Episode 215: Early 21st Century Romanticism

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 Walking NPR

Season 2, Episode 15–“Early 21st Century Romanticism”

There are no dungeons, dragons, or documentaries in this episode.  Which explains a lot about whyit gets a little lost in the season 2 pantheon. There are no bequeathals, no elf maiden sex scenes.  In fact, for Valentine’s Day, this episode has very little to do with sex or even romance. Unlike S1’s Valentine’s episode, which ends with Britta, dressed to kill, saving Jeff’s romance with Slater, this episode—like most of season 2—is about the group. 

It’s an episode that was hard to appreciate fully until season 3.  Several of the themes and character beats we’ll see come to the fore during the latest season—the development of Trobed, Jeff’s shift to outsider—crystallize, as well as providing the first confirmation that Pierce’s season-long descent into manipulation and meanness was going to pay off.   It’s also a weird episode for season 2 in that it has a smallness that feels more like season 1, combined with a few elements of the absurd that really make it a predecessor of Season 3 in tone. 

We open on a classic study room table scene in which the group’s attention suddenly coalesces around Pierce’s out-of-control pill-popping.   Annie is the first to jump to thing-doing –“Intervention?….Intervention? ….Intervention?”  Jeff, however, doesn’t want to get involved and tries to brush off Pierce’s addiction as typical Baby Boomer behavior—they did invent TV and drug use (and fake butter and AIDS and Twin Peaks!) after all.  The group won’t let him get away that easily and, when they insist that Pierce listens to him, Jeff  throws down the gauntlet:

“Yeah, well he also listens to the Barenaked Ladies.  Go get their dumb asses to help you.”

Oh, snap, Jeff Winger. You did not just put a knife in the back of the most celebrated Canadian alt-rock band of the mid-nineties, you selfish, jaded ass!

I’m always curious, watching this scene, if Jeff mentions BNL because he thinks the group will agree they’re lame, because he has noticed BNL is a subject that riles people up in general, or because it’s a known sore topic within the group and he specifically throws it out to pick a fight.  Given both the point we’re at in Jeff’s season 2 arc and the group’s immediate, unified outrage and oddly specific knowledge of BNL facts, I suspect the third.  

From here, the group splinters into two stories that provide most of the action and laughs in this episode but don’t have immediate consequences and two that seem like throwaways until you reach the end and realize they’re the undercurrent that’s been moving the boat forward all along.

Troy and Abed: BOOKS!

Troy and Abed have been inching towards giant-cookie, Inspector-Spacetime-and-Constable-Reggie territory all season, but this is one of the earliest episodes in which we see not only Troy’s opening up to nerddom, but how deeply he’s already embraced it and how the relationship between these two will begin to eclipse others in ways that are sometimes healthy and often harmful.

  Pre-BNL kerfuffle, Troy and Abed have been admiring the sexy librarian from afar. Given that Troy apparently never really had to chase a girl in high school and the version of Abed that would go talk to a girl is a vampire, their first attempt to talk to her involves yelling “BOOKS!” and then pretending to be asleep when she looks over. 

And so, armed with a briefcase of tacos, they enact the cutest thing that has ever happened to Mariah the Librarian: they propose she should go to the dance with them both and decide there who she would like to see again.  At the dance, their cases pretty
much each encapsulate the man: Troy’s involves dancing awesomely.  Abed’s involves an analysis of the SAW movie franchise and touting his cable package (Phrasing?  Phrasing.). Though a mere 18 months ago–perhaps even fewer than that, given his behavior in Anthro 101–Troy would’ve assumed Mariah choosing him over Abed was a
foregone conclusion, now he can neither understand her choice nor let the issue go.  To her credit, Mariah is not necessarily wrong–wooing a girl through an extended analysis of the SAW movie franchise is probably weird behavior anywhere outside the AVClub.   But
now Troy’s response is not only to defend Abed’s behavior, but to do it by indignantly expounding (and, I’m sure, parroting Abed) on the significance of the franchise. Meanwhile, Abed is characteristically unperturbed by being called weird.  As we’ll see repeatedly, Troy needs Abed to need him more than Abed actually does, a dynamic that will become quite unhealthy in Season 3.  When Mariah asserts she’d love to be Abed’sfriend, Troy’s reply  “I know you would.  It’s amazing” shows just how far he’s
come.  From Troy, Troy the Wonderboy who never had to try to make a friend to the one who counts himself the lucky one in the relationship.

