Episode 217: Intro to Political Science

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Review of NBC Community S02E17, “Intro to Political Science”
Director: Jay Chandrasekhar; Writer: Adam Countee
Original airdate: February 24, 2011

(n.b.: Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are direct quotes from this episode)

1. PLOT SYNOPSIS

Dean Pelton announces that Vice President Joe Biden “has been visiting community colleges across the country as part of his “Biden Time Talking About Teaching” tour. At five p.m., he’s stopping by Greendale. Biden is supposed to meet with the Dean and head of student government.” They have “seven hours to elect a student president.”

Annie launches herself into an ambitious election campaign. The Dean lines up students by the ice cream machine for the nominations, using student applause as a meter for acceptance. Britta is the only student who receives no applause with a weak anarchist platform: “I believe that humankind need not be governed!” Jeff enters the race at the last minute, determined to beat Annie and show her that politics is about “ego, popularity, and parlor tricks.”

Annie and Jeff enter the debates with Garrett, Vicki, Leonard, Star Burns, Magnitude, and Pierce. Concurrently, Troy and Abed host a “Decision Gate: Gateway to Election Road” election coverage TV show on Greendale College TV (GCTV).

Annie and Jeff exchange heated words about Jeff’s motivation for running. Pierce attacks Vicki in a vicious manner. Annie’s platform is threefold, focusing on school improvement (remove black mold from eastern stairwell, bring the Ass Crack Bandit to justice, and eliminate administrative redundancies in the school’s budget). Jeff launches into a nonsensical speech, full of clichéd talking points, but the students applaud loudly at the end. Magnitude merely answers every question with “Pop Pop!”

Pierce causes Vicki to leave the race with the statement: “My platform will be one high enough to push Vicki off to her death.” Pierce immediately drops out of the race after her, stating, “I was only here to get back at her for not lending me a pencil.”

Annie and Jeff enter the political smear portion of their campaigns. Jeff puts Annie in an awkward position; since Annie emphasizes the black mold in the stairwell, Jeff asks if she thinks Greendale is dirty. Annie then launches into a sound bite: “Read my lips! No matter what you’re told, we have to clean the mold!”

Annie shows the students Jeff’s audition tape for MTV’s “Real World: Seattle” from 1997. In the tape, Jeff recreates George Michael’s “Faith” video, complete with shaking jean-clad buttocks, guitar, aviator sunglasses, and gold cross earring. Visibly shaken, Jeff storms off the stage and quits the race.

Annie finds Jeff and apologizes for going too far. She withdrew from the race also, saying, “Nobody that treats a friend the way I did is fit to represent the student body.” In turn, Jeff says, “You knew. You didn’t care. But don’t apologize. I got what I deserve. I am a gross, jaded adult with control issues that couldn’t let a young, bright, idealistic kid run for president.” Annie and Jeff resolve their issues and hug.

Back at the debate, Magnitude and Leonard are having this exchange, over and over again: (Magnitude) “Pop Pop!” (Leonard) “PBBBT!”

Pierce walks by Annie and Jeff with a pencil lodged in his cheek, saying, “Vicki finally lent me her pencil.”

The election ends up being a dud, with seven of eleven total votes going to the animated series South Park. Troy and Abed congratulate each other on both voting for South Park.

In a side plot, there is a half-romance between Abed and Special Agent Robin Vohlers (played by Eliza Coupe). Abed uses GCTV to say, “Did you know you could make napalm out of common dish soap and cat food?” (The subtitle reads: “Kitty Kaboom!”) This causes Joe Biden to reroute to City College and cancel the Greendale trip. Abed engineers the incident for a personal reason: Agent Vohlers spies on him from a florist van across from his dorm room that night.

2. CULTURAL REFERENCES

a. Tracy Flick, female anti-heroine from the movie “Election” (1999)

Dan Harmon modeled Annie Edison’s character on Tracy Flick. Both are over-achieving, perfectionistic, buttoned-down academics. From the wardrobe (heavy on cardigans) to the frozen wide smile and stare, the physical similarities are striking.

