Episode 210: Mixology Certification

 Janine Restrepo

210 — Mixology Certification

What marks Community as unique is that it is a post-cynical show. Community made its debut a generation after Seinfeld ushered in a generation of comedies that rejected the saccharine and the emotional; while it has always drawn from those shows, Community at its best is also heir to a long tradition of shows that impact the viewer emotionally. Community may not be blindly optimistic, but neither is its worldview myopic in the opposite direction; the study group instead affords us through its interactions a more nuanced view of human nature. Nowhere is this treatment of human nature more apparent than in Mixology Certification, the darkest episode of the show's first three semesters but also its most emotionally rewarding.

In Mixology, we see our characters at their most vulnerable. Time and time again, the members of the study group are separated from one another. This separation is almost immediately physically apparent, as the group first leaves Pierce behind and then splits into two. As the episode unfolds, we see emotional separation; the characters hide behind layers of deceit and mistrust, only opening up under the influence of alcohol, for they have no other means of support. Pierce, the oldest member of the group, is left alone just as he realizes that he no longer can be self-reliant. Annie, whom everyone perceives as the most diligent and organized, must adopt an alter ego to express her doubts about her own future thanks to the role into which the group has placed her. Abed, who has never been able to relate to people, must take stock of his ability to connect emotionally without the help of his friends, for whom his plight is concerning not at all. Shirley, who sees herself as the most righteous and upstanding member of the group, feels the need to go to extreme measures to protect that reputation rather than opening up to her friends. Jeff and Britta, who see themselves as the cultured and worldly members of the group, carry on a long and increasingly incoherent struggle with Troy as their proxy, indifferent to the effect it has on their friend or on the others. Meanwhile, Troy, who has been goaded into a rite of passage he does not expect and does not need, must learn to become a responsible adult all on his own, even as his erstwhile friends are ostensibly with him to celebrate his growth. It is Troy who asks how many lies he has been living; in reality, though, all of them have lies that they have been living, and the conflict between those lies leads to the stonewalling and emotional distance that pervades the episode.

The third act is where all the lies swim to the surface. Annie finds herself realizing for the first time how lost she is just as Abed is told that Stargate is better and that his opinion is meaningless by extension. Shirley is exposed as a drunkard, and as she leaves she discovers Pierce trying and failing to maintain his dignity. Troy discovers that L Street and The Red Door are the same bar and that none of the knowledge about life that he assume adults have really exists. One by one, the walls of separation are knocked down, so that nothing remains in the end but the group. The emotional fruition of the episode is in the last scene, when an alternative to said separation is revealed. Troy and Annie never talk about the issues that have been plaguing them, but they have no need to; beneath all the minutiae, the subtext of the conversation conveys everything that need be said. What is important is that they each have someone who cares about them; everyone in the group has each other, and none of them ever need to be alone. Therein lies the central, deeply resonant message of Community; being together makes us better people. It is only when we have other people that we can truly feel good about ourselves. Where so many shows of the last two decades have eschewed hugging and learning, Community embraces both, and never is it clearer or more rewarding than it is here.

Stray observations:

  • This episode is universally regarded as a triumph (for my money, it's the best episode of television I've ever seen), but it seems to have gotten an unfair reputation as not very funny. While the last act has very few moments that are played for laughs, the remainder of the episode consists of very funny people bouncing off each other, and the result is some of Community's most entertaining work. Alison Brie's turn as Caroline Decker of Corpus Christi, Texas merits special attention as proof that profound character moments can still be hilarious.
  • Not only do this episode and Cooperative Calligraphy, my second-favorite Community episode, form the ends of the best three-week stretch that Community has ever had, but the two share a lot in common. Both are ensemble pieces that use the whole cast in concert, and both involve discord within the group. The two episodes complement each other perfectly; where Calligraphy is about how the group members view each other, Mixology is about how they view themselves.
  • Season 2 was very weak for Shirley in general, but this episode is a highlight. Yvette Nicole Brown does a marvelous job with some very strong material; Shirley's overly cheery demeanor in the beginning takes on new meaning when the secret she hides is discovered.
  • I don't think I gave that last scene enough credit, but words really don't suffice to express how beautiful it is. More is communicated in the subtext there than many shows are able to say in their whole run. "Greendale is Where I Belong" is used perfectly here; even as the conversation dwells on little things, the music is able to convey how vitally important all of it is. I wish Ludwig Göransson could score my life.

On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-647341661 (page 397)

 

Discussion:

  •  
  • DavetheDouchebag

    That last scene is about as good as television gets for me. There are sequences I think are as good, but I don't know if there are any I could easily pick as superior. As you said, the music complements the scene wonderfully, and Brie and Glover are at their best here. The look on Annie's face after Troy's speech is simply sublime. It almost always brings tears to my eyes.