Annie and Britta: She’s a *hand flourish* lesbiaaaan! (For the record, hand flourishes while announcing that your friend is a homosexual are not homophobic .  Try to keep up.)

Britta and Annie share a story that does little more than gently poke at each character, yet derives great humor from putting the resulting neuroses in the same space. Britta’s still struggling to channel her needless defiance into something productive.  Last week, she got sidetracked defending elf culture while trying to help Fat Neil.  This week she’s so preoccupied with  being a friend of a friend of Ellen that Annie is actually the one to call for an intervention (meanwhile, in the next episode, being forced to think about herself when she hasn’t in years will lead her to actually helping Troy).  This Britta-Annie story is much in the vein of the older sister-younger sister dynamic we see again in Modern Movement except that in that episode Britta has actual wisdom to impart.  Here, Britta’s still, well, Britta-ing things a bit. You see, Britta also doesn’t think about her friends’ sexual orientation—though she certainly makes sure her other friends think about her
friend’s sexual orientation–and she DEFINITELY doesn’t try to become informed about it, because that’s homophobic.  Instead, Britta, being kick-ass and progressive, befriends someone who she assumes is a lesbian.   Making a questionably-necessary stand for civil rights at Greendale, given that, as our own Loki points out,
it appears there are two guys flirting comfortably in the background of Troy and Abed’s scene, Britta and Paige engage in a game of lesbian chicken, each getting a high out of upping the ante from walking into the dance together, to dancing with each other, to, eventually, making out with one another. 

Apparently, talking about your sexual orientation mid-lesbian kiss negates the homophobia, because whilst liplocked they have a bit of a chat and find out neither is, in fact, a homosexual.   In the fallout, Paige gets in both a “You’re the worst” and “I never thought you were cool, I only thought you were a lesbian” (another phrase which pops in my head an odd lot in real life) and once-proud Britta falls back on the sort of defense that works a lot better when everyone’s high and your boyfriend falls out the window at the Holocaust Museum: “Hey, we’re both just humans trying to make our way through this crazy world.”  Gillian’s delivery of “Paige is straight”–half embarrassed, half as if she’s gently breaking the news because she expects Annie to be disappointed—reveals that she may not have totally learned her lesson just yet, either.  Meanwhile,  Annie who’s comfortable with being uncomfortable, might actually be the more adventurous of the two.  With only a little provocation from the crowd she goes in for a girl-girl kiss herself—brilliantly blending blatant fan service with a moment that is completely in-character—before being shaken out of it by Britta.

Shirley—Who?

Poor Shirley. Where’d you disappear to?  It’s okay–next season the writers will figure out that you’re actually awesome.

Pierce—Dude can moonwaaaaaaaalk!

After taking one too many awesome exit pills—Zip! Zop! Zoooiee!—Pierce escapes the group’s scrutiny and spends the episode with Tiny Airline Pilot Andy Dick.  I’ve long
suffered from automatic Andy Dick-induced brain-shutoff with this story.  It seems like such a throwaway for most of the episode.  Oooookay, sure.  Pierce hallucinates a little guy in the water fountain.  Whatever.  But, of course, what Tiny Airline Pilot Andy Dick is doing is providing Pierce the belonging and feeling wanted—“I am not sharing you with them!”—that  Jeff and the group aren’t.   Even Annie’s profession that they care about him isn’t enough to make Pierce feel secure.  While Jeff finds out in this episode that he’s not needed in the way he wants to be, Pierce already knows it.  

Jeff—It’s good you brought this to him

Though Jeff and Pierce don’t actually share a story, their separate plots are tied together in what The Great Megan Ganz once called the Jeff-Pierce “Mobius strip of who’s the father and who’s the son.”  Jeff sees Pierce as an ominous father-figure, while Pierce wants the same approval from Jeff that he has always wanted from Cornelius Hawthorne.  
Freed of his usual hungry kittens, the strays come nipping at Jeff’s ankles.  To prove he’s not whipped by the study group, Jeff can’t turn down Duncan’s proposal to watch soccer instead of going to the dance.  Of course, one person a huddled mass does not make and he’s soon joined by  Starburns, Leonard, Magnitude—pop-poppppp–Swizzle, Scandalous, C-Dub, Tim, Mighty D, Glisten…and Chang.  The story moves forward with Chang weaseling his way into living with Jeff and Duncan using Jeff for a “special nap” and a taxi (false alarm on the whole quitting drinking thing!).  But the most poignant moment is
the similarity of
Jeff smiling as everyone “Pop-pops” along with Magnitude to the end of RCT, when he watches the group rock out to “Roxanne”, happy that they’re happy, but not able to join in himself.  We find out a lot more about why in Season 3, but Jeff wants to be needed, even if he doesn’t know how to let himself be loved. 

