Welcome to Looking Streets Behind, a Community retrospective column! Join me as I dissect a Community episode that has reached its 10th-anniversary milestone! This go-round, we’re delving into “Competitive Ecology,” wherein Chang stumbles upon the revelatory discovery that Arizona backward is still Arizona, making it a palomino. Mind = BLOWN.
The Greendale Seven’s delicate ecosystem falls into disruption when Todd and his turtle enter the Biology equation. Chang’s promotion to head of security brings him one step closer to overtaking Greendale and showcasing his mighty keytar solo.
Bolstered by top-tier performances from Ken Jeong and Jim Rash (well, everybody, really), “Competitive Ecology” illustrates the precariousness our group treads, and how easy it is to destroy their “ecosystem.” Plus, Community parodies film noir detectives, so what more could you want?
Without further ado, let’s dive into “Competitive Ecology” before Chang sets another part of the school on fire.
We open with Chang (Jeong) getting ready for the day ahead while Veronica, the mannequin leg to which he’s married, looks on (as best as a mannequin leg can). He vows that she’ll soon be sleeping with a detective. Chang emerges, and we see he’s crashing in the boiler room next to “Hot & Brown” in the cafeteria. He runs into Dean Pelton (Rash), who urges Chang to keep their arrangement on the “dean low.”
Professor Kane (Michael K. Williams) assigns the class’s latest project — a terrarium, which is sort of like a diorama (we know how the study group feels about dioramas). He launches into a monologue about the state of Legos, and this scene serves as a stark reminder of Michael K. Williams’ brilliance, and his innate ability to make the most out of every bit.
Then, Kane announces everyone’s partners for the semester are sitting across from them. Of course, this means our study group won’t work together. Later, they ask Kane if they can partner up with each other, and their professor relents.
However, while Troy (Donald Glover) works with Abed (Danny Pudi), Annie (Alison Brie) has Jeff (Joel McHale) and Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) pairs with Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Pierce (Chevy Chase) is stuck with Todd (David Neher).
Meanwhile, Chang informs Sergeant Nuñez (Mel Rodriguez) he’s ready to become a detective. Nuñez reminds him that they don’t prevent crime. After he leaves, Chang hones in on a “suspicious” girl, and thus commences Community‘s version of a film noir. Chang has a mystery on his hands, and he vows to solve it.
Next, our crew pairs off with their new (old) partners. Troy and Abed simultaneously realize they spend too much time together. Britta’s irritated with Shirley’s incessant barrage of baby pictures. Chang finds a matchbook from the Arizona Matchbook Company, and he discovers Arizona is a palomino, which points to a larger conspiracy at play.
Later, Britta and Troy conspire to work together on the terrarium project, thereby disrupting the natural order of things. However, Jeff stages a meeting in the study room to remedy this “Todd Problem” once and for all.
Troy and Britta make a case for pairing up, but Jeff proposes they all write down their lab partner preferences from one to eight, and Abed will place everyone in their “optimal pairings.” Bear in mind that Todd comes with a turtle!
Then, Chang calls the Arizona Matchbook Company, but Nuñez puts the kibosh on Chang’s mission. After Abed utilizes his algorithm to create the perfect pairs, Jeff balks at the idea of working with Todd. According to Abed, he partnered everyone by popularity, which catalyzes a whole host of insecurities within our gang.
Meanwhile, Chang uses red yarn to connect the dots on his fancy evidence board. Unfortunately, when he departs, the yarn rolls toward the boiler and catches on fire.
Chang returns to find firemen torching the blaze, and one of them extracts a burnt Veronica, verifying Chang’s (misplaced) theory that a grand mystery is at hand.
Back in the study room, Britta procures her marijuana lighter and burns everyone’s partner choices. She disposes of the fiery remnants in the trash can where Todd’s turtle lives. Todd, in a rage, chastises the group for wasting his time. He’d rather complete the terrarium project alone. So, he storms out — offense wholeheartedly taken.
Later, Professor Kane scolds our crew for making Todd cry (He’s an Iraq war veteran!). So, they can continue working together, but they’ll share one microscope and one chair for the remainder of the semester. Oh, and they fail the terrarium assignment, which causes Annie to faint.
