Episode 311: Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts
3×11 Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts
Shirley Bennett has gotten the short end of the stick frequently throughout the series. Her religiosity has ebbed and flowed when it aided the joke, no matter what lessons she had learned about tolerance in previous focal episodes. She has been sidelined repeatedly as love triangles and bromances took precedence, a commentator as her friends lived their lives. When she was finally given a season-long storyline (Baby Ben), it was perpetuated in the worst way possible, contrived to bring more screentime to a character that had been drastically changed. (Some say Annie’s s4 convention storyline was the worst the show has ever done; I say to that – it lasted ONE episode; this was half the season.) Within that storyline, she was overshadowed by Jeff and his Rich and/or Annie situation; by Chang’s overarching weirdness and uselessness; and finally by Britta’s discomfort with the birth itself. But hey, at least we got a pretty great ‘pumping’ joke in A Fistful of Paintballs out of it.
Ranting aside, the point I am getting to is that Shirley Bennett, starting with this episode, is at last given a multi-episode storyline that is robust and worthy of the character. A storyline that harkens back to Environmental Science, in that it provides a Shirley-Pierce story, it references in a meaningful way what a character is studying, even showing the fruits of their (never-seen) labor. One could even say it provides some canon evidence for her grades being valedictorian-caliber in S4 (this also depends on how much you consider that season canon). But regardless of where her story travels in future seasons, within the episode Shirley confronts her future, being offered two paths forward: one offering comfort and familiarity, the other the chance to achieve the goal she set out to accomplish when she enrolled in Greendale.
She had sought to gain the skills necessary to open a successful business that would utilize her cooking acumen, for years confined solely to the home front. The coffee shop closing in the cafeteria and Britta’s light-bulb moment bring the opportunity to a reluctant Shirley’s attention, but she is side-tracked by Andre’s proposal. The desire to return to a state of comfort in her past is too alluring to be dismissed out of hand, and she rejects Britta’s entreaties to meet with the dean and get her business started. Within the episode, each member of the study group went through their own identity challenge and found the assumed role ill-fitting, some to a lesser degree than others, before returning to their former, comfortable state:
Britta: Her biggest fear is conformity, and she discovers that her innate talent lies in wedding planning, which submits to a societal norm, and therefore, she loathes her gift. She is doing the work for her friend in an attempt to get the bride to remember her career goal, in the process pushing to the side another friend who obviously has marriage and all its trappings as a life goal, and would greatly enjoy helping. Britta gets progressively drunker as she designs the look of the wedding, but her talent is such that it does not suffer, though her attitude sours at an accelerated rate, culminating in a soused marriage attempt. But, after Andre and Shirley’s impromptu marriage ceremony, she can be seen softening in her stance against the institution, though it is doubtful she would ever submit herself to such pomp and circumstance. Maybe if one of her cats was the ring bearer/flower cat.
Abed & Troy: At Shirley’s request, they attempt to dewhimsify for a day, only to appear off-putting and sarcastic to friends and strangers alike. It’s a relief to all when Troy convinces his better half to return to their version of normal. Troy and Abed without the weirdness just are not Troy and Abed at all. If aired in its proper order after Contemporary Impressionists, we can see that once again Troy has to be the adult and bring them back to their reality, a lesson Abed continues to resist, eager to play a part rather than be himself.
Annie: She has dreamed of romance and weddings throughout her life, amassing a comically large binder of ideas that she believes will help with Shirley’s nuptials. This would appear to be a perfect opportunity to use the planning skills she has perfected and craft for Shirley the wedding of her dreams. But she is pushed aside instantly when Britta’s natural, unwanted talent is exposed. She attempts to encourage Jeff to be better than he believes himself to be (something she has succeeded at in the past), and that too is a failure. Her romanticism, however, remains, though she has little in her own life to base her hopes on, but her optimism is key to her happiness. And she got a cute scene with Leonard, so.
Jeff: His natural instinct is to belittle marriage and lasting love due to his own issues with his parents’ relationship and his father’s abandonment. Annie challenges/convinces him to write a toast for Shirley’s wedding, as his oratorical skills have yet to desert him when needed. It’s almost odd that he fails so completely here, the recent increase in the depth of their friendship (coming to terms with Big Cheddar and Tinkletown, and the later reveal in 3×15 that they socialize together) would suggest that he would try harder for someone he cares for. Instead, Annie’s speech only convinces him to drink more and dwell on his own unhappiness. His own issues clouded his judgment and he gave in rather than challenge himself. This is characteristic of Jeff in that he puts forth little effort on most occasions, but for his friends he tends to strive harder; for such an important occasion, this failure is disappointing, and it is fortunate that Shirley is at her core a forgiving person.
