“Football, Feminism, and You” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, October 22, 2009
“Football, Feminism, and You” aired as episode 6 of season one, but its production code is 103 – it got shuffled off later into the schedule, presumably because some NBC higher-up felt it was weaker than “Social Psychology” and “Advanced Criminal Law”, the episodes that leapfrogged it. That’s why it feels a bit out of place when watched after those two – it’s still doing early-season place-setting of characters and relationships that the episodes produced later have already moved on from. This is the episode that was intended to get us acquainted with the Dean’s first two comedic games: his inept attempts at inclusiveness and his infatuation with Jeffrey (manifesting here as a desire to include his likeness in all Greendale advertising). It also does the heavy lifting on establishing the “Annie is infatuated with Troy” subplot and gives us our first deeper look at Troy’s character. At the same time, it feels a little malformed, an installment of a show still finding its rhythms, prefiguring both its future strengths and its future flaws.
Bear with me a moment as I try to talk through one of those flaws. Community came to be defined by its most ambitious installments, which were collectively called “concept episodes”. This category encompasses straightforward movie parodies, sure, but also more abstract ideas – branching timelines, nesting conspiracies, Dreamatoria. Stretch the definition a little wider still and you start including episodes like “Mixology Certification”, where the ‘concept’ at play isn’t a heady mindfuck or a genre homage, but the simple human concept of ‘bars’. “Mixology” picks up ‘bars’, examines it from every angle, watches how it intersects with the lives of our main cast, carefully collects all the humor and pathos it can from those intersections, then sets the concept back down again. “Comparative Religion” does this with ‘religion’. “Psychology of Letting Go” does it with ‘mortality’.
Even when it doesn’t dominate an episode, Community is always trying to dissect some aspect of the human condition, to become a catalogue of concepts. That might sound meaningless – of course, all art deals in concepts, because how could it not? But what I’m trying to get at here is that the show has a conceptual approach, interfacing with ideas on an abstract, Platonic level. Sometimes that approach is transcendent; sometimes it leads to jokes that feel flip and even insensitive. That’s frequently the case when the show explicitly engages with the concept of race. ‘Race’ is something the show likes to pick up, inspect, wring some jokes out of, and put back down.1 While that approach can work for many, many concepts, there’s something a bit odd – not malicious, just out-of-touch or out-of-time – about a show written almost entirely by white people cracking jokes about skin tone with the same pop culturally encyclopedic wit it uses to dissect less freighted concepts like ‘varsity sports’’.
Of course, in “Football, Feminism, and You” those false notes are purposefully played on some of the very whitest keys on the Greendale piano: Pierce Hawthorne and Dean Pelton. In a move that will spawn an iconic bit of Greendale lore, the Dean has taken it upon himself to design a new mascot for the school that won’t dehumanize anyone (after all, “some of these people have been called animals their whole lives”), and he wants his Human Being to be completely free of any racial, ethnic, or gender signifiers to be as inclusive as possible. Pierce, a self-declared branding expert, takes it upon himself to help, and the combination of the Dean’s self-defeating PC-ness and Pierce’s Boomer oblivity rapidly spins them into problematic territory – as Jeff puts it, “I think not being racist is the new racism.” It’s an easy shot to take in the optimistic early years of the Obama Era (remember when some people thought society was becoming “post-racial”?) but it doesn’t play as well now, if it ever did.2
While the devolution of their process leads to a mixed bag of jokes playing on abstractions of race (probably the best, or at least the punchiest, is the Human Color Wheel, which goes from “Seal” to “Seal’s Teeth”), the end result is sublimely unsettling: the Greendale Human Being revealed at the end of the episode is a pitiable creature, nearly blind and deaf with silvery skin and a spray-painted grin.3 Its gangly form will pop up again throughout the series, always landing as a sight gag for its sheer absurdity. Another show might have tried to make an explicit point about how when we shave away all the differences that make us unique, there’s nothing of value left. But on Community the point is implicit, if it’s even intended. I think it’s more the case that the show just thinks the idea of a generic human being mascot is a funny bit – a great concept.
