Fidel Castro in Flip-Flops

Community - Season 5

Community, “App Development and Condiments”

As a regular listener of Harmontown, Dan Harmon’s soapbox/talk show podcast, many of the themes of “App Development and Condiments” have been funneled into my earholes of late. These themes have also been popping up in other media, such as the Oscar-winning Spike Jonze film Her (about a man who falls in love with his OS) or the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” (impossible to sum up in a single sentence but worth watching). But “App Development” doesn’t feel like a retread. Instead, it offers a glimpse into old relationships that have been given short shrift by Community and revisits some classic character traits that underline the entire series, all while being an agreeable balance of funny and totally insane.

Truthfully, the plot of the episode is both full of class-warfare cliches (think your Hunger Gameses and Elysiums) and also zooms around quite a lot. It’s… well, it’s sort of a mess. But the actual plot is infinitely less important than its impetus: the introduction of the MeowMeowBeenz app. A social media app that allows users to rate others based on their behavior on any given day, in any given situation, the internal mechanics of MeowMeowBeenz are appropriately arbitrary and prejudiced, giving the higher-rated users more control, regardless of how they earned their four or five MeowMeowBeenz. This tosses the power structure of Greendale into relative chaos: Shirley and Annie use their natural pleasantness to immediately rise to the top, though Shirley’s loudness about her niceties gives her more real power; Hickey figures out that he can game the system by just saying it’s his birthday, therefore rising in the rankings without having to do the work; Abed is content to be middle of the road, like the majority of students, though unwittingly finds himself floating to the upper tier by the sheer nature of the growing class divide; Britta brittas the whole ordeal, keeping herself a two for the whole episode; and Jeff initially rejects MeowMeowBeenz, then struggles with the concept of not just being cool, though he’s eventually admitted into the fives by way of a talent show and Van Wilder-copping Mitch Hurwitz. (Chang, as per usual, isn’t really given his own story, though he does end up with the fours and fives with dual canes, so, okay.)

Giving Shirley power is a dangerous game, one Community has flirted with playing several times before. “App Development” takes these flirtations to their extreme, giving Shirley ultimate power as she abuses her manipulative gifts in truly Jeff Winger-fashion in order to ascend to the top. As we’ve seen before, Shirley and Jeff have a complicated history, and are so similar that “normal” friendship is always just outside of their grasps. That Jeff is the only person able to coax Shirley out of her motherly bubble is telling. (That taking Shirley down matters so much to Jeff is equally telling.) Their big fight, and ultimate exile into the outerlands, is one of the episode’s proofs of the false reality of MeowMeowBeenz. When society is organized based on a numeric ranking of what others think of you, the real persona is pushed down, replaced by a blander, less-jagged version, one trying to appeal to as many people as possible. Real people can be mean and unpleasant, but they also retain the ability to express themselves. The fight between Jeff and Shirley isn’t even that major—Jeff didn’t invite Shirley to a dinner with the rest of the group because he already knew she couldn’t go—but even just a few moments of them hashing out the issue results in their rankings sinking like stones. The world of MeowMeowBeenz can allow for passive-aggression, but any real emotion or expression of feelings becomes suspect and hostile and unfit for the upper tiers. Only fake personas and sterile environments allowed.

Britta gets the other major story, though hers only really takes off in the third act. Relegated to the twos and threes, Britta is lost in a sea of people with no individuality and no real drive other than to impress the fours and fives with the faint hope of possibly joining them. While Jeff and Shirley are ousted, Britta finally starts her revolution, smearing mustard on her face and convincing the twos and threes that they are still individuals, that they are legion, and that they can overthrow their oppressors. Not only does this uprising work, but Britta finally has the power she has so longed railed against. Of course, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Britta immediately begins enacting the Scarecrow trial scene from The Dark Knight Rises, with the fours and fives taking the place of Gotham’s elite and powerful. It’s a small victory for Britta, but it also highlights the other proof of the false reality of MeowMeowBeenz: everyone is desperate to be liked and willing to do whatever it takes to get there. But a classic Winger speech breaks the whole charade down as he declares that there is one last five who must be judged, and that’s MeowMeowBeenz itself. With the sound of hundreds of deletions, normality suddenly returns to Greendale, and Britta, who only tasted power for a short while, is once again left alone. (To add insult to injury, Dean Pelton immediately urges everyone to forget the whole ordeal ever happened.)

