Episode 104: Social Psychology
Community Season 1, Episode 4: Social Psychology
Part of the fun of this project is that it allows us to look back on the first few episodes with all the knowledge of three seasons worth of characterization and see how much the characters have changed or how little. When I thought about this episode in the past, I always thought it was a brilliant episode, but that Shirley was behaving wildly out of character. To my surprise, upon reconsidering it, this episode really creates the Shirley that I love and is remarkably consistent with Shirley's personality throughout the rest of the series, much more so than the pilot. In fact, out of these first few episodes, this is quite possibly the most important at establishing the dynamics within the group as well as with the greater world of Greendale Community College.
At the start of this episode Jeff purposefully avoids Shirley because he thinks talking to her is just going to be a never ending parade of "That's nice!"es. It is easy to forget this moment once Shirley's sarcastic streak takes over latter in the episode, but this scene establishes how the study group views her. Despite the fact that she is, as oft stated, almost the same age as Jeff, they all view her as a motherly, nice, Christian housewife. This is somewhat an artifact of the pilot where Shirley was supposed to be considerably older than Jeff, but she had to be de-aged once they cast Yvette Nicole Brown who is the same age as Joel McHale. But the truth is that Shirley has one of the darkest pasts out of any member of the group, and she is one of the strongest characters. The Christian sweetness and niceness is, more than anything, her way of controlling her anger and hostility. Shirley calls herself a "pot stirrer," which is a very accurate summation of the character. But the group all too often only sees that surface layer and write her off as nothing more than an annoying, superficial friend.
Much to Jeff's surprise, Shirley can get mean. In fact she's better at being mean and sarcastic than he is, as he realizes when she gets Vaughn to strip in the cafeteria. But this is what actually creates a bond between the two of them. This is a turning point in the entire series, as this is the first time Jeff actually seeks out the company of a member of the study group simply because he enjoys their company, rather than because he wants something from them. Shirley is actually his very first friend. There is a beautiful, but subtle, symmetry at work in this episode. Shirley has an almost identical personality to Britta, his primary interest, but that personality manifests wildly differently in the two women. Both are strident, abrasive believers whose passionate, but rigid outlook alienates most people. Both are deeply insecure about people in general, and in particular their connections to the other members of the study group. Shirley is also the only person besides Britta in these early episodes not to be charmed by Jeff's onslaught of bullshit. This episode reveals she hasn't even been paying attention to his trademark Jeff Winger speeches, as she thinks he was a doctor, and then when he corrects her, she calls talking to him boring.
The other major element at play is the introduction of Vaughn. Prior to this episode, the study group has been remarkably insular. Their only real interactions have been with each other. The introduction of a new character allows us to see how they interact with outsiders. The thing about the study group is that they are lovable losers. They are sweet, innocent, kind, and adorable… just so long as they are at the very bottom rung of the social ladder. The moment they get any kind of power, the corruption and nastiness sets in immediately. Vaughn is so sweet and nice that he hands Britta his heart, and she throws it to the ground (by sharing a very personal poem meant only for her with Jeff), and then the entire rest of the study group starts jumping on top of it. Because they are so fun, and we love them so much, it's sometimes easy to forget that the members of this study group are deeply flawed people and often not very nice.
The other plot line is quite a bit thinner, but still just as important. It begins with Annie asking Troy and Abed to participate in a psychology experiment. Abed responds, in his Abed way, that he and Annie don't particularly have much in common or much reason to interact, but then agrees to help her because she says they are friends. This scene is sort of an aspirational goal for the series, one that it has not been as successful in pursuing as the show would probably like. One of the problems with ensemble comedy is that certain groups of characters (usually pairs) work really well together, and so they always wind up segmenting into the same groupings. The golden standard of comedy is show where any character can be matched up with any other character and it will be just as successful and logical as any other pairing. The most notable example is "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." With this scene, Dan Harmon and friends are specifically stating they want to be that kind of show, rather than one like "Friends" where the same groups of characters were always paired together. Over the course of three seasons, they've somewhat failed at that goal. "Competitive Ecology" is, more or less, a half-hour long admission that the show has become far, far too reliant on Jeff and Annie, and Troy and Abed.
As this plot progresses we see one of the first of what will become one of the defining features of "Community," which is just how deep the bonds of friendship are between these characters. Each one of them has specific limits, but the moment that a friend is in need they will cross any and all limits to help them. In this case it is Abed sitting perfectly still in a room for twenty-six hours straight.
The show ends with Pierce telling Jeff, "There was certain things man was not meant to hear. We were designed, by whatever entity you choose, to hear what's in this range and really this range alone because you know whose talking to us in this range? The people we love." It's really a comment on Jeff's inherent problem throughout the series. He spends so much time being concerned with being cool and what people think, that he fails to listen to the people closest to him, which are the ones, apparently the only ones, who love him.
EXTRA THOUGHTS! (Because this wasn't already long enough!)
- "Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism" basically is this exact same episode done over. Jeff dismisses Shirley as nothing more than a nice, Christian housewife, only to discover she's a secret badass and better than him at something. It's a shame we haven't gotten more Jeff-Shirley plotlines since those two bring out the worst in each other.
- I like to think we all got to see the Duncan Principal at work during season two when people started to freak out about Pierce.
- This episode marks the first appearance of Garret!
- I want a pair of ear-noculars
- "I never knew that's what 'asexual' meant."
- When Annie's sanity starts slipping she starts putting pens in her hair.
- First time we learn Troy likes butt stuff.
- Did Abed use the bathroom at any point during those twenty-six hours? Discuss!
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On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-395060484 (page 42)