“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.
“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.
Spanish 101: A-
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.