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If we ever needed a reminder, we got a big one on last week's edition of "Community," in which Chase played his once seemingly harmless, bumbling character for laughs, pathos and rage in one of the most memorable performances of his career.
Some 35 years after he left "Saturday Night Live," Chase is once again threatening to become the breakout star of an ensemble show.
The latest episode of what's turning into TV's most daring, at times surreal anti-sitcom sitcom, makes us all the more eager to tune in Thursday to see in what direction "Community" – and Chase's character – head next.
It's already been a strange journey, less than two full seasons into the NBC show: Pierce started as the clueless and insensitive rich old loner hanging out with a group of misfit losers at a community college. As the show took odd plot twists this season – a hidden trampoline that lets users jump away angst and the student body morphing into zombies – Pierce wandered (and, during his stint in a wheelchair, rolled) into new dimensions.
Pierce has insinuated himself into his schoolmate's lives (taking in Troy as a roommate, paying poor-little-rich-girl Annie's rent) even as his pill popping and childish attempts to control the group have gotten him increasingly ostracized (no Dungeons & Dragons for him!). Pierce can't stand to be ignored – he also needs to be the star of the show, as we saw when he bullied his way into an anti-drug play aimed at kids and turned it into a one-man salute to getting stoned.
In last week’s epic episode, Pierce fakes a deathbed illness and one-by-one gives his classmates bequeathals designed to mess with the mind (a recording for pious Shirley in which her friends supposedly mock her behind her back, a tiara for tarnished princess Annie). The gifts, on some level, all play into the characters’ respective insecurities – including daddy issues.
Pierce is manipulative, but Chase portrays him as a scared man-child whose dual need to belong and dominate inspires as much sympathy as anger for what is ultimately a pathetic, aging man. But any compassion for Pierce is tempered by his cruelty in breaking the sarcasm-coated emotional armor of group leader – and ostensible star among equals – Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) by claiming to have found the father who long ago abandoned Jeff.
An uncharacteristically unhinged Jeff winds up pummeling Pierce – a painful sign that the oldster too easily dismissed as a non-entity has struck a nerve. But he seems happy just to get the attention.
“I’m sick of you people not taking me seriously!” Pierce yells at his classmates, in a burst of fury and tears that took “Community” and Chase beyond comedy. “You guys think I’m some kind of a joke!”
“This isn’t disproving the theory,” Jeff replies.
This is bold territory for a show that somehow keeps topping itself, presenting increasingly offbeat material in a self-aware fashion that's both an ode to – and a thumbing of the nose at – sitcom convention.
We’re left wondering where the show can possibly go after Pierce’s chemistry-altering meltdown (the description of Thursday’s episode – “While Troy and Annie run for student body president, Abed discovers he's on a terrorist watch list” – doesn’t offer any clues). It's also tempting to ponder parallels between Pierce's path and Chase's career, which, until his recent renaissance, had all-too-often been employed as a punch line.
One thing is for sure: Chase, like Pierce, his latest, perhaps most masterful creation, is no joke.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.