“Introduction to Film”/”Social Psychology”

"Now we're even."
“Had I not already cried at the sunrise this morning, I would be weeping right now.”

“Introduction to Film”

I must be forthright: “Introduction to Film” is a very weak episode of Community. For the most part, it regresses back to the pilot’s engine of Jeff being the entire thrust of the narrative, and it suffers for it. Jeff’s struggles with Professor Whitman’s accounting class are ostensibly the A-plot of this episode, but it’s just a rehashing of the pilot: Jeff wants to take the easy way out of school, but a professor stands in his way. The reliance on Dead Poet’s Society as a cultural precedent for Whitman’s course is a little too heavy to be a reference, but not encompassing enough to be an homage. It falls in an awkward gray area, and while Community will overcome this problem later, in “Introduction to Film,” it hinders an episode that otherwise touches on the beginnings of some very important story threads that will weave themselves throughout the run of the show.

This is not to say that I don’t find any of that funny. Professor Whitman is played by John Michael Higgins, probably best known to Community fans as Wayne Jarvis on Arrested Development, and his lust for life creates some hilarious moments. (“I shall have… a birthday cake!” will always remain one of Community‘s best non sequiturs.) And honestly, it’s not entirely that the plot is redundant: Every season will have at least one episode, usually the first, dealing with this exact plot. It’s just that, unlike future installments, there doesn’t seem to be anything new added to Jeff’s character. The status quo doesn’t budge an inch through this part of the episode, and it falls behind because of it.

Now, with that out of the way, it’s time to address the better, more important part of this episode: Abed’s film. When the study group learns of Abed’s love for film, Britta steps in, paying for his classes and helping Abed manage his funds. It’s one of those acts of responsibility from Britta that will fade with time, but it does showcase the compassion that will always define her character. Jeff refuses to take part, but this isn’t Jeff’s story, it’s Abed’s, and however unwittingly, Jeff must be involved.

For Abed, it’s impossible to explore the world, and the self, without involving those around him. The camera is Abed’s greatest tool in this regard: it allows him to put the world around him into a more easily-observable form, a form in which story cuts allow character motivations to become apparent, where emotion is manufactured by capturing certain moments in time. It’s the first of several times that Abed’s camera will give us his distinctive version of what is occurring in the world around him, and while its scope is limited to Jeff and Britta (and Abed’s father, Gubi) for now, it will widen to include the entire study group, and eventually, all of Greendale. As Abed uses his camera to learn and grow as a person, he will be able to let more people into his soul, and once there, they can begin to see the true Abed. His reluctance comes from fear, but a camera erases that fear. It’s Abed’s ultimate weapon against himself.

Gubi sees the camera as another obstacle in the way of communicating with his son; Britta sees it as a window to a dream. Both are proven wrong by the end of the episode. As Jeff puts it, Abed’s film is “no Citizen Kane,” and Britta is aware that Abed might not be a great filmmaker, despite how hard she tries. But while she and Jeff are left more in awe of the film’s bizarreness, Gubi truly understands how Abed uses it to relay his emotions. The film was never for Jeff, or Britta, or even Abed: it was for Gubi. And as a father realizes the guilt his son feels, he remembers the love that will never fade. Jeff and Britta may be the heads of Community‘s ramshackle family, but there’s still something to be said for the love of the family you don’t get to choose.

"You outlying piece of data!"

“This is the least tight thing that has ever happened to me.”

“Social Psychology”

A great trick in Community‘s arsenal is its ability to have entire episodes with very little plot, instead grasping onto a single theme, and observing how that theme manifests itself within, and between, the characters. “Social Psychology” is one of these episodes, and it’s theme is trust. It seems every ensemble sitcom must deal with a trust episode at some point, but it makes sense. Because of our involvement in the story, and the inherent narrative structure of television, it’s easy for us, the viewers, to make assumptions about how well these people know each other. However, relationships take longer than a few episodes to form. It’s important to tackle these themes early on, as they lay a foundation for moving forward, pushing into sillier plots and more organic character moments.

