A Community Notification For This: S1E02, “Spanish 101”

“Spanish 101” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, September 24, 2009

Let’s address this in the most confrontational manner possible — Community has a Chang problem.

Part of being a diehard fan of any show is reckoning with its flaws. Community fans 1 know this compartmentalization well — even its most ardent devotees would never claim the show had anything resembling a perfect run. Perhaps it is fitting that the most notable wrinkle “Spanish 101” adds to the otherwise-brilliantly established premise from the Pilot turns out to be one of the more controversial elements of the entire series through all the ups and downs — the presence of one Señor Benjamin Chang (Ken Jeong). Having broken out in a huge way in that summer’s The Hangover, Jeong must have seemed like an enviable get for the show’s ensemble. However, in his first appearance as the group’s Spanish teacher, Chang immediately comes off as loud, abrasive, aggressively unfunny and honestly rather intrusive to the comparatively more upbeat and genial tone the show is going for. Later episodes would reveal some of the layers of pathos and humanity beneath his punishing exterior, but the introduction of such a seemingly one-dimensional mean and volatile character this early in the game seems to clash with the series finding its comedic rhythms.

Fortunately, the rhythms of the show’s storytelling and the chemistry between its characters are coalescing in record time here. Rarely do you see a group of performers become so visibly comfortable with each other as quickly as the Greendale Seven did, more or less instantly. I count not one or two, but THREE of the most fruitful characters pairings this show would ever employ debuting here, at varying levels of prominence but to nearly equal success across the board, and that’s not even counting the progression with the ostensible main arc of the Britta-Jeff relationship. First is Jeff and Pierce, in an A-plot that essentially cements the way these two characters would relate to each other throughout their run, Jeff approaching the situation with his trademark mixture of frustration and resistance eventually giving way to acceptance, Pierce regarding his surrogate son figure with an awe and admiration that is constantly undercut by his tendency toward petty competitiveness. Really, there was no other choice for whom to pair Jeff with here — you had to go with the very last character of the six that he’d ever feel inclined to spend time with, to make his patented Winger change-of-heart land as effectively as possible.

The second pairing comes through the B-plot headed up by Annie and Shirley, whose shared sense of enthusiasm and “go get it girl” energy rubs off on each other in the best way, as they co-opt the rhetoric of Britta’s pet cause (journalists being killed in Guatemala) and run with it until they create a full-on newsmaking protest out of essentially nothing. For someone who introduced herself to Jeff by talking about how much she valued honesty, it didn’t take long for Britta to be called out as a hypocrite who uses leftist politics to form her identity but shirks anything that could be mistaken for action. In later episodes, this slacktivist persona would devolve into empty rebellion for its own sake, but in this one she still has enough awareness to feel some guilt about her false sense of ownership over these issues. As for Annie and Shirley, they turned out to not have enough in common to really spend a lot of future episodes together2, but they did always play well off each other around the study room table, often breaking into simultaneous “Awwwwwwwww!”s whenever something cute happened. Their candlelight vigil also provides the occasion both for Pierce’s fire-catching meltdown AND Jeff and Britta’s initial reconciliation about Jeff trying to scam his way into being her conversational partner for their Spanish assignment, and at this stage it is already remarkable how deftly and efficiently the show weaves and balances its disparate storylines3.

Last and distant least as far as this episode is concerned is a tiny glimpse into what would become the show’s signature character pairing, that being the one-two Wondertwins punch of Troy and Abed4. While not quite as simpicato as they would eventually become5, their scenes are quick, punchy, and impeccably timed, especially during their show-off Spanish run-through and the infamous episode stinger. Surely we’ll have time to delve more into this magical partnership in future episodes, but for now we can simply appreciate this taste of glory for the sheer infectious joy that it is.

Everything comes to a head in a climax that involves, among other things, some kind of robot uprising, almost-certainly offensive costume changes, and Jeff and Pierce coating each other with silly string, and hints at the show’s grander ambitions, essentially leaving whatever groundedness existed in the Pilot in the dust. For some, this outlandish quality of the show made it difficult to embrace, but for the likes of us it is exactly this kind of nuttiness that makes the more sentimental elements of the show feel genuine. Although the emotional journey Jeff goes through — from going out of his way to be late to study group sessions to avoid getting to know any of them better, to proudly participating in a presentation so extravagantly humiliating that he inadvertently eliminates himself as a sexually viable candidate in the eyes of his classmates — risks repeating some of the story beats of the Pilot, the focus on ensemble cast dynamics and willingness to expand its boundaries, even if that sometimes takes it to strange and uncomfortable places, makes the episode much more than a retread and well worth revisiting. If nothing else, I’ll always be haunted by the terrified expression on Annie’s captive face as Jeff and Pierce paddle their oars through imaginary waters, a warning of things to come. This is going somewhere ridiculous, and perhaps vaguely disturbing.


– I should probably mention here that I’m not much of a “write a synopsis” type of gal. I’ll do my best to mention each important turning point in the stories as they pertain to the overarching themes and character dynamics, but they’re frankly just never going to be my priority and I am decidedly writing for an audience that is familiar with the show anyway. But I won’t stop anyone else who wishes to fill in the gaps for me

– Jeff decides to join Pierce after all because Britta tells him Pierce gave her $100.00 to switch partners. Although this is all in-character, part of me still wonders whether that transfer actually happened, or if Britta just made it up to further screw with Jeff, which would also be in character

– A lot of ongoing traditions in this show first appeared here: Jeff and Annie do their first “My lady/My Lord,” we get our first sighting of Star-burns (Dino Stamatopoulos), the opening theme featuring “At Least It Was Here” by The 88s arrives, and of course, that legendary end credits gag that set the standard for all future sign-offs

– On a personal note, I remember leaving a comment on Emily VanDerWerff’s review of the pilot demanding that she include more quotes from the show next time. Sure enough, from that time on, every Community review was sure to include a dozen or so transcribed punchlines. I’m not taking ALL the credit, but I’m also not refusing it

DEAN (over PA): Whoever is growing a small patch of cannabis behind the gymnasium: congratulations, you have won a cruise. Please report to security to claim your tickets

DEAN (over PA): In campus news, the debate over our library’s PA system continues, with some students suggesting its volume by lowered, while others question its very purpose. More on that story as it unfolds

BRITTA: You’re cute, but selfish, and narcissistic to the point of self-delusion
JEFF: ….She said i was cute

PIERCE: Why don’t we get a beer, i’ll give you some advice, and we can have what the kids are calling a “sausage fest”

ANNIE: You’re like Jodie Foster, or Susan Sarandon. You’d rather keep it real than be likable

SHIRLEY: Can we have a protest? I wanna protest the hell out of something
ANNIE: We can have a candlelight vigil, like lesbians have on the news!
SHIRLEY: i can make brownies!

PIERCE: i’m not sterile. In fact, it’s a rare condition called hyper-virility. Apparently my sperm shoot through the egg like bullets

PIERCE: To the empowerage of words
JEFF: To the irony of that sentence

SHIRLEY: If you like that brownie, you’re gonna hate what’s going on in Guatemala, i’ll tell you that

JEFF: What we have so far? Well, what we have is something incredibly long, and very confusing, and a little homophobic. And really, really specifically, and surprisingly and gratuitously critical of Israel

JEFF: We are gonna take this, and we are gonna put it in a museum for crazy people

SHIRLEY: And this isn’t a school paper by the way, this is a real damn paper, there’s a Marmaduke in there

CHANG: These are short conversations, they’re not supposed to take —
JEFF: Your breath away? Well, tough

Say it with me now: Donde. Esta. La biblioteca. Me llamo T-Bone, la araña discoteca