The Dean wants a new mascot because he thinks Greendale’s football team will have a new lease on life with Troy “T-Bone” Barnes, pride of Riverside high, now on the roster. One problem: Troy’s not interested. So Pelton recruits Jeff into recruiting Troy, using several crates of recruitment fliers featuring Jeff’s face as blackmail fodder (lots of recruiting in this subplot). This is sort of a weird story line for Jeff; it’s ostensibly another chance for us to see his lawyerly skills in action, as he runs rhetorical circles around Troy, but it also feels like he’s a bit untethered, bouncing back and forth between other people’s plots. He’s always entering Pierce/Dean scenes or Troy/Annie scenes like an outsider, and rather than any commentary on his standoffish nature it just feels like the seams of sitcom construction showing (likewise, there’s a fairly hermetic Shirley/Britta plot that only intersects with Annie’s story at the very end).
But when Jeff does get a big showy scene alone with Troy, it’s a corker. They go to the Greendale Thunderdome (“The dome arrives later – it comes with thunder”), the same desolate outdoor football field from the pilot looking even more drought-stricken and pathetic than it did when Jeff and Duncan met there. Jeff draws a line between what he assumes to be Troy’s wounded ego and his own – they were both stars kicked out of their domains prematurely, who should do anything to regain their former status. His closing argument, that it is in Troy’s essential nature to play football, leads into this incredible exchange:
Jeff: “I’m saying you’re a football player. It’s in your blood!”
Troy: “That’s racist.”
Jeff: “Your soul!”
Troy: “That’s racist”
Jeff: “Your eyes?”
Troy: “That’s gay?”
Jeff: “That’s homophobic.”
Troy: “That’s black.”
Jeff: “That’s racist!”
I count seven punchlines in seven seconds, delivered with flawless rapidity by Glover and McHale, the two most experienced verbal comedians of the cast.4 This is the show finding its rhythm, figuring out how to make an abstract, “conceptual” approach to race and sexuality work by packing it into tight character-based exchanges, not overwritten jokes about coffee creamer and La Bamba. I remember the clip of this dialogue being used as a promo spot, and the sheer rhythm of it is burned into my brain. It almost doesn’t matter what they’re saying – the escalating back-and-forth tenor of the delivery delivers a laugh before your brain can even process the literal meanings.
Jeff’s linguistic wizardry convinces Troy to return to the gridiron, and Glover’s over-the-top performance as the return of conceited campus king T-Bone Barnes is as hilarious as it is hard to reconcile with the Troy we’ve gotten to know so far, much less the Troy we will come to know later on. His enthusiastic performances of Riverside high’s old fight songs are fun5, but the real beat here is that his renewed ego causes him to ignore Annie, who had been trying to bond with him over studying Astronomy.
Annie confronts Jeff over ‘ruining’ Troy, and he dresses her down for her clingy, roundabout approach to courting her high school crush. This scene is definitely the original conception of Asshole Winger coming through – a 35-year-old6 man bluntly and publicly criticizing the interpersonal dealings of a teenager in order to defend his vanity-driven decision to manipulate another teenager. Annie’s explicit reference to her age later in the episode7 drives home how sketchy the power dynamics are here. The show sometimes slow-rolled Jeff’s personal development, but this particular level of nastiness feels like something he grew out of very quickly, such that after even two more episodes of the group getting closer together than were intended to precede it, it already feels out of place.
With the men in her life acting shitty, Annie pursues catharsis in the emotional sanctum of femininity, the women’s bathroom, where her story intersects with the Shirley/Britta C-plot about how Britta is bad at participating in girl talk in the restroom. This C-plot isn’t quite as much of a nothing as some of the previous ones (there’s certainly more to it than ‘Pierce teaches Troy how to sneeze’), but it still feels lazy for Community. Just referencing the fact that it’s playing off tropes of hacky stand-up comedy from the 90’s doesn’t excuse playing off of them! The show would become much more thoughtful about subverting its employment of tired tropes as it went on, but this execution feels like it could have popped up in almost any show. This plot does all culminate in one great reversal of expectations though – when Britta successfully talks Annie through her Troy issue, Shirley barges in to offer a hug… to Britta, for her first successful Girl Talk, leaving Annie out in the cold once again.
