Episode 121: Contemporary American Poultry

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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.

Stray observations:

  • 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.

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‚ÄčDiscussion:

  • great review! I would add that people should watch Casino too as a lot of the references were out of that movie as well. 

  • Thanks! That was what I forgot to ask — I haven't seen Casino and I was curious about the tie-ins there.) I heard it was very similar to GoodFellas.)

  • yeah, I can only remember one scene from the ep that was directly from Casino – it was the scene in the kitchen showing the role they each played in the chicken finger scheme, which was a direct take from the Casino scene where they are counting cash and skimming off the top in the casinos.

    I feel like there were other Casino references but I can't remember. I know in the commentaries Harmon made a point of saying that 'everyone calls this the Goodfellas episode but it was more of a Scorcese homage'. the other reference was one to The Godfather – the scene where Troy closes the door on Jeff after the group shuns him (though that isn't Scorcese)

    if you haven't seen Casino, you should. I really like it. If you like Goodfellas you will enjoy Casino – it basically is Goodfellas redone, but not quite as well.

  • Los Pollos Hermanos  raises a very good point about it being a Scorcese homage more than anything. Yes, there are some obvious cues that are ripped right from Goodfellas/Godfather/Casino, but with the way they filmed and edited certain scenes, the episode looks* like a Scorcese movie. I read once that Scorcese keeps the propulsive pace of some of his movies up by editing them like they are trailers-quick cuts, lots of camera movement, stuff designed to move things forward and quicken your pulse even if nothing is happening, and CAP did that to a tee. Even when it isn't overtly paying homage to a particular movie, this episode feels** like one of them.

    *This would have been in italics if I knew how to put words in italics.
    **This too.

  • Casino is basically exactly the same as Goodfellas, except in Las Vegas and without Ray Liotta and way longer and considerably more violent (there was one scene where I had to look away). Also Robert De Niro is a Jew. I liked it quite a bit; I wonder if we would be saying that Goodfellas was an inferior knockoff if Casino had been made first. It's certainly worth watching if you're into that sort of thing.

  • You can only have one reference.  I choose Goodfellas

  • That all sounds very sound to me re it being an overall Scorsese tribute rather than one specific movie — they definitely have thelook of one of his films, although the biggest, most specific hat-tip to any one in particular still seems to be the Layla sequence, and with it being one of the more dramatic and amusing moments of the episode I'd say a GoodFellas viewing is definitely warranted to appreciate it more.

    But that said, I think the real answer is go and see a bunch of Scorsese movies. 

  • Janine Restrepo I agree – I mean there isn't really anything wrong with Casino except that it came after Goodfellas and will always be compared to it. I can watch both Goodfellas or Casino an infinite amount of times. Those are some great movies.
    And yeah Casino is very violent (vice grip anyone?)

  • Yeah, that's the scene. Eek.

  • "it was the scene in the kitchen showing the role they each played in the chicken finger scheme"

    American Gangster has a shot by shot scene like that too.

  • yeah I remember that. 

  • Loki100

    Awhile ago I said that Britta was a social dominator, and her anarchist politics are really just a show for when she is against something that comes along and is not in her interest. This is one of those episodes where I drew that theory from. Abed gives everyone their hearts desire: Pierce gets friends, Shirley gets love, Annie gets help with school, Troy gets a pet. What does Britta get? A servant.

  • DavetheDouchebag

    It's especially interesting to consider phony "anarchist" Britta as the social dominator when you consider Chang, the former dictatorial authority figure as an anarchic force.

  • Loki100

    Britta's main problem is that Annie and Jeff are so much better at being social dominators than she is. Abed always gets credit for starting the study group, but if you pay attention to the pilot, Britta is the one who actually instigates it for her own benefit.

    When we first speak to Britta we know two things about her: she doesn't want Jeff hitting on her, and she's terrible at Spanish. Jeff tells her he runs a study group, and sets up a meeting time. Britta invites Abed to join, knowing with three people there, it can't turn into a a pseudo-date, and that they'd actually have to study. Then once Jeff gets the entire group riled up, Britta is the one attempting to get everyone back to studying ("let's look up the Spanish word for Jukebox"). Then she lies to Jeff in order to get everyone calmed down to start studying again. In the end, Britta gets exactly what she wanted, which was help studying Spanish. But unlike Jeff (and later Annie) she can't manipulate the group into doing what she wants, so she has to manipulate Jeff with her "guided missals."

  • Great point. And in the end Abed ends up giving Jeff back his control. It's interesting and another of the stories where Jeff ends up on the margins — what he wants here is incompatible with what the group wants, at least in its current incarnation with Abed providing it (even if the highrollin' life the group gets in this episode is unsustainable). 

