Episode 207 – Aerodynamics of Gender
207 – Aerodynamics of Gender
Apologies in advance for the perhaps absurd length.
Let’s tuck right in, for this is a good pizza episode with flashes of greatness (or in pizza parlance, gobs of run-off cheese). The plot: By happenstance, Jeff and Troy discover a trampoline with fantastical effects, and Pierce goes batty trying to uncover the secret to their new, relaxed way of being. Meanwhile, Britta, Annie, and Shirley’s run-in with some mean girls prompts them to unleash their inner bitches and tap Abed’s encyclopedic mind to lob insults. I’ll break this down by storyline.
OH MY GOD. TRAMAMPOLINE! TRABOPOLINE!
The magical trampoline is easily one of my favorite Community stories to date. Even though the trampoline itself isn't sanctioned by the college, its starring role in a heretofore secret garden on the edge of the school typifies all the goofy possibility afforded by Greendale. It’s emblematic of the national lampoonery the Dean will try reign in (to little effect, because of its endemic nature) in season three, and it’s precisely the brand of absurdity that Dr. Heidi will exploit to briefly con the group into thinking Greendale only existed in their imaginations. Of all the Greendale shenanigans we’ve seen, it’s one of the Greendale-iest. The weirdest. What I’m trying to say is, it’s damn beautiful.
It inspires some of the show’s funniest moments, too – upon taking up bouncing, Jeff and Troy exhibit a severe mellowness not often seen outside of lithium users; Pierce’s frustration at being cut off from the group drives him to ever more desperate fits and high-tech spying measures; and that nice gardener, Joshua? Oh yeah, he’s racist (1800s Disneystyle). But I think what I like best about this story is the absurd significance assigned to the trampoline itself. Like the Simpsons’ own memorable trampoline-related storyline where the trampoline drops into Homer’s life like a divine, unmitigated gift but quickly becomes a curse, inspiring violence and madness, Community’s trampoline briefly symbolizes something much bigger for our characters. It’s a lifestyle, a veritable gateway to Nirvana. (“I wasn’t sure you’d take to the trampoline’s ways.”) Did I mention this story was weird?
I’ve always been very fond of this episode for situating the trampoline in a secret garden. In Dan’s own words, from the season two walkthrough: “I don’t know what the fuck a secret garden is. I only know the literal definition of that combination of words, that there’s a garden somewhere that’s secret.” Well, I read The Secret Garden and saw a couple film adaptations back in the day. Because I’ve become a subliterate ape in my advanced age, I can’t really expound on the omnipresence of magic or the relationship between landscape and well-being which Sparknotes tells me are important themes. But there’s a moment at the conclusion of the 1993 movie that’s a nice supplement to this episode. (That, by the way, is the odd movie that I liked as a kid but loved as an adult. I would recommend it to anyone with even a semblance of a heart.) Mary, the protagonist, formerly a punk-ass brat, has been utterly transformed by the experience of cultivating the titular garden with her friends. But finding peace in the garden isn’t the end of the transformation by half. It’s opening the garden that makes the change real and lasting, that makes it truly a living thing and not some limited place locked in time. Mary’s conclusion is that, if you look right, you’ll see the whole world is a garden.
This perspective – that the world is a place of possibility and growth, where things (by necessity) die but can be replaced with something new and beautiful– is a worldview complementary to Greendale’s own. At Greendale, everybody’s already accepted, but the person who emerges is different from the person who came in. Nobody is beyond transformation or redemption, with the exception of the guy who ironically enough keeps using his own name as a pun for “change.” It takes careful cultivation and openness. But change is there for the taking, if you want it.
I’d have loved this story if it were nothing more than a daytrip into saturated loopiness, but the brief flash of insight from Jeff at the end elevates it.
“Maybe that’s the lesson here. Purity that demands exclusion isn’t real purity. Maybe paradise is a lie.”
He’s talking more explicitly about Joshua the gardener’s hilariously left-field bit of racism, but the realization can also double as a reinforcement of that most Greendalian understanding of egalitarianism. On the one hand, it’s a cynical reading where Greendale is a catchment for all those that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. But what gifts it does offer, it offers to all. Jeff and Troy’s paradise couldn’t last, wasn’t even the truth, because it purposely kept the community out. And the most meaningful transformations Jeff undergoes are inspired and aided by others – his friends, his acquaintances, even an enemy like the kettle corn-popping phantom, Rich.
