Episode 124: English as a Second Language
“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.
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/regional-holiday-music,66270/#comment-463059030 (page 168)