Episode 121: Contemporary American Poultry
If you haven’t seen GoodFellas, you need to watch this movie immediately, if not sooner. Certainly you can enjoy the episode without it, and correctly surmise that it references a story of the rise and fall of a Mafioso, but it makes the episode’s stylistic homages – the voiceovers and musical interludes in particular – a real treat. Watch it. Watch it now!
On to the review! On this hallowed message board, we’ve talked about Abed as the group’s stealth leader, in effect its puppet master. He gathered them, after all, and in time we’ll see him stop them from jumping the tracks. But what he can do for them is pretty much a one-way street, limited by the group’s imperfect understanding of him. (“Physical Education” is a prime example of this.) At the same time, though, Abed cannot reach his friends quite as he’d like to – he can’t always follow their humor or interpret their expressions, and he often says too much. In the first five minutes of this episode, Abed’s astute observations inadvertently hurt their targets:
– "He specifically asked, 'Who is that?'"
– "His dreadlocks remind me of the Predator, which is weird, because you’re doing the actual hunting, yet you seem invisible to him."
– "I’m really glad you said that, Britta. The idea that you compulsively filter yourself makes your lack of flavor kind of a flavor."
So when the alluring power of chicken comes their way and Jeff unthinkingly dumps the unglamorous role of fry cook onto Abed, it unwittingly becomes a new, ideal medium through which Abed can reach people. There’s a system to be realized, where everyone has roles, everything can be meted and measured. For a time, Abed thrives, because this is what he wants all along: to make everyone happy. Under normal circumstances, that’s very difficult. That's Abed's story here in a nutshell, and I can think of no higher praise for Community than to say that it makes chicken fingers poignant.
Of course, the new balance unseats Jeff. By now, he's wandered a good deal away from the ultra-cool Pilot Jeff who reviled the idea of friendship, but in some ways he’s hardly changed. He’s still motivated by extreme insecurities and pettiness, which are on full display in this episode. And here we see, perhaps for the first time, how much Jeff has come to crave (not just value, but flat-out need) his role as the group’s leader. You can see his uncertainty the minute the group’s favor tips towards Abed. Abed knows this. "You’re not sick of chicken, you miss the taste of control," he correctly diagnoses. (Sidenote: I think Abed "gets" more than even he gives himself credit for. How could he not? He’s a person who perceives and charts everything and his singular attention to and fascination with other people allows him not only to perceive patterns but understand motivations, as he does in the scene where Jeff visits his office.)
And sure enough, Jeff’s 'Need' on the Needs/Likes charts is control—his function, however, is "Talking." This says so much about Jeff’s character. As a lawyer, the sun rose and set on his ability to sell you something. Little has changed at Greendale. A Winger Speech, coupled with a well-timed gesture ("he always knew when to slap the table") can steer the group. But in this episode, we see the limits of that power – it’s just talk, after all. The talking speaks to the surface nature of Jeff’s persona – a man not as interested in being the good guy as looking like him, sounding like him, and only when it suits him. In other words, he's coasted through his life on talk and appearances, not on action. The problem now, of course, is that Jeff cares deeply, and he hasn’t come close to reconciling the person he’s becoming with the person he’s been for years. It prompts him to pull a real dick move – disabling the fryer and cutting off Abed’s power. I find this action so interesting in its nuances. It’s hostile to Abed and terribly selfish, but not entirely – through it, Jeff is all but scrambling for a role back in the group. Granted, he wants full control over it, but the point is, his is a new existence that’s dependent on people in a way that it’s never been before. His old, familiar ego is forever butting its head into it, but these are his awkward, fledgling attempts to get people. A lot like Abed. (There’s so much to unpack in Jeff’s behavior – maybe he needs to see a specialist?)
This episode presents so many interesting symmetries between Jeff and Abed. They exchange roles as (ostensible) leader and outsider. We see their orchestration of others through their respective strengths (charm and keen perception). And we see a little nod at the question of who really is the boss by episode’s end: "As for Abed, for his sake, I guess I’ll have to take him out. Poor little guy." "I quit the fry cook job, somewhat for the sake of the family, but mostly for Jeff’s ego. Poor guy." The group returns to what passes for normal, albeit with a little more understanding in Jeff and Abed’s already singular friendship.
