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Community Recap: Mission to Earth 2

The problem I’ve always had with Community — admittedly a minor one —i s that it’s often so obsessed with wit and style that the show reads as disingenuous. Sure, they’re a hell of a lot of fun, but episodes can feel empty without pathos or a real, grounded sense of empathy. But as last week’s show-stopping musical number promised, this is a whole new Community, and the show is ready to make amends for its past mistakes. (I’m choosing to ignore the part where the dean said the show was going to be just like last year, only with less money.) “Geography of Global Conflict” wasn’t necessarily an unstoppable joke machine like Community at its best, nor was it a tear gas-canister full of emotion. But the episode teased what will likely carry on throughout the season: a reevaluation of character relationships and maybe, just maybe, some real heart. And Tasering.

Community kicked off its soul searching with a look at Jeff and Annie — a will-they-won’t-they relationship so marred by a creepy age difference, it oscillates between Jeff playing the father figure and uncomfortably trying to get into Annie’s pants. And as is the style of Community, a character calls out this dichotomy directly. That character is Annie Kim, a student in Annie’s class who rivals her perfectionism and pursuit of excellence. When they first meet, it’s innocent enough: Both are eager to please their teacher, played by the comically reliable Martin Starr, and when they get to talking, they realize they went to similar high schools and had the exact same GPA. Sure, Annie Kim’s school was slightly higher ranked — though she did take a lighter course load — but even though Annie Kim is Annie’s rival (and how progressive of her to have an Asian rival), there seems to be a world in which the two of them could be friends.

What Annie doesn’t realize is just how competitive Annie Kim can be, and she finds out right away when Annie Kim steals Annie’s idea for a Greendale Model U.N., and gets Professor Cligoris — or is it pronounced Cligor-IS? Actually, any pronunciation is fine — to sign off on the club. Furious, Jeff rushes to Professor Cligoris’ class and demands restitution. Professor Cligoris has another, much more entertaining proposal: A battle royale between Model U.N. clubs, to determine who can have the most united United Nations. (If any of you watched Parks and Recreation, you know this is the first of two “battle royales” on NBC tonight … do they coordinate these things?)

Everyone in the group cares about Annie, so of course they agree to help her win the (surprisingly well-attended) battle royale. But this is Community, so each character lets his or her freak flag fly alongside the flag of their represented nation. Troy plays the representative from Georgia, the country, with a Southern accent and plenty of down-home charm. Abed becomes more obsessed with the idea that two United Nations can exist (as Cligoris is forced to explain, it’s because they’re on separate Earths in parallel dimensions) than with the task at hand, constantly pushing his “Let’s explore Earth 2” agenda. And when it’s time to settle the final crisis and achieve world peace, someone farts and the gang completely loses its composure. Annie freaks out, destroys a bunch of those little signs that indicate who’s representing what country, and storms off.

She’s not angry at the group, though. She’s angry at herself. She admits to Jeff — who had rushed off to console her — that she played him like a fiddle. She was aware that once Jeff knew Annie Kim was stealing her Model U.N. idea, that Jeff would want to protect Annie’s feelings and would force a confrontation between Annie and Annie Kim. She’s in the process of growing up, and thinks she needs Jeff to be the one forcing her to do the things that don’t come easy. So Jeff lays it out: He can’t be Annie’s crutch. She’s a capable, competent woman who deserves all the good things that will come her way. At the same time, Jeff recognizes that his willingness to intervene in Annie’s problems, his fatherly attitude, is a crutch itself — a way to care deeply about Annie, but only show it through the lens of a specific sort of role or relationship. It’s one of the most honest and self-aware things Jeff has ever said, and it’s followed by a moment where he and Annie almost kiss, realize it’s creepy, and decide to head back to the Model U.N., Jeff following at an appropriate distance.

The characters on Community, much like the show itself, have a habit of using comedy as a crutch for raw emotion. (This could be applicable to every practitioner of comedy itself, but that's another story entirely.) But this completely crutch-free moment sets the stage for a conclusion that felt all the funnier because it came from an honest place. Back at the United Nations and united behind Jeff’s inadvertent “I farted” Spartacus* moment, the group concocts a plan to finally put Annie Kim in her place. Using the resources from all their represented countries — and more than a little of that Georgia charm — they posit that their U.N. has constructed a portal to the other U.N. on Earth 2, and offer a peace treaty. Annie Kim knows that accepting would mean conceding that Annie’s got more united-ness, so she opts to instead focus on her own united-ness. However, by doing so, she’s acting logically, which Cligoris thinks goes against the real U.N.’s spirit of “high-minded rhetoric and empty gestures.” So, Annie wins. Confused? Well, the real U.N. is probably much more perplexing.

While Jeff and Annie are realizing the ways in which they need each other, Britta and Chang are realizing that they need each other, period. Britta’s feeling all grown up with her new major and yellow marker for coloring on words, but misses her true calling: Getting tear-gassed for standing up to The Man in garish and showy ways. Meanwhile, Chang is eager to begin his job as a security guard—he brings his own handcuffs, though he swears they’re just for sex — but learns right away that he’s more of a glorified sign than an authority figure. (“This badge says ‘To Serve And Protect.’” “No, it doesn’t.”) Clearly, these two are meant to exchange longing glances as Chang writes the word “warning” on a piece of paper and Britta eats, then consequently gags on, said paper — scored to, say, “Hello” by Lionel Richie. And it is in this regard — as well as Chang’s entrance to, “Did someone say, ‘Can’t do anything?’” — that Community never disappoints.

Same with the little moments of “Geography of Global Conflict,” like when Troy covertly removes the lid to Annie’s cup so her compulsive straw-pushing doesn’t make an annoying noise, or Abed mumbling the words to his plan in anticipation of a cut-away that doesn’t occur. Community might be moving in a more heartfelt direction, but it’s still Community, and some things never change.

*Not Brutus. Sorry!

Photo: Adam Rose/NBC