Tvtropes.org lists a character type called the “only sane man.” Most characters take the absurdity of the story world as normal and accept it without question, but the sane man sees all the weirdness around him. The site lists a bunch of examples that I have problems with, so I’ll list just a few to give you an idea: Frank Grimes in The Simpsons, Alice in Alice in Wonderland, Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove. TV Tropes also says that the “only sane man” usually goes through three stages of emotion: first shock and anger, then bargaining and denial, and finally acceptance. Obviously, this doesn’t happen every time, as Frank Grimes only gets to the first stage before he’s driven (ironically) insane, and Alice never quite gets the swing of things in Wonderland.
The last episode of Community, “Competitive Ecology,” used this trope in both the main study group plot and in the backup Chang plot. For Chang’s weird noir story, Sgt. Nuñez plays the role of the “only sane man,” though he only reaches the first stage before leaving Greendale altogether. In “Geography of Global Conflict” as well as in “Competitive Ecology,” Nuñez tries to prevent Chang from overstepping the bounds of his office. Chang in the last episode tried to be an intimidating, head-bashing, real cop. Nuñez pushed back by keeping Chang restrained by his job description, trying only to keep things reasonable. This episode saw Nuñez unable to restrain Chang, and his appeal to a higher authority (Dean Pelton) found that the Dean was just as ridiculous as Chang himself. Confronted by the fact that the world he lived in was utterly insane, Nuñez quit, removing him from the plot entirely.
Nuñez’s reaction contrasts with the other “sane man” at Greendale, Professor Marshall Kane. Kane is constantly challenging Greendale’s odd reality: he has a pHd, he kicks Jeff out for not turning off his cell phone, and in this episode he outright says, “What is happening at this school? I have so many conversations that make no sense.” What sets Kane apart is that he refuses to give up his sense of reality to Greendale. Where Nuñez is powerless to stop Chang from wreaking havoc on the school, Kane maintains a position of power throughout the episode. When he tells Magnitude, “You know they’re laughing at you, right?” Magnitude actually looks crushed, but when Nuñez protests to Dean Pelton, his words fall (almost literally) on deaf ears.
Sgt. Nuñez is the more traditional version of the trope—the tragically sane man whom we identify with because he has as much power to change the show world as we do. This is what drives Frank Grimes insane and what keeps Alice constantly off-balance throughout her entire narrative. Mandrake has to dive into the addled mind of General Ripper to extract the recall codes, and even that doesn’t prevent nuclear holocaust. These characters can point out the absurdity of a story, but they are never a threat to it. We know as soon as Dean Pelton’s noir monologue starts that Nuñez must either integrate himself into the Greendale machine or depart from it. Professor Kane, on the other hand, threatens to destroy the very fabric of the show’s reality, at least from the viewpoint of the study group. With his sturdy sense of reality and his unwillingness to bend to Greendale’s logic, Kane poses a very real danger to the world that the group lives in.
In Kane, the study group gains an actual villain. Season One Chang seemed as though he was driving the group apart, but he ultimately brought them closer together. Similarly, City College’s Dean Spreck played the same games that Greendale itself was playing, so he too was ultimately doomed to failure. Professor Marshall Kane challenges the very logic by which Greendale operates; his influence could ultimately push the study group away from Greendale altogether, leaving them to fend for themselves in the real world. Much of this season, I suspect, will focus on the battle between the study group and Kane, between Greendale and reality.
And while all this is going on, Chang is only getting more powerful.