The End: Hugging and learning—now with more drugs!

Pierce admits early in Season 2 that he assumes people will leave him–and tests them until they prove him right–and it’s hard not to see Jeff’s BNL fight-picking as the same mechanism.   Unlike Pierce, when Jeff finds himself alone at the end of this episode—prodded by both Abed at the beginning and Duncan at the end–he makes a good-faith effort not to become Pierce, sending a text that admits “Caring about a person can be scary; caring about six people can be a horrifying, embarrassing nightmare — at least for me. But if I can’t say it today, when can I say it? I love you guys.”

Sure, there’s a minor ship-tease with the camera lingering on Annie right as Jeff says “I love you.”  Still, those words are clearly for the group.  The ending sidles right up to the
edge of treacly, but- -in a brilliant move that’s also a bit of a punch in the gut– we end not with the hugging and learning, but with the ominous visual of Pierce passed out on a park bench.   That’s not how Valentine’s episodes of sitcoms are supposed to end, but that’s what makes this ending so good.  It was the spectre of turning into Pierce that scares Jeff into opening his heart, it is Pierce who will take advantage of that openness in IDF, and it is Pierce who foreshadows the dark times Jeff will go through when he closes it again.

Randoms:

  • “And the Barenaked Ladies are triple platinum, are you??”
  • “If doctors are so smart, why are there millions of them?”—dear Lord, did Andy Dick just make a good point?
  • Magnitude says “Yo” (!)  (also, TODD’s review contains the adorably naive phrase “…and some guy named Magnitude”)
  • “Weird place to put a lamp…”
  • “Where are the white women at?”
  • Duncan’s delivery of “I am very lonely” is John Oliver gold. 
  • Can we add a disgusting-kissing category to the Emmys and give it to Gillian twice?

Commentary: in which Ken Jeong, Gillian Jacobs, Donald Glover, and Stephen Sprung are very unfocused.

  • Lots of crushing going on during the shooting of this episode.  Donald had a minor crush on the librarian. Gillian had a crush on Brit Marling, which they conclude means Gillian has better taste in women than in men.
  • Chevy’s ode to Britta’s coming out was, of course, a real,written-out letter.  Apparently it was overwhelmingly supportive, started with a long joke, and ended with bon appétit.  It certainly gives the Jack Black rhythm joke a run for its money in the “best opening credits gag” category.
  • Donald and Danny talked about tacos the whole time they were supposed to be whispering to each other (you can hear “I need to eat those tacos”).  They decided the backstory behind the briefcase full of tacos was that they found a dirty briefcase that a cat had been living in, decided they ought to do something with it and since it was taco day at the cafeteria, they put extra tacos in it. (Because who doesn’t want tacos that have lived in a place a cat recently abandoned?)
  • Things those who hang around here already know, but I’ll reiterate for posterity:
    • Paige’s non-union Mexican Annie equivalent, Claire, is played by Cyrina Fiallo, Brie’s friend and partner in the band Girls.
    • The birthdate on Jeff’s driver’s license is erroneous.
  • Magnitude was originally called “Poochie.”  Other contenders for his name were“Ray-Ray,” “Event Horizon,” and “Glisten.”  Apparently they were so undecided on names that they had an extended shooting day to film all the different versions.  Just think—the FAFPM board could’ve been overtaken by Evil Ray-Ray instead!  There are other timelines!!
  • Her kiss with Brit Marling was the first time Gillian kissed a girl.  She says she almost busted Brit’s lip before she learned that women have small faces and their features are delicate and you shouldn’t mash them.  (Is it weird that I’d let her mash my face anytime?  Yeah.  It’s weird.)
  • The almost-kiss between Annie and Britta was not scripted.
  • The hat Paige is wearing is Karey Dornetto’s actual hat that Emily Cutler persuaded her to buy. Make of that what you will about the fashion sense of the writers’ room.
  • Jeong calls humblebrag on Gillian saying that, during Anthro 101 “Joel and I rubbed our tongues against each other for a long time.”  Gillian corrects him that it’s just a brag-brag.  True that.

