Episode 204: Basic Rocket Science
204 – Basic Rocket Science
This review doesn’t begin with this episode, but rather one of my favorite Community scenes of all-time: the very last scene of Season 1, in which Jeff and Annie smooch and set a billion Tumblr blogs ablaze. The reason I start with that scene is the line that comes before that entire conversation, a subtle catalyst to what we see being developed in this episode:
Annie: I finally decided to live in the moment, and in the moment, I realized…Greendale is where I belong.
Yeah, five simple words, but they express so much about the theme at the center of the show. As Janine Restrepo often reminds me, the reason Community is such a powerful show is the fact that it has one of the simplest messages: everybody is worth something, and we can best realize that when we see and bring out the good in each other. The show develops that theme constantly, but it has quietly expanded its scope from being a show about seven people who realize this fact to being a show about an almost mythical school, absurd beyond belief yet undeniably humane in its acceptance of everybody whom the world has rejected.
Annie’s revelation comes at the end of Season 1, but it’s not until Basic Rocket Science that the show explicitly takes a look at Greendale’s symbolic significance. Note that Season 2 is the only season in which the existence of Greendale is threatened by an external institution (I leave the Changvasion of Season 3 out because it’s internal strife, unlike the warfare going on between City College and Greendale.) Though the plot is carried by the characters, Greendale is the driving force in Basic Rocket Science: it may be an artificial stake, but what it divines about the characters is very, very real.
When this episode first aired in the fall of 2010 (I know, I can’t believe it’s been that long either), it was tossed off by portions of the fanbase as the show stretching too far into parody and losing track of the characters in the process. The main criticism was the characterization of Annie in this episode, which many saw as an arbitrary conflict introduced and dismissed only within the context of this story. Even the AVClub review of the episode states that the episode “doesn’t establish [this] character focus, and it gives us no real reason to think that these characters should either care as much as they do or be as concerned about this whole ride as they are.”
Yet consider the two scenes that open and close the episode; the first thing we see is the secret conference between the Dean and the school board as he lays out the stakes of the simulation space race for us, and the last thing is the Dean standing and beaming as the camera closes up on that ridiculous, dirty, awesome flag—the anus flag that is now Greendale Community College. I wouldn’t say that the closing shot isn’t done at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek (and wouldn’t say so for most of this episode, in fact), but it does demonstrate something that prior to Basic Rocket Science the show had never directly explored: the significance of Greendale as an institution and where it stands in the world Community exists in.
Two characters’ viewpoints of Greendale are particularly insightful: Jeff’s and the Dean’s. Jeff is always the snarky voice of reason by default, but his behavior throughout the episode has an unusually bitter tinge to it. Just a few things from this episode:
-He yells at Pierce when SANDERS gets on Pierce’s nerves.
-Annie: This is all my fault!
Jeff: Very much so.
-For that matter, he pretty much lets Annie fall on the sword for tattling even though he was really the one who revealed to the Dean that the study group made the flag.
-When Troy tries to get Jeff to cooperate, Jeff more or less verbally annihilates him—while he is trying to bust open a window with what I assume is a fire extinguisher.
The most telling moment is when he rants about how typical it is of Greendale to fail him in some way, shouting, “That place DESERVES an anus flag!” Of course, Jeff has never been open to caring much about anything, much less his crappy community college, so this isn’t exactly unprecedented behavior for him. The degree to which he dumps on Greendale in this episode, though, verges on contempt at times, which makes his third-act turnaround towards trying to save the day even more confusing.
It’s only when Jeff reveals that he was the one who tattled that this seemingly sudden shift makes sense. As we can see in many Season 1 episodes (Football, Feminism, and You shows this very well), Jeff is not somebody who easily admits to wrong, and he’ll go to hell and back to justify his actions. His callous attitude towards the other groupers and Greendale in this episode stems from the conflict between maintaining his aura of righteousness and the affection he is beginning to feel—however grudgingly—for his lame, toilet-shaped school. His declaration of “Nobody craps in [Greendale] but us!” falls perfectly into the middle of that conflict: it’s self-depreciating, sure, but affectionate all the same. And only when the others talk about how much they miss Greendale can he finally join in, finally forgetting about the mask he has to maintain to convince himself he’s still the same old Jeff Winger. But he’s not, and after an year at Greendale, he can’t ever be that person again, really. No matter how much he hates to admit it, spending time in a setting where he has to learn how to interact and care about things again has opened him as a person, and Basic Rocket Science shows that Jeff values that very much, if only unintentionally or subconsciously.