In the case of S02E17, Annie’s election story arc meshes even more tightly with the “Election” movie. Ambition, competitiveness, and a desire to shake Joe Biden’s hand rise up so strongly that Annie insults Jeff, causing Jeff to enter the election.

There are some major differences between S02E17 and “Election,” however. In contrast to Britta, one of Tracy Flick’s opponents, Tammy, succeeds very well on an anarchist platform. Tammy’s school ends up suspending her because they worry the student government will collapse. Also, while Tracy Flick uses sexual tactics as bargaining chips during and after high school, in an apparent static moral decay, Annie shows genuine remorse for hurting Jeff’s feelings during the debate. Annie is capable of change and growth, whereas Tracy Flick is not.

b. Bill McKay, hero of the movie “The Candidate”(1972)

According to Dan Harmon in the AV Club walk through of Community’s second season, Part 3 of 4 (http://www.avclub.com/articles…, this episode was the second attempt to enter the central themes of “The Candidate.”

In S01E21, “Contemporary American Poultry,” the original plot was a “chicken-finger shortage, and Jeff got Troy installed as the manager of the cafeteria menu, and Troy became a very powerful figure for the people, and Jeff was his Karl Rove, and there was a conflict between them having to do with Jeff being the puppetmaster and not letting Troy grow up. And so we table-read the episode, and it was terrible. So in a flurry of frustration, it suddenly became this Scorsese thing about Abed.” (Source: AV Club, Dan Harmon Season 2 walk through).

S02E17 was originally set as a central race between Troy and Annie, with Jeff coaching Troy. “So the breakdown happened when we were just like, “Why isn’t Jeff just getting up there? It’s too hard to coach somebody.” Well, because he feels above it; he doesn’t care about politics. But really, of course, he cares about politics; he’s just a hypocrite. So he gets up there and runs against Annie himself.” (Source: AV Club, Dan Harmon Season 2 walk through).

The glorious end scene and central theme of “The Candidate” is that, after great struggle and against great odds, Bill McKay wins the California Democratic Senate seat and pulls his campaign manager aside, saying, "Marvin … What do we do now?"

Truly, in S02E17, one of the more surreal episodes of “Community,” the stakes are not that high. What is Annie fighting for? The chance to shake Joe Biden’s hand, and thus win a competition? No matter how hard Annie fights, the quirks in the Greendale campus (many of which come directly from Abed) thwart her efforts. “South Park” wins the election by a vote of 7 out of 11 votes (2 of which are Troy and Abed’s votes). Abed’s GCTV threat of mixing cat food and dish soap to make napalm steers Joe Biden away to City College, dashing both Dean and Annie’s hopes to interact with famous people and raise their status.

c. Modern-Day Election, News, and Celebrity Coverage in the Media

All forms of media are under fire to increase viewership in this digital age. Dilution and fragmentation of traditional media is the norm. In the case of paper media, the Internet lures away viewers. For broadcast TV, cable and the Internet create an ever-smaller pool of Nielsen viewers to lure ad sponsor dollars.

All media relies increasingly on the use of “sound bites” to grab viewers’ attention. In a direct mirror of advertising taglines, and with the same psychological influence, a sound bite is very powerful. It can help a politician sway an election. Journalistic standards eschew the use of sound bites, but advertising dollars land more readily on higher viewership, making their increase inevitable.

Here are some notable sound bites in recent history:

i. Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
ii. Johnnie Cochran (At the OJ Simpson murder trial, referring to the leather glove found at the crime scene): “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
iii. Herbert Walker Bush: “Read my lips: No new taxes!”
iv. Mitt Romney: "I went to a number of women's groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks,' and they brought us whole binders full of women."
v. Mitt Romney, part 2: “I’m sorry Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS, I actually love Big Bird. I like you too, but I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”
vi. Obama campaign chant, 2008: “Yes we can”

Note that a sound bite can have a positive or negative effect.