 

On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-695400732 (page 564)

 

Discussion:

  • It is not weird that you'd let Gillian mash your face. I'm pretty sure everyone would.

  • Karey Dornetto, the credited writer on the episode, is, y'know, a friend of Ellen. Before Community, she wrote for South Park, Arrested Development and The Life & Times of Tim. She went on to write for Portlandia and she's now a writer for The New Normal.

    She did a short interview with AfterEllen soon after the episode aired. Page was named after TV producer Page Hurwitz.

  • Thanks for the link–I can definitely see how her sensibility would translate to Portlandia.  TNN I'm not so sure about….

  • Jeff saying everyone's name as they leave may be one of my favourite moments of the whole show.

  • Loki100

    I love this episode. It's one of the best non-concept episodes the series has done.

    Personally, I think that Jeff was specifically picking a fight with the group as an excuse to get out of going to the dance. He clearly just wanted some time apart and was looking for a opening to get out of their shenanigans.

    Secondly Britta's storyline is both hilarious and very true to life. Every gay person has had a friend who wants to be their friend just because they are gay. It never ends well. And Britta's berating Annie for being homophobic is just hilarious.

  • i've always found it brightly heartwarming the way troy excitedly says "i know you would" when the librarian says she'd love to be abed's friend. his devotion to abed is earnest and admirable, in my opinion, and the fact that he remains devoted even when abed is having problems like the ones in CI is a nice mark of true friendship. i like that there's depth to the troy-abed friendship, even if we don't always get to see them.

  •  I don't mind that we don't get to always see the depth. Moments like Troy ditching Mariah and returning to Abed are enough to suggest both his dedication to his friend and the heartbreakingly (because Abed can't fully reciprocate) creepy lengths to which he can go. I like it very much that the show trusts itself and the viewers enough to leave a lot in the subtext rather than spelling it out.

  • I like it very much that the show trusts itself and the viewers enough to leave a lot in the subtext rather than spelling it out.

    YES.  I will resist the urge to call out any particular shows on this, but instead just say that this is and always will be one of my favorite things about Community (and probably a bit of its downfall).  On one level, it's just good writing–"show, don't tell"–but to me it's also a mark of  respect for the audience that it trusts us to be able to keep up.

  • That image of Troy hugging and Abed not hugging back is so striking. Whenever I see that I think about Donald Glover noting how "tragic" Troy and Abed's relationship is.

  •  Excellent review!

    I like to believe that Jeff didn't really think when he dissed BNL; just like he didn't think when he called Neil "Fat Neil." A good deal of Jeff's learning how to let himself be loved and needed (I really, really like how you wrote about this!) involves understanding the impact that his words have on people (after all this is the guy who weaseled himself into the group's lives by delivering a heartfelt speech about Steve the Pencil).

    I can't begin to articulate how much I love Duncan and Jeff here. I think I like this subplot even more than the Troy/Abed and Annie/Britta ones. It's like a perfect storm of wounded snark – and you can tell why these two are friends: they're deeply lonely people who can't admit it and so they gravitate to one another. And I've always liked how the show took Duncan seriously: the man may be a drunk vortex of overlapping fangs, but he's not stupid, and his diagnosis of both Jeff and himself is spot on. I, too, love the way John Oliver delivers the "I am so lonely line." Runner up: "I'll be down here taking a special nap," said as he lays his head down on a trash bag full of empty cans.

    I also very much enjoy Chang in this episode. It's one of the rarer moments when you get to see that there's a sad, pathetic, and very lonely (there's that word again!) human being underneath all that psychosis. And I think that Jeff's ultimate proof of commitment to humanity is not even admitting to the group that he loves them: it's fishing Chang out of his trash chute and giving him a place to live.

    There's a mini arc that traces Jeff's awakening empathy starting with Advanced D&D and ending with IDF, and I love how it's contrasted with Pierce losing his.

  • Loki100

    I love Joel's line delivery on "What the hell?" and "Who's Magnitude?"

