Pierce: Who do you guys think cheated?
(Everyone looks at Jeff.)
Jeff: Flattering. But if I’m gonna cheat, I’m not gonna write information from a book onto a piece of paper. That’s practically learning, for God’s sake. Whoever made that crib sheet wasn’t a real cheater, just insecure and naive.
(Everyone looks at Annie.)
Annie: I may be naive, but I’m not stupid.
(Everyone looks at Troy.)
Troy: Well, I may be stupid, but I’m not trying to look like I’m not.
(Everyone looks at Pierce.)
Pierce: Well, I may be a genius, but I’m not a lesbian.
(Pierce looks at Britta. No one else does. Pierce is an asshole.)
If I had to point to the episode where this show became “real” Community, it would probably be this one, if only because this is where everything sort of fell into place. Or, put another way, this is the first recognizable instance of tropes and themes the show would later build on – the Troy/Abed friendship, the Dean’s insecurities, Britta mucking things up, Shirley showing up for a scene and disappearing, Annie pushing everyone to be as great as she demands of herself, Jeff making nonsensical speeches that somehow fix everything even though they really shouldn’t if you think about it at all, Leonard. I mean, that study room scene crackled so much largely because of how well it knew the characters, and how well they were able to characterize each other (with the exception, of course, of Pierce, who demonstrated in this exchange that his overriding quality is obliviousness). Even at this early point in the show’s run, the show knows the characters and the characters know each other at a level you wouldn’t expect to reach so soon. (Jeff lampshades this, asking Britta “Remember when we used to study Spanish?” It’s been a month, dude. But we’ve still come a long way since “Pilot.”)
And yet, it’s still a bit raw at the edges. Look, we talk a lot about how much of a jackass Jeff is at this point in the series (take a wild guess what the A-story concerns this week), but seriously, Troy is also pretty awful at the beginning of the first season. At first, you can forgive his sarcasm towards Abed – my friends and I communicate almost exclusively in sarcasm, and so I wasn’t shocked to see a twenty-something on TV assume that another twenty-something would understand his mockery about Luis Guzman coming on a jet plane. But when it becomes clear that Abed finds this kind of communication difficult, it’s pretty uncomfortable to watch Troy take advantage of this to assert some kind of bizarre dominance. And while Abed taking his payback a bit too far is hilariously entertaining to watch (Troy: “What language is that?” Abed: “It’s probably Arabic.”), there’s also something a bit melancholy about how hard he’s trying to be the kind of person he thinks Troy wants to be friends with.
Now, Donald Glover brings a sweetness to any character, regardless of how big a jackass they are (just watch his stand-up if you need proof), and so Troy’s development into an innocent lunkhead was probably due about equally to narrative necessity and playing to the actor’s strengths. But no matter how unrecognizable Troy might become in terms of savvy and intelligence or lack thereof, the one constant to his character is always that he cares, deeply and truly, about Abed, and you can trace that right back to the incredibly sweet introduction of their secret handshake. When Troy tells Abed that friends don’t “mess with each other,” there’s no artifice or performance or insecurity, just acceptance of Abed’s limitations and affection for him as a person.
Another character who starts to come into focus here is Britta, who screws up really and truly when she cheats on a Spanish test, allows herself to get caught, and resists every attempt Jeff makes to exonerate her (THIS WEEK IN “LOOK, THIS SHOW REALLY DOES HAVE A MEMORY”: Jeff: “The world wasn’t the only thing that changed on September 11th…”) While the bickering of the acutely ridiculous Duncan and Chang almost steals the show (Duncan: “British dentistry is not on trial!”), this plot allows Britta to get down from her pedestal and onto her soapbox (Britta: “It’s not that easy to get human beings to turn on each other.” Chang: “Turn on her!”) and it allows Jeff to be decent without making too much of a big deal about that. Or, to be more specific, it makes a big deal about Jeff being decent (Jeff: “Look at how handsome my face is.”), but the focus of the plot is not on him learning to be a better person; that’s just already there. (Indeed, we’ll return to this later, when Jeff decides to allow Pierce to enjoy his copyright infringement in peace.)
But what we really get here is a picture of Britta, who’s less an ideal love interest than someone who has an ideal of what she wants to be and tries desperately to get everyone else to believe it, even when anyone could see it’s inaccurate. (Britta: “You know I have a problem with dishonesty.” Jeff: “You’re on trial for cheating!”) And while it’s not clear if Jeff planned the whole defense with Duncan (let’s see: beginning of the episode, Duncan asks Jeff if he’s done striking out with Britta; middle of the episode, Jeff realizes he can make a case that Britta’s insane; end of the episode, Duncan gets an excuse to spend time with Britta in exchange for ruling in favor of Jeff and Jeff grins like a snake), which is a bit uncomfortably sexist if true, but it still works to introduce this idea of Britta as antithetical to real success.
Or, in other words, antithetical to Annie, who is also crazy, but in a way that doesn’t allow for anything less than success (Alison Brie does a phenomenal bug-eyed NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO here.) Now, she’s stuck in the C-plot with Chevy Chase (aka the other reason that cast must have flinched when told they’d be in a plot with Pierce any given week), but it does give her an opportunity to do what Annie does best, which is terrify everyone else into being the best version of themselves. And as much as Pierce tries to hide his utter incompetence (at composing a school song in this particular example, but that could really refer to anything about his character), it’s easy to see why he likes her so much when she not only sees right through him, but refuses to let him fail. People see through Pierce a lot; what’s different about Annie is that she doesn’t take that as opportunity to mock or deride him, but rather forces him to follow through on his bluster. And even though he might have only been able to push past “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as far as Bruce Hornsby, the fact that Annie takes Pierce seriously is equal parts what makes her so awesome and why he likes her so much.
– This episode is really killing it on the small things. While Shirley makes a big deal out of Chang’s racist nickname towards her (not that I blame her, considering that was all she got to do this episode), Abed simply hears “Kumar” and shakes his head like he’s disappointed that was all Chang had. Or when the Dean is about to get up, hears Britta’s confession, and doesn’t skip a beat before sitting down and muttering “Aaaaaaaand we’re back.” And did anyone else catch the reference to air-conditioning repair in Pierce’s song?
– “Cheers.” “MASH.” “Fawlty Towers. Game over.”
– “Those are credible alien hand movements.”
– “You’re very confident.” “But you shouldn’t be.”
– THIS WEEK IN TAGS: Troy and Abed compete to see who can fit the most pencils in their mouth before gagging, in the latest example of this show lacking any homoerotic undertones whatsoever.