Ken Jeong

To call an episode of Community “odd” is perhaps redundant, but here we are, with “Intro To Recycled Cinema,” a left-field episode of a show that seems like it’s gone as far left as it possibly can. “Recycled Cinema” is difficult to assess because it contains many of the ingredients of a great Community episode, but they’re combined in a way that’s not as much good or bad as disorienting. At the risk of committing blasphemy, the episode is vaguely reminiscent of season four. While it would have been the high-water mark of that troubled season, “Recycled Cinema” feels improperly calibrated in the same way.

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Much of that is due to the jarring cold open, an expository avalanche which establishes that Chang, bourgeoning thespian that he is, landed a spot in a ham commercial that went viral due to his inspired reading of his catchphrase, “Haaaaam, girl!” The extremely favorable response to the commercial has catapulted him into the spotlight and onto the radar of Steven Spielberg, who circles him for the upcoming Play-Doh Movie. I wasn’t initially sure if Ken Jeong was leaving to do a film project or what was happening, but it was an incredibly bumpy way to start out the episode. The opening triggered suspicion that never fully dissipated even as the episode got more recognizable, if not necessarily better.

Frankie, the queen of monetization, decides three minutes of footage Abed shot for a cop drama he’s been tinkering with should be turned into a feature film to capitalize on Chang’s newfound fame. After what feels like the passage of, oh, seven seconds, the Greendale gang is waist deep in its latest adventure, a slapdash film production with Abed as the director. Like “Basic Email Security,” the episode is a retread of stories, jokes, and ideas Community has already done far better. Chang’s sudden fame provides the flimsiest of pegs on which to hang the latest “Abed makes a movie” storyline, and because that’s the only story “Recycled Cinema” has to tell, it’s a hard episode to love.

The film itself, Chief Starr And The Raiders Of The Galaxy, is cheesy, jargon-laden sci-fi, as if Community’s writers were looking for a way to reincorporate something resembling Inspector Spacetime without disrespecting Troy’s memory. The Inspector Spacetime stuff worked (and even then, not always) because of Troy and Abed’s unrestrained geek passion for the show and how that informed their friendship, one of the show’s foundational elements in its early years. There’s no such passion for Chief Starr, and that’s kind of the point. Even Abed, who is known for being weirdly detail-oriented where film production is concerned, is somehow convinced to crank something out as quickly as possible with the abstract promise of a six-figure payday.

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With no real stakes, “Recycled Cinema” plods along for its first two acts without a ton of jokes or much to say. It’s almost Community as a hangout sitcom. “If you love Greendale and its characters,” the episode seems to say, “surely you’ll love their efforts to make a goofy sci-fi movie under Abed’s direction using a tiny snippet of Chang footage.” None of that is terribly appealing, but when Maury (a delightful Steve Guttenberg) asks Abed to trim six minutes from his opus, things take an interesting, more Harmonious turn.

Like “G.I. Jeff” before it, “Recycled Cinema” is a story about Jeff’s anxieties around aging and achievement. He fears he’ll be the only one out of the group left at Greendale after everyone else has gone onto achieve great things, and an atypically emotionally acute Abed soothes Jeff’s worries. For an ensemble show, Community can be extremely Jeff-centric at times, and “Recycled Cinema” is an example of the show overestimating the degree to which Jeff’s piddling inner-turmoil makes for compelling television. The theme resonated more in “G.I. Jeff,” which was about the universal fear of growing old, but here Jeff’s emotions are a bit harder to pin down. It doesn’t seem like a foregone conclusion that Jeff would have to stay at Greendale any longer than anyone else, especially given how many of the characters have long overstayed normal community-college residencies.

When all is said and done, Chang stealthily rejoins the group, pretending he hasn’t just experienced a dramatic boom-and-bust cycle. A few cracks about how Britta is the absolute worst, and he’s back in the fold as if nothing in the half-hour mattered at all. It feels that way.

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Stray observations:

  • Let’s be clear about the fact that Chang is not the greatest of all time as it concerns the pronunciation of the word ham on an NBC-affiliated sitcom.
  • Is this the first time Magnitude has appeared and hasn’t uttered his catchphrase?
  • Ben Chang: Great actor, huge McRib problem.
  • Jeff said the steel drums prank on Frankie would pay off, and boy was he right.

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