There’s a lot of things to talk about in “App Development and Condiments,” from the bevy of guest stars (in addition to Hurwitz, Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, and [I believe] Jen Kirkman all appear) to the isolationism of the modern age (or the fact that the power struggle is ultimately empty, as it mainly involves the same people who already had power to begin with), but I think “App Development” works best as a character study, a brief look at just what these people will do when the slot for Top Dog is left open to whoever can manipulate their way there. In that sense, it reminds me heavily of “Contemporary American Poultry,” one of my all-time favorite episodes and one that asks similar questions about power, only this time Shirley fills the Abed role. But the episode is not malicious in its intent. Community has shown us how awful the study group can seem and be to the rest of the school, but it never actively seeks to destroy its characters, only make them better. And even the worst indulgences reveal the goodness underneath; Britta’s revolution and ultimate seat of power actually lead to the downfall of the false realtiy of MeowMeowBeenz, and even if it stings, it is the result she ultimately wanted. “App Development and Condiments” may be the zaniest episode of the season thus far, but like the best concept episodes, it’s riding on the same themes and characters that have always lifted Community to its highest peaks.

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“Advanced Criminal Law”/”Football, Feminism and You”

Gentlemen, my client is insane.
“…do we really want to make it a crime to be crazy at Greendale?”

“Advanced Criminal Law”

During the course of the average human existence, we will all find ourselves drifting in and out of the lives of those around us at any given time. Of course, those other people are experiencing the same phenomenon, the differences being where we come from, and where we are now. Though millions of these overlaps can occur in a lifetime, it’s the ones where lives truly intersect that are the most interesting. What happens when two (or more) lives intersect is the basis of our relationships, and our actions within these intersections form not just who we are, but also how we are perceived. Personality and perception are inherently linked, and the right kind of person, say, the Jeff Wingers of the world, capitalize on that link, manipulating perceptions to boost their personality, then using that personality to manipulate perceptions, and so on in an endless cycle. So what is it about Britta Perry that causes Jeff’s cycle to, if not crash entirely, at least falter?

This is an interesting question, and one Community is only barely diving into. It’s just such a shame that the episode where the real digging begins is so lackluster. “Advanced Criminal Law,” much like this week’s other episode, is finishing the job of setting up our characters. The main plot, where Britta admits to cheating on a Spanish test, pairs up Jeff and Britta once again. The problem is that it’s unclear what more needs to be established between the two. Jeff continues his attempts to seduce Britta, who continues to deftly avoid his seduction. After she admits to cheating, Jeff offers his skills to Britta, one of his most blatant attempts at manipulating and gaining leverage. That Britta accepts his offer makes sense; Britta sees Jeff as a friend, and understands that his experience as a lawyer could help her during her tribunal. Jeff lobs around barbed sarcasm, Britta opens up to him, and he drives the story home with a Winger Speech. Case closed. It doesn’t add much, but it’s inoffensive, and the tribunal’s location (Greendale’s Olympic-sized pool) makes for some great gags. (Who doesn’t laugh at Leonard skinny-dipping? At the very least, his “Busted!” is one of Leonard’s best moments.)

Things become more problematic in the subplots. I’ll be blunt: Troy and Abed make a great team, but Abed pretending to be an alien to try and “mess” with Troy (because get it, Asperger’s!) is just too silly. Troy and Abed’s stories work best when the absurdity is gentle. The alien plot is too broad, and while Danny Pudi gets in some great physical humor, it doesn’t amount to much (until, mild spoilers, much, much later in the series). It’s nice to see their deepening friendship, but even the tag of the episode (see below) does it much more effectively. There are similar problems with “Pierce writes Greendale’s new school song.” The show would do much better with Pierce’s attempts to manipulate the way the study group sees him, but this plot does give us our first real instance of Annie getting tough, a secret weapon that will become one of the character’s greatest strengths in the future. Plus, the payoff, with Pierce performing “Greendale’s the Way It Goes,” an oblivious rip-off of Bruce Hornsby’s “That’s Just the Way It Is,” is remarkably triumphant. It’s a moment where cynicism gives way to tenderness, which is Community‘s stock and trade, but it works all the same, and serves as a nice cap to an otherwise subpar episode.

vlcsnap-2013-07-19-03h10m25s20

“Say hello to our ethnically neutral mascot, the Greendale Human Being!”