Pierce: Tries to play the entrepreneur, looking like a Wall Street castoff, with his surfeit of money his only asset. After a few racist and (literally) painful ideas fail in amusing ways, he admits to Shirley that he would like to help her, if only to prove he can do something good/succeed in some way. This bit of growing up dissipates when he returns to his innate immaturity, leaving the party and celebrating victory prematurely, gloating at his father’s gravesite. It is utterly predictable that he would be unable to resist crowing over a success that is inchoate, Pierce being who he is, though at least in this instance it is celebrating a joint victory, one he could not attain without a friend.
Shirley: If anything, Shirley reverts to her old ideal of marriage and family, throwing aside the time-sensitive opportunity to make her career goal a reality. First, Britta attempts to push forward with her goal; then Pierce, in his quest to succeed at something, encourages her, reminds her of why she is at Greendale. After a clearly successful pitch to the dean (with a wonderful slide of cartoon!Dean that I want a poster of), she is sidelined again by her marriage, running from a celebratory soda with her partner and the dean. It is only after having a straight talk with Andre while they inform Jeff and Britta what a marriage truly is, that brings her back to the self she has created after years of hard work and personal growth. She realizes her longing for a return to her life with Andre should not mean that she need sublimate herself as she had done the first time around.
Everyone returns to their starting point but Shirley, having gained understanding of what she truly wants for her career and family, even if Greendale’s board thwarts the former for now. She has come up against two major life-changing events and come out on top, more confident on the direction of her life than arguably she has ever been. Though it was betrayal that brought her to Greendale, that led her to pursue her dreams, it has now been paid back positively, giving her more than she ever could have expected.
Overall, I found this episode to use each of the characters in a purposeful manner, no group member straying into one storyline and muddling its object, no sidestories that petered out into something lame or uncharacteristic. It created an important arc for Shirley (and Pierce), provided laughs and pathos (Jeff's drunken speech), and gave us a new enemy (and sponsor) in Subway.It may not be as memorable as some, and certainly not as gleefully outlandish or creative as the genre episodes, but it is solid, heartfelt episode that is really funny, and I couldn't ask for anything more.
• In the opening, Britta’s disdain at the proposal is clearly written on her face while the others at least feigned excitement/happiness. You'd think she would try to hide it some. Though really, Shirley only had eyes for Andre in that moment, so I suppose she was safe.
• Chang was not present, which was a relief, as there has been enough shoe-horning in of the character in storylines where he just adds nothing to it
• It’s endlessly funny that when ever-failing Britta discovers she is actually talented, she’s willing to throw it away due to her revulsion at societal norms. She could totally be a counterculture wedding planner! And be much less likely to be sued for medical malpractice for her well-meaning but poorly developed therapizing. Or maybe she’ll just passive aggressively plan all her friends’ weddings. Either/or is good. Also, I want the drink she makes for Jeff – looks fantastic!
• As the rave in the future proved, the dean is super fun at parties. I only hope we’ll actually see him invited to one they throw.
• I do not understand what the point of Jeff’s heart roulette was really. I get it, he likes Annie, her boobs, scotch, and wants to be successful again (though with a dog this time). It seems to be a bit of a tease/taunt to Jeff & Annie fans because, uh, why not? And who was the blond woman supposed to be – his mom? /shrugs
• According to the commentary, the frozen yogurt end-tag was Chevy’s favorite bit he’d done for the show; it’s my least favorite end-tag. I just don’t get Chevy’s humor, I guess…
1) This episode continued S3’s use of cartoonish visuals (fade out on Todd in Cooperative Ecology; the anime sequence in Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism; the title cards and Jeff’s heart here; the exploding Ego!apple and thought balloons in Contemporary Impressionists). Thoughts on their value – in what way did they detract or add?
2) Britta’s analogy definition may be her most adorable moment to date, but it’s again a symptom of Harmon’s decision to soften the character through decreasing her intelligence and bite. What is your opinion on this change, specifically relating to her intelligence?
3) Shirley appears to be getting her happy ending within the series; most likely, she is the only one who will get such a complete one. She has her original family intact and is a successful business woman. Does it seem too simple? (The character’s romantic prospects dried up with the rest of the group’s some time in s2, and there was never an attempt to give her a real dating life, to move on, besides her interest in dreadlocks in Contemporary American Poultry).