  • HO. LY. CRAP!

    How am I just now realizing Tig Notaro was the bartender!?!?!  How many lies have I been living?!?!!

  • If season 2 is weak for Shirley, what are the other seasons?

  • Much better. There's a lot of stuff in Season 3 with Shirley's character that I like a lot.

  • The_Tuna

     This episode is indeed very funny! I think the humor tends to be overshadowed by  the gravitas of the final scene, leading people to remember it as "the serious episode", but there's tons of great jokes throughout.

  • Thanks for adding the paragraph breaks; otherwise I would have refused to read in protest.

  • They were always meant to be there; they just didn't show up the first time.

  • If Stephen allowed ties in our Ranking, this would split honors of top place with Cooperative Calligraphy. As it is, it's only second because CC is funnier, though this is more emotionally affecting (…or is it?). Brilliant episode. And a good review as well!

  • Loki100

    What I love about this episode is that it take traditional sitcom cliches and uses them to make the story that much darker. And by traditional sitcom cliches I mean so traditional and so cliche that they are beating a dead horse, everyone has seen dozens of examples, tired and put out to pasture. But where a normal sitcom would zig to a happy ending, at every turn Community zagged to a dark emotional place.
    Pierce can't get in the club. We've seen this a thousand times (normally a bouncer is involved), all the characters on a show get into someplace, but one character is left outside. And that character spends the whole episode trying to figure out how to get in. Normally this situation ends with some humerus compliance: he gets in just as everyone is leaving, he gets in and its not that good in the first place, he gets in and it is the wrong place. Instead this episode showed just how tragic that situation is, and how powerless and helpless Pierce is.

    Abed gets hit on, unknowingly. Again, another tired cliche. Two characters talk, and one thinks it is entirely platonic, while the other it hitting. There's supposed to be a big humorous upheaval when it is finally revealed that there's a mutual mistake of intentions. Generally all the laughs come from how ignorant the one person is of social cues. Not in this story. It turned out Abed knew all along that he was being flirted with by a guy, he just is incredibly lonely and desperate for someone to talk to. Instead of correcting that guy, telling him that he's not interested in him, Abed uses the guy's interest in himself to keep him around to talk to.

    Annie pretends to be someone else. This is a comic situation so old it comes straight from Greek drama. A character has to pretend to be someone else to be somewhere and it escalates, and escalates until it all falls apart. But instead of Annie being outed as underage, Annie is forced to confront that she's spent so long working towards her goals, that she never took the time to think of whether she wanted those goals in the first place.

    Britta and Jeff fight over a mutual misunderstanding. Again classic, if less prominent, sitcom staple. Two characters fight over something, only latter to realize they were both on the same side. Instead of a big laugh and and everyone feeling silly, it shatters Troy's faith in both of them completely. The relationship between those three characters is fundamentally changed.

    Shirley has an embarrassing secret. Again, older than dirt. A character has an embarrassing secret from their past and tries to hide it only to fail. It's supposed to end with a laugh and everyone realizing that the embarrassing secret isn't a big deal. Instead when Troy, Britta and Jeff try to laugh it off, Shirley takes it as them laughing at her, and reveals how this was the most painful and lonely period in her life.

    It's a brilliant deconstruction and perfectly reveals so much character depth.

  • Community is a very rigidly conventional show; as I'm sure you know, I've always been a rather vocal advocate of that aspect of the show, largely because it allows Community to do things like this. Thanks in large part to the setting, much of the episode feels like it could be a multi-camera sitcom, and that makes it all the more meaningful when the show goes in the directions that you've mentioned. If it weren't for that rigid adherence to convention, it would feel out-of-place to do an episode like this, and we would be missing out on so much.

    When Community is at its best, it doesn't break the rules. It reinterprets the rules.

  • According to commentary, the bar scenes were shot using set pieces from multi-camera sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, which only bolsters the feeling that it could have been a much more straightforward sitcom episode.

  •  Well, a major influence is Cheers – a more traditional sitcom that could do dark and somber quite well, if memory serves me.

  • Great review, Janine! I go back and forth between this and RCT as the best episode of the show, but ultimately I don't think it matters all that much. You're right: this is what perfect TV feels like. It never fails to astound me how emotionally honest the episode is, especially in that last scene with Troy and Annie – even if it's been established that Annie had a crush on Troy, the show never presents them as anything other than friends, perhaps not even very close friends – just a couple of people who forge this very profound (and also very fleeting) connection.

    And for my money, Troy's expression of confidence and calm in that final scene is the best work Glover has done.

