In Praise Of Community’s Señor Chang

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Senor Ben Chang Community

Community is the best show on television. There’s little use arguing otherwise. In fact, I feel safe in going on the record that it will retain that title until some evil genius producer develops Snooki Presents: The Real Animal Hoarding Kardashian Housewives Of The Playboy Mansion and sells it to VH1. But back to Community

The first season of the show was, by all accounts, staggeringly good, but Dan Harmon and company have put the creative pedal to the metal in this, the show’s second year. With every episode, the team challenges themselves to raise the conceptual bar and totally eviscerate the traditional notion of what a sit-com “should” be; the rate with which they succeed at surpassing these incredibly lofty goals is, frankly, unparalleled.

In addition to having an enormously talented writing staff, the show draws much of its strength from its ensemble cast. Rather than having to worry about placating one or two “stars” while everyone else orbits around aimlessly, the show is blessed with a cast that genuinely seems to be in sync with one another. Depending on the episode, the core cast — Jeff, Britta, Abed, Shirley, Troy and Annie — each takes their turn in the spotlight. However, if I were to point to one character whose game has been significantly stepped up since Season One in a way that changes the show’s entire landscape for the better, that character would have to be Señor Ben Chang.

One of the great developments of the show’s second season has been the removal of the barrier that precluded Señor Chang from interacting with his Spanish 101 students socially, on their own plane. By revealing in the first season finale that Chang actually doesn’t have any teaching credentials and also needs schooling at Greendale, the show turned Chang from an adversarial authority figure into an emotionally fragile peer who will stop at nothing from winning the gang’s approval.

Early on in the season, we saw his anger issues manifest themselves when Chang hilariously and spookily morphed into Greendale’s Gollum, setting up the arc of his character for the entire season. Depending on the situation, he’s either been cracking one-liners (“Gaaay-ayyyy!”), saving the day (his turn as “Drugs” in the “Celebrity Pharmacology” episode was PRICELESS; “I’m gonna deep fry yo’ dog and eat yo momma’s face, and after that wear your little brother’s skin LIKE PAJAMAS!”), or struggling to ingratiate himself with the cool kid posse led by Jeff and Britta (see the clip below from last night’s “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode in which he excitedly dressed up in LITERAL blackface for a round of D&D).

While the Outsider Who Wants To Be An Insider is a common television trope (see also: Tom in Cougar Town, Lutz on 30 Rock), there’s something about Ken Jeong’s performance that elevates his character above the level of cliché and keeps things unpredictable. Specifically, I think it’s attributable to the fiendish sense of desperation that Jeong laces all of his characters with; that particular Acting choice really informs the character of Señor Chang, a person whose desire to be ADORED by his peers is, sadly, outweighed by his inability to appear like he’s trying too hard. Sure, Chang is a jackass, that much we can agree on. However, the question remains: Is he a lovable jackass or an insufferable (and possibly evil) one?

Thankfully, Community and Jeong refuse to commit one way or the other, which is just another of the myriad reasons why this show remains the best on television.

PS: Magic user baby WHAAAAAAT?