Episode 101: Pilot
101 – Pilot
This may read as a bit defensive, only because I've far too often seen Community's pilot being written off as a lackluster start to a great series and I'm just not having any of that. The AV Club's very own Steve Heisler had this to say in his 'For Our Consideration' piece on unfunny pilots:
And as far as Community is concerned, I imagine some meeting where a network executive asked, probably while checking his Blackberry, “So what’s this show about?” It’s much easier to say, “A group of misfits are forced to get along at a community college” than it is to say, “Pop culture and paintball,” and thus the pilot focuses on the forming of the study group and Jeff’s obsession with bedding Britta. Comedy born out of plot is never going to be as rich as comedy born out of characters—-plots are disposable and characters are a constant. It’s like eating a cookie for dinner instead of a Michelle Obama-approved meal.
What else was the pilot charged with if not the "forming of the study group" and having its central character compelled to stay at Greendale? As for that last sentence, I DON'T GET IT!!
So fine, there are a few things incongruous with the rest of the series: Most importantly, Jeff Winger wears track pants; Britta is offered as his joyless love interest, teasing an ostensible will-they-won't-they that always hits TV critics square in the baby maker; the production isn't as stylish as it would eventually get; and some of the dialogue feels 'written', in the voice of Dan Harmon. It's not a fully-realized series right off the bat. Whoopee-flippin-ding. I'd make the argument that people too often define a great pilot by its homogeneity with the rest of the series and I like that Community didn't limit itself from the start but, rather, set character dynamics and themes into motion that stand to this day while also leaving plenty of room for growth and tinkering.
As I said, the pilot was charged with establishing Jeff as a moral relativist whose compulsion for self-interest is rooted in his bone marrow. Joel McHale plays Jeff with such charisma that it's impossible not to be won over by him and root for him to change, no matter the terrible things he does, and he is written with great conviction as someone who would be completely lost without his faculties in manipulation and caddish charm. We open with Jeff immediately making inroads on the hot blonde in Spanish class. What he doesn't expect is for a self-assured, pretty woman to take out his knees with a simple question, "What's your deal?" Jeff is thrown off his game and stumbles for a response before revealing more about himself than he wished to: "I would say anything to get what I want and I want you to like me."
Of all the characters, Britta's behavior clashes the most with her current self. We learn through two info dumps that she's 28, has two older brothers, dropped out of high school because she thought it would impress Radiohead, joined the Peace Corps, did some foot modeling, and got tear gased at free trade rally. This whirlwind of information about her and not the others leads me to think it was done for a reason. I think her guardedness with Jeff ("uh, don't hit on me, OK?") and babysitting as the group turns on each other is all a facade. I don't believe for a second that she values "honesty above all", but she sure as hell wants to believe that about herself. As we learn soon enough, Britta "wants everyone to be honest, but lies to herself. She's seen the world but doesn't get it. She has more fights about things that don't matter than a Youtube comments section."
Similarly, Troy, Shirley, Annie and Pierce are portrayed as distillations of the aspects of themselves they want to present to strangers, although, unlike with Britta, they operate on a more unconscious level. Troy proudly flaunts his jock and prom king credentials because he's accustomed to that status and believes it to be the pinnacle of manhood. His entitlement and chest-beating cause him to be a prick to Annie (outing her past), Jeff (calls him Seacrest), and Abed (leaves his homework for Slumdog Millionaire). Troy Barnes never had to make friends in high school, so why should he have to now? Shedding his letter jacket, to him, would be a sign of weakness. Troy will quickly befriend Abed but he will still guard his masculinity early on ("You stick to quoting movie lines. I'll stick to sports.").
Shirley is immediately on the defensive, making her identity as a single, divorced mother known and that she commands respect. It's also clear she had come to know Annie and enjoys playing mother ("Annie, sweetie,…") but Annie, who is a driven and self-reliant young woman, will not be infantilized (she'll do that herself, thank you very much) and she hits back with a cutting retort about Shirley's age being indicative of her poor decisions. Shirley suppresses her aggression; rage is such an inherent part of her that she has to physically muffle herself and burrow thoughts and emotion if she doesn't want them coming out. Jeff, seeing an opening for conflict, immediately goads her on and Shirley starts off diplomatically before letting some suspiciously specific rage slip through her defenses. This is a perfectly crafted exchange and it's an enduring conflict between the two that will get a full treatment when they play campus cops in The Science of Illusion.
Pierce crafts an image of himself as an urbane free spirit, "a prominent business leader and a highly sought dinner guest", but if he is all those things, why is he at a Community college conversing with young people when the camera cuts to him as the Dean says "old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity"? It's an self-image that exists in Pierce's mind alone. Everyone else sees a senile, lonely old man who pushes everyone who cares about him away. When Jeff flatters him as someone with wisdom to offer, Pierce starts off on a tangent about being tight with the Dalai Lama. He may yet know the Dalai Lama with all his connections and privilege, but has he made any substantive and lasting human connections?
Abed is on the periphery taking it all in. As I said a few weeks ago, what gets lost in the "Jeff's study group" labeling is that it's actually Abed who formed the group. Jeff had lied about being a tutor to pursue Britta and that's as far as he intended to go with his "study group". Earlier, Abed had met his Elizabeth Shue in Britta and sized Jeff up as a leader of men. Britta invited him to the group and he immediately saw the Breakfast Club parallel and an opportunity to study and observe human character. My theory is that he went and filled out the roster with the other personality types he wanted to observe. At this point, Abed isn't thinking 'six seasons and a movie' just yet; he's only thinking about that one day or a semester max and the irony is that his own experiment will come to transform himself just as much as the others.