  • Emphasis on the fleeting, certainly. What's important, more than anything, is that the connection is there, and that two people can relate to each other in that way. It's utterly earnest to an extent that few dramas can go, let alone comedies. I'm constantly blown away by how good Donald Glover and Alison Brie are in that scene; it takes a lot of skill to make that material work, and they put out their best performances of the whole show.

  • "What's important, more than anything, is that the connection is there, and that two people can relate to each other in that way."

    Ugh, get out of my brain. This is what I mean when I'm constantly harping about the obtrusive elements of season 3. Episodes like Mixology and RCT understand the idea of embedding connections that we can reveal for ourselves. eg. I know Evil Abed exists in the abstract because of RCT  and that's all I want to know; I don't actually want him realized.

  • Great review, Janine.  I really like the focus on the separation.  I mean, clearly I'd seen the physical separation, but I hadn't really thought out how most of the characters are acting out something opposite from who they actually are.  Between your review and Loki's comment, I don't have much deep to add.   

    I've mentioned a lot of times how much the unapologetically raw, somber tone of this episode caught me off-guard initially, so I'll just take a moment to concur with you that it still manages to be a hilarious episode: physical comedy from Chevy cutting the cake that's totally backgrounded yet very funny, uterus expulsion, Troy ruining Fuddrucker's for everybody, hurricanes and high-maintenance drinking, Abed not being a coat rack.  It doesn't feel the need to be maudlin to be taken seriously–it's a very special episode that manages not to be a Very Special Episode.

  • Now I'm really embarrassed that I didn't mention Chevy Chase. He does absolutely kill it with the cake (while he kills the cake).

    On the bus today, I heard two guys talking about cocktails in ways that seemed ever so slightly pretentious to my ears. I couldn't help but think of Britta's quip about high-maintenance poseur drinking.

  •  They spend a lot of time in the background, especially during the second half, but this is a great Jeff/Britta episode too. Jeff's drunken smile after Britta's line about poser drinking is just wonderful.

  • There was some very good drunk acting by Joel, Gillian, and Alison in this episode.  As we know it's not so easy.

    I assume the process of preparing to shoot this episode looked something like this

  • This episode does a great job juxtaposing Britta and Jeff's cynicism and Troy and Annie's idealism for a poignant story about the false appeal of Jeff and Britta's ostensibly cultured but essentially sad and unexamined adulthood (Britta and Jeff sorta get thrown under the bus to make the point but they are so great when they're bickering over nothing). We know Troy looks up to Jeff and crushes on Britta. We know Annie obsessively plans her future. So an episode about a 21st birthday night out is perfect for Troy coming to a self-realization about the kind of adult he wants to be and then taking on Annie as his first drink of manhood.thatdidn'tcomeoutright.

    There are all manner of subtly played crises in this episode but the most important are those of Troy and Annie. Troy has suddenly aged an extra year and gets caught up in Jeff and Britta's ritual Friday night sorrow drowning. For a sheltered kid like Troy this is all wonderfully new and he aims to absorb everything he had missed over the years. For Annie, there's a constant tug of war between who she really is and who she feels she's supposed to be (this is an running conflict for many of the groupers, particularly Troy, Jeff and Britta). In Pascal's, Annie declared her desire to "live in the moment" and in that moment she convinced herself "Greendale is where I belong". I say convinced herself because in the same episode she told Jeff about a contradictory wish to live two different lives. That combination of ambivalence, ambition and insecurity can get the best of her as we saw on the way in 204. She had been headed toward this full-blown identity crisis for a long time. Here, they have Annie's identity anxiety played against a newly-empowered Troy's sincerity and it works to beautiful effect. What I love about that final scene at her apartment is that it exists purely in its moment. Troy doesn't apologize for ignoring Annie in high school and, in fact, he probably wasn't even aware of Annie's issues until she mentioned it. As JR alludes, all that matters is that he empathizes with Annie and that recognition from a peer is enough to parachute Annie back to earth. Troy and Annie knowing so little of each other, yet sharing so much in common, and the insistence on a lack of greater significance is what makes it so touching. This episode makes a strong case for Troy being the man Annie really needs, not a Jeff she can conquer and mould to her liking. (By the way, the direct connection to Pascal's is why the use of "Greendale is where I belong" is so effective and why it should have never been used again. The repetition of music in kindred scenes serves to strengthen the thematic content of both, but use it again and it tends to undermine its spirit.)

    Needless to say, I love this episode. It's entrenched as a top 5 episode along with AD&D, Calligraphy, RCT and AUC.

