Episode 112: Comparative Religion
Like “Introduction to Statistics”, “Comparative Religion” represents the first installment in what has now become an annual tradition for Community, that of the Christmas episode. The significance of “Comparative Religion” extends far beyond that of a simple milestone in Community’s illustrious history, however. It serves as the capstone to the first half of Community Season 1, and so provides a short-term conclusion to the underlying story arc of early Community; namely, the transformation of the study group from an eclectic mix of troubled individuals muddling through a new life on their own into an eclectic mix of troubled individuals muddling through life together as a family.
While he serves as the primary motivator for the A story of “Comparative Religion”, Abed doesn’t actually take much of an active part in this episode. His reaction to Mike, the bully, is interesting to note insofar as it’s not much of a reaction at all. Abed appears to be largely unperturbed by Mike’s insults and aggression; he cracks a quip and shakes it off with no visible ill effects afterward. Indeed, Abed appears to be more excited by the fact that Jeff defending him was like a TV moment than by the fact that Jeff actually stood up for him without hesitation or coercion. This is emblematic of Abed’s issues as a character at this stage; he’s still relatively new to the concept of friends and group interaction, and so he doesn’t always understand or value the significance of his friends’ actions. This Abed is much more heavily reliant on the context of TV as a “blueprint” than the Abed we see two years later in “Regional Holiday Music”, who can attach an actual emotional significance to Christmas and quantify how he feels about the holiday to others. Abed simply isn’t often capable of such emotional connections in S1, and so he fails to comprehend fully what Jeff’s actions meant on a personal level.
Like Abed, Annie doesn’t play much of a role in this episode. This is rather fitting, as “Comparative Religion” largely concerns itself with pulling the group together in definitive fashion before the winter break. Annie took to the idea of a study group perhaps the strongest out of any member; this is something we don’t see elaborated upon fully until “English as a Second Language”, but it’s nonetheless an important point of her character. As she already loves being a part of the group and wants it to continue, there’s no need for her to play a prominent role in the episode; she’s already welcomed the group as her family. There are a few minor character points for Annie worth noting. The first is that she appears quite proud of her religious heritage; she doesn’t hesitate to leap to defend Judaism when Shirley or Pierce treats it with disrespect. Her Jewishness is a minor character trait, but one which will recur repeatedly, and Community concretely establishes how Annie feels about her religion right from the get-go. Annie doesn’t get offended by other religions, but she won’t let hers get drowned out by Christmas or Christianity, either; note her line “Christmas can even be a Hanukkah thing” during "That's What Christmas Is For" in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”. The fact that Annie is generally Shirley’s closest friend in the group is also reflected at the early group table scene; when Shirley assumes all her friends are Christian, it’s Annie who speaks up to inform her of the truth. As other members here have observed, Annie will continue to be Shirley’s closest friend in the group, even though the reverse isn’t true.
Britta is another character who operates mostly on the sidelines in “Comparative Religion”, though she has a slightly larger ancillary role than Annie or Abed. In another delightful change from stuffy, no-fun early S1 Britta, Britta here gets to poke fun at the boys of the group the entire episode and relish in a bit of humor. She razzes on the homosexual tendencies of fighting while Pierce and Troy play the “straight men” (pun intended) to her jokes, in a complete inversion of their normal roles. Britta also gets a significant bit of development in this episode, as it advances her (platonic) relationship with Jeff. Perhaps the greatest thrust of Britta’s S1 character arc is that she remains skeptical of Jeff’s intentions and morals, and often resists his integration into the group. However, in “Comparative Religion” Britta is the one who delivers the “Winger speech” to convince the group to go assist Jeff. Over episodes such as “Spanish 101”, “Advanced Criminal Law”, “Intro to Statistics” and “Environmental Science” Britta has gradually seen that Jeff actually may not be just a polished turd, but rather has potential to be a pretty decent human being. In accordance with the strong theme of coming together as family that “Comparative Religion” carries, Britta thus sets aside her distaste for Jeff here in order to go to his aid. Britta and Jeff will fight from time to time, and she’s still got more than her fair share of problems with him, but they are never again on the same terrible terms as they were throughout the first half of S1, and this episode is the tipping point.
We also see a bit of Britta’s trademark hypocrisy expressed in “Comparative Religion”. When Shirley offers the group “WWBJD” bracelets, Britta thanks her and professes to be highly enthused and the prospect of wearing it around. However, she plans to wear it “in the pocket closest to my heart”, well out of sight and completely invisible to everyone around her. Britta clearly doesn’t much like the bracelet at all, but she nonetheless acts very grateful to have received it. As we’ve seen, Pilot Britta’s “honesty policy” is really a rather one-way street; she wants everyone else to be honest with her, but she will lie, even to herself, when it’s convenient.