Abed's arc in this episode is getting to the magnificent payoff that was the Bender quote. From "I've got a little doozy in the chamber if things get emotional" to "Oh this is getting way more like Breakfast Club now" to him biding his time for the perfect moment to step in with the quote, it was a clinic in comedic escalation. It's important to note that only two characters are presented as pop culturally literate and that is still true to this day aside from Troy's advances in that area and despite the claims of critics who think everyone is making references all the time. When Abed interjects with the reference, no one gets it (Pierce: "there's breakfast?") and Joe Russo deftly communicates that with this shot:
But Jeff, who was raised on TV, does get it and Abed is delighted to have found someone who gets these things with him. Their shared literacy of pop culture will be revisited often throughout the series as something that puts Jeff and Abed on the sidelines observing the group through the prism of tropes and references. For instance, the ending of The Science of Illusion, and Cooperative Calligraphy where Abed insists they're in a bottle episode until Jeff finally admits it to Gwynnifer.
Community has been called alienating, overly self-referential and meta, smug and all manner of negative characterizations that can be summed up with the neutral phrase, "it's not timeless". It's certainly not that. What it is is time-ly. Here we have a sitcom that taps into our current cultural subconscious and inverts the traditional artist-audience compact where what we saw in art was mere commentary on the social mores and cultural movements of reality. This show flips the script and suggests that over the last several decades society has been marinated in the soup of pop culture to the point that we've internalized Star Wars and John Hughes movies and become a reflection of the very art we create.
Meanwhile, Jeff had spent his day going back and forth between the group and Duncan, alternatively fanning the flames and putting them out to suit his needs. The amusing thing about his big Winger Speech is that it's pretty much nonsense, albeit delivered to be inspiring and supported with the almost ironically rousing music. What does his speech about the uniquely human quality of empathy have to do with the group he paid only intermittent attention to? Not much, but it worked, and it just goes to show that Winger Speeches often ring hollow beyond their fuzzy exterior. He flatters everyone with generic praise for characteristics he gleaned by spending a few minutes with them, but Britta sees through it and Jeff shows the ease with which he can alternate between his Bill Murray and Michael Douglas sides.
It's surprising to me that people would frame the pilot and much of the early run as hotshot Jeff chasing the hot blonde when its final scene clearly outlined the driving force early on being Jeff's great humbling and needing the help of others for possibly first time in his life. His arc concludes with him learning he literally and figuratively doesn't have all the answers. It's not the most elegant construct for a pilot but it definitely wasn't about Britta either.
OK, this review has reached VanDerWerffian levels of verbosity, so I'm just going to leave it at this: I think this is one of the greatest comedy pilots ever and I haven't even mentioned the three awesome Duncan-Jeff scenes yet. Suck it, haters.
- There are red, white, and black balloons behind the Dean as he addresses the crowd and the scoreboard has those colors. I assume this was Greendale's original color scheme.
- Dean Pelton addresses the crowd over a boombox. There are several episodes that open with the Dean making PA announcements (102, 124, 201, 211) and I like the "life at Greendale" feel they engender. I also like all the extras chosen for the students. They really, really look like community college students.
- "I do love America, I love it very much…I love chalupas."
- Chevy Chase fumbling with hot dogs is high comedy. The guy beside him is Dan Eckman of Derrick Comedy.
- "Oh sorry, I was raised on TV and conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor."/ "Were you conditioned to pay for your damn tacos Sein-field?" [This is what I mean by Harmon’s voice seeping into the script.]
- Abed says "cool cool cool" when signing the contact sheet.
- Abed had never gotten a text message. He's incredulous that he got one telling him he has to pee when he doesn't have to.
- Joe Russo's tracking shots of Jeff walking around the table do a great job of establishing the study table as the show's "Cheers bar or Star Trek bridge", as Harmon refers to it.
- Three of Pierce's off-the-cuff names that stuck: Aybed the Arab, Roy the Wonder Boy, and Princess Annie (she's really just his favorite).
- The group talking and, in this case, shouting over one another develops into a shared trait for them. 1. It's just cute and 2. it makes for fun multiple viewings to pick out individuals lines.
- As Jeff heads out to Duncan's car/golf cart, there's an odd piece of music that sounds exactly like a Super Mario World level theme.
- Troy played Zelda and beat it on the first try. He proclaims himself the Barack Obama of the study room.
- Pierce is seven times divorced.
- As Jeff walks away at the end, Pierce tells Jeff he reminds him of himself when he was that age (Jeff: "I deserve that"), thus sowing the seeds for one of Jeff's deepest insecurities and a great character dynamic to be explored later.
- Lots of Asperger-ish Abed here. He dies a little inside when Jeff breaks the pencil. He replies "sure" when Pierce asks if calling him Aybed the Arab is offensive. He recognizes Britta as Elisabeth Shue, possibly by her hair, as he would. At one point, he's screaming in response to all the commotion and Britta comforts him (thus setting up another character dynamic). And, of course, the brilliant "am I deaf?" joke in the last scene.
A.V. Club Link – http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music%2C66270/#comment-388882528 (page 33)