Community – “English as a Second Language”

“English as a Second Language”

May 13th, 2010

A week after Community’s most “epic” episode yet, it’s a bit jarring to return to a low-key episode about Spanish class and study groups. However, after a bit of a re-entry period, “English as a Second Language” nicely falls into a rhythm that fits with the show at the end of its first season. The central premise of the show means that they might not be in Spanish class next year, which raises some logical questions about how the show will work if they’re not all in the same class with an excuse to see one another every day.

Frankly, I think Community could have gotten away with keeping them in Spanish class forever and just not caring, but the show isn’t going to settle for that sort of laziness. Instead, they throw the entire group into chaos over the pending changes, and eventually come to a conclusion which speaks to the ways in which the group dynamic is changing and (more importantly) a glimpse at what the show will look like in the future.

Alison Brie has been doing some great work on the series so far, don’t get me wrong, but I think this was definitely a high point for Annie as a character. There is a vulnerable confidence in Annie here, as she takes things into her own hands to ensure (she thinks) that the Spanish group will stay together forever. What works so well is that it all comes from a place of insecurity, as she thinks back to her time in rehab; everything Jeff says to her while interrogating her is technically true, but everything she comes back with teeters between funny and poignant despite the volume of all of it being turned up to 11. It’s an intense scene because it isn’t just a collection of punchlines, but characters having a pretty dramatic moment that happens to include a few jokes sprinkled in. Throughout, Brie is especially strong as she gives Annie a sort of confidence that still reveals the ways in which the character has been influenced by her past experiences.

The story’s one problem is that Jeff is a bit too much of a jerk, moving too far in the direction of douchebag to the point where his eventual turnaround feels unearned. Jeff’s character has always had selfish motives, but I thought the show took them for granted here and never really contextualized his own struggles in the way they did with Annie. We’re meant to empathize more with Annie as a character, of course, but I do think that we needed to have Jeff in a less purely antagonistic position. This had as much of a chance of being an episode about how Jeff has changed, but instead he returned back to his Pilot position in an exaggerated fashion.

The other bit of “business” in the episode other than confirming that the study group will live on beyond Spanish was figuring out how to keep Ken Jeong around – turning him from Spanish teacher to Keytar-playing student is a nice way to do this, as the character is a strong enough personality that even without an actual position of authority he can play a bombastic supporting role in the series. Jeong isn’t what one would call a necessary addition to the cast dynamic most weeks, but I think the idea of using Chang as a more high-profile Star Burns (who shows up all over the place and works his way into the various parodies, homages, scenarios) will work for the series’ dynamic.

As for the B-Story, I though it was simple but effective. I don’t necessarily think that there was enough material here to make the “Hunting Will Good” bit work for as long as they dragged it out, but the premise was so inspired (and the introduction, with Troy pocketing the chalk and moving onto the water fountain, so elegant in its simplicity) that it carried through. I think that we could have seen the story connect with the main story a bit more, but it’s a solid story in terms of why it is that Troy and Abed remain friends, plus I can never be too made with a story that ends with a simile which uses the Wire to explain how you did on a Spanish test.

Overall, “English as a Second Language” is a nice little reminder of how the dynamic has changed and how it may change (or, as the case may be, not change) in the future where Anthropology could become the new Spanish. I just felt like the show kind of exaggerated a few elements of Jeff’s character to get us to that place, and while the individual scenes involved worked well it kind of felt more manipulative than natural, which seemed strange when taking place in the fairly realistic storyline the episode presented.

Cultural Observations

  • Really liked the end of the coda, where we learn that it was Pierce sleeping with the teacher which made the exam easier than they anticipated: it’s a nice little role reversal that shows the character is more than just a walking ignoramus, even if he proceeds to have absolutely no coordination as he tries to walk away with nothing in his way.
  • Fun opening bit with the crickets coming onto the P.A. after Annie’s comment – it wasn’t particularly hilarious, but it was a nice transition into the (full) opening.
  • The image of Senor Chang smashing Jeff’s car with a keytar was absolutely fantastic (especially the safety goggles), but I’m sort of over Taser comedy.
  • Was there something that the countdown chyrons were parodying in any fashion? I didn’t really see why they were all that necessary, but do enlighten me if I missed something.
  • The scene with Jeff lawyering Annie was, despite my concerns over how it presents Jeff’s character, really funny: “She’s the Ark of the Convenant” was a highlight.

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