Episode 116: Communication Studies
I’ll come right away and say it: this was a much harder review to write than anticipated. While I love Communication Studies very much (with one exception which I’ll discuss below), it turned out that, to my surprise, I couldn’t find that much to talk about. That worried me a little.
Thanks to Stephen77’s awesome list-making skills though, I gained an unexpected reprieve, while the discussions that took place over the last couple of days helped me understand a few things about the episode’s somewhat slippery nature.
It’s fairly obvious that there are people here who strongly believe that S1 was superior to S2, just as there are others who think the opposite. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that they consider one season objectively worse than the other; it’s more a matter of choosing what they think is more representative of the show as a whole: the largely observational, more subdued and naturalistic style of S1, or the go-for-broke, experimental, let’s-blow-people’s-minds tone of S2. I’m Team S2 all the way – if Community is going to be remembered for anything, it will be for the ease with which it jumped from format to format and from style to style from one episode to another, for its extraordinary formal audacity and for its remarkable self-assurance. I predict in fact that very soon (perhaps as soon as next season), and largely because to the increased awareness of the show, due to NBC’s shitty handling of the hiatus, we are going to see other sitcoms attempting their own “concept episodes.” HIMYM already did a RCT-type episode, and by the time Modern Family’s version of Epidemiology rolls around, it will win every Emmy in existence. And it will suck.
And I’ll tell you why:
THAT WATER IS A LIE!!!!
…Sorry, I got heated….
But seriously: the reason why Community can afford to do something as insanely complex as Paradigms of Human Memory in S2 and not have it appear as a cheap gimmick, is because it spent most of S1 putting out hilarious, yet largely subdued observational episodes like Communication Studies, episodes which built seven complex, multifaceted, nuanced characters that stay true to themselves, and evolve, and change even as they turn into claymation figurines or build a giant pillow fort. The thing I like best about S1 is just how patiently it approached character development, how, despite the occasional Tex Avery moment, it devoted most of its time to exploring the group, how often it contented itself to just let them be and bounce off each other, so that, by the time Modern Warfare came about, every insane moment rang true because we knew these seven people so well, and we understood so much about what makes them tick.
Harmon talks somewhere about how he meant the course that the group takes together each season to be largely symbolic of an overarching theme. S3 is biology – evolution and change. S2 was anthropology, and the group got divided into “tribes” and cliques which were sometimes at odds with one another. S1 was Spanish – learning a foreign language, learning in other words, how to communicate and understand each other. Harmon further talks about how he wanted to do lots of character permutations, to see which combinations work and which don’t. This is what Communication Studies is all about. Not much new or groundbreaking happens here, but we do find out many intriguing tidbits which will pay off massively down the road (one, famously, all the way into S3).
Communication Studies is all about subtext – about the difference between what we say and what we mean. And since this is the first Valentine’s Day episode, it’s only fitting that the group is divided into pairs (and one triangle). I’ll just take them one by one.
Jeff/Britta/Slater. Jeff has by now settled into his relationship with Slater, apparently founded largely on sex and a sense of comfortable indifference. He considers Britta a friend. But where his conversations with Slater appear largely conventional (picking up ice cream for Law and Order night, appropriate “boyfriend” behavior on Valentine’s Day), his exchanges with Britta are lively and clever.
And sex is most definitely in the subtext of the Jeff/Britta story – in the form of a heavily BCI-ed drunken message Britta leaves Jeff in the wake of an massive bender with one of her anarchist girlfriends. Jeff is initially glad to ride the high horse for once, as well as take pleasure in Britta’s misfortune (is there a word for that?). But he quickly comes to realize, thanks to Abed’s pop-culture derived wisdom, that the power dynamic has shifted too far in his favor. So, with Abed’s extensive assistance, he gets epically drunk and makes not one, but two phone calls, none of which he actually remembers: one to Britta and one to Slater. This allows Britta to play a joke on Jeff by dressing up for the Valentine’s Day dance and pretending he had asked her there, and also to save Jeff’s relationship by revealing that his drunken phone call was in fact all about how much he enjoys being with Slater. But, in a final twist she reveals that Jeff’s message was in fact 40 minutes long and “very informative.”
