Episode 110: Environmental Science
To Chang or not to Chang? Ever since he was introduced in the second episode, that has been the question asked by Community fans about Ken Jeong’s character. Jeong is an actor who has made a career out of playing the same guy in everything: wacky Asian man prone to comic outbursts of rage. In his defense, he is also a board-certified M.D., so boo-yah (drops mic). Most feel that Jeong is way over the top, but I always felt that the character was strangely grounded from the very beginning. In a behind-the-scenes feature, Jeong says that he based some of the character on his own life. Why would a Chinese guy teach Spanish? Why would an Asian doctor do comedy? I admit, as a former Asian community college teacher, the character of Chang resonates with me, and it’s part of the reason why I jumped at the chance to cover this episode. In fact, I named my personal blog El Tigre Chino (buzz marketing: it is hosted on a site that presses words. Ahem.) To me, Chang has always been about defying expectations and stereotypes, while unknowingly reinforcing and creating new ones. He’s the only character who can get away with stripping naked and crawling into a vent or pretending to eat Annie’s head. All the same, I agree that Chang is like the habanero pepper, best employed in small doses so as not to overpower the Community taco. Episode 110, “Environmental Science,” seeks to answer the eternal question: What makes Chang so Chang-ry? And is Chang always going to be the Chang-tagonist, or will the group eventually have a Chang of heart? (Yes, I am going to shoehorn as many Chang puns as humanly possible.) It is the first episode to feature Chang in the main plot, and Jeong admits he was nervous about it in the commentary. He gets to smoke cigars, cry, gently rest his head on Joel McHale’s pecs, salsa dance, and kiss a beautiful woman (his first onscreen kiss).
However, even though the episode appears to be Chang-centric, it is really a story about Jeff and his now-familiar struggle with accepting his new social status at Greendale. This theme is echoed in the two subplots involving Troy and Shirley. (Annie and Britta are mostly sidelined, but they do get a couple of classic bits—see Stray Observations.)
Senor Chang, provoked by perceived insults to his authority, assigns the Spanish class a 20-page essay as punishment. The group persuades Jeff to persuade Chang to reconsider. (Jeff never takes the mantle of leadership, he accepts it reluctantly after having it thrust upon him.)
Jeff immediately pinpoints the cause of Chang’s anger: his wife left him. From years of picking juries, Jeff has learned to read small cues. “Same shirt twice in one week, teaching us the word ‘esposa’ means liar, a picture of you with a woman with a Post-It note word balloon above her head saying, ‘Enjoy it while it lasts.’” Chang, desperate for a friend, especially a cool guy like Jeff Winger, agrees to cancel the assignment—but only for him. Jeff’s friendship with Chang leads to him getting automatic A’s while the rest of the class suffers heavily. When the study group confronts Jeff, he storms off angrily. “He’s using fake outrage to justify leaving,” Britta says.
Jeff hangs out with Chang in his office, smoking cigars and laughing at Pierce’s essay, which manages to make a double entendre about the Apple Store. “Can you believe this guy has been married seven times?” says Jeff. This sets off Chang, who starts sobbing about his ex-wife. Jeff realizes that he has to do something.
In their B-plot, Troy and Abed are having trouble with their biology lab, because Troy is afraid of rats. Abed has named their rat “Fievel” and is training him to respond to a song from An American Tail. (Duh-doy.) Troy freaks out and accidentally lets Fievel escape. But he refuses to help Abed chase down the rat, because he deems it uncool.
Shirley needs to deliver a speech to her Marketing class. Pierce offers to help, and she accepts. “That’s how messed up things are.” Pierce being Pierce, his tips are abrasive and nonsensical. He tells her to mix in “attention-getting words, like multiple orgasm.” But he also has truly good advice, like telling her to ditch reading off of cards and to “hand the audience a sandwich.” When it’s time to give her real presentation in class, Shirley decides to ignore his tips and bombs disastrously.
