Community: Season 3, Episode 1
Oh Community, how I've missed you. Because this is the first episode of a new season, let's quickly run over the thing I will be saying very often over this season unless something dramatically changes: Community is a show about a group of people longing for a second chance and finding acceptance in the pseudo family they have formed out of the study group. The first season of this show, the study group took Spanish and learned how to communicate with one another. In season two, the group took Anthropology and learned how to take a group of people and form a tribe. This year, the group is taking Biology, where, as their biology teacher (Michael K. Williams, aka Omar from The Wire) told us this evening they will learn about life, and, I fear, its opposite number.
Last season, each member of the group solidified their place in this surrogate family, and we watched Troy, Shirley, and Pierce take major steps along their road toward becoming better people. Tonight, we are reminded just how far all of these people still have to go, and also how far they've come. We're past the idea that these people might fall apart. At this point, they've moved from forming relationships to learning how to deal with the fact that these relationships have been built to last. Tonight, Jeff gets a scare and spends much of the episode worrying whether or not he will actually be able to keep these people around. Yet, unlike every other time this show has pulled out this plotline, the question isn't whether the study group will stay together (not even when it appears that it might be). This time around, the question is what sacrifices they will have to make to keep themselves together.
This time around, the sacrifices aren't that large. Pierce has to come across like a bad guy to get Jeff back into the group. "Biology 101" reminded us, and Jeff, that there is less space between he (the group's ostensible leader and "hero") and Pierce (the group's outcast and villain) than Jeff might like to believe. The two have always been fairly similar in a lot of ways, so it is not unusual for the show to remind us of Jeff's darker tendencies tonight. But what is really special about the development tonight is the way it displays a subtle shift in Pierce, who disavows any evolution to the rest of the gang. Pierce knows that he is the group's villain, but he has also learned that he will always be forgiven eventually. He knows he can be a bad person, but he also knows his safety net won't disappear, which was a constant fear for him last year. This time around, Pierce just had to play to type to keep the group together. Next time, the sacrifices might be just a bit larger.
Community is a very funny show, and it was very funny tonight. Yet what draws me to the show more than the comedy are the quiet moments in between when these characters let down their walls ever so slightly and speak honestly to each other. My favorite example of this (and maybe my favorite episode so far), "Mixology Certification" showed these characters on a roller coaster of an evening that eventually just stopped and let them be themselves, with all of their flaws, hopes, fears and insecurities bared to each other. "Biology 101" doesn't go quite that deep, but it does allow Jeff to lower his walls a bit and show how much he needs everyone.
This was a Jeff episode through and through, and I'd like to take a few moments to look at some of the brilliant little touches it gave us. Let's start with the opening musical number, which at first blush seems like kind of an obvious thing for Community to do, a meta-commentary on the criticisms most leveled at the show (my favorite being, "We're going to have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined," which was followed by the very exciting Jeff/Annie moment, "And we're going to live forever. And we're going to sleep together!"), but with a slightly closer look becomes quite revelatory. This wasn't one of those "Community riffs on a genre" moments, this was a fantasy. A fantasy by Jeff Winger, the group's resident cynic and curmudgeon. Jeff dreamed of a sequence in which each of the characters sang about fixing the problems in their life (and he got to sleep with Annie), only to wake up (From his daydream, not a real one) into a world where not a whole lot has changed for him since this show has began. Jeff started the show as a lonely, selfish, self-centered, unemployed and disgraced former attorney. He's become a nicer guy over the last two seasons, but not a whole lot about his life has changed. He's still all of the bad things he was two years ago, just maybe slightly less so.