As I have said before, none of this is particularly groundbreaking. Britta’s unacknowledged attraction to Jeff has been hinted at before, most notably in Interpretive Dance, and Jeff’s interest in Britta is similarly well-documented. Communication Studies’ new approach is to allow them to play this subtext of desire off each other. It’s the classic screwball comedy dynamic – the channeling of sexual attraction into wit and farce, “a sex comedy without the sex.” Abed is worried that Britta’s drunk dial may have upset the balance between her and Jeff, when in fact it made that balance even more obvious. It’s there when both Jeff and Britta point out how dangerous it is to give the Greendale Human Being arrows, or when Jeff compares drunken Britta to Courtney Love, and Britta compares drunken Jeff to Kurt Cobain. Jeff’s relation with Slater on the other hand is superficial and asymmetrical: Jeff is largely content to be dominated and play the standard boyfriend role, for the sake of sex and a chance to keep himself continuously guarded. It’s all fairly conventional fare, but Community handles it in a refreshingly pragmatic way, by suggesting that Jeff and Britta’s attraction for each other is not the result of some sort of “soul mate” insight, “we’re made for each other” romantic comedy bullshit, but is simply based on physical attraction and the ability to play off each other’s smugness. I always thought that the characters in some classic screwball comedies like His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story, weren’t really meant to be seen as a viable couple. Such films present a love triangle where one character has one stable, but conventional relationship, while being attracted to another, more off-beat character, to whom they feel more suited. But the attraction is based in a state of playful antagonism, of constant riffing and mutual deprecation that is unsustainable in the long run. That’s Jeff and Britta in a nutshell.
Finally, I have to mention just how wonderful Britta is in this episode. Britta started the show as a figure of rather boring self-righteousness, the “prize” that was supposed to set Jeff straight. She later evolved into a “mirror” Jeff – similarly shallow and self-absorbed, and then turned into the goofy, sing-your-heart’s-song, earnestly sincere Britta of today. Communication Studies catches her on the cusp of this transition: she’s still cool enough to one-up Jeff in the end, but that drunk dial (“JEFF WINGER! I…am…calling you. You’re probably…. Whatever…. WAAAAZZZUUUPPP?!?”) is pure Britta “the worst.” I miss this Britta, especially since she wasn’t around for very long. She showed up again in Modern Warfare, and peeked up a little in Mixology Certification, but that’s pretty much it.
Jeff/Abed. Britta may be the one who drunk dialed Jeff, but the episode’s plot is largely set in motion by Abed, who quickly points out to Jeff that, according to sitcom scripture, the balance of power has shifted too far in his favor and needs redressing. After Britta runs away in shame when he clumsily tries to share a embarrassing story from his past (a drunken fight with animatronic Ben Franklin), Jeff returns to Abed for help. This leads to the episode’s centerpiece: a lengthy and hilarious scene in which Abed gets drunk with Jeff, in an attempt to create the perfect conditions for a believable drunk-dial.
It’s been pointed out numerous times that the study group is not Jeff’s as much as it is Abed’s, since it was Abed who put everyone but Jeff and Britta together. In this context, it’s easy to see Abed’s actions in this episodes as an attempt to keep “his” study group intact. I have another theory: Abed is very fascinated with Jeff, and he uses Britta’s drunk dial as an opportunity to study him up close.
The Abed/Jeff relationship is probably my favorite in the entire show, even if it’s relatively rarely central to an episode’s narrative. Britta sees Abed largely as a victim – someone to help and heal. Troy sees Abed as a really cool toy – the Hobbes to his Calvin – a play partner which opens up a world of games and infinite possibilities. Jeff sees Abed as an interesting adult – the only person in the group with whom he feels enough at ease to actually open up, and whose advice he seeks unconditionally. Abed may base his observations on Friends and Who’s the Boss, but Jeff takes him seriously. When Britta runs away in shame, Jeff returns to Abed immediately.