We then launch into one of the many brilliant musical compositions on the show, and what everybody remembers most about this episode. This is where all the subplots merged and reached their “change” points (Dan Harmon circle!) in a big montage/medley/mashup. While Abed and Troy sang “Somewhere Out There” in the hallway, the band Green Daye played a traditional Irish jig at the Enviro-dale dance. Jeff has set up a meeting between Chang and his ex-wife. Chang regains his mojo and strikes up a dance, reigniting marital passions. Meanwhile, Shirley overcomes her stage fright and incorporates Pierce’s advice to give an A speech. They would revisit this device with the “Kiss From A Rose/Jesus Loves Marijuana” song in season 3.
The group convenes at the dance to tell of their triumphs. Chang publicly apologizes to the Spanish class for being a horrible teacher and husband, and thanks Jeff for helping him. He cancels the homework, except that Jeff now has to write a 1-page essay titled “Taking Advantage of the Emotionally Vulnerable.” Jeff makes up with the group—his friends–and they dance the night away.
All three plots are about our heroes accepting their new situations and not spurning new friends that are right there in front of them, and also choosing the harder, but more rewarding option. At one point in the story, Troy references his prom king past. “I choose to not be around rats because they are unpopular,” Troy says. “Same goes for centipedes and lakes.” This is a joke, but it reflects the way Troy thinks about unpopular people, too. In his world, friends are there to service his needs, not vice versa. Troy was still the jock that was too cool to hang out with losers like Annie and Abed, and thinks that singing a 20 year old minor Disney song is the height of dorkiness. Abed is the definition of a nerd, someone who has spent his whole life caring about trivial matters. They are his life. Abed thought he had finally found a kindred spirit and friend, and Troy basically told him that he didn’t reciprocate the feeling. No wonder Abed runs off hurt. When Troy later joins Abed to sing to the rat, he is tacitly apologizing and admitting that he, too, is a nerd. This would lead to their long beautiful friendship (and to Troy becoming a better, somewhat retconned character.)
Shirley could ignore Pierce’s advice and give a perfectly mediocre, boring “C” speech. The hard path would be to look past the fact that Pierce is often stupid, use the gift of his experience, and work hard to improve her public speaking, which she did by the end.
Jeff’s resistance is to all the other group members. He still sees himself as “better” than Greendale. To become part of the study group, even as their leader, would be giving up. In this episode, the easy path for him would be leaving the group to their own fate and partying his way to an easy A with Chang. Instead, he realizes that he likes these people, and he doesn’t just want them for their help in Spanish.
Jeff, Shirley, and Troy were all putting on a false front in their former lives. Their time at Greendale is the first time they have had to build relationships with people who don’t know or care what they were before. And for whatever reason, those people like them for who they are now. This show is all about accepting love when people offer it to you. This is a repeated theme in Community, and Jeff learns and relearns this lesson about a dozen times.
Bringing it back to Chang, the angry persona he puts on is a front. He really is just a sad, lonely man. He tries to fill the void in his life with things (like the El Tigre stuff he has in his office) and by insulting his students. He first gets what he thought he desired in Jeff’s companionship, but what he really needed was to reconnect with his ex-wife. (We never did see her again, did we? She was conveniently written out of his life for good in the S2 Valentine’s Day episode.) This episode also is the beginning of Chang trying to worm his way into the group.
Fast forwarding to what we’ve seen over three seasons, I believe Chang represents the limit of the group’s acceptance. They will take a compulsive liar, a racist old man, an Asperger’s case, and Britta, but for some reason, they can’t bring themselves to accept Chang, except in limited cases, like Shirley naming her baby after him. I’m kind of worried about Chang. It seems the Dean has taken a lot of his screentime and plotlines as the “wacky outsider who keeps finding ways to interact with our heroes.” And they already have an antagonist who they can’t stand within the group in Pierce. Credit to Jim Rash and Chevy Chase, who are hilarious and deserve the spotlight, but surely they can find some spare Chang. Discuss what the role of Chang should be going forward in the comments!
- There is a runner about Pierce puzzling out the secret of Jeff’s natural leadership over the group. Pierce will make a joke and only attract bemused stares, while Jeff makes the exact same joke two minutes later to uproarious laughter. At one point, Pierce sits in Jeff’s chair and starts acting like him, texting and tossing out Winger zingers. Everyone is confused until Abed explains it.
