Episode 109: Debate 109
Oh, the Annie of it all… This is the episode that launched a thousand ships, isn’t it? However, the Jeff/Annie thing isn’t going to be my main focus in this (very, unconscionably, shamelessly late) review, so I want to get it out of the way quickly.
I’m no shipper (in fact I hate shipping! I don’t understand the appeal at all…), but by and large I like the relationship, and I like the way the show’s been using it for both comic and sentimental effect. I don’t really find the age difference creepy, partly because Alison Brie is clearly not 18, but mostly because the show uses it to showcase (for the first time in S1, if I’m not mistaken) that Jeff really does have scruples and some sort of moral compass, even if they’re buried under layers and layers of bullshit. If you think about it, the sudden revelation of Annie’s sexiness leaves Jeff vulnerable. He realizes he can’t act on his desires, but at the same time he can’t quite mock her the way he does Britta. So the only thing left for him is to continue with acting chivalrous and protective, which in turn only feeds Annie’s attraction to him, which, naturally, he can’t quite reciprocate. This feedback loop is a major source of comedy in the episode, amplified of course by the fact that, unlike Jeff, Annie has absolutely no scruples about winning the debate even if it involves some pretty shameless manipulation.
But seriously, I don’t have much more to add about Jeff and Annie. The pairing has been explored to death on these here boards and on every corner of the internet. The “sexy librarian” reveal is very funny, and I will never cease to be amazed at how Brie’s expression can turn from stern to flirty in the blink of an eye. I also find the pat on the head almost unbearably cute. Feel free to go at it in the comments, I’m done!
Debate 109 is a very special episode for me, in that, even if the show has since done some truly brilliant stuff, it’s still the one that’s dearest to me. More than any other episode before (even Intro to Statistics or Spanish 101), this one finally convinced me that Community was a real keeper and not just any other sitcom. And here’s why:
I find the episode flawlessly constructed. Alongside the likes of Physical Education, Conspiracy Theories and Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism, Debate 109 is part of a select group of episodes which employ what I like to call the Tex Avery technique: they start from an apparently trite, almost cheesy/sitcomy premise, which then accelerates into a cartoony development, topped off with a climax so silly it becomes almost surreal. In Physical Education, it’s the naked pool game; in Conspiracy Theories it’s both the pillow fort chase and the serial fake shootings; in Foosball it’s the anime kitty; and in Debate 109 it’s Simmons’ hilariously improbable swan leap from his wheelchair, followed by the way his glasses jump off his face when Jeff drops him.
And the great thing is that we can see all this coming. Kinda. Reading Todd’s review of the abysmal Chelsea yesterday, I was struck by this observation: “The single greatest problem with this show is one that affects a lot of multi-camera comedies in this day and age: It seems incapable of telling a story. Instead, it’s more like a loose collection of sketches, tied to a central theme.” Abed’s prescient recreation of the group’s adventures feels very much like a bad three-camera sitcom to me: the cheesy setups, the mugging for the camera, the setup/punchline structure… Really, all that’s missing is a laugh track (though I have the feeling Abed would find it annoying). His films appear disconnected and improbable, highlighting the artificiality of the situations (Jeff lives in his car! Shirley is being chased by a werewolf!), and offering virtually no payoff other than some rather lame jokes. Back in the “real” Greendale however, we get what’s missing from Abed’s movies – the story that connects those jokes and and makes them inevitable rather than random. It’s a marvelous way for the show to both acknowledge its classical three-camera roots (Harmon has actually compared it to Gilligan’s Island), and provide a subtle (and pretty withering imo) criticism of the current state of the genre.* “Look at me,” the show seems to say: “I can take a bunch of not very funny, entirely unrelated punchlines, and craft a narrative around them that will make them appear logical and earned, and absolutely hilarious, and I’ll also throw in some nice, understated sentiment and great character development too, just because I can**.” In Abed’s films, the disparate stories of the group members were funny largely because of just how random and undercooked they appeared; at Greendale they are funny because of just how much crazy sense they seem to make.
Finally, this is a great episode for physical comedy, which is very much in keeping with its cartoony vibe. The highlights include Jeff’s duking out on Annie, Dean Pelton and Professor Higgins (and I really love the way the show used to show the group ganging up on Jeff occasionally, like so many hungry kittens), Pierce’s awesome pratfalls (the second, slow one, into the instruments, is a thing of pure beauty), Jeff and Annie’s awkwardness, and Annie’s cleavage revealing, gravity defying posture as she’s showing Jeff the Hobbes quote, and, of course, Simmons’ leap, and subsequent drop (that MUST have hurt!) But the best and funniest physical bits as far as I’m concerned, are to be found in the final round of debates. The entire scene is beautifully shot and edited by Joe Russo, in a very Loony Tunes kind of way, rapidly alternating between increasingly tight close-ups of Jeff and Annie, and wide shots of the Greendale and City College audience. The symmetry of the shot is undercut by the contrast between the packed, peppy City College bleachers and the pathetically empty Greendale side of the room: http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…. I chuckle uncontrollably when the other shoe (and Simmons) finally drops, and the Greendale side explodes with cheers, while the City College fans sink back dejectedly:http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…. And presiding over all this of course, it’s the Greendale Human Being – being simultaneously pathetically inefficient and unspeakably creepy.
There is still a lot to cover in this episode – including the not negligible philosophical and moral implications of the “man is good/man is evil” debate, and their impact on Jeff’s character, so please feel free to do so in the comments. Close to 1400 words are enough for now.
- It’s sweet how Jeff only goes back to the debate after Simmons insults Annie.
- “Who am I, iCarly?”
- “Mine was just from a simple, desert handyman. Named JESUS."
- “By the way, Jeff, I think your shirt’s trying to get out of your pants.”
- “By zooks, what kind of jackassery is this? We’re in the middle of a championship debate!”
- “Great try, Bruce! Great try!” This one is a favorite of mine, as it so subtly drives home just how lame the basketball team is, if Bruce is praised for a try rather than a score.
- Professor Mogadishu.
- Ropati Eneki: http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
- Annie’s delicious look of withering contempt at Simmons, after Jeff drops the Jesus bomb: http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
*and here I pause for the obligatory “BBT sucks” moment.
** I’ll be topical once more, and say that if Michael Patrick King weren’t so busy rolling in his giant piles of money, he’d do well to watch this episode (or ANY Community episode, really) to see how you can do three-dimensional characters in 21 minutes and in the middle of a plot that involves a gay basketball team and a potential werewolf attack.
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-408909486 (page 58)