The Dean gets less meat than Jeff (hehe, meat) in this episode, but this episode does set up a nice little pair of bookends with Documentary Redux in Season 3. The defining moment for me comes right after his pep talk with Abed, where he wanders off and mumbles “Psycho!” under his breath. It speaks to a lack of respect that the Dean would say that about a student that was there to help him get his precious KFC simulator back; this pops up again in Redux, where Dean refers to Abed angrily: “All he does is follow people around!”
But as Luis Guzman will tell him in that episode, the Dean needs to stop worshiping the people that left and start worshiping the people that are there. The Dean’s problem in this episode is that he lets himself get sucked into City College’s game: the idea that a space simulator launch is going to swallow Greendale (hehe, swallow) is absurd, but he plays right into Dean Spreck’s hands. Greendale is nothing like City College: it’s far smaller, far less qualified, and far, far less professional. But it’s a school that exists for the people who City College wouldn’t take. It’s a school that’s willing to take them as they are, warts and all. The Dean is still holding onto the belief that he has to make his school great in the same way City College is great, not knowing that NOT being like City College is what has made it great all along. In this episode, he hasn’t matured beyond that point, and it’ll be a long road to Redux before he does.
Now that we have Greendale out of the way, let’s focus on some other characters, starting with everybody’s favorite fun vampire. Everybody tends to forget about her in this episode because of Annie’s prominence, but this is subtly one of the strongest Season 2 episodes for Britta, as it sets off at least four different developments for her that snake (insert turning it into a snake reference here) all the way through to the end of Season 3.
When Britta sees the KFCmulator, she talks about how she would go in there as a teenager and get to…doing something, until she realizes that Shirley’s there and saves herself by saying that they were just praying. It’s funny that Britta would try to hide that from Shirley, given how easily Shirley sees through a lot of the study group’s bull. In Interpretive Dance she calls Britta out on her complicated feelings for Jeff. She does it again in Pascal’s Triangle Revisited. And in The Psychology of Letting Go, the episode right before this one, she immediately assesses the Britta-Annie tension and knows that Britta is jealous of Annie’s ability to raise money. But Shirley just looks the other way in this episode, and both characters move on. This line is a brief moment of mutual enabling, but this relationship will be torn apart by Cooperative Calligraphy (and again in Mixology Certification). The ongoing conflict between Britta and Shirley has a lot to do with Shirley’s tendency to try and “fix” Britta to fit her needs and Britta’s resentment of Shirley’s moralizing, and a lot of it can be summed up simply by seeing how they deal with each other’s respective religions.
Is this moment a progression or a regression? It’s hard to say. The fact that Britta had no problem confronting Shirley about her intolerance in Season 1 points to the idea that this might be a step back for her, but you could also interpret it as Britta learning to pick her battles and being more aware of the people around her, which is a step forward. In any case, there’s a lot of quality Britta-Shirley work in Season 2, and Basic Rocket Science lays the plans for one of the most complex and significant parts of their relationship.
This is also a very good episode for Britta and Annie, as it builds on the tension between the two that has been building up for the first three episodes of Season 2. Britta clearly has a few issues with Annie she has to work out, and many of them are addressed (if not solved) here.
Britta’s first beef with Annie has to do with how she doesn’t consider what’s good for other people even when she acts like it. In Anthropology 101, Britta screamed at Annie about how she was stealing all of her boyfriends. In TPOLG, she gets angry about the schoolgirl routine she pulls to feign innocence and get what she wants. She holds a lot of resentment against Annie for ostensibly squealing here: almost every line she has references the heinous crime in some way, acting as if Annie was the reason that they were locked in and towed.
Britta’s second beef, though, is with what Annie is, what she isn’t, and how she has to twist Annie to fit her view. Regardless of who smooched who, she’s unfair to Annie in Anthropolo, where it’s somehow her fault that Jeff didn’t draw the line and she’s taking Britta’s exes intentionally. Annie has just as much of a right to use her sexuality as Britta does not to, and yields better results for it, but Britta has to slut shame Annie in order to deal with her own insecurities about her campaigning. That pattern of projecting continues in this episode; the sad thing is that Annie didn’t tattle, and even when Annie points that out, Britta sticks to her belief that she did. Only when Jeff confesses himself does she renege. This continually judgmental treatment of Annie stems from what Britta assumes of Annie and so isn’t completely fair, but Britta doesn’t acknowledge that at all, and continues to clash with her for the rest of the first half of Season 2. In fact, this conflict ends when Annie reaches out to Britta in Early 21st Century Romanticism, succeeding where Britta fails just by giving her a fair shake.