Troy is offered a heretofore unheard-of opportunity in “Comparative Religion”: the chance to impart some of his wisdom to Jeff. Early S1 Troy practically hero-worships Jeff; he’s seen by Troy as the mature, cool guy who drives nice cars, has an elite job, doesn’t care about school, and gets all the attractive women. In the one-sided relationship between Jeff and Troy, information and “lessons” typically flow from Jeff, the all-knowing font of wisdom (to Troy, that is) to Troy, his eager pupil. When Jeff gets himself involved in a fight, Troy is able to upend their normal dynamic and share his own life experiences with Jeff. Jeff’s shortcomings here illustrate for Troy a lesson that he doesn’t actually grasp until “Mixology Certification”; namely, that Jeff isn't really significantly wiser or more mature than Troy in a lot of ways. The groundwork for this realization was laid as early as the ending of “Football, Feminism & You”, but Troy’s own hero worship of Jeff keeps him from realizing his own worth for quite some time. One exchange at lunch between the characters is actually quite representative of this dynamic; Jeff says, “I guess it’s because I’m too charming and likable. Go ahead, call me a name,” and Troy replies, “I can’t”. Even though he has plenty which he can offer Jeff, Troy is too caught up in Jeff’s natural charisma and aura of coolness to contribute his own knowledge on a regular basis.
Troy isn’t the only character who is able to dispense an uncharacteristic bit of wisdom, however. Pierce also gets to impart a bit of his hard-earned wisdom which he acquired over decades as a business tycoon and, apparently, barhopper. When it comes to fighting, it turns out that Pierce is actually the most mature and knowledgeable of the entire study group. Much akin to other brief moments in early S1 where Pierce is able to offer some nugget of advice to the study groupers (“Social Psychology”, “Environmental Science”, “Politics of Human Sexuality”), here Pierce finds himself the best-equipped to teach Jeff valuable and important life lessons. This reflects the aforementioned trend of early S1 in which Pierce often had valuable advice to give as a result of his long and active life, a character trait which was largely suppressed by his transition into the villain role in S2. S3 Pierce appears to be returning to his S1 “Wise Pierce” self to a degree, and it’s nice to be able to look back on moments such as those I’ve discussed and see how Pierce is rising out of the darkness of his S2 arc and reacquiring aspects of the lovable, misguided old man he was in S1. Pierce has a lot to offer the group, whether or not they realize it, and indeed, they often don’t. Consider Jeff’s reception of Pierce’s advice in “Comparative Religion”; he’s skeptical of what Pierce says and doesn’t want to listen, just as Shirley was skeptical of Pierce in “Environmental Science”. In addition to his struggles with his place in the group and relating to the others, Pierce additionally must contend with the fact that nobody in the group really takes him seriously. Thus, despite Pierce having a lot to offer the group, they often ignore his advice completely. However, when individuals like Jeff actually listen to “Wise Pierce”, they typically find themselves learning real, valuable lessons.
“Comparative Religion” is a very important episode for Jeff, as it cements his status as a fully-fledged member of a brand-new family: the study group. Throughout the season, Jeff struggles with his presence at Greendale; he feels uncool, immature, like a joke, and embarrassed, among other things. As he tells Mike in this episode, “You’re just like this school. You’re obnoxious, you’re cramping my style, and you smell like French fry oil!” Jeff simply isn’t at peace with his place in life yet, despite his various misadventures over the course of the semester, and “Comparative Religion” is the episode that gets him there, if only for a brief while, by fully integrating him into the family of the study group. Jeff’s integration is made possible by Mike’s attacks on Abed, who lacks the understanding to defend himself. This compels Jeff immediately to rise to Abed’s defense, something which seems rather uncharacteristic for him at the time. It doesn’t really feel OOC, because Jeff and Abed have always had a close enough bond that we can picture Jeff standing up for Abed, but at the same time Jeff generally has to be coerced into helping friends rather than immediately rushing to their defense. However, two seasons later, this action has finally been explained fully. In “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism”, we see that Jeff was bullied so severely as a child that he had to change nearly his entire life. The bullying dished out by “Big Cheddar” affected Jeff deeply as a person, and appears to have wired an instinctual dislike for bullies into his personality. Jeff steps up to help Annie when Simmons picks on her in “Debate 109”, he helps Britta when Chang is throwing his weight around in “Advanced Criminal Law”, and he rushes in to defend Abed with no reservations in “Comparative Religion”. His instinct to slap down bullies wherever they can be found thus drives his integration into the group family for the holidays, as it permits the group to show Jeff they really care about him by having his back in the fight. We thus see how Jeff really is kind of a decent guy at heart; his reactions to bullies are instinctual rather than rational decisions, and thus come from a “truer” part of himself than the jaded, sarcastic Jeff which serves as his defense mechanism.