Everything gets smoothed over a little too patly at Greendale’s first big football game – Annie forgives Jeff, Jeff is cool with the Dean, Troy’s ego trip has settled down, the Human Being appears and does its thing. But the moment that does ring true and feels like the more complex Community I love is Troy’s admission to Jeff in the hallway. As it turns out, Jeff’s big speech to Troy on the field was projection – Troy wanted to lose out on his scholarship, to take the weight of expectations off his shoulders and live a different life than the one his previous community had planned for him. Unlike Jeff, he’s not desperate to get back into a scrabbling race for status in his chosen field. He just wants to play football for Greendale because it’s a fun sport he enjoys playing. It’s a surprising moment of depth for Troy that sheds light both on his character and Jeff’s. It’s presented as a moment of maturity, but it foreshadows both the strengths and the flaws of the Troy we’ll come to know in the rest of the show – he’s kind, enthusiastic, and so afraid of responsibility that, given the opportunity, he will retreat into a fantasy world.8 No character trait is unambiguously good; no resolution lasts forever. What a concept.
NOTES AND QUOTES
- I thought Plarn including some of my notes and observations as footnotes last week was a great way to make these articles more collaborative without doing a full crosstalk format, so going forward I’m doing the same thing with some of her insights.
- The rest of Greendale’s football team, which includes a pregnant woman, a person with dwarfism, and a very old man with a very long beard, is so absurdly unqualified that it’s actually believable that Glover, at an athletic 5’9”, could be a star player there. (Let’s be honest though, he would never have been able to go pro – seeing him walk the field beside McHale, who is seven inches taller and actually played college football, drives that home.)
- What’s Abed doing this week? He realizes early that they leaned a little heavy on the meta gimmick “last episode”, so he’s going to lie low for a while, and then he does. This remark doesn’t make much sense in the airing order though, where the last episode was “Advanced Criminal Law” and not “Introduction to Film” as was intended.
- From Emily’s review, this clause really jumped out at me: “Troy’s never going to be the show’s funniest character…” Little did she know! 9
- End tag: Troy and Abed break into the Dean’s office and make some prankish PA announcements (“Announcement number two: Butt soup!”) before being confronted by a pair of guards who look eerily like them.
DEAN: “Look at this group having a meeting and being so diverse. There is just one of every kind of you, isn’t there?”
ANNIE: “We should study Astronomy later. Maybe over some Milky Ways. Or Mars Bars?”
TROY: “Or pancakes!”
DEAN: “Our mascot needs to reflect the diversity of our school, and our species!”
PIERCE: “So… black?”
DEAN: “We should send those out to local businesses. Law firms. Lawyer…… businesses. Legal…… gatherings…”
JEFF: “Are you trying to blackmail me?”
DEAN: “I think so?”
JEFF: “You’d be surprised how many of your favorite players got started at community college.”
TROY: “Really. Name one.”
JEFF: “Who’s your favorite player?”
TROY: “Me. WHOA”10
SHIRLEY: “But if you can’t learn to be soft in there, you deserve to pee alone.”
BRITTA: “I’ve peed alone my whole life.”
TROY: “Hip hop, body don’t stop, Riverside got the broom don’t need a mop. Put your team in a box, put a ribbon on top, we’re not John Kerry cuz we don’t flip-flop!”
“Oh bing, bong, sing along, your team’s Al Gore cuz your views are wrong!”
JEFF: “I’m not having a conversation with someone emerging from a bush.”
ANNIE: “Why, because I’m right?”
JEFF: “No, because I’m not in a commercial for breakfast cereal.”
TROY: “I mean, have you seen these guys? There is nowhere to go but up.”
FOOTBALL PLAYER: “We have feelings.”
ANNIE: “I’ve decided to support Troy. They deploy things in football right? I went for rhyme over clarity.”