There’s only one bit to the Britta-Troy interaction in this episode, but it’s out of left field and it won’t be addressed again until the back half of Season 2. Nonetheless, it was a surprising moment for me when I first saw it and what’s done with this pair later on is nice, I must say. (Another theory: it makes sense that the two would be set up here so that they could go make Shirley’s Jesus film in Messianic Myths. Who knows, really?)
The last person Britta interacts hands on with in this episode is Pierce, and though we haven’t seen much of their relationship prior to this (they share one subplot in Debate 109, and from then on, their interaction is mostly limited to lesbian jokes), there’s one good moment here that pays off in Messianic Myths. When Pierce goes mad and attacks SANDERS, the group throws him into the gate at the back of the room, and we get this brief but sour exchange:
Pierce: You can’t do this to me!
Britta: We JUST DID.
This outburst can be attributed to Britta’s tendency to get caught up in the moment, but I like to think it’s a good bit of foreshadowing for her role as Pierce’s health advisor in Messianic Myths, in which she makes him get some damn broccoli, please. For all her protests to the contrary, Britta does display motherly tendencies towards the other members of the group at times, notably with Annie, Abed, and Pierce. Sometimes that is beneficial, but sometimes she lets her controlling side slip out, as we can see here.
The Pierce subplot takes a lot of the time in this episode, and it’s well-done, but I leave it here because there’s not very much to take apart (though Jeff gets in a nice Atari reference). This episode does mark the beginning of his long and slow descent into Grandpa the Flatulent, but it mostly serves as a jumping off point for later episodes to begin building on, and it’s a bit out of left field as a result. I’ll leave this arc for whoever’s doin’ Messianic Myths to begin unpacking.
The last thing I’ll talk about before wrapping up (and jeepers did I go overboard with this review) is my personal view of Annie’s motivations in this episode. Annie, as we know, ended her Season 1 journey in a place of acceptance and affection; Greendale is where she belongs. Season 2 directly challenges that ending from its beginning, though, throwing her into relationship drama off the bat, pitting her against Britta, and revealing darker sides of her character that fully unravel in Season 3 (chroloform, anyone?) In this episode, her defense is that she respects herself too much to go to a school that her friends keep dumping on, but that only gets to about half of the truth.
There’s no way to talk about Annie in this episode without at least partially conceding that her betrayal was borne at least partially out of her own insecurity. This has always been a part of her character; it is explored with her Troy woes in Football, Feminism, and You, in which she laments that if Troy gets the pick of the litter, she’ll never get to be with him. Later on, she’s insecure about her friendship with the study group in English as a Second Language, another episode in which that lack of confidence pushed her to make a decision.
Basic Rocket Science both parallels and stands opposite that episode; like English, its conflict stems from Annie’s anxieties, but this time, it’s born from the desire to break away instead of belonging. This is the first episode in which the group actually risks losing a member, and Season 2 continuously explores the tensions that these seven people face as they become a close-knit tribe (as the overarching class of the year, Anthropology, symbolizes).
Annie’s pride and insecurity are the two causes of this episode, but her pride is mostly wrapped up by the end of this episode, as she realizes that real pride doesn’t come from having a school that you can be proud of but simply being proud of your own school, even if your own friends decry it by making anus flags. They’ll flare up again in Mixology, but we can leave this episode knowing that, at least for a while, Annie found inner peace with Greendale.
Rewatching this episode for the first time in one-and-a-half years, with the immediacy of fandom reaction far behind me, I feel that this episode is an undercooked but underrated goodie. While it never fully addresses the Annie problem (and can only indirectly justify it at best), it does a great deal of development on Greendale itself and a fantastic job of kicking off character threads that would be paid off as far back as an year later. (Interestingly, the developments of this episode fit much better with the episodes that aired after it than the ones that aired before.
That said, I think ultimately this episode succeeds best in the view of the entire series. The reason that it wasn’t so well-received on first airing was because it took a while for the fruits of its labor to begin showing in the deconstruction of Pierce, the slow rise of the almighty Britta, and the myriad of relationships and themes that are probed in this episode. And that’s also a fine thing for an episode to be; it’s episodes like Modern Warfare that will remain in the fandom’s memory, but it takes episodes like Basic Rocket Science for us to get there. It took me two years to find the real merits of this episode, but some things just get better with age, and I can’t wait to come back to this one in another year and see what else I can find.
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-555280299 (page 108)