“Football, Feminism and You”

“Football, Feminism and You” deals not only with perceptions, but what causes these perceptions. Troy and Britta have both set up walls, based in past experiences, in order to protect their images. A stranger or casual acquaintance would have no reason to ever tear down the walls, but in order for relationships to deepen, walls must come down, and perceptions must change. It’s work for all involved, but it’s also necessary in order to establish truthful, meaningful relationships.

While the episode is ostensibly about Troy, the main conflict is between Jeff and Annie: both want to use Troy for their own (mostly) selfish reasons. Annie is nursing a high school crush, and has finally found a way to situate herself close to Troy, and become someone he can (and must) depend on for academic success. Jeff needs Troy to join the football team and appease Dean Pelton, who blackmails Jeff with posters and mailers featuring Jeff’s picture. (It should be noted that aside from the blackmail, Dean Pelton has stakes in Troy’s decision to join the football team or not. His attempts at legitimizing Greendale are a persistent runner of the season.) Annie and Jeff become the angel and devil on Troy’s shoulders, pulling him between academia and football. But our past informs our present, and it’s no surprise that Classic Winger Coercion brings Troy right back into his high school jock persona. But while both Jeff and Annie consider Troy’s decision as their own personal tug-of-war, neither realizes that Troy’s experiences are his own. It’s a relief when, at the end of the episode, Troy gives Jeff his own take on the Winger Speech, telling the truth about his accident, and explaining that he’s comfortable where he is. After the initial, douche-y jolt of adrenaline from the idea of playing football again wears off, he sees the situation much more clearly than Jeff or Annie, both consumed by their attempts to manipulate another in order to alter the way they’re perceived, could.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, Britta struggles with the idea of women going to the bathroom together. Let’s all be honest: the premise is as sitcom-y as they come. But instead of silly hijinks, Shirley forces Britta is explore her own femininity (and vice versa). Britta, so far in the series, is a woman defined by her isolation. Her refusal to let anyone close is not limited Jeff, and at least in the case of her relationship to other women, was created by a long history of being ostracized for not conforming to the same ideas of femininity as other girls. Shirley, much more traditionally feminine, initially ostracizes Britta herself, not out of meanness, but only because she interprets Britta’s coldness as a lack of feminine camaraderie. It’s only after the truth about the past comes out that both Britta and Shirley can see what the other is offering. It’s a wonderful moment, then, when a crying Annie (caused by Jeff over in the A-plot) asks Shirley to accompany her to the restroom, only for Shirley to encourage Britta to go instead. Britta’s rebellious nature and stand-offish approach to soapy drama makes her prickly towards Shirley’s restroom banter, but after learning the true nature of the lady’s room, she turns those qualities around and uses them to help Annie. Britta believes in female empowerment, and is herself a strong woman, but because of her history, was averse to the shared feminine experience. Her ultimate revelation is that, while restroom banter may seem childish to her, it’s a pure, visceral form of female empowerment. It’s a way for Britta to share her strength, as well as forge the deeply personal connections with other women she had been denied throughout her life.

It’s the idea of whether or not a person needs help with the way they’re perceived that drives “Football, Feminism and You.” Jeff, Annie and Shirley make assumptions about Troy and Britta, about what they are and what they need, and those assumptions are incorrect. Troy and Britta may have both carefully groomed the way they’re seen by others, but those perceptions were built on fallacies. While our pasts may inform our present, it’s the truth about the past that makes us into the people we want, and need, to be.

