Episode 124: English as a Second Language

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ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE Episode 124

“English as a Second Language” has a perfectly apt title. This is an episode of television designed for people who do not understand the language of true communication, and must disguise themselves through cultural affectations. The pop culture references throughout the episode serve as signifiers of “smartness” and pop culture savvy that are used to flatter the hipster audience. In the process of embracing these cheap tricks, Community betrays the legacy of its meta-textual forbearers The Simpsons and Twin Peaks. Those shows explored cultural tropes with satirically brilliant insight into the human condition. Community is a fantasy for the Internet generation.

“English as a Second Language” begins with the study group nearing the end of the school year. Jeff Winger harshly vetoes the idea of taking Spanish 102 because he merely wants to scrape by and get a degree as easily as possible. In doing so, he crushes Annie’s hopes of the group functioning as a family; his selfishness threatens to crush the Community. Winger, an arrogant, snarky narcissist, is a perfect icon for the hipper-than-thou attitude that has coarsened and degraded modern culture. The tragedy of the casting of Joel McHale (host of TV’s brilliant the Soup) is that it shows Dan Harmon’s fundamental inability to understand the world around him. On the Soup, Joel is the anti-cynic; he resists the perversity and destructiveness of modern culture with a brave rebelliousness worthy of The Simpsons. Harmon cannot understand the difference between snark and satire, so he cast’s Joel as an idealized version of himself, a shallow, cynical, but oh so very hip, loser. Jeff’s racist comments about the family downstairs hating him to justify his lack of desire to pursue further study of Spanish is not examined or criticized sufficiently; it’s just a cruel punch line, justifying racism in much the same manner as Chevy Chase’s Pierce.

Jeff is forced to have a discussion with his Spanish teacher, Senor Chang(played by Ken Jeong, the Asian Stepin Fetchit). Chang has falsified his teaching credentials in order to get a job at Greendale(It’s funny because no Asian man could actually know Spanish).He entrusts Jeff with this information due to Jeff’s gift for lies and treachery. Fucking up Chang’s plan, Anal Annie has been recording every Spanish class, and she learns his secret. Being one of the only study group members who truly values Community, she rats Chang out to preserve the group. The method of her discovery is extremely important to consider. Annie’s recorder is the means in which all popular culture of the past century is created; the representation of physical reality preserved for all time. Harmon sees art as a dangerous weapon; the recorder threatens to screw the group out of their credit, and Chang’s keytar is used to destroy Jeff’s car. Harmon, like his most popular creation, Abed, embraces all television and culture regardless of quality, and regurgitates it for his hipster fan boys, eager to lap up his vomit.

This episode features a sinister subplot involving Troy Barnes, played by the detestable Donald Glover. Troy discovers he has a miraculous plumbing ability, and the schools custodian attempts to recruit him to a plumbing agency. There’s a hair raising scene in the Greendale bathroom where Troy tries to explain what he hopes to get out of college. He wants to “understand HBO”! In the eyes of Harmon and company, n*ggers should just drop out of college and give up hope of ever understanding what they consider “smart television” in order to embrace their destiny as manual laborers. Hearing this conversation, Abed tries to drive Troy away by quoting Good Will Hunting. While I appreciate the jab at Gus Van Sant’s terrible “movie”, this entire plot element is the cheapest kind of pop culture referencing, with a dash of racism to make it as Tarantinoesque as possible. Eventually Abed wins Troy back with a reference to the Wire, presumably assuming that in Troy’s desperate desire to get with the in crowd he would have watched the only major HBO series to prominently feature black people.

The only truly good sequence in this episode is the one in which Jeff interrogates Annie. When Jeff discovers Annie told the truth about Chang’s fraud in order to keep the group together, he is furious. Lazy motherfucker that he is, he can’t stand the thought of retaking Spanish. He humiliates her and makes her cry in front of the group. But something amazing happens. When Annie cries, her face stirs something in the souls of her friends. She forces them to emphasize with her desperate desire for family and Community. Even Abed, soulless reference machine that he is, cannot help but be struck dumb by the virtually unbelievable sadness and beauty on Alison Brie’s face. Jeff’s only recourse is to bait Abed with a reference: The Ark of the Covenant. Of course Abed hides his face; Brie’s sublime beauty and Spielberg’s benevolent pop brilliance are too much to handle. Harmon, committing cultural treason, once referred to Spielberg as a moron, revealing his own lack of humanity in the process. It makes perfect sense for Abed to shriek and cover his face at the Spielberg reference; humanism terrifies him. Eventually Jeff relents and lets Annie back into the group and finally shows something akin to familial feelings about the group. It’s the kind of unconditional friendship that doesn’t truly exist in the physical world. Something akin to it exists on the Internet, where people interact with each other with no real personal investment. Maybe that’s why this low rated show is so popular on the Internet, even more so than its references. It tells the selfish, yet lonely, that they can be accepted without ever changing. Here, on these very boards, one can witness a microcosm of everything Community represents. We stand at a time where culture is all about pandering to those who choose isolation.

