“Introduction to Film” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, October 1, 2009
“Introduction to Film” is an apt title for Community’s third installment in more ways than one. Like “Spanish 101” before it, it literally refers to a class being taken within the episode. But if you look closely, you can see the first introduction of certain film-inspired elements of the format-breaking, pop culture-homaging chimera the show would become, distributed across the very conventional A/B/C plot structure that defined these early episodes. The many shots framed through Abed’s camera are our introduction to the Community of “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” and “Pillows and Blankets”, where the fourth wall can become our window into other media that look nothing like a conventional sitcom. Meanwhile, in the B-plot, we are introduced to the first tiny specific film parody (“Stand on your desks!”), presaging episode-length homages like “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Critical Film Studies”.
Let’s tackle the B-plot first, the way Professor Whitman tackles life and wrestles it to the ground. The various denizens of Greendale formed a great bench of supporting players for Community as its run went on, but I submit that none of them quite embody the spirit of the school like John Michael Higgins as Professor Whitman. A veteran “hey it’s that guy!” actor with more than a hundred film and television credits 1, Higgins revels in the inherent hamminess of the role, a manic would-be guru who wants nothing more than to emulate Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society regardless of propriety, sanity, or basic safety. Just like the school he works for, he is ludicrous, incompetent, perhaps criminally negligent, but also sincere, charismatic, and bursting with genuine joie de vivre.
A more cynical show might have ridiculed Whitman’s indulgently awestruck worldview, or even revealed it to be a disingenuous facade, but Community isn’t aiming for anything so simple as to set up a dialectic between snark and smarm and let snark win. The show thinks that Whitman’s criticisms of Jeff’s lifestyle are trenchant and correct: if he keeps trying to coast, he really will “fail life”. But it also thinks that Jeff’s criticism of Whitman is correct: this really is no way to teach accounting! And that’s Greendale in a nutshell – it’s a school that won’t teach you what you want to learn, but might teach you what you need to.
In Jeff’s case, that lesson is that solipsistic displays of aesthetic whimsy aren’t the same as genuine attempts to live life to the fullest; that no matter how much he might want to dismiss Whitman’s behavior as a facade equal and opposite to his own, there really is something deeper to life than the styles and behaviors we wear to interface with it. Maybe it’s not found by histrionically ordering birthday cakes from a coffee shop, but it can be found somewhere – by helping your new friends, say, or being helped (with a kiss) in return. Whitman is allowed to remain a moral authority of sorts through to the end of the episode, such that when he judges Jeff and Britta’s kiss to amount to a “day seized!”, it’s hard to know who’s pulled one over on whom. The kiss is not “genuine”, but it’s not quite an act, either. It is emblematic of Jeff having shared Britta’s struggle with Abed and also allowed her the intimacy to know about his issue with Whitman’s class, which are exactly the kinds of personal connections Whitman was trying to foment. Whitman, the wise fool, sees the fruit of these connections entirely sans context and judges it good. And then he runs off to climb a tree.
This resolution to the B-plot spills out of the A-plot about Britta financing Abed’s film class, which gives the episode its name and turns a spotlight on the Nadir family. So much of Abed comes into focus in this episode, both positive and negative. After a lifetime of referencing film and television, he realizes the power that the creative act of filmmaking has to make him feel more understood than ever before, a realization that will help to define both him and the show going forward. But this is also the first we see of his callous, manipulative side, purposefully playing up his obliviousness and flatness of affect to elicit pained responses from Britta as he cruelly ‘directs’ her in his psychodrama, subjecting her to an echo of the trauma he feels guilty of causing in his mother. This is part of a pattern for Abed that will find fuller expression in “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” later on; Abed understands the outside world through the film he consumes, so when it comes time to flip the script and make his own films, instead of creating artifice he manipulates the world around him until it fits the pattern of the film he wants to make. In this case, that film is an avant garde documentary to help him communicate his feelings about his parents’ divorce with his father, and the world he must create to produce it is one in which Britta suffers, then leaves.
It’s the first of many times that Abed (and the show) will take advantage of the ambiguity of his unspecified mental disorder2 to perform manipulations or headfakes, and it’s especially jarring here because these characters were still being formed, their baselines still being set. Neither Britta nor the viewer knows quite how adroit and self-aware Abed is “meant” to be, so the revelation that he was, to some extent, faking it feels like a serious betrayal. At the same time, the show has just given us its most explicit confirmation yet that there is something diagnosably “wrong” with Abed, with the heartbreakingly strange autobiographical visual of a baby with Danny Pudi’s head flying through space and bouncing off hypodermic needles. The text of Abed’s film makes it clear that neither he nor his parents have yet figured out the boundaries of how his mind works, and that maybe they never will. He can just try to work within the area he knows, even if that means that the levers of human interaction he’s capable of pulling are sometimes inappropriate.