Advanced Criminal Law: B-
Football, Feminism and You: B+

Stray Observations:

  • One good thing “Advanced Criminal Law” gives us is a greater sense of place. Not only do we get appearances from Starburns(!), Leonard(!!) and Garrett(CRISIS ALERT!!!), but also Dean Pelton, Señor Chang, and Professor Duncan. And Luis Guzman! (Okay, it’s just a statue, but still!)

  • Jeff: “Cheers.”
    Abed: “M*A*S*H.”
    Duncan: “Fawlty Towers. Game over. Have a nice day.”

  • “The only difference between Señor Chang and Stalin is that I know who Chang is.”

  • Pierce playing Annie out of the room might be a cliche (especially in the post-Keyboard Cat world), but it’s still funny.

  • “Dean Pelton, I move that this case be thrown out of… the pool area!”

  • “I’m sorry, do you mind if we have this conversation in a room with slightly less balls?”

  • “Pierce and Troy didn’t get along at first, but now they’re bonding over mutual adolescence.”

  • “Football, Feminism and You” gives us a truly fantastic C-plot where the dean and Pierce work together to create Greendale’s new mascot. The result is the truly horrific Human Being, one of Greendale’s most enduring, and hilarious, quirks.

  • Jim Rash does some great work in both of these episodes. His insistence on receiving a high-five from Jeff near the beginning of “Football, Feminism and You” is such a perfect piece of physical humor, played terrifically by both.

  • Troy: “How did you know my nickname was T-Bone?”
    Jeff: “Because you’re a football player and your name begins with ‘T.’ Your name… begins with ‘T.'”

  • “Troy, why are you doing our politically conservative high school’s shamefully outdated fight rap?”

  • “I think not being racist is the new racism.”

  • “I’m not having a conversation with someone who just emerged from a bush.”

  • This week’s tags: Troy and Abed take turns trying to fit as many (unsharpened) pencils as possible into each other’s mouths, and break into the main office to make their own morning zoo announcements over the PA.

“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.

One By One They All Just Fade Away: Why Community doesn’t need a fifth season

I’ll admit, I was late to the Community game. I only got into the show about two years ago, during the summer before the third season. But about halfway through the first season, I knew I loved it. I knew it spoke to me in ways few shows had before, and few have since. It’s probably the second most important TV show in my life (behind Lost, which will always be the show that made me love and appreciate television). I follow the cast like a hawk, keeping an eye on any and all new projects they’re working on. I’ve been an active participant player of the “Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne” game on Reddit. I will argue violently that “Remedial Chaos Theory” is the best-written episode of television comedy ever. And yet, despite all this, I can’t help but feel that tomorrow’s season four finale, “Advanced Introduction to Finality”, needs to be the end of the series.

In case you missed it, in the tumultuous time following season three, the Community fanbase grew to a rabid beast that no mere NBC or Sony executive could ignore. While the idea of TV fandoms have been around for a while, often attributed to huge commercial successes like Glee or era-spanning cultural definers like Doctor Who, you can thank the Human Beings (the name members of the fandom have given themselves) for helping to push the idea strongly into the forefront of the cultural consciousness. So while live ratings continue to plummet (though not a problem exclusive to Community or even its network, the flailing NBC), it seems the fandom is more huge and rabid than ever. So, only naturally, there has been a large push for NBC to renew the show for a fifth season (at this time, NBC has not renewed any of its current comedies).

But what exactly fuels this renewal mania? Obviously, if you become emotionally attached to a show, the natural inclination is to want it to run as long as possible. The never-ending cries from fans of beloved cult shows like Pushing Daisies or Party Down are more than enough proof. But Community exists in a more bizarre situation: after all that caterwauling for a fourth season, very few actually turned up for the premiere (and even less showed up for subsequent weeks). I’ve read more internet comments and Tumblr posts than I care to count about how “it’s just not the same”, or the more malicious “Community is garbage now!” “Community is the biggest disappointment on television,” etc, etc. An astounding number of those same fans who clamored for this new season have become dismissive of the show under its new showrunners, yet still show up every week to watch, undoubtedly to better fuel their tirade of jokes on Twitter. (Funny enough, the last time I remember a season of television being this divisive among fans was Lost.)

