Episode 117: Physical Education
Physical Education is among one of season one’s best. It is often lost among new fans due to the iconic episodes that soon follow such as “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare”. “Physical Education” is definitely an episode for people who are more familiar with the show. It runs deep with laughs and has become a cult classic for Britta’s pronunciation of the word bagel.
Both the A and B stories run in parallel. The A story involves Jeff enrolling in what he thinks will be a blow-off class – billiards. The B story has the rest of the group trying to set up Abed with a girl they suspect might have a crush on him. These two completely different stories have the same theme. Both Jeff and Abed are forced to confront their own vanity; the only difference being that Abed is comfortable with who he is and Jeff is not.
This isn’t the first time Jeff has come face to face with his own vanity. Without acknowledging future episodes, the Jeff we know at this point has only ever faced his own vanity in “Home Economics” when he learns to live a lot less materialistically. In Home Economics we learn that Jeff’s possessions are a part of who he is. In Phys Ed Jeff deals strictly with his looks, which impair his ability to play billiards when he is forced to wear shorts that he doesn’t look cool in.
It soon becomes apparent to the audience that the reason Jeff got into pool in the first place is because he looks cool playing it. It takes the strict rules and taunting of the Phys Ed coach to bring Jeff out of his shell.
Similarly, the rest of the study group tries to bring Abed out of his shell so he will muster up the courage to approach Jenny; a girl who they suspect has a crush on him. When his initial attempts fail, the group tries coaching Abed on how to approach a girl. They quickly learn that Abed can be good at it when he impersonates some of the people he sees on television. At one point Abed states it perfectly: “I understand; I need to change who I am to someone more likable.”
Abed decides to give this a try to make the rest of the group happy. Upon failure, the group assumes that Abed has had his heart broken. Unlike Jeff, Abed is left unscarred by his rejection. The difference being that Abed is comfortable in his own skin which Jeff is not.
Jeff sees confidence in Abed that was absent in him. Abed was able to put himself out there. Jeff couldn’t give his shorts the same chance that Abed gave Jenny and the rest of the group, as the importance of getting a girlfriend was clearly more important to everyone else than to Abed.
So Jeff finally decides to suck up his pride and put on the shorts that he thought to be un-cool. Jeff then proves himself in a game of pool against the coach and goes to extreme lengths to prove that he hasn’t just found a way to look cool in shorts, and that he truly doesn’t care how he looks while he plays.
This episode proved to be really effective in terms of character development for Jeff. We learn that Jeff is capable of change and that he isn’t as vain as when the episode began. The same, however, cannot be said about Abed. He, as a character, develops very little. As we later find out in season two, Abed is unlike all his peers in terms of growth and change. When I thought about it, it’s true. Abed never changes. We certainly learn a whole lot about Abed, but he never does truly change. This is why we all love him. He is aware of what he is, and stays true to himself without compromise.
As for the vanity of both Jeff and Abed, we all know how that goes. Jeff has more issues that have yet to be solved from growing up without a dad to being dressed as an Indian girl for Halloween. Abed’s vanity and ability to connect with others is never again brought into question. It becomes clear to the group that Abed can connect with a person through just about anything whether it be building blanket forts or watching Kick Puncher.
The reason this episode worked so well is because it had the right balance of story and comedy. None of the storylines were revolved around a single joke and it felt natural. Every scene had a point that had me laughing right from the start with Britta’s pronunciation of bagel. Other memorable moments were Abed’s impersonations of Jeff and Don Draper, White Abed (or you can call Abed a brown Joey, if you wanna get racist about it), and Jeff violently throwing his underwear into the face of an audience member. This is one of the rare episodes that seem even funnier when you go back and watch it, knowing the characters
better from seasons two and three.
Quote to Sum Up the Episode
Abed: That’s why I was willing to change for you guys. Because when you really know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people isn’t such a big deal.
- Annie wears that yellow sweater a lot doesn’t she? I’m pretty sure she wears it in debate 109 and the conspiracies episode
- Jeff wearing a leather jacket seems wrong. It’s much more Britta
- Pierce has a bunch of funny one-liners. “See! She has a fat name. Might as well be Gravy Jones.”
- Adios! Guys… Class is over! I’m trying to get you to leave.
- Chang’s psychic powers
- Whoa! Pierce pronounces Abed right instead of A-bed. How did I miss this?
- The Greendale gym uniforms are blue and grey?
- The picture behind the coaches desk is awesome and hilarious
- Because I don’t look cool in shorts!!
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-446658696 (page 114)