Season Premiere: Community – “Anthropology 101”

“Anthropology 101”

September 23rd, 2010

In the interest of complete disclosure, I do not know if I was exactly “excited” for Community to begin its second season.

Mind you, I do think that if I had gotten a screener, I probably would have immediately popped it into my DVD player and consumed it. However, I feel as if I would have done so because I was expected to, not necessarily because I wanted to. This does not show a dislike or even a disinterest with the series, but rather the fact that Community’s first season was something I enjoyed, not something that I truly loved. The show is unquestionably funny, and there are individual episodes, moments, and characters that really stuck with me (and continue to make me laugh), but there was also something about the show which kept me at a distance.

When I would sit down to review the show, I would find myself in a self-aware state where I was writing to service the fan culture surrounding the series instead of actually writing what I was observing – this was no clearer than in “Contemporary American Poultry,” which I think is a brilliant piece of writing but which I did not “get” to the degree that others have thanks to my lack of experience with the source material. I am not one of those who is turned off by the level of pop cultural humour in the series, but I do think that its presence is part of why approaching the series critically has been somewhat of a challenge.

This is a long opening spiel to lead up to the fact that “Anthropology 101” was a cleverly organized premiere which successfully paid off the more traditional dramatic conflict created by last season’s (honestly unsatisfying) finale while indulging (or, perhaps more accurately, engaging) with the series’ signature referentiality, successfully kick-starting a season which will be an important test for the series.

I’m fairly certain that Dan Harmon will murder me for making this comparison, but I think that Glee and Community are facing the exact same challenge right now: both shows have made unique contributions to the television landscape (Glee with its music, Community with pop culture worship like “Modern Warfare”), and both are in a position to potentially lose themselves down their respective rabbit holes. After all, are Glee’s announcements of Britney Spears actually that different from Community’s news regarding a Rankin-Bass inspired Christmas episode? Both take the series’ defining features and devote an entire episode to them, and both run the risk of turning away those who are looking for something beyond what some might consider to be gimmicks.

“Anthropology 101” works precisely because it resists diving wholeheartedly into the series’ pop culture obsession (which, for the record, I share): even with Betty White present in her role as the kooky Anthropology professor, the show pushed the references to the margins. This was done primarily through Abed’s struggle to force the characters into traditional sitcom structures, as he has an entire wedding prepared for Jeff and Britta (who are, at that point, in the midst of playing love chicken in an effort to avoid being the villain). And yet the episode’s overall narrative has no place for Abed, whose efforts are actually what pushes the episode into more dramatic territory as the lingering secrets – that Britta and Jeff slept together in the study room, that Jeff and Annie kissed in the finale, that Troy is posting Pierce’s thoughts on Twitter – all emerge. In other words, Abed’s attempt to force the series into transitional sitcom constructs resulted in realistic interpersonal tension bubbling to the surface, problematizing his efforts.

However, it also serves as an interesting counterpoint to episodes like “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Modern Warfare,” where the show successfully used elaborate constructs defined by their referential qualities in order to speak to their characters’ interests: “Modern Warfare” allowed Jeff and Britta to consummate their sexual tension, which continues to resonate in the group dynamics, while “…Poultry” ended up becoming an effective story about who Jeff and Abed were as characters. The show is perfectly capable of organizing its references to serve a clear purpose of character, but in “Anthropology 101” they admit that there are occasions where those sort of constructs can clash with the way the characters are developing. The show still gets to have the fun of a George Clooney impersonator, or the lyrics to The Cranberries’ “Linger” rewritten about Jeff and Britta, but it also makes the point that there is a time and a place for those sorts of efforts, and this was not it.

In that scene, the shift between the dream-like treatment of Jeff and Britta’s fake relationship and the fight which followed was striking: yes, we still laugh when Annie decks Jeff, but his bloody nose remains long after the hilarity has passed. The inherent comedy of the series unquestionably influenced our reading of the sequence, but it was never allowed control over the scene (much as Abed was never allowed control over the characters’ motivations in the episode itself). Even when the conclusion became about Betty White nearly killing Jeff with a ridiculous contraption, the “realism” of that earlier fight resonated, and successfully created the conditions which would allow the group to reconcile (if not necessarily iron out every bit of remaining tension, especially with Annie and Jeff).

The scene is not unlike how Glee’s emotional moments – which involved the new football coach, Shannon Bieste, in the premiere – operate to ground the musical comedy elements of the series, and it’s something that I do not expect from either show in each and every week. Yes, admittedly, some part of me enjoys this sort of dramatic conflict over a comic setpiece expanded to a half hour: it speaks more to issues of character and generic (as in genre) tension which I find interesting as a critic. However, so long as the show occasionally acknowledges that sitcom references are not capable of defining the series in its entirety, I will accept the series’ preponderance with popular culture in most weeks. With “Anthropology 101,” the show successfully spoke to its philosophy on those references while simultaneously having a bit of fun with them.

For the most part, though, the episode relied on Annie’s doe-eyes for Jeff, or Britta’s sheer thrill in being the beloved underdog, or the sheer abandon of Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs playing their characters trying to push the other to the brink of insanity with their tongues. The episode’s comedy came primarily from these particular characters don’t particularly funny things, and that’s what keeps any lingering issues I have with the references at bay: so long as that foundation remains, and especially when it is as central as it is in this premiere, the show can reference whatever it pleases.

Cultural Observations

  • Interesting that Creed on The Office commented on Betty White backlash just an hour after she was used pretty shamelessly here: White was funny, which she always is, but she was not particularly funny, and I think the expectations are growing out of control when her name pops up in the credits.
  • The script did a nice job of dealing with the “Senor Chang as Student” situation: having him attempting to join the study group, but taking a derisive and defensive position about it, was a smart way to keep the character’s antagonism while undermining it at the same time.
  • Was anybody else really underwhelmed with the Twittersode? It wasn’t actually in any sort of episodic form as far as I could tell, and read instead as a series of random lines and observations – I’d love to see them take on a legitimate narrative in that format, even if it fails miserably.
  • I’m going to take White’s comment about the dangers of dividing based on race as a subtle critique of Glee’s “Throwdown,” one of its most problematic hours – however, I somehow doubt that Harmon is watching Glee that closely, based on his general attitude towards the show.

1 Comment

Filed under Community

One response to “Season Premiere: Community – “Anthropology 101”

  1. Daniel Walters

    Yeah, both Glee and Community are beckoned by the dark side of going completely broad.

    I see two reasons believe that Community won’t go down that path:
    1) Harmon, himself, has discussed the concern multiple times. A self-aware creator can fix his own problems. You get Whedon. A non-self aware creator… well, I’m sure Tim Kring is a very nice person in real life.

    2) The blessing of a low budget. Every time Harmon wants a “Modern Warfare,” he has to intentionally scale back the budget in other episodes. When Glee wants to indulge itself, however — by doing a crapload of hit songs — it makes MORE money.

    Someday, Community may “jump the shark.” I just hope it stays afloat long enough for that to happen.

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