At Least It Was Here – “Community” Rewatch S1E4 Social Psychology

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Jeff: And what makes Frisbee ultimate?
Vaughn: Ah, man, if I had a nickel for every time I wished someone asked me that.

Community is, more than anything else (at least at this point, though you could make an argument later on as well) a story of Jeff Winger against himself. Is he a decent guy who just has a lot of opportunities to be an asshole and takes them? Or is he actually an asshole who occasionally, against his inclinations, does something decent? Now, a lot of this early going sees us watching Jeff learn some lesson, only to unlearn it next week and start the process all over again, but the question of what it is about him which opens him to learning these lessons in the first place is one the show keeps coming back to.

You could make an argument that Shirley brings out Jeff’s worst tendencies (though I’d counter that he brings out her best ones; she’s much more fun as an unrepentant gossip than as a holier-than-thou mother hen), and, indeed, Shirley herself suggests that in this episode. But Shirley and Jeff as a pairing has always fascinated me, because, despite their ultimate conclusion in Social Psychology that all they have in common is their propensity to gossip (which, meanwhile, is a fantastic way of humanizing Jeff somewhat as someone not so above it all), I would argue that what really happens when they’re together is shenanigans of the best sort. If you really think about the episodes which centered on this relationship, what generally ends up happening is that they act as co-conspirators, bringing out the qualities in each other which distance them from being a mother or a lawyer and lend a new potential to their characters. Maybe it’s because, as Shirley points out next season, she is the only one who is about the same age as Jeff, and so they don’t have to work quite so hard, but being together allows them to be people and not just types.

But let’s backtrack a moment, because though this episode might not have been the funniest so far (while Shirley pantomiming tiny nipples might never get old, I found it more clever than funny), it integrated the entire ensemble better than any episode that came before it. See, Jeff and Shirley are forced together in the first place only because Britta has begun dating hacky sack-hopping, shirt-allergic (take the hint, Joel McHale) Vaughn (Shirley: “He’d play shirts and skins in a game of checkers.”), whose tiny nipples are a source of endless amusement. But Jeff is really trying to listen that angel on his shoulder and be supportive of Britta’s dating endeavors, despite how much he is also still trying to avoid hitting on her. And Britta…well, she’s kind of a jackass here, who tries way too hard to make the leap too quickly from Jeff’s romantic pursuit to Jeff’s asexual friendship (not that she owes him anything, but she is a little oblivious to the potential awkwardness). I mean, showing him the poem Vaughn wrote her? Sure, that demonstrates an adorable level of trust between her and Jeff, but it would be too far to ask anyone to avoid making fun of it. (“Did you ever notice where the ocean meets the sky, did ya? It’s the same wizard blue that I see in your eye, Brit-ta.”)

And yet, as much as she’s the catalyst for it, the Vaughn plot isn’t really about Britta at all, so it’s hard to say too much about her character this episode. Characters who are much better served are the firecracker trio of Annie, Troy, and Abed, whose lack of plots as a group throughout the series’ run represent one of the greatest travesties of contemporary television. Annie, who overachieves in everything up to and including her drug addiction – she lost her scholarship AND her virginity – has charmed her way into the haplessly skeezy Professor Duncan’s psychology seminar. She brings along Troy and Abed as human subjects for an experiment testing the not-at-all-unnecessarily-named Duncan Principle – basically, if you bore people for long enough, you will break them. (Interestingly, NBC also ran this experiment recently, only they called it being in the audience for The Maya Rudolph Show.) (Look, she’s lovely, but a variety show in 2014 apparently written by SNL rejects is the opposite of necessary.) At any rate, while Troy cracks in spectacular fashion (truly, Donald Glover freak-outs are a national treasure), Abed sticks it out, longer even than Duncan himself (though that’s less of a surprise than he would have you believe).

Because it turns out that Abed, while not a computer, does have a certain programming which overrides even how livid a person naturally gets when left in a room for twenty six hours – namely, the belief that he and Annie are friends. And where Abed might just appreciate the fact of friendship with another person (regardless of who that person might be), it’s that quality about Abed – the fact that friendship is such an important thing to him – which makes Annie appreciate him for the first time as an individual. In other words, when Annie brings Abed that gift at the end of the episode, it’s not just an apology for making someone sit through a shitty experiment (which, by the way, had to have violated like all the ethical guidelines). It’s her appreciating, for the first time, the things that are great about Abed individually, and seeing him as more than just the weird guy in her study group she can take advantage of for things like this.

Actually, Annie and Abed tends to be a similar pairing to Jeff and Shirley, in that it allows the characters to explore sides of themselves their reputations generally preclude. It’s no accident, I think, that Annie keeps falling in love with Abed’s alter-egos, or that he keeps taking on alter-egos she’s inclined to fall in love with. Abed allows Annie to be more than an overachieving girl next door, and Annie allows Abed to more naturally engage in emotions and with other people. Again, like Jeff and Shirley, they don’t have to try so hard around one another, and so it’s the important stuff about their characters which is allowed to shine through, and while I think it’s fine that they never ended up together, I don’t think I would have minded if they had.

Leftover Thoughts

– Pierce is once again relegated to the C-plot (gosh, I wonder why Chevy Chase quit), in which he acquires so-called “earnoculars,” allowing him to hear at distances to which no human ear was intended to reach. Yet lest he should follow Icarus, Pierce trashes the earnoculars, deciding that we were designed to hear things “in this range, and really this range alone.”

– “You promised butt stuff!”

– “DAMN YOU, YOU OUTLYING PIECE OF DATUM!”

– I know I said this whole show is about Jeff battling against himself to become a better person, but asshole Jeff ordering a cup of coffee just to spite Vaughn (and making sure it’s a SMALL coffee, so you know he doesn’t actually want one) is probably the highlight of his entire character arc.

– THIS WEEK IN TAGS: “Just pretend like you asleep. Just pretend like you were sleeping.” If I ever need a foolproof way out of any problem, Troy’s the guy I’m going to see.

– Fine, this was pretty sweet:

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