Monday, June 9, 2014

Community 1.02: Spanish 101

I am, like most of you, a creature of language, more fundamentally made of words than water. It was the main component of my skillset as a kid, perhaps to my detriment, but it only seemed to extend as far as English. Two years of Latin in elementary school, a brief Spanish sting in middle school, some French during my off-year, an abysmal French follow-up in undergrad, and finally two successful semesters of Japanese to fill out FAU's language requirement have left me with a pleasant awareness of a few other languages, but nothing like actual competence. Bilingualism is thus, with apologies to Ta-Nehisi Coates, something of a superpower, something consistently just a little beyond my ken.

So I've done a lot of terrible, intro-level conversations. They have a kind of thudding rhythm, loudly declaring themselves to be the products of language instruction, as opposed to language. When you're asked to write your own--when writing is what you do with the time you're not spending being popular or well-adjusted--it's easy to overthink them. There's probably a lesson there: do the work and get the fuck out. Or maybe it's the opposite of a lesson. Maybe it's my personal Ezekiel 25:17.

Whatever. Find your own meaning. The series has landed, which brings us to "Spanish 101," written by Dan Harmon and directed by Joe Russo.

Once again the dean establishes the scene, this time on the PA. A tiny hint of the future Dean Dangerous, but he's still baking. Jeff snags an illicit parking space, while the study group awaits his entry, having already established him as their Charismatic Leader. Abed hints at his Abeditity by engaging in some meta-badinage with himself, and Britta foreshadows herself by complaining to the others. "You are obsessing over someone who doesn't give you a second thought," she says. "Meanwhile, in Guatemala, journalists are being killed by their own government." "Spoilers!" admonishes Abed. Britta does her best to mollify him, diplomatically: "Real stories? They don't have spoilers." She asks with not a small amount of condescension,  "You understand that TV and real life are different, right?" Jeff returns, rolling a Fonz vibe, and deftly brushes Britta's concerns aside. He's brought an empty binder, which Annie happily fills with copies of her notes, showing a somewhat unseemly level of satisfaction.

Jeff hands Britta another card, this time celebrating the 2-week anniversary of his horrible first impression. Britta tells Jeff that she's immune to his bullshit, but he shouldn't be exploiting the innocents in the others in the study group. She leaves in a cloud of indignant condescension; Pierce approaches Jeff and aggressively advises him, "You can't pursue people so desperately, it kind of creeps them out." Meanwhile, Annie and Shirley want to know more about Guatemala, as they're eager to get into the spirit and protest. Britta barely knows what she's talking about, but she does her best. 90% of everything is confidence, and Britta doesn't have it.

The episode and the recap take a queer turn here. The narrative is bifurcating into a standard A-B plot. The Britta-Shirley-Annie plot is introduced first, but the Jeff-Pierce plot gets the payoff. Of course, the real resolution of the episode is progress on the mytharc plot of Jeff trying to nail Britta. At any rate, I'm tempted to take these two separately. Perhaps I will.

Britta, as established earlier, doesn't know much about Guatemala, but cares enough to feel that she ought to know more, and it's this guilt that overflows into condemnation of the group. Annie and Shirley are eager to learn more, less out of concern for the freedom of the Guatemalan press than out of a desire to act out a college-like experience. Annie wants to perform being a college student to feel older, more worldly, and tougher; Shirley wants to perform being a college student to feel younger, less domestic, and more rebellious. They have different ideas--Annie suggests a candlelight vigil "like lesbians do on the news," while Shirley opts for baking brownies. It's a party. We'll get back to them.

The other plot takes us into Spanish 101, and Senor Chang, the chaotic evil dark prince of Greendale. This is the first I ever saw of the show, a free preview of that show some LJ folk were talking about. The clip is available here (sadly, no embed). The Man With the Star-Burns makes his first appearance before Chang dismisses the class: "Hands! 90% of Spanish." Crucially, homework is assigned: students are to pair off and perform conversations using short phrases from unit 1. Pairs are determined randomly via cards under the students' desks; Jeff bribes Abed to pair with Britta, but she foils his effort by swapping with Pierce.