Next, Nuñez informs the dean about the plethora of fire and health hazards in the boiler room. He quits, citing Dean Pelton’s refusal to discipline Chang, a man that’s clearly unwell. The dean promotes Chang to head of security, and now everyone’s inner voices are on full blast.
Our gang enjoys working as a group again, but they verbally bash Todd while the latter sits next to them. In the end-credit scene, Britta hands out practice evaluations to the gang for her psych class. Instead, they work like Rorschach inkblot tests, and Britta sees penises on every page.
The dialogue, gags and facts!
Naturally, Chang’s voiceover monologues and one-liners are Community gold. “She was all dame, legs that went all the way to the bottom of her torso. The kind of arms that had elbows.” “Maybe I will. My own words rang inside my head like a bell inside a head. Maybe I was crazy. Or maybe, just maybe, I was a detective.”
“The way she left I could tell somebody or something had really put the scare on her. But what? Why? Stapler. Was I crazy? Or were they somehow connected?”
Dean Pelton’s voiceover about the firemen — “I needed to know more about those firemen; were they ethnically diverse? Did they bring a dalmatian? Could I buy a calendar?”
I also love this exchange between Britta and Shirley — BRITTA: “Do you know sugar is like baby meth? That’s what my homeopath says.” SHIRLEY: “Well, maybe your gay friend should mind his own business!” I’d go so far as to say that might be one of my favorite Shirley bits.
I’d be remiss if I left out one of the best Britta one-liners to ever one-liner: “If loving worms is stupid, I don’t wanna be smart!” That, and “Gotcha. This was also a test, and you all penised — passed! Maybe I need to take one. A test, not a penis.”
Lastly, Todd’s explosive monologue cuts the study group down to size. “What is WRONG with you people!? Huh!? I thought you were supposed to be friends! I thought you were supposed to love each other. Your love is weird and toxic. And it destroys everything it touches.
I no longer care about grades or biology. Or finally graduating from college like I promised my dying father. I’m going home, I’m gonna hold my wife and my child close. And I am gonna finally take my Insulin shot! Offense taken! Offense taken.”
There aren’t too many running gags in “Competitive Ecology,” but the trio of “aw’s” at the top of the episode falls in line with Annie and Shirley’s penchant for it throughout the show. The dean’s dalmatian fetish makes a comeback during one of his inner voiceovers.
Todd responding “None taken” to various hurtful insults the study group hurls at him. Of course, they try to soften the blow with “No offense” (Offense taken!).
Dean Pelton making a pun out of “dean” is one of my favorite gags on Community — this time, it’s “dean low” instead of “down low.”
Fun fact: Gillian Jacobs sports a large band-aid on her forearm because of a malfunctioning squib that burned her on the set of Let Go (also starring the late, great Ed Asner). Oh, and in case you’re curious about the popularity ranking among The Greendale Seven plus Todd, here it is as follows:
- 1. Annie
- 2. Abed
- 3. Troy
- 4. Todd
- 5. Jeff
- 6. Britta
- 7. Pierce
- 8. Shirley
Veronica the mannequin leg is a reference to Dan Harmon‘s former fetish with a mannequin leg as discussed on his podcast Harmontown.
This outing marks David Neher’s first time as Todd on Community.
Initially, “Competitive Ecology” was supposed to be the fourth episode of the season, and this is confirmed in episode five, “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” when Britta remarks about “last week’s” tests.
The Todd of it all!
“Competitive Ecology” boasts one of Ken Jeong’s best performances on Community (it’s at least in the top five). Chang’s B-plot storyline almost overcomes the A-plot in overall quality and humor. Community is the King of Meta and the Queen of Parodies, and this episode is no exception. It’s more proof that The Greendale Seven are horrible, horrible people, but we love them anyway.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to figure out what it all means like a fish needs a bike.
What do you love most about Community’s “Competitive Ecology”? Sound off in the comments below! Join me next week as I dive deep into “Remedial Chaos Theory,” one of the best episodes in sitcom history that spawns The Darkest Timeline.
Until then, stay streets ahead.
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