Dave’s notes: This episode is really funny and underrated. There are so many great touches in it. I’m particularly fond of the nature sounds over the intercom, and the scene in which Chang makes music from a sample of Annie’s agonized scream.

“ A job that looks from a distance like I’m doing nothing!”

“Get with the times, man”

“Is this going to be another Avatar situation?”

I find the scene where all the study group members can suddenly speak Spanish when Annie is in trouble oddly moving.

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On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-463059030 (page 168)

Discussion:

  • I love this episode from top to bottom. I think out of all the episodes that Todd has given an A- or an A, this is the one that has slipped under the radar the most, over time* and I really wonder why. There's so many great scenes in this one (the scene where Jeff chastises Annie is one of my favourites in the entire show I think – Brie and McHale are just so great; and I've said before I don't think anyone could pull off that scene quite like Alison Brie) and the Good Will Hunting parody is slight, but a lot of fun too. Plus, Jerry Minor is always welcome.

    Any reason this one gets glossed over so much?

    *Custody Law doesn't count because many people have discussed that episode as a lesser one of the show.

  •  I think because coming after Modern Warfare, it felt a little underwhelming. As far as I remember, MW was supposed to be a season finale, but it got pushed back when NBC ordered two extra episodes.

    But I agree: it's very funny, and it's a great episode for both Annie and Pierce (who turns out to be quite generous and smart). The Good Will Hunting plot is pure gold, especially the part where Jerry the Plumber lures Troy to the bathroom with cake. And the group's final grades perfectly encapsulate who everyone is.

  • Yeah. That makes sense. Plus it came right before Pascal's Triangle Revisited as well, which I think has stuck with people more because of the Jeff and Annie kiss. But I think this is a better episode.

    But also, the fact that it felt underwhelming, coming after MW, shouldn't be a reason for the lack of love this episode gets, two years later. By now, that feeling towards that episode would have certainly passed.

    And I mean, it was one of the lowest episodes on the list we put together. I think it was in the 40s, whereas I had it in the 20s. It didn't surprise me, because I never see the episode brought up (even though it has a lot of memorable stuff, I think – Jerry Minor/GWH plot; Annie's Disney face; Jeff and Chang getting tasered, even if it was a bit broad; oh, and the scene where everyone walks out of class) in discussion, but I was really disappointed to see such a good episode get the shaft like that.

  •  it is also because it is the second finale of three.  Personally i like ESL more than Pascal.

  • "And the group's final grades perfectly encapsulate who everyone is."
    The fact that this show and its fans think people's souls can be rendered in test scores says all that you need to know about it.

  •  Hey, I'm a prof! My students are meaningless to me beyond their test scores.

  • Yeah the GWH spoof is hilarious, and I even kind of like that movie.

  • Eric, it's OK to like GWH. Don't let the AVC snooterati get you down. It's not your fault. It's not your fault…

  • Not quite; Modern Warfare, English as a Second Language, and Pascal's Triangle Revisited were always the last three episodes of the season, it was the three before MW that they went back and shot when the season order was expended. Art of Discourse was the last episode shot for the season.

  • DavetheDouchebag

    That scene with Jeff breaking down Annie is excellent. You can understand why Jeff is so angry, yet you just feel so sorry for Annie at the same time. Like all the best art, it doesn't point fingers or assign blame. Alison's face is so exquisitely emotional you can truly believe it would break through Abed's shell.

  •  Apparently Joel improvised that bit about the Disney face which is mightily nice of him:

    http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…

    http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…

  • "You are insecure! Because you didn't get hot until after high school!"

  •  It's good that this review comes so close to the return of the show: it is the crowning achievement of three months' worth of discussion and posting!

    The tragedy of the casting of Joel McHale (host of TV’s brilliant the Soup) is
    that it shows Dan Harmon’s fundamental inability to understand the world around him. On the Soup, Joel is the anti-cynic; he resists the perversity and destructiveness of modern culture with a brave rebelliousness worthy of The Simpsons. Harmon cannot understand the difference between snark and satire, so he cast’s Joel as an idealized version of himself, a shallow, cynical, but oh so very hip, loser.

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I watch the Soup!

  • DavetheDouchebag

    Not having seen much of the Soup, I'm glad Armond's thoughts on it were so satisfying for the shows fans.

  •  That scene where they all start speaking Spanish is my favourite part of the episode.

  • Having read what Armond wrote…..even for the internet, it's pretty shocking.