“Social Psychology” splits its time between Jeff/Shirley/Britta and Annie/Abed/Troy, two of the show’s most fruitful combinations. (Don’t worry, Pierce is in the background with Chekhov’s earnoculars, a product of his own lack of trust.) While one of these stories (Jeff/Shirley/Britta) deals with the breaking of trust, the other (Annie/Abed/Troy) deals with the building of it. Jeff, Shirley, and Britta are the older members of the group, each with their own troubled experiences, so it’s only natural that trust is a difficult thing for them to come by, and far too easy a thing to break. On the other hand, Annie, Abed, and Troy are all younger, and thus are more willing to give and receive trust, even if the road there is frustrating.

Britta has found herself a new man, Vaughn (NCIS: Los Angeles‘ Eric Christian Olsen), which is upsetting to Jeff. Remember, Jeff is still under the control of Britta’s sexuality, no matter how much he thinks he is able to manipulate their situation. Jeff is lost, as Britta was Jeff’s one true connection in the group thus far, but fate puts Shirley into his path (or rather, on his path, as they both walk the same way to class). Shirley, like Jeff, is a shit-stirrer, though hers is a much more secret and passive form, and their relationship blossoms out of their mutual love of bagging on Vaughn. (The dude does have some pretty tiny nipples, you have to admit.) The problem is that, without anyone else to even them out, Jeff and Shirley enable each other to be more and more callous. Though Jeff has vowed to take it easy on Vaughn, he isn’t able to resist taking a picture of the poem Britta shows him. It isn’t until it’s too late, after Jeff has broken Britta’s trust, that Shirley breaks his, showing the entire group the poem, then hanging Jeff out to try when Britta and Vaughn come into the room. Jeff and Shirley have been feeding into a vicious cycle, systematically building trust and breaking it down, and they both know it must end. Shirley finds Britta, Jeff is still an outlier, but hey, at least they’ll always have tiny nipples.

On the other front, Annie has pushed her way into Professor Duncan’s lab experiment, testing his “Duncan Principle” by sticking people in a room to wait for the experiment, and periodically telling them that it’ll be “just five more minutes.” They then sit back and observe as each subject slowly loses their cool, throwing a good old fashioned tantrum. Eventually, it is only Troy and Abed in the room, but not even Troy can hold out, exploding in one of Donald Glover’s first real showcases on the show. (Glover’s gift for comedic timing and physical humor is underserved by the show at this early juncture, but his meltdown this episode will be a strong jumping-off point for future explorations of these, as well as some of the ideas that will make up Troy’s character going into the future.) 26 hours pass, and Abed remains, flipping the experiment on its head, and causing Professor Duncan to have his own personal meltdown. John Oliver is stupendous in these moments of rage, showing his roots in British comedy mixed with a very American aesthetic, and it even gives Annie a chance to be ragged, to really show just how far she’s willing to let her ambition push her. Annie screams at Abed, but he takes it in stride. The next day, we learn why. Sure, he was livid, but “you asked me to stay, and you said we were friends.” For Abed, that’s enough to give up his trust, and Annie understands. She may have dark experiences in her past, but she is still young, and able to build trust more easily, especially with someone who only requires friendship in exchange.

Trust is an important building block of relationships, but it’s not usually the first one laid. Trust is a difficult concept, informed by our different places in life, our different pasts and personalities, but we can all forge it with another through shared experiences. As the players of Community continue to find themselves, and each other, the trust will be a pillar they lean on, the last piece that will hold up these relationships in the darkest times. It’s the driving factor of many inter-personal conflicts in our lives, and now that it is present in the study group, the show can more forward into more nuanced territory.

Introduction to Film: B
Social Psychology: B+

Stray Observations:

