September 24th, 2009
While I love being able to follow and communicate with TV critics when it comes to the Fall TV season, sometimes they ruin some pleasant surprises. I don’t mean that they spoil episodes or anything of that nature, but rather that they ruin the pleasant feeling you get when you watch “Spanish 101,” an episode which confirms that Community’s pilot is not a one-hit wonder and that this is a very funny, very well-constructed series. By learning that the second episode lived up the expectations of the first ahead of time, I knew going in that this was going to be an entertaining half hour of television, so I don’t have some sort of catchy opening about how this broke down all of my apprehension.
What it did do, though, is make me laugh a whole lot. In many ways working like Modern Family’s pilot and many episodes of 30 Rock where the final sequence is a lavish and bombastic affair which has enough laughs packed into it to fill an episode of a lesser sitcom, in others it did still manage to surprise me by taking characters in directions I didn’t expect them to go. By only visiting the study group session once, and yet remaining central to the shared experience of these characters, it humanizes the characters who needed to be humanized while lampooning (but not insulting) those who are still rife for some simple comic pleasure.
The result is a fast-paced episode of comedy which out-paced The Office for me tonight, although the two shows are obviously peddling different styles of humour.
When 30 Rock returns and the NBC comedy block returns to “normal,” it’s going to be a really weird setup. Tonally, The Office and Parks and Recreation are very similar, while Community established itself pretty firmly in the 30 Rock style of comedy with “Spanish 101.” And yet, 30 Rock will be the show airing after The Office, and Parks will be the show airing after Community: it’s a weird setup, although considering I like all four shows I can’t really complain.
Community does give into the 30 Rock temptation for wild conclusions, whether it’s Pierce catching his arm on fire (who doesn’t love setting Chevy Chase on fire?) or Pierce and Jeff’s rather amazing epic tale of conquistadors, homophobia, and Israel, at episode’s end. It’s a decision that provides an amazingly hilarious scene watching the escalation of their epic presentation with robots, canoe trips, and just about everything in between, but also one which could turn the show into something that feels too sensational. 30 Rock is great because it usually steps back from those scenes and lets the characters know that they’ve gone too far, or has them wake up from a daze – one of the best scenes on 30 Rock is seeing everyone in the wake of Kenneth’s party as things got “ca-razy” and people did some things they’re not proud of. As long as you connect these events to ongoing storylines, they will feel like hysterical climaxes as opposed to sudden detours into crazyville.
What this episode does so well is turn that final moment into Jeff finally proving himself to be a decent guy to Pierce, who really is only trying to find a community (get it? It’s the name of the show!) when he works with Jeff on the project. While Jeff gave up his shirt in order to be with Britta, it was a selfish move designed to get him closer to her sexually. However, while we spend most of the episode believing that Britta gave it to Pierce in order to undermine Jeff’s move, we learn later that Pierce paid her for it in order to get closer to Jeff (which would be tough logically considering he also switched cards but I’ll forgive that). The show wanted us to see Pierce as the annoying old guy who clearly does not know what a sausagefest is, but at the end he’s a lonely old man who just wanted an excuse to be able to drink and hang out with someone. We learned at the beginning of the episode that Jeff is the big man on campus amongst this group, so Pierce looking to get “in” with him makes total sense and nicely balances the sense of sadness we should have for the character.
And yet, at the same time, the episode set Chevy Chase on fire, and had that hysterical final moment. The sign of a good show of this nature is that it sell feels resonant even when the storylines are fundamentally ridiculous, and I thought that final moment achieved this. Yes, the emotional moment was undercut by Britta observing that despite her higher opinion of Jeff she can now never view him sexually again in the wake of the performance, but it was done in a way to re-engage with humour rather than replace sentiment with jest. It was never going to actually be a real emotional moment, but it felt like a character building block for both Jeff and Pierce, and proved that the great cast will work well together when you pair off people like McHale and Chase to just do their thing.
The other side of the episode really built off of this, as it eschewed the stereotypes we had for Annie and Shirley and let them simply operate in a humorous manner as it related to a storyline. They, being largely unconnected with political things, view Britta as a role model of someone willing to be shrill and annoying in her principled stances and thus proving a role model according to strong women portrayed in film by people like Julia Roberts (see: Erin Brokovich, likely). They take on her Guatemalan journalist cause as an excuse to bake brownies and create pinatas and to connect in their minds with something political and current. The storyline on one level allows for Annie and Shirley to show that they’re funny outside of their “character” as established last week, and on another it’s actually a growth moment for Britta: she’s put herself above everyone else, but they did more for the cause of free speech in Guatemala than she did telling people they should be paying more attention to it. She really hadn’t done anything, and her cynical attitude was proving a barrier to her achieving her goals.
When at episode’s end they get a single line mention in the paper (in a story primarily about Pierce’s arm catching on fire), it’s a victory: they didn’t do the protest to really fix the issue so much as they wanted an excuse to make brownies, but there was no sense of an ulterior motive or anything similar. It wasn’t for extra grades, it wasn’t to get attention, it was actually just an attempt to be something they never got to be by being in community college or getting married at a young age or never going to a “real school.” Britta certainly seems more cultured than the others when it comes to these kinds of issues, and the fact that two others in the group want to be more like her really does seem to humble her and make her take a new perspective on her own life. It’s not rocket science, but it was a funny and charming storyline that utilized the show’s actresses well.
And the episode doesn’t try to stretch any further than that: playing Britta and Jeff’s relationship as a connection between the two stories is enough of a bridge to keep things moving, and Troy and Abed are used only for comic relief as they easily complete the Spanish assignment, take the shirt of Jeff’s back, and then in the coda deliver a hilarious Spanish rap. The show could have tried to add another storyline, integrate them more substantially into things, but it lets them remain on the periphery as opposed to forcing them in where they weren’t needed. It’s a nice show of restraint from a show willing to go outside of the box, and the entire episode felt very carefully plotted as opposed to let loose.
It also does what every great sophomore effort does, in terms of giving us a sense of what a normal episode of the show will look like. Ken Jeong is most welcome as Senor Chang (who doesn’t enjoy being asked why as an Asian he’s teaching Spanish, and who believes that Spanish is 90% hand movements), and the classroom setting offers as much potential as I expected it to. And even while expanding the world that much further beyond the library, the show managed to feel controlled without losing its spontaneity, impressing me and making me quite excited to see more.
- The opening P.A. announcement was most fun for its Simpsons-esque “Free Boat Giveaway” style of security and for the debate over whether the P.A. system is too loud or entirely worthless.
- The debate about “tardiness” was one joke that fell flat for me, feeling too much like the Pilot’s forced interactions – once Jeff arrives at the meeting, though, I thought the dynamic worked out well.
- I’m glad that somebody made the water filter joke, as it had been bugging me and it felt right coming from Pierce.
- Abed was nicely dialed in: I thought his observations about the P.A. feeling like a TV trope (and then undermining that with a TV trope) nicely fit in with both his character and the eventual “Spoilers!” note about Britta’s real world story.
- Watch out for Senor Chang: his knowledge will bite your face off. EL TIGRE CHINO!!
- While the show reminds me of 30 Rock in most moments, “Star Burns” gave me something closer to Scrubs flashbacks.
- I’m calling it: as great as Jeong is, each season will feature a different class at the center of the show, allowing them to bring in one main teacher each season to switch things up. Cast away, armchair directors!
- The Goat’s Moustache is Cameron Diaz.