  • Jeff and Britta represent a possible future path for Troy and Annie. In particular, it's painfully obvious that Troy looks up to Jeff and wants to be just like him. Jeff and Britta don't present a cautionary tale as such (this episode is far too good to resort to anything as heavy-handed as that), but it's certainly clear that there's a lot that's wrong with them; in particular, the L Street/Red Door situation (which is one of the best things about this episode) shows that they're utterly unable to communicate with one another.

    The sincerity of Troy's conversation with Annie is the antithesis of Jeff's poseur drinking. Troy doesn't repudiate the conception of adulthood that he had before (he rejects Annie's suggestion that anyone did anything wrong that night), but he's able to find a new facet of maturity there in the hallway outside Annie's apartment. By understanding Annie, he comes to better understand himself as a man.

    Good call on the music there; its use here and in Pascal's Triangle Revisited establishes it as a leitmotif of sorts for Annie (from whom it derives its name, of course). It certainly does get overused later, but here it's perfect.

  • a few small things:

    1. when annie comes over to the table with their orders, and jeff says "who the hell was that?" as she leaves, i die laughing.

    2. i don't know a goddamned thing about alcohol, so i feel like most of the drink references are a little over my head.

    3. i always secretly wish abed would change his mind and have gay sex with the guy who flirted with him.

  • I don't know anything about alcohol either, but saying that a drop of spring water activates the flavor strikes me as universally douchey.

  • #1 is an understated beauty. Perfect reading by Joel.

  • This is truly fantastic . Like as fantastic as a Saturday when USC loses AND the Giants win.

    On to the episode itself, this is a great showcase for Alison Brie and the character of Annie Edison. Being about half-way through the whole run of the series at this point, Mixology is in many ways a turning point for Annie's characterization for the series. Her final scene with Troy not only serves to stop any faint vestiges of shipping between them, but serves symbolically to put to rest the part of Annie's character that was defined by her crush on Troy. By having Troy finally recognizing and validating her in such a way, Annie was able to resolve a part of herself that she'd struggled with through high school and in the early part of season 1. The sense of closure given by that final scene provides much hope for Annie, even as future struggles pointed out by Caroline Decker await.

    Also, like usual, Alison Brie was fantastic in this episode particularly in relation to becoming Caroline Decker. She plays Annie's initial reluctance and eventual embrace of the assumed identity of Caroline Decker so well. In the hands of the lesser actor, becoming someone else could swiftly turn gimmicky and broad, but Brie is able to give one of the best performances of the series portraying a character within another character. Brie's delivery Annie as Caroline's lines including "Back in Corpus Christi, they call me Capricious Caroline." is hilarious. The way hilarity, sentiment and soul-searching can all be rolled into one character and one episode is why Mixology Certification is one of my favorite episodes of the series.

    Sadly, much of the rest of season 2 and all of season 3 failed to capitalize on the new potential story lines and characterization that was set up in this episode. While I like the direction season 3 went more than some, the Lost-ian lack of payoff in terms of what was established for Annie's character is Mixology Certification will be a missed opportunity. With Dan Harmon out, it's likely that Annie's wrestling with her future post-Greendale will never be fully or satisfactorily told, at least under Harmon's original vision for his show and characters. However, seeing these characters and actors at their best gives me hope that anything is possible, even in sad circumstances surrounding season 4. 

  • Hey now, lets not go hating on USC. (I may or may not attend that particular university)

  • SpongyandBruised

    heh. Trojans.

  • I see what you mean about missed opportunities with Annie in Season 3.  As much as I love Annie, and Alison, and while I probably thought she was much better in S3 than others did, I've been realizing that she really didn't have a strong storyline this past season to call her own.  I still thought she was excellent, but I think that's mostly a testament to Alison Brie's ability to make everything out of what she's given.

  • Every time I've watched this episode with someone who is seeing it for the first time, they haven't really liked it. I wasn't even crazy about it the first time I saw it (although I still liked it). Once I really started to care deeply for these characters though, this episode became one of my favorites.

    Also, it has Paul F. Tompkins and Tig Notaro, so that's awesome.

  • I liked it the first time I saw it … I think.  I kind of had a vague memory about it.  And then I watched it a second time.  And ever since, I've wondered how it didn't stick with me strongly right from the get-go.

  • Yay for deserved hugs!

  • A lot of people say "This episode isn't funny" which makes me wonder if they've watched it.  Yeah, there's not many jokes in the third act, but the jokes in the first two are of such high quality that this episode is still top 10 in terms of laughs, I think.

  • sll03

    What is important is that they each have someone who cares about them; everyone in the group has each other, and none of them ever need to be alone. Therein lies the central, deeply resonant message of Community; being together makes us better people.

    That was my favourite part. 

    Janine, this is extremely overdue, but I hereby award your review 10 Alison Brie Smiles out of 10. It was simply a joy to read.