In the case of our Greendale election campaign in S02E17, there were several types of sound bites, two abortive attempts at negative campaigning, and one silly instance of TV news coverage:

i. Magnitude: “Pop Pop!”
ii. Leonard: “PBBBT!”
iii. Annie: “If I’m elected, the black mold will be removed from the east stairwell. The assailant known only as the Ass Crack Bandit will be brought to justice. And I will balance the school’s budget by eliminating administrative redundancies.”
iv. Annie, part 2 (A direct HW Bush imitation): “Read my lips: No matter what you’re told, we have to clean the mold.”
v. Jeff (George W Bush imitation): “My name is Jeff. I’m no politician. I’m just a fella. I think that beer should be cold and boots should be dusty. I think 9/11 was bad. And freedom, well, I think that’s just a little bit better.”
vi. Jeff, part 2: “What will I do, Dean? Well, these people don’t want me to say what I’ll do. They want me to do what I’ll say.”
vii. Jeff, part 3: “What’s your favorite color? Mine’s a three way tie: Red, white, and blue.”
viii. Jeff, smear campaign against Annie (re: black mold): “Are you saying Greendale is dirty?”
ix. Annie, smear campaign against Jeff: “My presentation is a copy of Jeff Winger’s 1997 audition tape for MTV’s The Real World!”

Troy and Abed’s election coverage, broadcast on Greendale College TV, is clever in its own right on several levels. First, the fishstick image series (because this author LOVES YOU):

Troy “Butt Soup” Barnes and Abed Nadir:  http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
Alex “Starburns” Osbourne:  http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…

Troy and Abed’s show is a direct spoof of Fox TV news, specifically election coverage. They also use the tabloid language of gossip journalism when discussing the various candidates. This trend bled into mainstream news coverage with the rise in popularity of Hollywood celebrity gossip.

The entire broadcast is in the Fox news style: short, reductive statements (sound bites), three or four quick beats per sentence, summary of candidate gossip masquerading as qualifications or news.

Here are their analyses of the candidates:

Annie Edison: “Smart, attractive, but easily vexed.”

Leonard Rodriguez: “Did he change is last name? Yeah, he’s trying to court the Hispanic vote.”
Alex “Starburns” Osbourne: “Creepy, seems Greek, possible drug dealer.”
Jeff Winger: “Crowd favorite. They call him “Hot Wings””.
Magnitude: “Short for Magnetic Attitude. He’s a one-man party.”
Pierce Hawthorne: “The wizard of wet wipes.” “I live with that dude. He’s got night terrors and a rotary phone.”
Garrett Lambert: “That guy’s just a mess. It’s like God spilled a person.”
Vicki: “Yellow shirt, hat, girl.”

3. ANALYSIS OF LANGUAGE, PURPOSE, CELEBRITY, POLITICS, AND THE CULTURE OF STRIVING

Borrowing from the fields of semiotics for a moment (Ferdinand de Saussure gives the clean distinction of “signifier” and “signified” and must be cited as a reference, although Lacan and Foucault are influencers in this thought process as well), the very nature of language creates a duality. There is the signifier (the word connoting the thing) and the signified (the thing itself).

In any social context, a few questions suffice to see how signifiers work to affect public perception of the signified. In the case of political slogans and sound bites, speechwriters use the more immutable laws of human psychology and sociology to peddle their candidate’s vote.

Human brains are wired for social interaction, in need of conforming to the actions and statements of a larger group. This is not dissimilar to the wiring of other mammals, and even bees. In the case of Annie Edison’s slogan, “Read my lips: No matter what you’re told, we have to clean the mold,” the entire student body begins chanting and swaying along with Annie. The lure of the sound bite, slogan, and chant are irresistible. It is a daunting task to replace the rush of belonging to a larger group with the rigor of evaluating the facts of a candidate’s track record.

Troy and Abed’s news coverage uses the nursery rhyme sing-song cadence which is popular on tabloid television and Fox news. Any time the meaning of the “signified” blurs with rhymes, the discourse mirrors the rhythm of poetry and song, and fast-paced, gossipy, nasty personal attacks cover deeper issues, the motive for the entire presentation must be questioned.