This plotline also constitutes a shockingly early look at Abed’s home life, on a show that was usually reluctant to actually show us the pasts these characters were running from 3. Gobi Nadir (Iqbal Theba, another prolific “hey it’s that guy!” guy) is an interesting character. A blustering, hard-driving Arab father could be dangerous territory for a show written almost entirely by white people, but Theba invests Gobi with a specific humanity, and the script never aims too long at cheap culture-clash theatrics (despite Britta’s best/worst efforts), instead keeping a laser focus on the family drama at the core of the story, the trauma of parental separation and the universal conflict between a child’s desires and a parent’s expectations. Abed’s unsettling, patchwork short film seems bathetic to Jeff and Britta, and to the viewer, but when we cut to Gobi crying it hits like a freight train. Abed wanted to make a movie for an audience of one and only one person, and he nailed it, finally achieving a catharsis through the language of film that he never could in English or Arabic.
Jeff and Britta are left somewhat bemused, both bystanders and props, but the experience of trying to help Abed and witnessing him help himself has deepened the bonds between the three, no matter how much Jeff wishes it hadn’t. Day seized.
Over in the C-plot, Troy learns the art of masculine sneezing from Pierce in a subplot that both displays the original conception of their character pairing, (as a “Beavis and Butthead” duo suited for the dumbest jokes and plots) and demonstrates its inherent limitations. Chase has fun inventing various powerful sneezes, but there’s just not much there there. Soon, Troy will catalyze the relationship formed in this episode between Abed and the medium of film, and the ensuing reaction will eventually explode the show from the inside out. But for now it’s just an introduction. Day sneezed.
NOTES AND QUOTES:
- Like my writing partner in this project, I’m not really interested in doing linear plot summaries in these pieces. If you want a refresher on what exactly happens in the episodes and in what order, go ahead and rewatch them. They’re good!
- It’s tragic that Professor Whitman didn’t become more of a recurring character. He only shows up two more times throughout Season 1, and never again thereafter.
- When Community started airing, I was entering high school, and my best friend, the only friend I retained from middle school, was a tall, gangly nerd who loved to make obtuse videos (often with my collaboration) and may or may not have been diagnosable with ASD. No wonder I latched onto Abed so hard, especially after this episode solidified his fascination with filmmaking.
- For my dad, meanwhile, the moment in this episode that most won him over was Jeff shouting “Shazbot!” when his rainbow suspenders ploy failed (which sailed right over my head). The show’s pop culture omnivority definitely helped it become appointment family viewing in my house; there were always jokes pitched right at each end of our generational reference pools.
- The “Am I krumping?” tag can’t hold a candle to “Donde Esta la Biblioteca” but it did help solidify early on the Troy/Abed pairing as the stars of the stingers.
ABED: It’s been struggling since 2001. 9/11 was pretty much the 9/11 of the falafel business.
JEFF: Hey, Troy sneezes like a girl!
TROY: And how about I pound you like a boy that didn’t come out right.
WHITMAN: Only when we stop stopping our lives can we begin to start starting them!
WHITMAN: All your lives you were told not to stand on your desks, well WHY NOT?
WHITMAN: She’s… okay, go to the nurse, seize the day…
ABED: Our first assignment is a documentary. It’s like a real movie, but with ugly people.
BRITTA: Raising him means letting him follow his dreams
GOBI: Dreams are for sleeping.
BRITTA: You don’t know that!
GOBI: It’s clinically proven!
BRITTA: SO’S POLIO!
GOBI: YOU LOST ME!
ABED: Jeff, I think you should play the role of my father.
JEFF: I don’t want to be your father.
ABED: Perfect, you already know your lines.
WHITMAN: I shall have… *rips menu in half* A BIRTHDAY CAKE!
WHITMAN: Had I not already cried at the sunrise this morning, I would be weeping now.
COFFEE GUY: That guy was your dad? (Prefiguring “There are other timelines?”)
BRITTA: You don’t really have tickets to Ravi Shankar, do you?
GOBI (a few moments later): Hey, where’s Weezer?
TROY: [untranscribable impressive sneeze]