  • What is that page and why is it make my browser cry?

  • "But the most poignant moment is the similarity of Jeff smiling as everyone “Pop-pops” along with Magnitude to the end of RCT, when he watches the group rock out to “Roxanne”, happy that they’re happy, but not able to join in himself.  We find out a lot more about why in Season 3, but Jeff wants to be needed, even if he doesn’t know how to let himself be loved."

    Yes! I've always loved that.

  • This is one of the most giffable episodes there is so I made an album
    http://s1049.photobucket.com/a…

    Things that I love
    -Troy and Abed are polite enough to offer Mariah a taco even though they really wanted them.
    -As I mentioned, the Troy-Abed moment in the hall is beautiful and haunting at once. I have a cousin with similar traits to Abed and it's always crushing to see him unresponsive to emotion and sentiment.
    -The whole BNL kerfuffle is as funny as it is because it's so esoteric. WNPR is right that Jeff was needling the group to be alone–he likes being excluded–and it's a great callback to him using "fake anger to justify leaving" (110).
    -I like that Troy and Annie, being the youngest, are the most vehement in defending BNL based on their album sales and awards.
    -The Pierce stuff is slight but essential in moving The Dark Pierce Saga forward.
    -As WNPR points out, Britta learns nothing and I wouldn't want it any other way. She just hastily befriended Paige because she remembered the group hadn't seen her with a gay person. Gillian's goofiness was in rare form. Just check out those gifs. I love that shot of a defeated Britta and Paige slumped in their chairs with their crotches wide open.
    -One reason Duncan is so much better than Chang is because the show maintains his competence under all the madness. This is the last great Duncan appearance.
    -I'll say it again: Cyrina Fiallo was great as Annie's counterpart. Bring her back.

  • It's also the last good Chang episode. Being around Duncan makes Chang interesting.

  • How do you think we can convince John Oliver to come back? I bet he loves his family. *points at random people* Kidnapping? Kidnapping? Kidnapping?

  • Bookmarked!  What an awesome album. I think my favorite is the tiny little "Fundamental" one because that moment is so hilarious but so hard to catch watching it real-time.

    I agree: I love that Troy and Abed offer her tacos and I love-love their obvious relief when she declines.  I mean, haven't we all been in that situation where we have to offer to share something out of politeness but really, really hope the other person will say no?

  • I use "Fundamental" in that Abed way all the time.
    http://i1049.photobucket.com/a…

  • I really love Chang in this episode! Who's with me? I had to keep confiscating saws from him!

    And Murray Present is assigned the next episode. So … who's that? Will we have to find someone else?

  • murray present used to be around these boards. haven't seen her/him in a fortnight of sundays, though. i'm all for throwing the review to someone else immediately and not waiting around.

  • That would be harsh. He delivered two s1 reviews on time and he confirmed his s2 review this summer. He's active on the site so just remind him it's his turn.

  • i don't know his proper username either. 

  • Someone @ him. I'm not exactly sure what his name is.

  • thanks. i kept using periods, not dashes.

  • Edit: I'm going to use this pointless comment that was accidentally posted to say this:

    William Henry Harrison.

    That is all.

  •  I'm with you on Chang! Very much so!

  • It's one of the top favorite Chang moment ever. I laughed REALLLY hard when Jeff said something like "WHERE DO YOU KEEP GETTING THESE SAWS?!?!?!?!?"

  • I'm always in for a little spare Chang

  • I should know where he's at. I can give him a shout.

  • This is one of those episodes I like more every time I watch it.  During season 2 it was sort of a middle of the road episode in the middle of a bunch of iconic concept episodes, but I think it's better than pretty much any of the normal episodes from season 3. 

  • Here's an appropriate fishstick –http://www.fishsticktheatre.co… – that was involved in my first-ever double-like and expresses a lot of what I love about this episode and Community in general.

  • Hooray for reviews! I never thought about this being a follow-up "kerfluffle" about the BNL, but I completely agree that it probably is.

    Zip! Zap! Zooey!

  • Something Quirky

    That BNL scene is one of my favourite Community scenes, if not my outright favourite.

  • I will reply with a fishstick – http://www.fishsticktheatre.co… – that was involved in my first ever double-like and represents a lot of what I love about this episode andCommunity in general.