idea to me and Goodman was very good in his few short scenes with the always-awesome Jim Rash. I’m curious to see how this story becomes relevant to the study group, but I know that I cannot wait for Goodman to face off with McHale, Gillian Jacobs and the rest of the group.
  • Even though it had very little obvious connection to what was happening with Jeff, Abed’s mental breakdown over the Cougar Town midseason premiere date, his love for Cougarton Abbey and Britta’s subsequent ability to mess everything up was the funniest part of the episode. Danny Pudi’s scream was tremendous and Cougarton Abbey is one of the best things that will happen all this television season, I’m calling it now. Also: Here’s to hoping that Troy continues to provide fantastic ways to describe how much Britta sucks. Tennis elbow, the pizza burn on the roof of the world’s mouth and the opposite of Batman is a glorious sequence.
  • Chang as a security guard: Sure? That character clearly works best in a quasi-authority role, especially when he has a false sense of authority, so it could definitely work. Sometimes, though, I just feel like Chang needs to be around less. I like him in short doses, the series just strained to find a place for him last year.
  • Michael K. Williams’ energy definitely clashes with the rest of the series’ sensibilities. I know this is on purpose, but I am very, very interested to see how the series uses him in the future, especially since there’s a re-dedication to Greendale and classes.
  • The opening song was a bit on the nose with the meta, but it worked well enough. BUT DOES THIS MEAN THAT JEFF AND ANNIE ARE REALLY GOING TO HAVE SEX? Don’t you taunt me, Harmon.

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