Community‘s ability to succeed and surpass even its own best moments never fails to surprise me.
This episode was not a fast-paced, laugh-out-loud epic theme episode. Dan Harmon seems to alternate between extravagant episodes and quiet, self-sustained pieces like this chaotic yet understated episode.
The main story is clearly Shirley going into labor during the group’s Anthropology final. However, side stories abound. Unrelated to the baby, Pierce convinces Abed and Troy to make an Indecent Proposal of sorts. Also, the always-wonderful Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) angles for a good writeup in Dean Magazine.
Though the side stories provide great moments of humor (“race kerfluffle?”), the heart of the episode rests, as always, in the natural human experiences that make these characters so relatable and lovable.
Regarding the birth, Shirley frets over the possibility that the child is Chang’s, while Chang fervently hopes that he’s soon to be a father. Britta faces a crisis of confidence when she realizes that all the earth mother, moon goddess talk in the world prepares her little for the realities of childbirth.
Yvette Nicole Brown does a hilarious job portraying Shirley’s annoyance with Chang, but really excels as the episode is winding down. Shirley recognizes that, whether the child is Chang’s or Andre’s, what’s important is that she can bring it healthily into the world. She welcomes Chang’s stories as a calming agent during labor, and even decides to name the baby the alliterative Ben Bennet in honor of him. It’s a touching moment, full of the sentimentality that Harmon and co. love to inject into the last 5-10 minutes of most Community episodes.
When Shirley’s husband arrives to take Chang’s place at Shirley’s side, the audience gets one quick look at Chang’s disappointed face, and Ken Jeong milks it for all he’s worth. Jeong is obviously a gifted comic actor, and his characterization of Chang is wonderfully manic. Chang is crazy, irritating, and possibly evil. But he is also a sad, lonely man without friends or a family. It’s these small emotional moments when Chang exposes his vulnerability that keep him right on this side of believability.
If the character of Britta was short shrifted last season, she has really risen in the second half of this season to become one of the best, most complex characters in the show. Britta struggles with reconciling a desire to present herself as a Good Person who help people and actually being a good person, who helps people.
In this episode, Jeff taunts Britta with her inability to deal with Shirley’s childbirth. (The black cave closeup of Gillian Jacobs’s anxious face is one of the best moments of Britta, ever.) However, as usual, Jeff delivers a perfectly-worded pep talk, which convinces Britta to handle her fears and deliver Shirley’s baby.
So many repeat players were shown in this episode, along with many callbacks to former story arcs. I most appreciated the reappearance of Fat Neil and the miniscule, but lovely, little story he’s given: a budding romance and annoyance with the predominance of the core group. Starburns also elicited a few laughs just by showing up in frame.
Community sometimes tries to squeeze too many stories and too many jokes into one episode. “Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts” had a near-perfect balance of heart and humor, with side characters and side stories intricately woven into what was probably the best half hour of television this week.
Happy birthday, Ben Bennett.