What peace Jeff gains via the trampoline is temporary. That’s what allows the smallest tinge of sadness to creep in on rewatch. Troy’s transformation is sweet and enjoyable, but in most every respect, he is so much freer a person than Jeff (Hello, cartoon tunnel? Yes, I’ll hold). For Troy, the loss of the trampoline is easy-come, easy-go. But like never before, Jeff-the-trampoline-adherent could finally shed his more anxious, noxious brand of caring and become the legitimate cool customer that he only pretended to be when he was really a Goldbluming, Hawkeye-wannabe. This is a man thirsting for the rehabilitation that secret trampolines provide, but ultimately he can’t keep it, and that’s a bit of a bummer. But if he lost the trampoline, he still has Greendale itself, which is a good enough haven for a soul in transition.
Let’s not go too nuts with this, though. It’s a brief jaunt on a bouncing machine, not an intensive soul rezoning. But this plot does remind us that life’s gifts are better given to others or shared, a point the show is insistent on.
The idea of belonging runs through all the threads in this episode, especially Pierce’s and Abed’s. “Aerodynamics” is another solid entry in Pierce’s stepwise progression into villainy, one of the show’s best fleshed-out arcs. While Pierce invites in so much of his shunning through his provocative (if unconsidered) behavior, it’s hard not to feel for him as his childlike efforts to run with the cool kids are rebuffed. It’s not just about showing up Jeff; Pierce vies for his mere consideration. When it was clear early on in the series that Jeff recoiled at any comparisons of himself and Pierce, and would have no part in “Winger and Hawthorne”-styled duo, Pierce’s efforts vacillated between outright antagonism and shallow grabs for attention, based on a real affection for Jeff. It’s kind of like the old chestnut about kids teasing each other when they like each other and just don’t know how to express it. Pierce, for all his worldly crotchetiness, has barely matured beyond this stunted approach to relationships.
Typically Jeff exacerbates Pierce’s lousy impulses by repeatedly and actively rejecting him, but this episode takes it further by having Jeff simply stop reacting to Pierce’s needling. The most infuriating moment for Pierce must come when he, perpetually a step behind on the hobby du jour, tosses a basketball to Jeff and Troy to challenge them to a game. When the latter blissfully fail to react in any way, Pierce loses it. He is now completely impotent. (Although please don’t mistake my meaning; we all know Pierce is hypervirile.) And the rub is that someone else – Troy, another kind of antagonist to Jeff if only on the backburner – is in on whatever gay little secret Jeff is keeping. This is a fine recipe for a tizzy.
Some people are really funny when they’re mad, and Pierce is one of them: his well-established immaturity is burning bright as his hapless attempts to one-up Jeff and Troy keep failing.
“I’m watching you two, 24, 2010. These balls on your butts.”
“I’m gonna slit your butts’ throats.”
And for my money, the greatest Pierce line:
“Tell me how to get this laidback, or I’ll kill your families!”
This kicks off a round of spying and manipulation that ultimately leads Pierce to the garden and the trampoline. I think something snaps in Pierce in this episode. By now, patience gone, he’s as belligerent as we’ve ever seen him, coercing a hilariously sobbing Troy to double-bounce him. The consequence, of course, is an accident that will land Pierce in a wheelchair from which his only solace is a chemically-induced “paradise” that opens up whole new avenues of ugliness in his character as the season progresses. But before landing spectacularly in that dumpster, Pierce flies a little too close to the sun and we get a little clue as to what’s going on in that addled old-man brain of his. He whispers the word “Father” at the apex of his double-bounce, voicing the catalyst – family, and his rejection from it – that informs his problematic relationship with the study group.
Where the trampoline story is just about perfect, there are some gaps in the girls’ and Abed’s story. In a way, I get some of Harmon’s negativity about this plot in the walkthrough (although he gloms on unwarranted self-flagellation). I’ll admit I have a hard time articulating what it was about this story that didn’t quite work for me, but I’ll give it a go.
The cold open suggests something different from what actually transpires in this storyline; Britta extends some pet theories about the masculine aggression transpiring over in the basketball game, and as the girls eagerly anticipate their women’s studies class, it seems we’re going to get a plot predicated largely on ideas about gender that showcases the dynamic among our beloved female characters. Abed quickly throws a wrench in the works by tagging along and becoming embroiled in (and then a master of) the kinds of disses promulgated by, oh, let’s call them “bitches.” The episode starts to go off in another direction.