And he is slightly better off because of the people he has surrounded himself with. I've glossed over most of them this week, both because this was a Jeff episode and because we'll have plenty of time to talk about the rest of them over the course of this season, but each has some great moments tonight and some awesome comedic beats. We also meet two new characters I'm hoping to see a lot of: Michael K. Williams' biology teacher and John Goodman's Assistant Dean, who runs the Air Conditioning College Annex (the only prestigious or profitable part of Greendale) and is a near-perfect villainous presence.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the episode's 2001: A Space Odyssey reference, not because it was awesome (though it was) but because it so elegantly underlined the point of the episode by co-opting a metaphor from the film, which is exactly the type of referential humor I can get behind. Jeff sees himself, eating his cell phone, alone. Then he sees himself become Pierce (the man he feels he might grow into). Then he sees the vision of himself as Pierce, dying alone. And then he sees the Table. In this scene, the Table is a stand in for the Obelisk, which in and of itself might seem obvious and kind of dumb. Once we think about what the Obelisk means, though, this becomes crucial to the point of this episode and, as I said above, the point of this series. In 2001, the Obelisk is a metaphor for the evolution of man, for better or worse. In Community, the Table is a metaphor for the study group, for the way each of these characters evolve and change, for better or worse. This may strike some of you as obvious, but I think the metaphor gets a few extra points for being a cipher for the characters' evolution in an episode called "Biology 101."
Beyond all of this pretension, though (and I promise plenty more of that as this season progresses), this episode is also filled to the brim with the kind of absurdity the show does so well. Senor Chang lives in the air vents. There is a thing called Monkey Knock Out Gas. Cougar Town is based off of a British show called Cougarton Abbey in which all of the characters kill themselves drinking Hemlock in episode six (this manages to be a joke about Cougar Town, Downton Abbey, and British Television's tendency to cut short great premises, even if it does, as Britta says, provide closure, all at the same time. Well played, Community). It has some awesome "Troy is naive and/or stupid" jokes, a few awesome Dean moments and Abed's scream, which will haunt my dreams and make me laugh inappropriately for weeks to come.
Ultimately, more than it made me laugh, "Biology 101" reminded me why Community is the most ambitious comedy on television right now, and why it always has the potential to be the best. Last season it fell short of that, both due to a lackluster back half and due to the near perfection of several of its competitors (Parks and Rec, Archer, and Louie all had stellar seasons around the time the show was disappointing me), but this year, it is shooting for the moon right out of the gate (and I am mixing metaphors!). This year, Community proposes to be about life and death, love and loss, evolution and stasis. Oh, and it promises to make us laugh too. If it can live up to all, or even most of those goals, we are in for one hell of a television season. And if not, well, I at least am glad to be back at Greendale, watching everyone, characters and creators, give it their best.
-There's going to be a lot here tonight. I really missed this show. Strap yourselves in.
-"We have plenty of linens. We pretty much just want the things."
-"I named him Annie's Boobs. After Annie's boobs." I really hope I'm not the only one that will ALWAYS find this joke funny.
-"It magically keeps our books from falling on the floor." "Huh!"
-"Don't tell the monkey I'm living here."
-Jim Rash, aka Dean Pelton, is now a series regular! This won't change much, since he's pretty much always around anyway, but good for him!
-"Star Burns. I see you added a lizard to your special hat and side burns. Is there anything I'm missing?" "Yeah, the person underneath. But you don't care about that, do you?" "No." I hope Star Burns adds a new thing every season into perpetuity.
-"Six seasons and a movie!"
-"Monkey Knock Out Gas! Now that is the sort of grounded, sensible thinking I want to see this year." If this is Community's idea of toning down the silliness, I'm on board with it.
-"Shut up, Leonard! I heard about your prescription socks."
-"You are the opposite of Batman." But he loves her anyway...
-"You could have lived the rest of your life in peace and died a happy pansexual imp!"
-"...When the only things waiting for us on shore are the sands of time and the seagulls of growing apart." "Man, I really need this Biology class."
-Star Burns wants to break bad with Michael K. Williams. Awesome.
-One more serious point: Britta wants to study psychology to be a therapist. This is a nice tidbit, considering all of these people need to declare majors soon. But it is really important considering this episode is about Jeff realizing he hasn't even started to figure out his problems. Jeff is seriously messed up, and his erstwhile love-interest (in a self-loathing way) and complete opposite wants to be a therapist. Well played again, Community. Oh, and let's end on this:
-"So this is the year we all die."