Speaking of balance and symmetry, Jeff sees a lot of himself in Abed, just like Abed sees a lot of himself in Jeff. They each possess a quality that the other desires. Like Jeff, Abed is the product of divorce, raised on TV and projecting a certain sense of cool and detachment from the world. But Jeff has to fight for his cool; he sees it largely as a competition – a fragile advantage that needs to be constantly reinforced and validated. Abed, on the other hand, while having none of Jeff’s physical advantages, goes through life with an almost Zen attitude. So, Jeff calls Abed a “shaman” in the pilot, and wonders how can he be so satisfied all time in Home Economics. Since Jeff is by definition insecure and self-loathing, he craves Abed’s self-assurance.
Abed on the other hand, craves Jeff’s ability to fit in. Abed sees that Jeff, like him, goes through life wearing a mask (something which this episode nicely underscores, by having Jeff wake up from his bender, wearing not one, but two masks). Abed’s social interactions are based on his ability to slip into whatever role he feels others need him to play. And he’s very good at it: he may not understand what others feel, but he understands what they need perfectly. But Abed has not yet mastered the art of reciprocation; of making himself feel needed, and making others feel like they need him. Jeff has, and this is what draws Abed to him: his effortless ability to make himself the centre of others’ world.
From this perspective, Abed directing Jeff into achieving the perfect plastered state in which to drunk dial Britta, is not as much for Britta’s benefit, or even Jeff’s, but Abed’s. Earlier in the episode, Abed had been staging a reenactment of one of Chang’s freakouts from Spanish class. Abed’s understanding of the world is based in reproduction and replication. He’s very much like Uncle Toby from Tristram Shandy in his belief that feelings are dictated by events and therefore the perfect replication of an event would result in the perfect replication of the attendant emotional state. Getting Jeff drunk therefore is an experiment, a way of testing this hypothesis. It’s why he joins Jeff for a drink, by saying “Scorsese drank with DeNiro.”
I really love that he says that. Scorsese and DeNiro were (still are, I guess) famously very good friends, and their friendship was rooted in their functions as actor and director. By saying that, Abed not only acknowledges Jeff as his friend, but very strongly hints at his conviction that emotional authenticity can only be achieved through playing a part, through filtering your personality through a mask. I’m probably wrong, but I like to think that this is where the seeds of Critical Film Studies – the episode where both Jeff and Abed were as open and emotionally vulnerable as we’ve ever seen them on the show – were first planted.
Troy/Pierce and Shirley/Annie. The less said about this subplot, the better. Chang mocks Troy and Pierce for pretending to have girlfriends, and Shirley and Annie decide to play a prank on Chang, by sending him a fake job offer from Princeton. Chang doesn’t fall for it, but blames Troy and Pierce, and threatens to fail them from Spanish if they don’t show up at the dance wearing women’s pant suits. They do, and hilarity ensues.
Actually it doesn’t. Shirley and Annie offer to confess, but Troy and Pierce decide it’s their duty to prove they are men by taking the fall. The whole story feels undercooked and kind of cheap, going for the lowest form of slapstick. The only thing I found interesting is that after Chang threatens Troy and Pierce, Annie tries to confess, but Shirley shuts her down. It’s a nice bit of character continuity, suggesting that Shirley’s bully side will always try to assert itself, at the expense of her morality. It’s not a big deal, but these two will have a kick-ass story very soon in The Science of Illusion.
So, there you have it! Whew: 2300 and counting! I feel like I’ve written a ton about the show in general and almost nothing about the episode. But in truth, I feel that this is what Communication Studies and many of the S1 episodes are for: they set the stage for the awesomeness to follow. More than 2-thirds of the season on, we’re finally ready to see what the show can really do with so wonderfully fleshed-out characters.
Hey, there’s still some stuff I haven’t said:
- This a wonderful episode for physical comedy. The extended Breakfast Club homage when Jeff and Abed get progressively drunker is a thing of beauty, and a wonderful showcase for Pudi and McHale.
- No comment. Really. I’m at a loss for words: http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
- “I can drive…. I can tot’lly drive… Gimme my keys! No, seriously, gimme my keys!” http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
- I really love skanky, weathered, hungover Britta:http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…. So does Harmon.
- “I really need to believe you’re holding an imaginary doody meter.”
