“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!”
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