- “If Senor Chang gets any crazier, he’s gonna win one of those Grammy awards.”
- Donald Glover screaming and crying will never not be funny. He does so three times in this episode, once in the lab, again when recovering the rat, and finally in the tag at the end.
- Chang’s office decorations: big velvet painting of himself dressed as a matador standing beside a bull on the wall that says “EL TIGRE” along the bottom (this painting later finds its way into Jeff’s apartment when Chang moves in during S2). Three tiger figurines on his desk. What looks like a ceramic candleholder and a plate, of possible Mexican and/or Chinese design. In the opposite corner near the door, a big tiger statue, other paintings, figurines, carvings, a black sombrero.
- “Pickled bull testicle?” “You offering or collecting?” Chang and Jeff
- “This is Spanish 101. I know how to say ‘hello’ and ‘tomorrow’ and that tables are female. That’s all the Spanish you taught us.” -Shirley
- “Well, guess what, handsome hobo? Your gravy train’s leaving the station.” –Annie. The GIF that launched a thousand boners.
- Garrett sings “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a very threatening way to his rat.
- Chang’s lesson is in the difference between “usted” and “tu.” “Pepe, usted es viejo. You are old. Alberto, usted es feo. You are ugly. Shakira. Shakira, y Tupaco (West Side!), ustedes estan sucios. You are dirty. Still formal, but plural. Because while both are dirty, neither are my friends.”
- Annie: “You devious clump of overpriced fabric and hair product.”
- Shirley: “Speaking as one of the meek, as soon as I inherit the earth, you a dead man.”
- Troy: “You got a weird forehead.”
- Britta: “We’re all very disappointed.”
- Pierce: “All right, dial it back a little, Britta.”
- Another Britta moment: When Troy and Abed explain that Fievel has gone missing for a while, Britta puts on a patronizing tone and says maybe their rat is finding other rats and is very happy with them. “Join the rest of us in reality, Britta,” says Abed.
- Chang and Jeff laugh about “Cherry Daiquiri”, which was Gillian Jacobs’ character in Choke.
- “It’s all right, I’ve been divorced seven times. Don’t answer your phone and bury all your money in the backyard.” – Pierce, after Jeff announces he’s done with the group.
- Jeff is still taking accounting with Professor Whitman.
- Another Pierce tip for Shirley: take one of Jack Nicholson’s lines and adapt it to your product: “You can’t handle that moist towelette!”
- At the Greene Daye concert, Dean Pelton introduces the band, hurriedly confessing that they are not the real Green Day. “Thought we would rip off that band-aid quickly.”
- This episode coincided with NBC’s “Green Week” theme, a legacy from the Ben Silverman reign. Hence the cold open with Dean Pelton rolling out the same initiative for Greendale, changing the name of the college to Envirodale. Starburns points out that they are already named Greendale. The dean turns to his assistant and tells her to redo the posters. “Print 5,000 more. I’m trying to save the earth.” Pierce: “What? First we give a month to black history, now we’re blowing seven days on the Irish.”
- Jeong notes a subtle bit of acting as he fingers his wedding ring in the opening scene. “We call Ken the master of subtlety,” Dan Harmon cracks. The character has no irony, even in his wardrobe. Only flea market shirts for Chang.
- Joel McHale got nauseated smoking the cigar. Chang’s tears were makeup. Alison Brie is a pro at crying on command.
- The public speaking teacher was cast to play Dean Pelton, but was recast because Ben Silverman wanted a person of color. Jim Rash was a last-minute casting choice. Gillian was also cast very late, at the table read (and she started crying.)
- Gillian jumped up and down at the dance because she didn’t know they were shooting from that angle.
- The Dean’s Dalmatian fetish makes its first appearance here, as he’s viewing a video of a furry on his computer. “This better not awaken anything in me,” he mutters. Harmon received a note from the network specifically saying they didn’t like this, and that only encouraged him to make it a bigger part of the show.
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-412729833 (page 62)