- “One Papa John’s commercial and he thinks he’s Christian Bale.”
- “He’s a young the Asian guy from Lost.”
- “beige praying mantis.”
- “What’s the blonde’s name: Britta? Butter? Beetlejuice?” This is the setup for the Beetlejuice joke which paid off all the way in Horror Fiction:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…
DVD commentary time! (I’ll keep it short, I promise!)
Dan Harmon, Chris McKenna, Joel McHale, Danny Pudi and Gillian Jacobs do the commentary, and they’re all typically funny and super-friendly. Harmon keeps saying he’s doing a “Cosby-tary.”
- This was McKenna’s first episode. McKenna has since proven to be, alongside Megan Ganz, an indispensable ingredient for the show’s quality, having written some of the most complex and spectacular episodes, including our top 30 winner, Remedial Chaos Theory. But, as Harmon recounts on a recent Nerdist Writers’ Panel podcast,* S1 of Community was marked by friction between himself and the show’s executive producers. Namely, the studio requested him to choose a number of executive producers to help him run the show, but, as it turns out, those guys were told that the show was essentially theirs to run, as Harmon didn’t have any experience. Harmon says this may be the cause for the show’s erratic tone early on, though I really don’t think those early episodes were in any way inferior to anything that followed after 112 or 113. This tension lead to a major dustup somewhere around episode 112, and McKenna (who had previously worked for American Dad) came in.
- To hear Harmon tell the story, McKenna comes off as Scully to Harmon’s Mulder – sent by the brass to take Harmon’s show away from him, he ended up being his trusted lieutenant. Harmon is quite sweet and sincere when he calls the episode his “Valentine” to McKenna, who convinced him of his dedication to the show, by calling him late at night to ask about some editing hang-up. This proved to Harmon once and for all that McKenna cared about Community just as much as he did. D’awwww…..
- McKenna is actually pretty silent on the commentary, despite Joel telling him repeatedly to shut up. Harmon is far more vocal (and drunk), comparing himself with David Milch and implying that he traumatizes his writers into silence. For those craving more interaction between these two, check out the commentary to Conspiracy Theory, particularly the part where the two of them and Jim Rash crack each other up over the faces the Dean pulls.
- Other fun stuff: Harmon really likes Britta miserable: “She’s good at being weathered and having bad luck.” Later, he compares her to an old piece of luggage.
- Harmon mentions a dude in a focus group – the “Isaac Newton of frat boys” who called Abed “Kumar lite,” then proceeded to give an insightful and passionate speech about how he hoped Abed wasn’t going to turn into a sidekick like Kumar.
- Abed’s Chang is played by the kid from Tropic Thunder, which is also what his headshot says.
- Adam Davidson, the director, came up with the gag with Jeff wearing two masks.
- The DVD also features an extended cut of this episode. There’s about 7 extra minutes of footage, but, in my opinion, they weaken the episode considerably, because they spell out what was mostly subtext in the original cut. Major differences include a drunk Jeff waxing poetic about how beautiful Britta is (something that I doubt Jeff would ever say, even dead drunk), drunk Abed calling himself “high-functioning,” and a final scene where Abed gets his mojo back by recognizing that a weird, beefy dude in a ponytail looks like Steven Seagal. Fun scenes: an extended cut of Jeff playing drunk for Abed, and Chang making fun of Starburns’ star burns.
Finally, a couple more random observations:
- Jeff wears a bluetooth headset: the badge of a real douche, as we know fromthis incident. He also tries to pay for tuition with airline miles.
- Is there a creepier sitcom character than the Greendale Human Being??
- I really love Jeff’s sardonic cackle when Britta leaves the room.
- I believe this is the first time we see Chang gnawing at gristle.
- Abed says that he could never get by the opening credits for Who’s the Boss, yet in Competitive Wine Studies he’s already figured out who the boss was. I guess he caught up with the show in the meanwhile.
- Finally: here’s a clip of the Breakfast Club homage, just because:
*Someone (maybe Los Pollos Hermanos? Stephen 77?) mentioned this podcast a few weeks ago, but I can’t find the name anymore. Whoever you are: thanks!