Annie Edison, Magnitude, Leonard Rodriguez, Tracy Flick, Bill McKay, Barack Obama, Malia Obama, Sasha Obama, Brad Pitt: all are characters, participating in a form of self-commodification. The real problem lies in semiotics again. As soon as a politician or celebrity, or a person striving for fame in those fields, starts to climb the ladder of worldly success, they must brand themselves.

The word “brand” is a deliberate word choice. This word relates back to “capitalist,” descended from the words signifying “heads of cattle.” So here is the American culture, heavy on promotion of growing cattle for food, weapons armament, celebrity worship, upper class worship, Disney infantilism, mass consumption, and the Horatio Alger model of upward mobility and striving for success.

The “branding” of oneself for upward mobility involves a loss of self. The language of the dominant culture must take over in order to smooth the progression, the selling of the self. Sound bites, PR professionals, and carefully constructed mythologies take over.

In the case of Annie Edison and Tracy Flick, the transformation involves a smile set in stone, an outward expenditure of people-pleasing energy, the willing subjection of the self to the idea of financial success. Authenticity is actively shunned to sell themselves to their peers and make themselves visibly pleasing to the hiring agents of the future.

For Malia and Sasha Obama, they are the voiceless figureheads of a successful presidency. They are actual walking signifiers. Their parents and the media project various mythologies onto them about parenthood, success, family closeness, and the joys and tribulations of being children in the White House.

On the surface, Magnitude and Leonard’s debate of  “Pop Pop!” and “PBBBT!” seems completely surreal. But on closer examination, the debate makes as much sense as a Fox news or Troy and Abed broadcast. Reduced to two syllables and one syllable, the cadence mirrors the tight poetic beats of tabloid news journalism. The signifiers “Pop Pop!” and “PBBBBT!” are also a fairly high-level critique of many presidential debates and news broadcasts: the news has succumbed to forms of mind control, chants, sound bites, and gossip. In short, “Pop Pop!” and “PBBBT!” are the kindred equivalents of “Read my lips!” and “You know what they say the difference between a hockey mom and a Pit Bull is? Lipstick.” (Sarah Palin quote).

Brad Pitt is an example of an A-list celebrity. As such, his entire life involves guarding his private story, doling it out as necessary to match the carefully crafted public persona. Work involves constant presence of paparazzi, selling movies and consumer goods, and showing a public story of success. In turn, this story sells tabloid magazines. Agents, PR representatives, and movie studios closely monitor the mythology surrounding a celebrity. In modern culture, parenthood, charitable giving, and building various clothing and perfume lines are acceptable career boosters for celebrities. Obvious shilling in commercials for anything but luxury goods is not permitted. It is not clear if the celebrity life is a satisfactory one. Granted, the perks of money and access are the lures, but the life of warranted paranoia, the sublimation of real life to the nursery rhymes of gossip “news,” and the piggybacking and gruesome mirroring of upper class culture are significant drawbacks.

Real life is reduced to a signifier: “success.” The signified, a living, breathing human being, is missing, at least to the outside observer.

Returning to Bill McKay in “The Candidate,” who is the inspiration for S02E17: it is fitting that Bill doesn’t know what to do when he wins the election. Sound bites, charm, and a rapacious drive for success do not equip a person to be a human being. The Dean and Annie are both desperate for Joe Biden’s handshake. In the end, a cartoon wins the election, not a Greendale student. Troy and Abed, lost in the mysterious and playful world where they host fake TV news shows and vote forSouth Park, have the most human connection of all. By thwarting Joe Biden’s visit, Abed gets more time with his Secret Service girlfriend.

Dan Harmon’s story circle humanizes everyone at the end. There is always a return to the love of the group, refuge amongst friends, personal growth by admitting wrongs and receiving forgiveness. Abed’s priorities, ironically, are the most in touch with human connection. Without a redemptive arc, Annie would be just another Tracy Flick, endlessly greedy for fame. Jeff would be like any other narcissist, only focused on destroying the competition in a pointless election.

But this is Greendale, and we celebrate the love of our fellow Human Beings here. This reality, this love, shatters the shackles of all the dominant signifiers, bringing us back as ourselves. We become the original, primeval “signified.” We become Human Beings.

