"Community" is finally back for new episodes in the new year, and the cuteness of the Christmas episode and blanket fort cities has been supplanted by more mature fare. The year’s kickoff episode forgoes the standard Abed quirk festival in exchange for addressing Shirley’s pregnancy and feelings for her ex-husband Andre (who happens to be Malcolm-Jamal Warner, aka Theo Huxtable), as well as Jeff’s issue with Annie dating anyone – especially someone as seemingly as perfect as Rich, the happy-go-lucky humanitarian doctor who seems a little too perfect.
The "Asian Population Studies" episode kicks off with the group talking about their own Winter breaks. Annie’s met a “cute guy” while doing volunteer work, while Shirley rekindled her relationship with her cheating ex-husband Andre. Chang continues his relentless stalking of the study group (his entrance into the episode from atop the bookshelf was hysterical) while using his name as a pun… to maddening effect.
When Annie announces her desire to make Rich a part of the study group, the insanely jealous Jeff insists on the group considering a wider field of candidates. What results is something of a Sorority rush, with potential additions to the core unit making their case along with their sponsors. Thanks to a mountain of kettle corn and an impossible kindness, Rich is the early favorite, but Jeff digs deep into his bag of courtroom-persuasion tactics and manages to get Britta and Abed to vote for Chang. Troy and Pierce, making up the kettle corn swing vote, go with Rich. The final decision lies with Shirley, which causes Pierce to threaten to “shatter her world” unless she votes for Rich. Refusing to be bullied, Shirley instead votes for Chang. Slow-claps for everyone!
Over in the Anthropology department, our friends learn of a surprising new development: Prof. Duncan has hopped on the wagon and stopped drinking. The news doesn’t do much for the show other than to set up a great many jokes about erections, but it serves as an entry point for Rich’s greater involvement in the social circle (he’s joined the class to be closer to Annie).
For the stragglers, Shirley and Chang had sex during the Halloween episode zombie attack, then forgot about it thanks to the government’s supply of Rohypnol. Nobody would know, if it weren’t for the fact that Chang left a voicemail for Troy immediately after the act, bragging about his conquest. It’s pretty clear that Troy can’t keep a secret to save his life, and when he slips and tells Pierce about Shirley and Chang, the ancient academic blurts out the news at the most inopportune moment imaginable – just as Shirley is building good graces up with Andre. Watching Troy & Pierce excitedly count off on their fingers when Shirley announces she’s eight weeks along was fantastic, but the fallout a serious one; Theo Huxtable storms off, potentially ending the reconciliation that had been building with Shirley.
Theo Huxtable! In a Cosby sweater!
Annie finally confronts Jeff on his disapproval of Rich, refusing to accept his "no guy can be that nice" theory and thinly veiled jealousy. It’s a do-or-die moment for the would-be lovebirds, with Annie finally standing up confidently for herself and her interests, tired of being toyed with by the class narcissist. The conversation ends in defiance, but when Jeff catches wind that Rich has turned down Annie’s advances due to her age, he runs out into the rain in urgency. We think it’s to find Annie and profess his love, but the writers of "Community" are far too clever for that…
It’s an odd "is he about to profess his love to a guy?" moment when Jeff, in a moment of clarity, finds himself on Rich’s doorstep, begging for help to become a good person so that he can abuse the knowledge. It’s a touching moment before we realize he’s not talking to Annie, when the camera’s just centered on his rain-soaked face, desperately seeking consolation.
"I mean, I am so amazing… but I’m not perfect. You are. Give me that power, so I can abuse it."
The sitcom neat-bowtie conclusion unfolds, with Jeff confessing that hates Rich so much simply because he envies his perfection and the power that gives him. Rich welcomes him inside, where a fresh batch of muffin tops are just about ready to come out of the oven. Homoeroticism has never been so casually muted as here, a delicate line between clever plot device and outright man-adoration confessionals.
At the closing credits, another appearance of Troy and Abed in the Morning features Rich knee-deep in their fake broadcast, with a cooking segment that Jeff stumbles into. Begrudgingly taking cues from his new mentor, it appears that Jeff’s about to dive into the make-believe nonsense, a true sign of growth for the man who has little time for anything but self-absorption. But he turns and retreats out the door immediately, and all is right at Greendale once again.
A dose of grown-up reality that didn’t give full-sail exploratory time to Troy & Abed’s childish quirks was a welcome change of pace. It doesn’t hurt to mix a little emotional maturity in with the fun laughs every once in a while, and "Community" hit all the right notes on its 2011 return this week.
Best line of the night comes from Pierce, condemning the secrecy around Shirley’s one-nighter with Chang: “Do you ever go to the bathroom and find parsley in your teeth that our friends hadn’t told you about? Now, imagine your teeth are her uterus, and that parsley is her half-Chinese baby.”
CraveOnline Rating: 7.5 out of 10