The Smartest Show on TV Comes to Terms with Grief

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
May 4 2012 12:40 PM

Community Mourns

Ken Jeong on Community
Ken Jeong on Community

Photo byJustin Lubin– ©NBC Universal, Inc.

Last night on Community, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Dick Cheney (or maybe it’s Mussolini), and Seven Days in May hung over the proceedings at Greendale Community College like not-so-benign ghosts. Señor Chang’s altered psyche finally did its worst, and we had a night of the long knives, Greendale style.

And, in the end, Starburns’ grimy life—and grimier death—were feted appropriately.

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You’ll remember that the twist in last week’s elegantly realized Law & Order parody episode was the news that Starburns—the school’s side-burned, top-hatted drug dealer and all-purpose lowlife— had met his end, ignominiously, when the meth lab he was operating out of the trunk of his car blew up. (The character, incidentally, is played by Dino Stamatopoulos, a cult figure in the comedy world, and a consultant to the show.)

Last night the study group came to terms with the death, or rather didn’t—or rather, they just didn’t really feel the pressing need to mourn a guy who was, after all “a scuzzy weirdo who shaved his sideburns in star shape.” The only person getting off on it all was psych-major Britta. Kübler-Ross comes up when Britta condescendingly informs the group about the psychiatrist’s five stages of coping with grief, which start with denial and end with acceptance. When Jeff challenges her to name another, she snaps, “What are you, my final?”

For the record, the stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This being Greendale, however, the focus is mostly on anger.

The show begins with a priceless last will and testament on video from Starburns. (“As for my collection of Styx albums, I leave that to no one, because that’s who appreciated Styx as much as me.”) In the study room, Britta tries to get the group to deal with their feelings about his death—she even slaps on a pair of fake star-shaped sideburns so the group can visualize him in her and say the things they weren’t able to during his too short life. Another of her techniques: She tells the group to close their eyes while she recounts stories of puppies being killed.

Along the way, we learn that Starburns was once married, and had given his ex-wife herpes. It turns out that Shirley had once run over his foot with his car. We also learn that Britta actually had made out with Starburns—at “a black light party at Fat Neil’s house.” Ah, college.

Meanwhile, Señor Chang, accompanied by members of his diminutive force of middle-school myrmidons (in their black pajamas they look like Khmer Rouge), is using Starburns’ fiery death as an excuse to get the dean to enact some strict new security protocols, ranging from involuntary cavity searches to martial law. (The new rules are hand-written with what seems to have been colored pencils.)

The dean, however, is having none of it.

Then some really bad news hits. The study group’s biology teacher, who played such a key role in last week’s episode, has left. (The teacher was played by Michael K. Williams, who also played Omar on The Wire; he’s apparently departing the show for good.) The dean, dressed up—spectacularly, it must be said—as a busty French can-can dancer, tells the group that everyone will have an incomplete and must attend summer school.

This, it turns out, is something to be mourned—and to get angry about. The group attends Starburns’ memorial service, but uses it as a chance to unload publicly a few of their resentments about the school, creating, in turn, a seething resentment in their fellow attendees at the funeral. (“This is the Fallujah of higher education,” Jeff says.) This gives Chang the opening to get the dean to give him the police powers he wants. When violence breaks out, much to the group’s dismay, Chang and his black-suited force add a police riot to the mix.

In the recriminations that follow, Dean Pelton decides to make Chang the scapegoat. (Or the escape goat, as Troy would say.) This is all Chang needs to hear: With a single shot from a tranquilizer gun and the arrival of a lookalike for the dean, the putsch is complete. When the study group is put on trial for provoking the riot, they have no defenders … and are summarily expelled!

This, however, leads the group to acceptance, and the show ends on a sentimental note, leaving the question of their expulsion—not to mention the ouster of the dean—unresolved, presumably to be played over the last few episodes of the season.

While we said goodbye to Starburns in this episode, we also saw Señor Chang come at long last into his own. Chang’s character began as an unstable Spanish professor, a handy stand-in for all bad teachers everywhere. After losing his position and becoming just a student, his personality began to fracture—and then snapped completely. In the second season he became almost subhuman. (This is another of Community’s braver aspects: It mocks how TV dehumanizes minority characters by taking that dehumanization to an extreme.) He began living slightly outside the realm of normal human interaction (and sometimes outside the realm of physics). The actor, Ken Jeong is, with Jim Rash as Dean Pelton, one of the show’s secret weapons; they bring a level of overt physical comedy to a show that, with occasional exceptions, traffics largely in archness and in-jokes. Game to dance, cry, and generally humiliate himself in every way possible, Jeong has’ endured numerous physical degradations—like being beat repeatedly over the head with a spoon by a monkey, for instance. (You probably knew that Rash just won an Academy award for co-writing The Descendants; did you know that Jeong is also a medical doctor?)

The show ends with a slightly ominous shout-out to the “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode. There’s a big signal here that Britta’s problems have a lot to do with self-esteem issues. But the episode ends on a too-corny note, with yet another round of those meaningful glances that have marked nearly all of the show’s lows on an otherwise stellar season.

Lots of good lines and little touches tonight:

* Troy, talking about the urn holding Starburns’ ashes: “If I rub it, will he appear and do celebrity impressions?”

* The dean: “We’re all Ted Danson at Whoopi Goldberg’s roast.”

* Jeff, to Britta as she tries to therapize the group: “When we met I thought you were smarter than me.”

* Shirley, to Britta, channeling Starburns in heaven: “Have you seen Tim Russert?”

* The little song the dean sings to himself is done to the tune of “Come On Eileen.”

* The school board, after expelling the study group, quotes Transformers and adjourns to Chump’s Rusty Bucket. This is the second time the bar in Community creator Dan Harmon’s hometown of Milwaukee has been name-checked.

Further reading: Our analysis of the previous episode of Community, “Basic Lupine Urology”; a list of the top 10 Community episodes; and an in-depth look at the show’s greatest concoction, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” Or just read all of Slate’s Community coverage.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. Read him at hitsville.net and follow him on Twitter @hitsville.