Back in the study room, Pierce's backstory as the heir of a moist towelette empire is introduced. Apparently it's not far off from Chevy Chase's real life backstory. Similarly, both Chevy and Pierce are widely agreed to be insufferable assholes. Jeff and Pierce begin work on the homework. Pierce brings out scotch, demonstrating an desperate intent to make it a long evening of male bonding; Jeff, creeped out, wants to do the damn assignment and leave.

Outside, Annie and Shirley have put on quite a jaunty protest. Starburns appears again, once more aggrieved. As dance begins to spontaneously break out, Britta objects to the frivolity. Losing her temper, she describes the protest as "tacky and lame." Over her stammered apologies, Shirley accuses her of using fringe politics to make herself sound interesting but not wanting to be involved. "I do things," she says in her defense. "I went to...I don't do anything. What can I do?" Annie and Shirley offer to let her help.

Back in the study room, Jeff and Pierce have "something incredibly long and very confusing and a little homophobic and really, really, specifically, surprisingly, and gratuitously critical of Israel." He adds,"The only thing not included in this epic are the five phrases required to get me a passing grade." Troy and Abed pop in to remind them of the other plot, and remind us what doing the damn assignment looks like. Frustrated, Jeff blows up at Pierce, and bails to go hang with Britta.

We follow him out as he grabs a candle, then bribes a kid to give him the sign he's holding. He stands near Britta, who opens her tape and apologizes for being too harsh. "I'm not perfect." A very drunk Pierce stumbles out and screams at Jeff, revealing his professed insincerity. He snags on a passing candle and bursts into flame, running off into the night.

In class the next morning, the group exchanges concerns about Pierce's behavior, but Britta defends him, saying that he's lonely and wants respect in the group: "I think he's spent his whole life looking out for himself, and he would trade it all for a shot at some kind of family."

Chang explains that Pierce has filled him on on their team's dissolution, and offers to give Jeff a C and let Pierce go alone. Jeff refuses: "Pierce, I understand if you don’t want to be my friend. But this thing we’ve created is bigger than the both of us and it deserves to be done right." What follows is something special, and the moment when I began to understand why my friends were so dead-set on getting me to watch this show. Set to the gently cathartic strings of Aimee Mann's "Wise Up," a slow-motion montage shows Jeff and Pierce engaging in an epic, highly offensive, and wildly incomprehensible exploration of the human condition across race, time, and Jewishness. And robots. As the end of the first "real" episode, it sets the tone for what the show is going to be best at: wholly inappropriate, but entirely legitimate emotional response. The presentation is, diegetically, every bit as awful as we'd imagine--it's unclear, from the blocking, who gets the F and who gets the F-minus--but Jeff is giving it everything he has, maybe for Pierce, maybe for Britta, maybe for the group that only Britta and Abed can see right now. Perhaps he doesn't know why he's doing it. Perhaps he doesn't need to.

The moment passes. In the hallway, Britta congratulates Jeff on an authentically selfless act. "How do you know I didn’t do it just to get a shot at you?" he asks. Because after that clusterfuck, "no woman in that class would ever be able to look at you as a viable sexual candidate ever again." Momentarily at a loss for words, Jeff hangs back and watches her leave; Pierce catches up to him, throws an arm over his shoulder, and shares his wisdom.

Finally, another piece in the gentle balance of delights that is Community falls into place with the end tag. The end tags are where Troy and Abed, the adorably co-dependent Bert and Ernie of Greendale, do their best work, and I'll not belabor it by describing it.

First Appearances
  • Starburns, the patron saint of Greendale.
  • The Spanish Rap in particular, and the end tag in general. As related to this show. They didn't invent it or anything.
  • While they've only begun to plumb its depths, the Troy-and-Abed bromance can be seen in its infancy.
  • Shirley's inappropriate tendency to respond to any situation with baking.
  • Insecure!Britta, a welcome change from trophy goddess of the pilot.
  • Pierce's quasi-paternal relationship with the fatherless Jeff, which will be a major focus of seasons two and three.
  • Also, sperm.
  • "Dos Conquistadores," obvi.
  • The Spanish Rap, equally obvi.
  • "Why do you teach Spanish?
What Have We Learned?

"Things like this will ultimately bring us together as an unlikely family."

Native American History Exhibit

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