  • Nice job, snowmania !  I didn't put together the beautifully parallel  "As for Abed, for his sake, I guess I’ll have to take him out. Poor little guy." and "I quit the fry cook job, somewhat for the sake of the family, but mostly for Jeff’s ego. Poor guy."  Such a nice touch.

    I wondered the same as you about whether this was the start of Jeff going to therapy.  My guess is that it is not, but this is where the seed was planted that eventually leads him to go after something else (table-ax, perhaps?).  It also really got me thinking about the relationship between this episode and Jeff's timeline in RCT.

    Funnily enough, I found the Annie's Boobs jokes (like, "Annie's Boobs could be by the side of the road!") didn't work for me as much this time around.  On thinking about why, I realized it's because I now think of Annie's Boobs as a legit monkey name.  That could turn out badly one day :).

  • I think you're right about Abed planting the seed. (Ow ow! OK, sorry.) Jeff kind of laughs in his delivery of 'yeah, maybe I should' [talk to a specialist], but I wouldn't be surprised at all if part of him is seriously considering it.

  • I'd just like to take this opportunity to say great job, and I love me some Jeff/Abed.

    Also, having grown up the mob movie loving son of a mob movie loving father, this episode knocked me on my ass the first time I saw it.

  • CAP definitely is the best character episode of season 1 in my opinion. 

  • I totally agree about the cold open and how the show does a great job with letting the characters just shine and reveal their true personalities. As much as I love all of the ambitious, crazy stuff, the scenes with the group sitting around the study table make me just as happy (if not happier sometimes) because it really lets everyone just showcase their strengths as characters (and comic actors). I guess that's why in that question a few weeks ago about whether we'd get rid of comedy, characterization, or ambition I went with ambition – the show is just as entertaining when it's being low-key, to me.

    Also this episode makes me want chicken.

  • Absolutely. I was thinking that if this were a different show, they could still do all of their fun and quirky premises and it might still be a good show in its irreverence, but it wouldn't be great if it weren't for these rich characters and how the quirks, the homages, everything is interpreted through them.

    Rewatching this produced an almost unquenchable desire to get my hands on some chicken fingers, post-haste.

  • Loki100

    Family Guy is, if anything, extremely innovative and extremely challenging. But no one gives a shit except for drunken frat guys because the show lacks rich characters and any sort of profound meaning.

  •  Yay review!  great job!

    I love this episode so much.  This to me is the essential Jeff-Abed episode.  In a way their entire relationship is defined by the ending scene. "choose one reference. Sixteen Candles."  Jeff restrains Abed in a healthy way that seeks to focus Abed rather than change Abed.  I don't think it is an accident that Jeff initiates the plan and sets the role and that then within the role is where Abed thrives.
    Also Abed likes birds and banjo music.  I did not know this. Oh and our little Annie has matured as she now needs pens and not cute pencils

  • I saw this episode before I saw Goodfellas. I saw Goodfellas several months after that, and I've seen this episode many times since. While watching Goodfellas helped me get some of the more specific jokes, I thought it was the best episode of Season 1 even before that. It's a really great episode on its own, which is important for theme episodes.

  • This was masterful, snowmania. To borrow one of your own lines: COMMUNITY IS JUST THAT DEEP, YO!!

    I think this episode gets vastly underrated because Modern Warfare came just two episodes later and it got all the attention for recreating what this one did first with its feverish, character-enriching storytelling and loving homage.

  •  i mentioned this but when i was rewatching season 1 over the hiatus i liked this episode more than modern warfare.  now maybe that is because i had a little warfare fatigue and maybe the expectations game played into it but the fact is that this is just a masterful episode of tv. 

  • Modern Warfare aired after, but it was shot first. CAP was one of the added episodes shot at the end of the schedule when NBC expanded the episode order by three.

  • LloydBraun I'm putting this on you because you've put it on yourself, but you should make sure that a list/links of all these reviews is the first post seen on the next review of Community.  It'll require you to repeatedly refresh the AV Club until maybe 3am PST when Todd finally posts the review, but it'll be worth it.

  • What do you mean? We've been posting this Google doc for a long time: https://docs.google.com/docume…

  •  I mean when the first post-hiatus Community review is posted, make sure that list is the first post.

  • Ohhh. Yes. So often that people will get tired of it.

  • Whoa, I did say that. (Thanks!)

    I think you're spot on, and those two episodes are neck-in-neck in my mind. In fact — I think I even enjoy this one more (I think I ranked it higher in our recent ranking fest). 

