Monday, May 19, 2014

Community 1.01: Pilot

Pilots are strange things.

I'm sure analogous processes exist in other media, but none immediately spring to mind. It would be interesting if every novel came with a first chapter that lagged behind the rest of the book by several rewrites, but I doubt anyone would think it to be a sensible idea. However, the exigencies of television mean that often it's prohibitively expensive to do anything else. The pilot sets up the plot and characters, the all-important "why this day" that situates the narrative, but the show has often changed around that narrative by the time the series begins production: characters are added or lost, actors change, personalities soften or harden. The pilot often ends up feeling like an issue #0, an odd prequel of greatest value to completists.

30 Rock's pilot is famously uneven; Parks and Recreation's pilot is practically unrecognizable upon review. Cheers has an iconically strong pilot--Tina Fey cites it as an example of what the 30 Rock pilot wasn't--and it's a fine place to start when examining what a sitcom pilot is called upon to do. The cast is introduced one at a time, and paired with throwaway characters who set up the jokes, letting us in on what we'll need to know in a fairly organic fashion. Cheers gets a lot of mileage from adapting theater traditions to the multi-camera setup; the blocking is crisp and intuitive, the jokes well paced for audience response, and the comedy gets physical very quickly.

Community has its share of commonalities with Cheers: it's initially structured on a confident, likeable womanizer and the pretentious blonde he wants to hate-fuck. Both shows are about homes-away-from-home for various misfits, losers, and temporarily embarrassed geniuses. On Cheers, Diane is dropped into the plot via a specific disappointment; the rest of them are there by virtue of the sheer joy of drinking alcohol and the sublime shittiness of living and working (or not working) in Boston. Cheers is a finely tuned machine that starts off smooth and stays there well into its run. Community is messier. It's a show about messier, or at least it will become one when it begins in earnest with "Spanish 101." For now, Community #0, written by Dan Harmon and directed by Joe Russo.

It starts with the Dean, the muse who calls our players into being: Troy ("remedial athlete"), Britta ("twenty-something dropouts"), Shirley ("middle-aged divorcees"), and Pierce ("old people keeping their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity"). Jeff, Abed, and Annie fall outside even the domain of "loser-college" for now. Jeff's too awesome, perhaps, and Abed and Annie might be too weird even for Greendale. But we digress. (We'll digress in a minute. First, is that an uncredited Vicki in the crowd? This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.)

We see Jeff for the first time, being followed by a fast-talking Abed. Abed is upbeat and energetic, a storm of tics and gestures. Like the rest of them, he's a rough draft. The mostly unchanged Jeff, being too busy enacting the story to examine it, asks Abed about the blonde in their Spanish class, and Abed rattles off a surprisingly detailed biography, closing it with a verbatim performance of something Britta said to him earlier. (I have been known to employ variants of this. In my experience, Jeff's a lot less weirded out by it than most.) Having become acquainted with Britta via Jeff's interest and Abed's creepifying observational skills, along with a brief shot of her responding to the Dean's call, we'll have to wait a bit for more. Jeff has an appointment with one Prof. Ian Duncan, Psychology, to discuss the premise of the show. Jeff, accomplished badass lawyer, was caught with a fake degree and needs a real one, and apparently Greendale counts. That said, he doesn't intend to do any work, and asks Duncan to help him cheat. Mentions are made of when Jeff helped Duncan beat a DUI rap, but overall Duncan seems both competent and wise, a dignified man in an undignified milieu. (This, like so much else, will change.) Duncan, in his British sort of way, admonishes Jeff, and appeals to the value of learning. Jeff finishes what the Dean started, bringing the invocation to a close: "If I wanted to learn, I wouldn't have come to community college."

We're not quite where we need to be, for one location remains to be visited. In the cafeteria, after a brief shot of Pierce trying to scam some food, our third-person-limited consciousness floats over to Britta, cramming for the aforementioned Spanish test. Jeff ambles over and, seemingly off the top of his head, invents a backstory as a Spanish tutor, inviting Britta to join his "study group." Britta's Spanish is too weak to realize that he's full of shit--90% of everything is confidence, after all--so she agrees. The study group has been called into being!

Granted, it's bullshit. It's just something professional liar Jeff thought up to get laid. But an idea, once bidden, cannot be denied its reification, especially when it's taken into the study room. The study room is magical. I'm going to be writing a lot about the study room.

Appropriately, Britta lays out her baseline. All we know about her, at this point, is that she's desirable, so it's going to be Important: honesty. Above all else, honesty. Jeff, continuing the lie, does his best to roll with it. Abed enters, realizing that the story needs him, but we have a couple more stops to make before the show can begin.