Long live Greendale.

Notes:

  1. Hey, good luck using S02E17 DVD commentary for source material. Dino is drunk the entire time, calling Robert Smigel for a pointless conversation and leaving a message for Andy Dick. S-.
  2. I give this episode a B+. It’s not the best one in the entire Community canon (there are SO MANY great episodes, so this is not an insult; I still love it), but Troy and Abed’s election coverage and the Dean’s Uncle Sam outfit (which he says is his sister’s) earn the plus on the grade. The Richard Simmons shorts and tiny top hat attached with a headband on that sweet bald head? GOLD.
  3. As an official Jeff and Annie (and sometimes Jeff and the Dean) “shipper,” I am okay with the lack of full-on romance in this plot. The age difference doesn’t bother me. Age is just a number. Both Jeff and Annie need time to mature, though. A narcissist and an overachiever aren’t going to understand each other very much.
  4. After Pierce’s ugly behavior in Dungeons and Dragons, Celebrity Pharmacology, and Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking, I am confused and shocked by the group’s ability to accept Pierce as one of their own. Dan Harmon explains this choice as a conscious one, that it works better as a plot device when Pierce is evil, and that we all have high maintenance friends that we can’t escape. I’m not sure I understand the point of all the viciousness, and I would certainly not want to be around someone this toxic in real life. I’m always confused when I see the study group calmly accepting Pierce’s monstrous nature. It’s like watching a baby underfoot near a T Rex, due for a stomping sometime in the next 22 minutes. I guess they were just stuck with Chevy for real, and just had to make the best of it? And writing the ugliness into the show was therapeutic for them? I don’t think I’ll ever understand.
  5. Bonus:​

I love you guys. Thanks for being my online study group.

 

On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-752255699 (page 699)

 

Discussion:

  • 7. Thanks for being the most awesome person ever, and all glory to the hypno-toad! 
     
    I'm going to get food first, but from what I've read it's an excellent review.

  • I was scrolling up on this review (OLDEST FIRST) thinking it was a PolarBears post, but thankfully I was wrong.

    #3 is lovely

    I have to agree about the lack of stakes and the whiplash with Pierce.

  •  Is that supposed to be an insult, a compliment, neither, or both?

  • Great use of signifiers and signified in respect to political candidates. What class in Harvard was that? Kidding! Sorry. 
     
    I wish candidates would openly confront the fact that politics is all a game. Everyone knows up. We don't have to keep the curtain up; it's been revealed. We need post-modern, non-ironic candidates who talk about issues in realistic ways: he's bringing up abortion because it's a political fireball. He wants to distract you all from this topic. Etc. (That won't happen, but I can dream.) 
     
    Harmon said he was flummoxed at how people thought Pierce should be tossed from the group. The point is, groups of friends usually have this idiot who always tags along, and no one likes him, but they're all too nice to tell him to leave. The dickishness of Pierce is exaggerated because it's a comedy, but the basic mechanics still apply. 
     
    Next reviews 
    Since Community is coming back, let's finish this bitch up. All you people who have a review listed below, work on it now and if you can post it early, let me know. It's good we all know when the review is going to be posted so we can anticipate reading it and commenting. 

    thefunjustneverends: 
    Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy. 
    1/7/2013 (sheesh … 2013 sounds like a fake year) 
     
    Evil Jeff: 
    Critical Film Studies
    1/11/2013 
     
    Uthted: 
    Competitive Wine Tasting
    1/14/2013 
     
    glazomaniac: 
    Paradigms of Human Memory 
    1/18/2013 
     
    davethedouchebag: 
    Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts
    1/21/2013 
      
    Bye (half-)week
    1/25/2013
     
    TheTuna:
    A Fistful of Paintballs
    1/28/2013 
     
    Eric the Unregistered: 
    For a Few Paintballs More
    2/1/2013 
     
    ALL OF US: 
    History 101 SEASON 4
    2/7/2013
     
    That schedule gives us time for discussion and a *little* room for late reviews. My late policy will be, since we're trying to finish before season 4 starts, I will break your kneecaps and kill your family if it's late. We can push things back once, maybe twice. So please, have them ready. 
     