  • i love this episode for being a "theme" episode that is actually one of the heaviest character moments of the series. 

  • anyone remember where CAP placed in the ranking? 

  • This is a really beautiful review, and yet another confirmation that Jeff and Abed really is the deepest, most subtly contoured relationship on the show. Reading your analysis of this episode, especially in light of Jeff and Abed's subsequent interaction, I'm becoming more and more convinced that these two have the greatest chance of keeping in touch post-Greendale. It's a weird type of friendship, in that they both identify with something they lack, and the other has in spades, but is not aware of it.

    Re: the ending. It's a horribly trite expression, but I think it's very apt in this case: both Jeff and Abed learn something about each other. Abed is immensely observant, which serves him well very often, but unchecked, this power of observation can easily transform into cruelty. It's something the show has underlined again and again, from Intro to Film Studies, to Documentary Redux. Abed tries to teach the group a lesson, "Jeff-style," but all he succeeds is to appear mean and unfeeling. The funniest and sharpest gag of the episode is shooting Abed's revenge like the massacre in Goodfellas, and scoring it to "Layla" – it makes the gesture look like violent overkill, even if there's no question the group deserves it on some level. Jeff on the other hand desires control and some degree of authority, but I don't think he desires POWER, and, unlike Abed, he's not particularly inclined to fight for it. Abed will go for the jugular to retain power, intentionally or not; Jeff won't (which is odd, given his past as a lawyer). Remember, Jeff has never even been in an actual fistfight: his eyes are too gentle and soulful. He isn't even capable of figuring out a way to take Abed down: it's Starburns who gives him the solution.

    But Jeff's ability to avoid conflict is in fact his greatest asset. He doesn't realize it, but the reason why he's the true group leader, and why the group defers to him, is that he's capable of giving in, and that, interestingly, for someone as narcissistic as he is, he doesn't seem capable of holding a grudge. It's why I love the end of RCT so much: it's not that the group does better without Jeff: it's that the group does better when he doesn't call them out after they discover his ruse. The fact that he shrugs off being called a crafty jackrabbit, or being laughed at after conking his head on the fan, or that he has dinner with Abed instead of dismantling the fryer, brings the others in line too, erases all the petty squabbles between them and allows them to be happy.

    Also, I have to mention one of the best lines on the show so far: "And for your information, I don't have an ego: my Facebook photo is a landscape!"

  • You know, I love Jeff, but whenever we talk about favorite characters around here, he's not usually at the top of my list. Your last paragraph in particular really honed in on some traits that I never really considered before (i.e. his general agreeability and ability to let some things go), which make him all the more interesting and likable to me. It's funny, because he can be so petty and insecure and it makes him act out when he should just let things go — but not necessarily when it really matters, I guess? Sure, he lashes out at people like the annoying high school kids and Rich, but there's no love lost there. When it comes to his friends, there's a lot he can overlook and he's very loyal for someone who has been no good at having friends for much of his life.

  •  Jeff and Abed are by far my favorite characters on the show, but if I absolutely had to pick just one, it would be Jeff (it helps that I'd like to play charades with Joel McHale, but that's discussion for another thread). It's funny because for the whole of S1 and a good part of S2, I would have picked Abed, Troy, or Annie. It's probably because McHale's acting isn't always as flashy as, say, Glover's, and Jeff isn't always the source of jokes.

    But the guy is fascinating, by being simultaneously narcissistic and giving, as well as shallow and loyal. It's a contradiction I don't believe he's fully aware of until 21st Century Romanticism. I think for most of S1 and S2 he really believes that the way he keeps the group in check is only a function of his "coolness" and inherent superiority, and not a token of his attachment to these people.

    Side note, because it just hit me a few days ago, and I didn't have a chance to put it anywhere: I find the fact that Jeff is Pierce's emergency contact quite touching, and a very subtle way to hint at the relationship between these two before things start going to hell in S2.

  • I was just thinking of that today. It may seem cliche or boring to say, but even though Jeff is the lead, he really is the most fascinating character. I mean, has there ever been a Jeff story that was BAD? the only one I could think of earlier was his story in Wine Tasting. 

    I also think McHale absolutely responds when he gets great material and work to do. if he ever has weaker moments of acting it is in group scenes (rare though). I know we have a lot of Jeff-Shirley coming up apparently but I want to see more of Jeff and everyone (well only Annie if they figure out how to do these scenes again). my preference of course if for my usual favorite pairing – more jeff and abed. It has been since Critical FIlm Studies, and the well always delivers.