  • I may be hard on how much “Introduction to Film” leans on Dead Poet’s Society as a narrative crutch, but it does make for another of Community‘s great sight gags: after encouraging the class to stand on their desks, then wondering why they don’t do this more often, a student’s desk collapses, sending her crashing to the ground.
  • The “Troy’s sneeze” runner gives Chevy Chase one of his best moments of these early outings with his array of manly sneezes. It’s nice to be reminded that, personal issues aside, Chase is a very funny guy.
  • “9/11 was pretty much the 9/11 of the felafel business.”
  • Abed: “He believes all media is Western propaganda meant to stereotype Arabs.”
    Troy: “He should see Aladdin, Jafar was a badass.”
  • “This is no way to teach accounting!” That reveal, partnered with Joel McHale’s line reading, is one of the episode’s saving graces.
  • “Why are you dressed like an 80s rapist?”
  • “Introduction to Film” and “Social Psychology” both feature Matt Jones (Badger from Breaking Bad), though it’s unclear if he’s the same character in each.
  • Señor Chang makes two appearances in “Social Psychology”: the cold open, where he has given anonymous feedback sheets, yet became obsessed with a negative review, to the point where he cross-referenced it with past exams in order to determine who called him unstable; and in the experiment, where he is the first to meltdown and leave the room. Ken Jeong’s slow movement into a supporting character is fascinating and, mostly, very funny.
  • “You’re an 8, which is a British 10!”
  • The name of the coffee shop in the cafeteria is “Hot & Brown.”
  • “Social Psychology” features a few first apperances: Troy’s fascination with butt stuff; Abed’s Indiana Jones whip; and Garret, played by the very funny standup comedian Erik Charles Nielsen.
  • Jeff: “And what makes frisbee ultimate?”
    Vaughn: “Man, if I had a nickel for every time I wish someone asked me that!”

“Pilot”/”Spanish 101”

Booyah.

“What is community college? Well, you’ve heard all kinds of things. You’ve heard it’s ‘loser college’ for remedial teens, twenty-something drop-outs, middle-aged divorcees, and old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity. That’s what you heard, however… I wish you luck!”

And with these words, we are brought into the world of Community. We see cuts to Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), but this speech, made by Greendale Community College’s Dean Pelton (Jim Rash), is not meant to serve as their introduction, necessarily. Instead, this speech integrates us into the world of Greendale, and of Community at large. It isn’t until our next scene that we begin to see the meaty core of this world unfold.

 “Abed, nice to know you, then meet you, in that order.” Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) quickly runs through his, and his family’s, life story, much to the bewilderment of Jeff Winger (Joel McHale). Jeff has only question in mind: what’s the deal with the hot blonde from Spanish class? And thus, the presiding theme of the entire first season is presented: manipulation. Jeff asking Abed what he knows about Britta (which is surprisingly thorough, given their single conversation) may not seem like manipulation on the surface, but it is only the first in an ever-escalating series of events that Jeff tries his hardest to control.

All his life, Jeff has always had control, even if he had to obtain it by less-than ethical means. As we learn in his meeting with Professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver), Jeff was a lawyer who has had his license revoked after it came out that his degree was not authentic (“I thought you had a bachelors from Columbia?” “Well, now I have to get one from America.”). This exchange leads to our first blatant manipulation, as Jeff (who had defended Duncan in a driving incident involving chalupas) uses his relationship with Duncan, and the implied favor Duncan owes him, to request answers to every test in every class Jeff is taking. Already we see the chasm between Jeff and others who attempt to manipulate on his level: most simply can’t compare.

Cut to the cafeteria, where Pierce struggles with a hot dog, and where Jeff attempts to work his magic on Britta. In these early episodes, Britta’s defensive attitude is a major factor of her personality, but she’s still susceptible to Jeff’s charm. He convinces her he’s a Spanish tutor, and the first study session is set. When we cut to the study room, though, Britta’s suspicions are aroused. As Jeff attempts to make small talk, she coolly rebukes him, despite his attempts to appeal to her love of “big talk” (“What’s your deal, and is God dead?”). Britta, we learn, is about honesty, above all else, and her life is defined by extremes. Hell, she dropped out of high school because she though it would impress Radiohead (you’d be surprised what gets back to those guys). She’s even clever (or dense, your call) enough to invite Abed to Jeff’s study session. And now, for the first time, we see Jeff’s manipulation fail. Abed is set up as a foil to Jeff’s slimy ways, as his (implied/inferred) Asperger’s blocks out parts of human interaction necessary for that manipulation to work. It’s surprisingly subtle, and a theme the show will build on extensively in the future.