Continuing with the theme of integration into a family that runs through “Comparative Religion” so deeply, it’s worth noting that Jeff is genuinely affected by the idea that Shirley is angry with him for “ruining Christmas”. Jeff may not profess a desire to be caught up in the tangled emotional problems the study group contends with on a regular basis, but he certainly has become fully involved with them by the end of the first semester, to the point where he can actually feel ashamed for disappointing a friend. This again shows us a bit more of Jeff’s true side; Lawyer Jeff doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks, and will do whatever he pleases no matter how it affects those around him. The Jeff who tells Mike he’s not going to fight him isn’t Lawyer Jeff at all; he stands down, despite what it may do to his reputation, because he doesn’t want to hurt his new family. It’s a profound moment for the character, and a very nice way to cap off Jeff’s arc for the first half of S1.
Alongside Jeff, Shirley is the character affected the most by the events of “Comparative Religion”. Throughout the course of the episode, she is angry, pushy, intolerant, and downright nasty at times. Shirley regards the group’s non-acceptance of Christianity as a personal offense, which seems quite unreasonable and selfish at first; and it is, after a fashion. However, there is also some rationale behind her reaction. Religion, specifically Christianity, represents the cornerstone of the personality Shirley built to suppress her deep-seated rage issues. By disrespecting Shirley’s religious values, the group thus disrespects essentially everything she stands for, and Shirley isn’t wrong to be upset about that. The main problem she faces in “Comparative Religion” is just that the group isn’t disrespecting her Christianity in this particular instance. Shirley’s nastiness is fully unwarranted here, because at the start of the episode she simply can’t comprehend that different religious beliefs can exist in the same space without pushing each other out. The group’s varied religious beliefs are much like their personalities in that regard; they’re seemingly diametrically opposed, yet all comfortably exist together on a regular basis. Shirley grasps this point by the end of the episode, as we see in “Tolerant Night”; the group’s rise above their religious squabbles in support of Jeff demonstrates to her that they can respect an individual’s beliefs and actions no matter what their religion is, and so Shirley realizes that her Christianity hasn’t been disrespected.
Another interesting point for Shirley in this episode is the underlying theme of Britta’s “Winger speech” to Shirley. It’s actually highly reflective of Andre’s speech in “Asian Population Studies”. Both characters indicate that they realize Shirley wants everything to be perfect, and then point out to her that nothing ever truly can be “perfect”; she’s just got to accept people as they are.
I can’t end this review without talking a bit about the simply phenomenal fight scene which ends the episode; it remains one of my favorite scenes from the entire show. I was expecting Shirley to jump in and kick Mike's ass; I was not expecting the whole group to, and was delighted by the result. I find it to be a standout example of Community’s excellent use of music, and it’s also very amusing to note how most of the group members' roles in the fight relate to their personalities. Annie does the smart thing and hoses somebody down with a snow cannon, Abed jumps around making Karate Kid poses and “hanging back”, Troy hits somebody with a reindeer head for some reason instead of just punching them, Britta wrestles with a woman partially in her underwear after talking about how fighting is gay all episode, Jeff tricks Mike into doing what he wants, and Shirley beats somebody with a Christmas implement. This scene has firmly convinced me that every show involving an ensemble cast needs to get them all involved in one big brawl at some point.
Random Thoughts/Favorite Quotes
- The “PCness” gag is hilarious, and also something I’m kind of surprised they got away with.
- It’s the full intro! I love the Community intro, so any episode we get to see it in full is great.
- “That guy wasn’t gay! He had a mustache.”
- This is the first time we see Pierce’s cult; it has since become a recurring subplot.
- Troy: “You would never catch a Jehovah’s Witness saying ‘Jewey’”. Pierce: “Tell it to the birthday cake you never got.”
- “Yeah, but we don’t celebrate birthdays or Christmas, and we can’t drink…but it helps.”
- “Why don’t you just kiss him already?”
- “I know guys like this Mike, used to be a nerd, now he’s a meathead. Tyson, Ferigno, Rosie O’Donnell.”
- Annie appears to be the one who throws the paper ball at Jeff after he says he’s agnostic.
- Troy: “Then, you look straight through his eyes, and deep into his soul.” Britta: “And then you move to Vermont!”
- “I’ve got to write a paper about that!”
- “Why’d she have to be black!”
- Everything about the Forest Whittaker eye; both Jeff and Troy’s versions are amazing.
- Hannukah sweater Annie is pretty adorable.
- Mike is one of my favorite minor characters; I really hope he returns at least one more time. Everything he says and does is basically comedy gold.
- “Hey, if this dude doesn’t show up, we’re definitely going to Applebees, right? Because I’m getting in a fight no matter what today!”
- “Dude, my life is a gym!”
- The return of the Annie "NOOOOOOO!" and "You being our Spanish teacher? Ehhh."
On the A. V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-419717559 (page 68)
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