Truthfully, I was hoping for a little more trenchant insight on the part of Annie, Shirley, and Britta when it came to, well, bitchery, and their own cognitive dissonance towards it. On that token, though, that same dissonance is hilarious in this exchange:
Abed: Because they’re bitches?
Shirley: Ooh, that’s niiiice!
Upon taking the bitchiness too far, the trio briefly admits that they “became the kind of women [they] hate.” They still see Megan and her friends as the real bitches; it strikes me that they consider their own behavior as an apparent aberration that doesn’t really count. And maybe it doesn’t: by and large, Annie, Shirley, and Britta seem like pleasant-enough, empathetic people. But there is still a real and ugly (if small) side to each of them – Shirley’s anger, Britta’s pettiness, Annie’s elitism – something that has an especially forceful reaction when given a bit of leverage in this episode. (In this case, the expulsion of Megan and her friends from the cafeteria and the ability to harvest Abed’s talent for calling out perceived bitches, past and present). On the one hand, with Annie, Shirley, and Britta ruthlessly acting on grudges and then striking out simply because they can, we have a seed that germinates into the assholery the group descends to with Todd in 303. In that sense, this is a good precedent-establishing episode for the kinds of behavior that earns them their reputation as “that study group” to other Greendalians. But it’s also kind of a shiftless, not-fully-recognized antagonism that warrants a little more exploration. As it stands, I’m simply not sure what this episode is trying to say about the women, or the idea of being a bitch, or the group’s niche at Greendale, or if it was ever meant to be anything other than a nod towards Mean Girls-style humor and an excuse for Chang to snarf, yo.
Abed as Rowboat Cop is far more successful. Some commenters on Todd’s review complained that the story is an irritating feint towards the “Asbergers is magic” camp, and I believe I saw the name “Sheldon” pop up once or twice. I see it, but also, I don’t? Abed’s targeting system (a spoiler-laden trove of jokes in its own right) is, to my mind, an excellent humorous visualization of the rules and astute observations that govern so many of his interactions. Now, if that’s all there were to his role in this story, the Sheldonites might have a point. But there’s more. Community has a fine line to walk; they certainly mine for humor in Abed’s Asperger’s (or wherever he is on the spectrum; not my business) and the attendant hazardous navigation of convention and social niceties. But the show likes to mix things up by reminding you that Abed is a human being who grows and is capable of change. Abed’s no automaton; he hesitates before doing the girls’ bidding and admits that later he never should have mean to anyone. A TBBT-style joke tends to hit the Otherness hard and leave it at that; Abed breaches social rules, we laugh, but we know that he is initially tipped towards this via a real and very sweet attempt to get closer to his friends (“I’d love to know more about you.”)
And just in case he still seems like a flat joke machine, Abed receives a takedown that is crueler than any of the cafeteria bystanders could guess, because it was written not by the girl who doesn’t even know his peanut-headed ass, but by Abed himself. The accusations –you don’t have any feelings; you never will [fit in] – are harsh enough to tamp down the anger of his newly-formed enemies and restore the natural order at Greendale. Maybe that was all Abed wanted. But there’s a sad resignation in Abed’s self-ward criticisms. If he doesn’t believe them to be the truth about himself, then he knows it will be a good enough simulacrum for others. Hey, is it dusty in here? I live in the country, where dirt drifts in and that’s just a fact of life. Yeah, that’s it.
- “Nice. Who taught you how to be a juice box?”
- My ex and I would watch Community together sometimes and he came to enjoy it, though not nearly as much as I did. When I first told him I was getting into the show, he told me he’d seen an episode once, but didn’t think he really liked it. I asked him what happened in the episode and he said they were jumping on a trampoline and that it was weird and not that funny. He is a good man, but maybe I should have known.
Notes from the DVD commentary:
- An at-times amusing but not especially insightful commentary. Gillian Jacobs’ mom refers to threesomes as "triple sex."
- Chevy didn’t want to say the "I'll kill your families" line because somewhere nearby, some whole family had just gotten killed. Donald dismisses this in a darkly humorous way. Chevy also had a hard time with “biatch,” which he read as “biohtch” at the table reading.
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-573247985 (page 156)