After a heated discussion with Professor Duncan pulls Jeff from the room, he returns to find the rest of the study group around the table. And for the first time, we see Winger manipulation in full-throttle. It’s no surprise Jeff was a lawyer before coming to Greendale. Even without a degree, he is excellent at the basic art of shit-stirring. His quick assessment of the group allows him to lob out a very general statement (“Did we not invite Annie?”), knowing full well that one general statement can slowly chip away at the insecurities of an entire group, each individual interpreting the actions of others as a personal affront. Jeff, ever the smooth operator, is saved from his own mess by another call from Duncan.

Professor Duncan is another moral foil to Jeff in this episode, though not one whose morality is as clear-cut. Though he says that the “average person has a much harder time saying ‘booyah’ to moral relativism,” he still attempts to manipulate Jeff, trading the test answers Jeff wanted for Jeff’s Lexus. While Jeff’s manipulations will fail due to his underestimation of those around him, Duncan’s manipulation will fail because of its short-sightedness. Jeff begins every scheme with a clearly defined goal, whereas Duncan’s inexperience causes him to shift his goal to an unreasonable level without the appropriate leverage.

Britta, on the other hand, has the appropriate leverage. She knows exactly how to utilize her sexuality in order to ruin Jeff’s manipulations, and it’s Britta who instigates the first of many Winger speeches. “You’ve just stopped being a study group. You’ve become something unstoppable. I hereby pronounce you… a community.” While the speech works on the study group, Britta is still not convinced, revealing Jeff’s manipulation to the rest of the group. It’s only when he storms out, ripping open the packet of answers to reveal sheet after sheet of blank paper, with only the word “Booyah!” written on the last, that the true scale of manipulation comes to light. All of Jeff’s manipulations, what would normally earn him accolades out in the law world, have failed him. But as he sits alone on the steps of Greendale, the rest of the group comes out to him, showing him that even when he fails, they’ll still be there to help him up. They are a community, after all.

  F. F-.

“Conflicts like this will ultimately bring us together as an unlikely family.”

“Spanish 101” is a much smaller episode of Community, which is not necessarily surprising, nor a bad thing. Where the pilot set up the manipulation theme that would run throughout the entire season (and somewhat into the rest of the series), “Spanish 101” deals with trying too hard, and the effect it has on this unlikely group of friends. As the study group waits studiously for Jeff to arrive, Britta has become annoyed with his tardiness (“Sorry, Abed.”), bringing up important world events they should be more concerned with than Jeff. This sets off Shirley and Annie, the queens of trying too hard, and they press Britta for more information. For the moment, she’s saved by Jeff, even if he immediately makes another desperate play for Britta’s affections with an ironic card. It’s Pierce who senses Jeff’s desperation as a cry for a friend, and the seeds of the episode have been planted.

“Spanish 101” is notable for introducing us to Ken Jeong’s Señor Chang, a Spanish professor at Greendale. While he may become problematic later in the series’ run, Chang’s introduction speech, where he informs the class that he doesn’t “want to have any conversations about what a mysterious and inscrutable man” he is (aided by a creepy laugh, a bad accent, and pantomime beard-stroking), is one of the funniest gags in the first season, and Jeong’s performance in the first season of Community is a standout in his career. Where Jeong would play more manic or insane in many other roles (and even this one, further down the road), the first season sees Jeong working from a raging deadpan, and even when he occasionally shifts into more involved gags, there’s still an acidity that keeps the performance grounded.

Anywho, Señor Chang gives the class their assignment, short conversations using some key Spanish phrases, pairing off the class using the hilariously kid-friendly method of matching cards with words and pictures. Jeff attempts to manipulate again, trading his shirt for Abed’s “casa” card in order to work with Britta, but she’s once again two steps ahead, having already traded Pierce her card. And so, Jeff and Pierce become the unlikely partners Pierce thinks Jeff so desperately needs.

As they begin work on their assignment, Pierce informs Jeff that he does nothing the easy way, instead saying they need to begin plotting out story ideas (if you know anything about Dan Harmon’s writing technique, it’s no coincidence that Pierce draws a circle to map the plot). Though he stays initially, perhaps to the due to Pierce’s scotch (“Hemingway’s lemonade!” he calls it), Jeff quickly becomes irritated by how grandiose Pierce has made the assignment. All Jeff sees is an old man trying too hard for a grade, and for a friend, and as his anger bursts forth, he leaves Pierce to hunt down Britta and continue his quest of trying too hard to win her.