    Of all the secret classic episodes in S1, this is the secretest and the classicest. I like that they made a bookend to the Spanish class Even though it isn't as important as the relationship stuff and group dynamics in "Warfare" and "Pascal's", it shows the completeness and density of the show's campus-world. Really, the whole episode has that great feel where all the pieces, the jokes and conflicts, fit so smoothly into the overall atmosphere. Plus, it brings to a head stuff with Chang (an abusive, crappy teacher) and Annie (unable to hide her powerful neurosis) that the season would've been remiss to just let go.

    I suppose it does get away with Annie doing something pretty over-the-line in getting Chang fired without too many consequences (although at least the emotion of it is addressed), and with everyone passing in spite of never learning much Spanish (Pierce nailing the teacher's a cute ending but comes out of nowhere).

    Still, how many comedies are well put together enough to have an episode that ties up all these loose ends while still having it's own satisfying story, just stringing together even bigger plot-heavy eps? Not to mention Annie's "You don't like it? I was going for kind of a Professor thing" being the greatest hint/spoiler for attentive fans ever. I'm not saying I'm the only one who knew they were going to kiss the next week….but I am saying I totally knew.

    My roommate, Unregistered Guy named Derrick, watched this episode as well, and he'd like to add that he thinks I spend too much time on the internet, and could I keep it down, some of us have work in the morning.

  • DavetheDouchebag

    What was most shocking about Armond's review? Most of the discussion has been about the episode itself, which is great of course, but me and Armond want to know what people thought!

  • "Even for the internet, it's pretty shocking" is a line from The Office. I thought it was wryly funny. He's probably right about the racial condescension, even if he doesn't really think he is.

  •  God, I completely forgot about Annie dressing up like a school teacher! It's such a sweet moment between her and Jeff!

    The fishsticks say it best:

    http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
    http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
    http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…

  • In that first one, she looks like maybe she's going to kill Jeff and eat his liver with Fava Bean flavored Fro-yo.

  • I don't know, I think they're both very sweet. In fact, I think sweetness is the general mood of the episode: it's just such a sunny, cute story. Sure, it starts with Annie antagonizing the group and the group ganging up on her, but it ends with them in an uncharacteristically happy and content place: they've passed Spanish, and they are together. There's no doubt, no bitter-sweet feelings, just joy. Even Chang is happy.

     Plus: I know this is starting to sound a bit stalkerish, but damn: Joel McHale has the cutest smile…

  • I paused it on that second one more times than I care to admit.

  • I miss that Annie and Jeff.

  • Unregistered Guy Named Eric Creed's "blog"!  

    I'm curious about the point you raise below.  I don't think Harmon means it this way and it mostly doesn't bother me because I trust the tremendous respect with which they treat the characters, but there is a tiny, tiny overly-PC very Britta-like part of me that cringes at Troy being the one who's considering trade school.  I'd be curious what the community here thinks of that.  

    And now for something completely different: this episode reminds me that now four of our beloved characters have been tasered.  Going to Greendale is dangerous for your health!

  •  what is racist about Troy going to trade school? black men don't have trades they deal drugs or are star athletes! (note tongue firmly in cheek at this moment, so not actually racist)

  • DavetheDouchebag

    It certainly is uncomfortable that the custodian is also black, and the whole message of the plot is kind of weird. Troy shouldn't try to understand HBO or learn things because he's too stupid? I wouldn't be that thrilled with that even if Troy wasn't black. The plot is still pretty funny though.

  •  I think you may be reading too much into Troy and Jerry's race (maybe you spend too much time with Armond?). I don't think Troy is not supposed to understand HBO because he's stupid, rather I think he's not supposed to understand HBO because he's an adult, and adults are concerned with jobs and making money. It's a dig at that silly movie cliche that has a character being suddenly preternaturally gifted at something and then understanding that that something is the only thing they ever needed in life. But it's also a very nice continuation of a side of Troy that the show has been very good and consistent at exploring:

    Troy may come off as a bit dim and nerdy, but he's really the most conflicted character in the show, after Jeff. And his conflict comes, like Jeff's, from balancing social pressure and personal desire. In Jeff's case, the social pressure is largely of his making: he chose to cast himself as a womanizing cad, and a manipulative asshole. In Troy's case, it's more likely this pressure was thrust upon him: he was likely expected to do well in sports because he was not very smart, a guy, and possibly also because he was black. But Troy is also very anxious about rising up to meet these expectations: which is why he sets himself to fail at sports by doing that keg flip; and why he rejects Jerry and Layborne. It's also why he is s drawn to Abed: Abed represents a way of living that has no need for social pressure or expectations of any kind (that this may not be true is irrelevant; this is how Troy sees Abed). In essence Abed is the giant toy Troy never had, the Hobbes to his Calvin. Remember that Troy grew up as a Jehovah's Witness – which was likely a stern upbringing, emphasizing duty and traditional values, and denying any form of "useless" enjoyment.