Jeff meets Duncan on the athletic field, and they jabber about ethics. Jeff lays out the closest thing to an authentic identity we're going to get: "If I talk long enough, I can make anything right or wrong." Duncan sort of misuses "moral relativism," but he's a psychology professor, and you can't expect too much from those people. He seems to give in, and Jeff returns to find the rest of the cast.

Abed has invited them. Of course he has. Beyond the five we've already met is another, a young, dark-haired woman who seems quite skeptical of Jeff and his study group. Troy makes the first ever Seacrest joke. Oh, and Britta's gone. Attempting to bail, Jeff runs into her outside, and quickly changes his mind a second time.

Returned to the study room, Pierce introduces everyone, getting the names wrong and sexually harassing Shirley in the process. (In a pleasant change of pace for sitcoms, everyone in the room identifies it as such, even the token jock.) Annie's backstory, the Legend of Annie Adderall, is invoked. Jeff, still focused on his goal of a study group consisting only of Britta and himself, attempts to harness the group's internal tensions to destroy them, and they seem to be off to a good start when he gets a call from Duncan.

Duncan has agreed to help Jeff in exchange for his car, and Jeff accepts, faced with the terrifying prospect of studying. It's a short scene, and really, we ought to be getting back to the study room. Jeff meets Britta at the door, alarmed at the chaos inside. Jeff admits that he engineered the chaos in order to get them alone--I'm not sure if he's hoping the honesty will win him points, or hoping she'll be flattered at the scope of the manipulation in her pursuit--but she's only disappointed in him for using them all. Still, she agrees to go out to dinner with him if he fixes it. Thus inspired, Jeff strolls in and delivers the Very First Winger Speech. There's not easily accessible video of the scene, as far as I know, which is a shame, as I'd probably watch it every morning for inspiration. Jeff is lying, of course, in every word. In this scene, in this act to be repeated with every episode, is the basis of Jeff's character, and the frame that balances the show between sappy and cynical: the truth is what people want to hear, but not what they'll believe when they hear it. Jeff can tell the difference between truth and falsity, he's just swapped out the values. He tells the truth with lies, and lies with the truth.

"I hereby pronounce you a community."

At the conclusion of the speech, Annie is smiling so much she looks like she might be holding back tears. Britta breaks the moment by revealing to Jeff that she was lying about dinner, and she'd like him to politely fuck off and leave. He responds by offering to share the envelope full of test answers with the group.

On the steps outside, Jeff opens the envelope to find only blank pages and "Booyah" written, somehow, in John Oliver's accent. A brief confrontation with Duncan later--the moral status quo restored--brings us back to the steps, where the study group seems to instinctively want to comfort Jeff; Jeff instinctively finds himself giving advice. He protests the narrative role he's being boxed into: "I don't have any of the answers." When it's pointed out that he's obviously smart, Jeff's reply is one of uncommon insight, as far as pop culture generally goes: "Funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work." After a non-verbal conversation incomprehensible to Abed, Britta formally invites him back into the group his lie called into being, and after a beat, he follows them back inside.

There isn't a credits tag on this one, but there's a memorial nod to John Hughes, which I guess is close enough for a pilot. It's not much of an ending, and appropriately, neither is this. None of these characters are where they need to be, yet. Pierce is an unreconstructed hippie, Troy's a token jock who refers to Abed as "slumdog," Britta is pretty and perfect and empty. They'll change, albeit mostly in the next episode. Community is as much about how people don't change as it is about how they do. I'll also be changing, as I write more of these things up, and find the balance I need between vague commentary and tedious recap. I could spend a week reading the respected recappers and cutting this one down to size, but it seemed more prudent, and apropos, to just feel my way through. The best eps are in the second half of season three, anyway. I have semesters and semesters to learn.

First Appearances
Everything. It's the pilot.


  • Abed bursting into a scene from The Breakfast Club in response to tension.
  • The first and only explicit mention of Asperger's.
  • Dean Pelton appears but briefly, and the rest of the B-cast is unsurprisingly absent. The one exception, Prof. Duncan, will actually be absent most of the season. What can ya do.
  • Seriously, is that Vicki?

What Have We Learned?
"You are all better thank you think you are. You are just designed not to believe it when you hear it from yourself."


1 comment:

Annie's Boobs said...

I remember really disliking the Pilot, so much that I didn't tune in, again, until far into the first season. What I did NOT remember was that Duncan was in it! Holy schnikes!

Nice recap! I can't imagine how difficult it will be to summarize some of the later episodes without your head exploding. So, I wish you luck, caffeine, and bandages.