When Britta arrives to Annie and Shirley’s protest for Guatemalan reporter Chacata Panecos, she is aghast at what she sees as trying too hard. Shirley does not take kindly, reprimanding Britta for telling them they’re protesting “wrong” just because it’s not how she would do it, and Britta realizes that, for all her bravado, she doesn’t actually do anything. She offers to help, and is given a Chacata Panecos piñata to hang up (“You guys do know he was beaten to death, right?”). Later, Jeff, Troy, and Abed have all joined the protest, where Jeff tries to talk to Britta. His conversation is cut short by a drunk, raving Pierce (even though Annie calls it “the face of dementia”), who crashes the protest, tries to admonish Jeff, and subsequently catches his coat on fire. All that trying too hard, down the drain.

Or is it? The next morning, Shirley and Annie are ecstatic that their protest has made the local paper (Shirley insists it’s a real paper because “there’s a Marmaduke in there”), even if it’s just the last paragraph of a story about Pierce catching fire. Jeff sees this, and realizes that sometimes, trying too hard can pay off, even if it’s not the most desired effect. And as Pierce enters with Señor Chang, ready to give his presentation himself, Jeff steps up and volunteers to do the presentation together. What follows is one of Community‘s greatest scenes, a slow-motion montage (set to “It’s Not” by Aimee Man) featuring maracas, the flag of Israel, Jeff and Pierce as robots, Annie as a captured Native American, a silly string fight, and ends with Jeff and Pierce triumphantly hold up sparklers. And though Chang is not impressed (he gives them an F and an F-), Jeff is sure the payoff will come. As he goes up to Britta after class to receive his reward for trying too hard, she informs him that no woman who saw that presentation could ever think of him as sexually viable. A stunned Jeff is left to realize that trying too hard can only work when, well, you just don’t try so hard at it. Those dichotomous contradictions are inherent to Community‘s soul, and will help form the beating heart at the center of the series.

 Pilot: B+
Spanish 101: A-

 Stray Observations

  • Welcome to my weekly Community reviews! As I said before, these will tackle two episodes a week for the next twelve weeks, with the last week being just the season finale (“Pascal’s Triangle Revisited”). I’ll be using this space every week to point out gags, quotes, and other miscellanea I don’t get to in my regular reviews. Feel free to contribute your favorites as well.

  • The pilot has a very subtle theme of perception running through it, as Dean Pelton, Pierce, and Jeff all refer to the members of the study groups through their own paradigms. All of them are reductive and manipulative, but of course, only Jeff’s is successful.

  • I want to point out the playful energy of Ludwig Göransson’s score. His work also graces New Girl, Happy Endings, and the Childish Gambino album Camp.

  • Jeff: “Sorry, I was raised on TV, and I was conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor.”
    Cafeteria worker: “Were you conditioned to pay for your damn tacos, SeinFIELD?”

  • The pilot episode is in memoriam of John Hughes, who passed away in 2009, making the abundance of The Breakfast Club references more poignant.

  • “You know, bluffs this weak are how your people lost the colonies.”

  • The pilot episode features the first reference to Greendale as a toilet, a gag that will culminate in the near-perfect “Basic Rocket Science”.

  • Dean Pelton’s announcements in the beginning of “Spanish 101” are all terrific. My favorite: “Whoever is growing a small patch of cannabis behind the gymnasium, congratulations, you have won a cruise! Report to security to claim your tickets!”

  • As Britta becomes concerned that Abed can’t differentiate life and television, Jeff enters the room like the Fonz.

  • Ken Jeong’s “Ya bit?!” is a masterpiece of inflection, conciseness, and comedic attitude all rolled into one.

  • “Spanish 101” gives us the first appearance of Starburns, played by Moral Orel creator and Community writer/producer Dino Stamatopoulos.

  • “Spanish 101” also features the show’s first tag, “Spanish Rap”, my favorite non-Troy and Abed in the Morning tag of the series.