And yet, here we are again. On the eve of the season four finale, a massive movement has broken out online, including a contribution from the big dog itself, Sony, to watch the season four finale live and live-tweet the show as a message to NBC that they’d better renew the show for a fifth season. And while I find it admirable, I have only one question: Why? Dan Harmon, the show’s creator, has said time and time again that the show was never meant to run longer than four seasons (it is a show centered around a college degree, after all). Even the most ardent spoiler-avoider must be aware that “Advanced Introduction to Finality” will deal with Jeff and the study group’s completion of their time at Greendale. It’s the main narrative thread that’s driven the entire series. There’s no real reason the show has to stop, as there will always be stories to mine from the characters and their relationships, even without the titular community college to bring them all together, but it’s just not the right direction for the show.

For as much as Community is about the personal relationships forged between its main cast, the show works best when built around Group Study Room F. Part of season four’s uneasy oddness can be directly traced to a lack of study room. Group Study Room F, and in a larger sense, Greendale Community College itself, is essentially a character in the show, much like The Simpsons‘ Springfield or Parks and Recreation‘s Pawnee. Like those, Greendale is filled to the brim with eclectic and entertaining characters that almost seem to inhabit their own show when they’re not floating in and out of ours. Be it the screechy-voiced Garrett, always in need of saving, the party-starting Magnitude, whose dialogue consists almost entirely of the phrase “Pop pop!”, or one of Greendale’s more tragic figures, Todd, a war veteran that the study group sees as an enemy, but is really just a guy with a child trying to make something of his life after returning home. And that’s not even mentioning Greendale’s wonderfully zany professors and faculty, of which two have become series regulars in the form of Jim Rash’s Dean Pelton and Ken Jeong’s Ben Chang.

To pull Greendale from Community‘s formula would be the equivalent of losing a main cast member, which would be especially problematic for Community. Chevy Chase, who plays Pierce Hawthorne, has already exited the show, and his split from them was messy and, by the accounts of cast members, writers, and Dan Harmon, extremely mean-spirited. Chase has a long history of being difficult to work with, so none of that was necessarily surprising, but it left the show in a hard place. His arc through the second and third seasons saw him wrestle with feelings of inadequacy amongst the study group, at times becoming the show’s antagonist, but his redemption at the end of season three, especially in the penultimate episode “Digital Estate Planning”, left the character open for a challenging and fulfilling arc in season four. However, Chase’s exit forced the show to sideline Pierce, instead reducing him to rehashed jokes from seasons past and entire episodes where his name is barely mentioned.

Which is all to say: can Community survive a fifth season, especially when losing not only a main cast member, but also the character that is Greendale Community College? On some level, yes, it could. This season, like many a season four before it, has seen the show shift from a forward thinking, challenging invention of a mad whacked-on-pills scientist to a show that just wants to please its fans (which, let’s be clear, is not a bad thing, and trust me when I say that it’s happened to at least one of your favorite shows). But this isn’t just any old show we’re talking about, this is Community. The show inherently has a built-in narrative structure that would make it difficult to move past Greendale, even if it hadn’t become the rich world it is now.

And most of all, is it worth it to try and extend the life of a show, especially a comedy, beyond its natural endpoint? One simply needs to watch one of Community‘s night-mates, The Office, to see a show that has been pumped so full of drugs to keep it going that it’s literally falling apart at the seams. The Office reached a natural endpoint in possibly its most moving and poignant episode, “Goodbye, Michael”, yet NBC insisted on keeping it around for two more years. Community, like The Office, has a rich supply of supporting characters to keep the show afloat, but not even The Office risked leaving its Scranton, Pennsylvania office park for any extended period of time. So I say, let Community go on its terms. Everything about “Advanced Introduction to Finality”, from the episode description to the title to its mere existence, reads “End of Series”, and I can’t help feel a fifth season would barely be able to bring much, let alone closure. To quote Nietzsche: “The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.” Community has reached its goal; it’s time for us to accept it, and say goodbye.