    It looks like Uthted and TheTuna have gone the way of Blockbuster. Or are they … ?Who wants to step up? Also, glaz already did a review. I'm not against glaz doing two, but if we have more than enough people who can do one maybe glaz doesn't mind someone taking that one. 
     
    Fun and Jeff, since you're up next, let me know if you can get the reviews done by those times. There's room to delay something half a week. 

  • DavetheDouchebag

    Awww. We love you too, Cath!

    This is a fantastic review. I really love the way you broke the review down into sections so you could deal with different aspects of the episode in an organized manner. The bit at the end about people reducing themselves to signifiers but being redeemed by the love of their fellow human beings is quite powerful, as well.

  • Agreed. I love how she tied this all back into the show's central message.

  • This is an amazing review Catherine. It really coloured this episode in a new, fascinating light for me by focusing on the election and not necessarily the personal relationship between Jeff and Annie. Definitely a much more interesting way to look at this episode. Even moreso though, I love the scope of your review and how you applied the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure to the episode, discussing the episode as a much more interesting critique of our culture today than I ever could've expected.

    Also, I just love how academic this is.

    The amount of work you put into this is very clear. Great job!

  • Wonderful work, violincatherine . As much as people may say this episode is boring or uneventful (this coming from fans that I know and also the commentary on the DVDs), I still love to watch all the visual gags and jokes unfold throughout. It is one of the more hilarious episodes I can remember. The cold open alone is worth watching (notches!) and is comparable with Intro to Film's ("Pierce will beat that in one minute.").

  •  Great review, Cat, and just the right thing to read in the new year!

    Good catch on this being an episode that draws a lot on semiotics. I know not everybody likes IPS, but I think it's one of the funniest "pizza" eps of S2, which loses because of the clumsy setup and even clumsier resolution of the Jeff/Annie plot.

    I like Jeff and Annie in competitive situations, because they always expose the limits to Jeff's smarminess. And as a rehash of "Debate 109" (where Annie first stepped all over Jeff to win a meaningless competition), the Real World tape reveal is a pretty cool demonstration of Annie's hypercompetitive, cruel, even streak (this gets used again, with hilarious results in "The Science of Illusion" and "Digital Estate Planning." The only flaw here is the half-assed way the episode brings them into the situation: I could never understand why Jeff, the guy whose greatest asset is never doing any extra work, would all of a sudden want to go through all that trouble just to prove Annie wrong. And the lazy setup carries over into the lazy resolution, where both Jeff and Annie utter some perfunctory, Hallmark Channel-style apology (though I did love Jeff's pouty "There were people in the parking lot singing that song!"). There simply aren't any stakes to their conflict.

    But the stuff in between is genuinely funny, including the Dean's reaction to Jeff's tape, and especially Abed's romance with Agent Vohler (you make a great point about how the episode humanizes everyone by the end). I'm sorry the show seems to have abandoned the "Abed is actually pretty good with the ladies" plot points – they were really great.

    Re: Pierce. I somewhat agree with you that it doesn't always make sense for the group to keep him around. A way to rationalize it would be that a. either they keep him out of habit; or b. they keep him out of a misplaced form of remorse (since they did behave rather dickishly towards him at times); or c. he comes back, because he secretly likes them and fears being alone. But I will stand up for the S2 "Pierce as a villain" arc with all my might. Affrosponge did a great job of explaining how Pierce's confused descent into evil has complex causes, not all of whom are his fault, so I'm not going to do it again. But what I also like about Pierce in S2, is the very subtle way in which the show suggests that he is capable of getting along with people other than the group, even after he behaves like a dick towards them: he accepts Fat Neil's invitation to play D&D again; and even if Vicky puts a pencil through his cheek in this episode, by the time the season finale rolls around, he knows a lot about her (including that she studies dance), and seems to genuinely respect her, unlike Jeff, who seems rather dismissive. This suggests that the group's inability to deal with Pierce is at least in part, due to their own solipsistic behavior.