In retrospect, this ending is a little ambiguous, bittersweet for me. First off, is there anything sweeter than Abed and Jeff eating chicken fingers Sixteen Candles-style? (Objective answer: no.) But I can’t help but wonder if Jeff’s promise – help Abed do better with people – doesn’t ring a little hollow with the passage of time. Think of where they are by the time Critical Film Studies rolls around. And has Jeff really learned anything or did his issues just crystallize a little better — or is that enough? Sure, he privately admits his shame over his behavior to Abed and defers to the idea that he may need to talk to someone. (Speculation time: do you think this was about the time that Jeff started shopping for a therapist?) But as far the group knows, Jeff did what needed to be done and has resumed his rightful role. They're all, Abed in particular, back to being schnooks. Now, these aren’t so much criticisms of the episode as much as it is musing and maybe some undue concern for fictional people – if anything, I think it highlights the serial nature of this show and the careful job that is done with the characterization. Our heroes’ very real, complex problems and their dynamics are never neatly solved at the end of 22 minutes. They are continuously revealing and evolving.
I could go on about Jeff and Abed, but I’ve barely spoken of the rest of the group. Harmon mentions in the commentary that some realism is sacrificed in their lightning-fast transformation to crime family all in the favor of producing the Jeff-Abed story. A fair point, I think, although I for one never much minded their cartoonish transformation. (I do quibble over some things – for instance, would Annie, for one, be so gung-ho about an unmerited 10% bump on her Spanish test?) But in a conceit where chicken fingers moves an entire campus, I don't think it's that big of a stretch, nor is it nearly as critical as Jeff and Abed's story. Personally, I think this behavior is already consistent with how this insular bunch reacts when given a modicum of power (to be corroborated in later episodes, too). It should also be said that the ways in which each group member becomes corrupted is true to type; we never lose a sense of who they are.
Let me skip backwards to where I think the group really shines in this episode, the cold open. Todd mentions in his review how bang-up a job the show is doing at this point in establishing the characters’ voices. This cold open not only does the dirty work of setting up the episode’s premise, but the way it unfolds also gives us a perfect little microcosm of who these people are and what they’re about – a group of friends that is only nominally a study group (note that attempts at actual studying quickly derail into personal asides), where we see that Abed is over-honest and observant, Pierce is trying to be cool and Jeff is being withholding, Britta is preachy but vulnerable, and Shirley is the last to leave Britta’s table of mourning with a distracted “God bless you!” By now, Harmon & co. have got these suckers down.
I also forgot to mention that this episode was funny.
- The group’s reaction to Britta’s lofty revelation that she is a vegetarian is brilliant. (Troy: "Shocker." They already find her tiresome.) Also note that in amidst the voices is Abed’s, "You told me that." Of course Abed would know and remember this fact.
- I also love Britta’s hyper-defensive, illogical admonition that the group would eat the animals twice as fast to put them out of their misery if only they knew how they were treated.
- "If you have to ask, you're streets behind." How could I have gone this far without noting that this is the episode that gave us "Streets ahead"? Note all of Pierce's efforts to shoe-horn it into the conversation throughout the episode. ("I'm going to lunch early." "Me too." "Me three." "Streets ahead." He also shouts it in one of the group’s simul-talks.)
- "We may be watching different mafia movies."
- Here is a link to each character's Needs/Likes/Function chart. Note that Shirley likes both Jesus and Baby Jesus.
- Speaking of Shirley, I love how even she refers to Sexy Dreadlocks as Sexy Dreadlocks during another group interruptathon.
- Of course this is also the episode that gave us Annie's Boobs. Just one, though.
- "That’s pretty alarming behavior, Jeff."
Commentary observations (featuring Harmon, Joel, Gillian, and Danny):
- The gang compares themselves to a robot that gives commentary, each of them being a different part of its body. Gillian proclaims that she is the dick.
- Dan Harmon: "I will admit there was a slight GoodFellas influence on this episode."
- There's some interesting discussion on the transformation of Britta's character and Gillian notes how she goes to being humorless, then to reacting to people finding her humorless, and says the change is much more fun for her (and hopefully the audience). "Being the reasonable, sensible one with no obvious flaws is not that fun after awhile." Dan confirms the reverse psychology approach to their presentation of Britta: tell the audience not to like her.
- Dan on Tristram Shapeero, the episode’s director: "Really, he’s not classy, he’s just British." Then Joel does a sweet impression of Tristram.
- Gillian: “I didn’t go to a real college!”
- They were told not to go anywhere near the monkey, nor look at it. Annie's Boobs: not as inviting at the real thing.
- Dan Harmon on Britta: "She can muster an opinion about anything."
- The art department is amazing. Harmon says he never gives them notes – they come up with stuff like the needs/function thing all on their own. "Drunk on chicken power" also came from them.
- Jeff's magical shushing action was apparently discovered somewhat by accident on-set.
- In the tag, they added the shirt flying into view through the window to make it clear that Abed and Troy were switching clothes. Harmon is chastised for not using this digital magic to fix the continuity with the disappearing "Respect the noble beast" sign by Jeff's head in the scene at the secret store room where he fights with the group.
And again, if you haven't seen GoodFellas, what are you still doing here? I thought I told you to go
fuck your mother watch it.