    Troy has to understand what he should become – and not necessarily in the sense of what job he should do (Jerry's plea is really just as reductive as Layborne's).

  • Loki100

    I loved the fact that the second episode of the season introduced the Spanish class, and the second to last episode concluded it. Such symmetrical plotting.

  •  Hey, you're right! I don't think it was intentional, but it's cool nevertheless.

  •  well technically the spanish episode was mentioned in the first episode because they are formed as a spanish study group

  • Mr. A had been trying to get me to finish Good Will Hunting for many, many years.  I don't know, I could never actually finish it.  All it took was this episode. 

    I always liked this episode, but I still think it's kind of plot-ey.

  • Armond, I don't use the word 'hero' lightly, but you are the greatest hero in American history. This was quite possibly the most sublime sentence (using a vomit metaphor) I've ever read: "Harmon, like his most popular creation, Abed, embraces all television and culture regardless of quality, and regurgitates it for his hipster fan boys, eager to lap up his vomit." Thank you for that brave indictment. This is what I might have said about 124, before you all but yanked me out of the Community coterie's lockstep:

    – I don't have much to say about this episode other than I haven't seen it in a while, and hey, it is so fun! It's one of the funnier episodes I remember, though I am guilty of underrating it and it could just be comparatively fresh after fewer viewings.

    – It was a little weird to see to see non-groupers streaming into and out of the library in the first few minutes of the episode (increased traffic for finals, I'm sure). I've never really noticed anyone else actually in the study room besides the group and I was like, DON'T VIOLATE THEIR SACRED SPACE.

    – Jeff on graduating in four years: "Which can only happen if I take a full load,don't."

    – I've been thinking in S3 that Annie's bitchiness towards Britta was relatively new/ramped up, but already in S1 it was so on that things had become very much like Donkey Kong with low blows like this: "Of course you think that, Britta, it's obvious from your name your parents smoked pot."

    – Love the spontaneous court scene when they confront Annie. Abed's like the unofficial stenographer anyway, always. Love Troy's anger as the witness who confirms that Annie was not hot in high school.

    – "I'm pretty sure they mailed each other PANTS!"

    – The Disney Face exchange was a thing of beauty, on all possible levels.

    – I like this silly little tag very much. Pierce stealthily saves the day and gets some all at once.

  •  Holy crap, so much awesomeness in this episode I forgot about! Jeff basically gives out the series finale with his dream of a table for one at Morrie's Steakhouse. And I'm pretty sure the May 2013 date he gives falls on a Thursday, so if the series actually ends on that day it could turn into an awesome bit of foreshadowing.

    Also, is it just me or Armond only seems to despise Harmon, while deep down he actually likes the guy?

  • With vitriolic being his default mode, it's a little hard to tell, but Harmon really seems to have touched a nerve with Armond. It's a thin line between love and hate, and all of that.

    And if the series ends on Jeff's prophetic date, I know whatever they do with it I will cry and cry. It will be so right.

  • sll03

    I think you and LloydBraun need to develop a drinking game involving the Morty's/Morrie's conundrum.

  • sll03

    I feel like if I award this review 10 Disney faces out of 10, Armond will respond that using a grading scale is society's way of slowly eroding the creativity of written or verbal speech and turning us all into mindless, methodical robots (or something of the sort).  So, with that in mind… I award this review 10 Disney faces out of 10!

    Most of the things I love about English As A Second Language have already been pointed out:  the Good Will Hunting parody, Jeff and Chang getting tasered, a real-life keytar, The Wire reference, WE LOVE HANNAH!, the Spanish marks end tag, and of course, Disney faces galore.  However, since I'm very wired after playing a 6 hour game of Monopoly, here are some other fun moments I really liked, conveyed via fish sticks and quotes:

    "And now… crickets!"

    "Anthropology? Anthropology? Anthropology?"

    Shirley: Go girl!
    Abed: You just 'go girl-ed' yourself.
    Shirley: *pouts*

    "Does anybody know how to study?"

    Troy: Uhh, Pierce isn't waking up.
    Jeff: Oh, you have to know how to do it:  discrimination lawsuit.
    Pierce: Preposterous!

    And this is just really cute.

  • My roommate laughed so hard at that discrimination lawsuit joke. I had to pause the episode for a little bit.

  • "Did you say 'Keytar'? Or did you just pronounce 'Guitar' like a hillbilly?"  I love that Jeff asked what I was totally wondering the first time I saw it.

    Apparently Jeong insisted on wearing the safety glasses in the scene where he's destroying Jeff's car with the keytar, which is kind of an adorable bit of nerdery.