Ken Jeong could have been a one-off guest star at the beginning of Community. It was entirely possible for his Spanish teacher to make just as few appearances as John Oliver has during the second season as the substitute Anthropology teacher, but he’s stuck around on the fringes of the study group as a student at Greendale, waiting for an episode to give him a more complete character. “Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts” finally rounds out Chang, shown to be cool under pressure while Shirley goes into labor during the group’s Anthropology final.
Everyone knew that Shirley’s pregnancy had to end in a giving birth episode, and tonight provided that inevitable half hour, with Britta providing inexperienced advice on natural births while Jeff undercuts her well-meaning if misinformed ideals. It was pretty obvious where the show was going, and by the end Jeff revealed Britta’s beliefs as misinformed, but talked her right back up to deliver the baby, but the biggest contribution to the show at large was the characterization of Chang, punctuated by jokes, and some really funny ones, becoming a character instead of a pigeonholed jestert.
The Troy and Abed storyline was ancillary as usual, involving them selling the rights to their cool handshake to Pierce, which robs the action of its spirit. Two elements of this typically predictable sidebar saved it: Jeff’s comment that the two of them should focus on the clearly bigger issue of Shirley giving birth, and Donald Glover’s uncanny ability to elevate every single line in order to get a laugh. Seriously, I laugh at his delivery every time — the guy is on fire this season. Aside from a completely unnecessary reference to Indecent Proposal, the paint-by-numbers B-plot was good, but the only thing that stuck in my mind was Troy’s joy at having $500.
That brings me to a bigger point about Troy and Abed, even if they were the side plot. Abed is the center of a large part of the show’s references, from shooting the mockumentary about Pierce to setting up a My Dinner With Andre parody with Jeff, to being the memory supercomputer in last week’s stellar clip show send-up. On top of that, Abed exemplifies the sadness on the edge of Community that helped to deepen the storylines with his issues surrounding his mother and inability to connect to his friends on any kind of level beyond pop culture fandom. But like Abed, Community can’t do anything but play to its strength of pandering to an audience as pop-culture literate as Abed that revels in references.
“Applied Anthropology” ended up being a necessary conclusion to the Shirley pregnancy plot, tying up all the loose ends in a much better way than the show handled Pierce’s addiction to painkillers. Chang got a legitimate role on the show for the first time since losing his job as a teacher, and the side plots that typically involve a lot of meta-commentary were held to relatively low levels. I’m not saying that the show always has to use a ton of references in order to drown out the more typical sitcom fare, but it is one of the show’s greatest strengths, something that sets it apart and ahead of everything that’s come before it. I just think that for the show to really evolve instead of playing to a diminishing audience, it needs to find a balance between genre episodes and meta-commentary and the typical, rote sitcom fare that the main plot featured this week.
Final Grade: B