Episode 122: The Art of Discourse
"Discourse" is an episode about what it means to be an adult, and how it means not doing what seems like the instinctive thing. Jeff and Britta assume that they should be able to put three unrelentingly sarcastic, empty-headed teenagers in their place. But trying to take that entitlement just pulls them further and further into looking childish. Troy and Abed try to manufacture rites of passage as college students from Animal House-type stereotypes but viewing their own lives with detached self-awareness isn't compatible with living it. Pierce and Shirley expect more respect from the younger members of the group than they'll ever get, but finally bond over knowing that being adults means not needing the approval of their less accomplished classmates.
My favorite part of the episode is those obnoxious kids and how their taunts gradually become sublingual and totally removed from their initial sharpness, devolving from the faux-sophistication of sarcasm into the absolute meaninglessness behind it. Each step in their conflict with Britta and Jeff is just absurd enough that the satirical conceit is never diluted for the sake of the characters. Usually on a character-based show like Community, one wants the bottom to drop out a little and return us to a world where things happen for a reason. But occasionally a plot keeps it's ridiculous, bitter edge right up to the end and because it's so rare it makes it exciting (whereas a show like South Park always goes down that rabbit hole). By the time the kids are giving up their aloofness to engage in a Western Showdown of saying "Duh!," the lesson or theme or even Jeff and Britta's friendship takes a backseat to the joke that this is how stupid kids who think they're clever look to adults. It's a pretty pure, memorable demonstration.
But it is still a character-based show, and one where three plots are always circling each other and intertwining, which keeps it both light and grounded. There is development in Jeff and Britta's relationship, in that they've now essentially torn down their respective perches and met at the lowest common denominator. When Britta tells Jeff "You've got to bang that kid's Mom!", it's a point of no return (but in a way that it's still an aberration for her, a crossing of boundaries without demolishing them and ruining the complexity of her character for the sake of a joke). On the commentary, Harmon says they have "a total lack of chemistry that's a kind of chemistry." Having seen through each others' ideal selves, they actually get along in reality, at their borderline worst.
Pierce and Shirley have the important character story, the culmination of a season-long tension between them. It ends Pierce's semi-attraction to Shirley and her complete disgust with him. It really just comes down to Pierce being forced to be honest (and stop trying futilely to be cool) for a few seconds, long enough to assess Shirley as a person whom he respects. Beneath his stubborn childishness, I think Pierce always has this certainty of his accomplishments in life, which is how he keeps from really losing his mind. After S1, Shirley would seem more deep-down sure of herself as well. But the things that keep these two from ever being the center of attention in the group are probably the same reasons why this seemingly key plot wasn't the main story of the ep.
As for Troy and Abed, their story is even more cartoonish than Jeff and Britta's. But it's parceled out in such short pieces and so deftly that it never disrupts or overwhelms the ep. Crucial to the character development aspect is their funny but telling development of self-awareness. At one point, Troy tells the others he and Abed are pledging the Cool Fraternity, but "Unbeknownst to us, we don't have a chance of getting in." They couldn't be more in control of their own circumstances, like they were writing, acting and watching their story simultaneously. But in the end they figure out their own normal lives are more interesting, and give up that control, bringing the absurdity full circle back to normal (Abed would go through a similar process in "Anthropology 101"). Generally, their good naturedness about the ordeal lets it contrast and fit in with the others. Kidknapping a rival mascot goat doesn't sidetrack the group, instead Troy brings it in to take Pierce's seat and happily shares reaction shots with it while everything else proceeds as normal. It enhances the jokes, but doesn't inhibit the story.
- Annie doesn't get her own plot, but she's very funny in the background. When caught by Shirley watching her and Pierce, when grooving out to Pierce's acoustic guitar playing or approving of a food fight. And, of course, "We do make fun of a lot of the things you say and do." Cruelty is logical when it's not directed at you.
- Troy has to pull Abed by the arm, to keep him from following Shirley and Annie into the Womens' bathroom.
- "If you're not, I'm sorry. If you are, I'm a hero. I'm willing to take that chance." (American foreign policy distilled by Pierce?)
- Chang is chased by two girl scouts he presumably stole cookies from to sell. S1 always had a whole world operating at once, little details like that fitting comfortably into the whole.
- "That's dangerous. My Uncle was struck by lightning. You'd think it gives you superpowers, but now he just masturbates in theaters."
- "If all we need is an escape-goat, why don't we just let this one go?"
- "Maybe he'll admit he's wrong…2,3,4-uhhhh, NOT!"
- "Ridiculous situation descending into heavy handed drama for the illusion of story? Check."
- "Just so you know, I'm Shirley. I wouldn't want you reaching for me should you get a hankering for pancakes."
- Jeff realizes he needs Pierce in the group. He wouldn't be so sure by the time S3 rolled around.
- I love the arbitrary argument over how to pronounce "pwned." You can't! it's not a word!
- There's an amazing couple of outtakes where the goat goes off-script. Not only is it funny, but you can hear Pudi's voice change when he breaks, then pulls it back into Abed mode all in the course of a sentence. It's pretty cool.
- When Joel did The Tonight Show during S1, they showed the clip of him jogging sleeveless to get Mark's Mom's attention. There was barely a joke (let alone context) and the clip was clearly chosen to show him being hot. Afterwards, Joel's face suggested he wasn't amused by that selection. (Good going, NBC, as always.)
Commentary is with Dan Harmon, Chris McKenna, Adam Davidson, Donald Glover and Danny Pudi. It's decent but it's mostly Glover and Pudi cracking each other up really easily (I guess that's the kind of inexhaustible positive energy you need to be an actor) and Harmon rambles a little bit for sure.
The writers did put a lot of discussion into what elements of youth were most annoying and intimidating and the writing and casting pushed for that. The "Duh!" thing came from one of McKenna's real high school friends, who you could only get the better of by refusing to engage him at all.
Harmon wanted a story where the other characters held Pierce accountable, as opposed to some shows where it feels like the "funny asshole" character ("the Eric Cartman", according to Harmon) never gets taken to task.
Donald laughs at Britta saying "You've gotta bang that kid's Mom" and says it's like the mean stuff that kids say to each other without thinking like "Your Mom's in a wheelchair." He'd end up expanding that into a bit for his latest Stand-up special.
Donald also points out that Britta's using binoculars that she probably paid for with money that could've gone towards an iPod. Also that Pierce's essence is that he won't change, the other characters and the audience will change around him.
The ridiculous Harmon-penned lyrics to the song at the end.
“I don’t like studying I like partying.
I don’t wanna read a book
Unless the subject is beers and boobs
And no pencils and books
The semester hasn’t started
Until you party where you’re hardest
I don’t want to take a test
unless the question is ‘Where’s the party?’
And the answer is ‘Me’
(I drink the beer I lose control)
Why did my father always lie?
I hate science
Unless it helps you build a robot
Specifically the kind programmed to find another party
So I can skip chemistry
College is a party
So come party at the party
Party is the class in session
And the only lesson is to party
when you party with me”