A Community Notification For This: S1E07 “Introduction to Statistics”

“Introduction to Statistics” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, October 29, 2009.

What makes someone fall in love with a show? What makes a television program not just something one enjoys, but a favorite thing, an object to be treasured? It’s a little like the inexplicable genesis of best-friendships – you spend some time each week with this distinctive voice, and sometimes, through some strange alchemy, the voice becomes a part of you. Maybe it happens so slowly you don’t even realize it’s made its way to the center of you until it’s already been there a while1. Maybe it’s an instant connection to a pilot that hits you like a thunderclap2. Or maybe it’s a moment where everything clicks into place and a show suddenly shows you the full, towering extent of its brilliance, unleashed in a mad burst of creativity.

I had such a moment watching “Introduction to Statistics”, two days before Halloween in 2009. It was my first Halloween in high school, and I was putting the finishing touches on one of my last elaborate trick-or-treat costumes – Seymour Krelborn, complete with a foam-and-duct-tape Audrey II puppet whose dryer tube neck could “eat” candy3. I watched as Ludwig Göransson’s score swelled in a perfect parody of Zimmerian bombast while a gangly Arab Batman dragged a cowboy and a hallucinating sexagenarian Beastmaster out of a collapsing chair fort and thought yes. This is for me. As Abed gave his gravelly, ridiculous speech over an ambitious crane shot, I knew that Community had gone from ‘a show I liked’ to ‘my favorite’.

That climactic moment doesn’t work in isolation: it’s the culmination of an episode’s worth of meticulous setup grounding its Batman parody in interpersonal stakes and dynamics. Pierce’s chair fort isn’t just an insane bit of set dressing, it’s a monument to his fear of mortality. Jeff crawling inside it isn’t just a silly action, it’s representative of one of the most concrete sacrifices he’s had to make for his new friends. And Abed saving them isn’t just a callback and a parody, it’s an example of how friend groups can render help in unexpected ways, how in a community nobody has to go it alone. This thorough, careful dive into a meaningful Batman parody is a taste of what Community will be able to do at the fullness of its powers, when it begins to plunge more quickly and with ever greater self-assurance to incredible depths of silliness and parody while remaining tethered, in each episode, to a surficial emotional reality.4

We start in Chang’s class, as he efficiently gives us the setup for the episode: Annie has gone above and beyond, much to Chang’s annoyance, and scheduled a Dia de los Muertos party for extra credit in Spanish 101. Jeff has a conflict: it conflicts with the enjoyment of his life. This looks like it could be a Jeff/Annie plot, as she tries to convince or coerce him into attending her party to lend it the cachet that her high school gatherings never had. But then it looks like it might be a Jeff/Britta plot, since what he really wants is to get into the pants of his statistics professor and he desires her blessing (giving her “right of first refusal”), much to Shirley’s surrogate indignation. But then, when we see the chemistry between Jeff and Professor Slater, it seems like it might be a Jeff/Slater plot the way we had a Britta/Vaughn plot a few episodes ago. Or is it a Jeff/Pierce plot, or a Jeff/Chang plot, or Jeff/Abed or… obviously it’s none of these and all of them. This is an episode where the traditional  A/B/C plot structure early Community so often adhered to begins to dissolve into something more thrilling and syncretic, where the stories of the whole ensemble are braided together into an inseparable whole.5

To the extent that we can discern an A/B/C structure, though, I’d say that the C-plot is about Pierce and his pills, the B-plot is about Shirley and Britta, and the A plot is about the dynamic between Jeff, Slater, and everyone else, which is why it can be said to encompass all the others. In a sense the main throughline is a Jeff/Annie plot, since they function as opposite poles of the study group battery in this episode: Jeff, the magnetic personality who wants to push people away, versus Annie, who wants nothing more than to draw everyone together but can’t. But because of their opposition, they almost don’t interact once he agrees to attend. Annie’s character role becomes fused with the rest of the study group for the purposes of the plot: they become a gestalt. It’s not a Jeff/Slater/Annie plot, it’s a Jeff/Slater/The Study Group plot.

Professor Slater, played by veteran TV actress Lauren Stamile, feels incredibly out of place at Greendale, which is undoubtedly what drives Jeff’s attraction to her. She is quick, confident, perspicacious – everything the typical Greendale denizen is not (her brief description of the Bernoulli distribution may be the most academic material we ever hear a professor utter in the entire series). Jeff’s attraction to her seems to be almost as much about reclaiming his status as a sophisticated adult who dates sophisticated women as anything else6. He hangs his pitch to her on markers of age and wealth: “I’m barely a student. I’m older than you, I drive a Lexus. I saw Ghostbusters in the theater7. Look, my gums are receding!” And, most crucially, when he manages to sneak into the Faculty ball as Chang’s plus-one to continue his attempted courtship, he commits fully to his pre-Greendale aloofness in claiming “I have no friends. I hate everyone here but you.” The rest of the episode is about proving him wrong.

Indeed, Britta, in her adorable squirrel costume, barges in right away 8 to demand that Jeff return to Annie’s flagging party. There is a frisson of respectful rivalry between Slater and Britta as the latter dissects the implications of Jeff’s cowboy getup, prefiguring the jealous dynamic that will play out through to the season finale. We get another taste of this brewing conflict at the climax of the Shirley/Britta subplot9, when Shirley realizes that her rage at Slater is really anger about her husband taking back his mother’s wedding ring to give to another woman. Britta agrees that taking it out on Slater is crazy – but snaps a head off an award for good measure. 

But this isn’t about Jeff’s attachment to Britta just yet – it’s about his attachment to the Study Group as a whole, and as such its other members soon come cascading into the cafeteria. The escalation of this sequence is masterful: first Abed, huskily reiterating Britta’s point, then Troy announcing Pierce is tripping on pills he swapped from Starburns to try to feel young and vital, then Shirley out in the parking lot defacing Slater’s car out of a misplaced sense of vengeance, and finally Pierce himself, high off his ass and having a blast. It seems like too much for Jeff to come back from, and it is – Jeff brusquely shoos them all out of the cafeteria, hurting everyone’s feelings in the process (“I know I’m not Batman. You could try not being a jerk.”) and failing to prove anything to Slater except that he’s not a worthy partner, or friend.

Finally, Jeff is reduced to taking seduction advice from Chang, who nobody should ever take any kind of advice from. His self-abasing plea to Slater belies the very foundation of his attraction to her, or to the idea of her anyway. Part of what he was trying to prove to himself wasn’t just that he could get a hot woman in a skirt to date him, but that he was still the kind of guy who could achieve that end by saying “Hey, you in the skirt: date me.” If he admits to himself that he no longer has that kind of lone-gunslinger masculine mystique10, why should he continue to push his friends away in an effort to be the kind of person he’s not any more?

That, I think, is the revelation that nags at Jeff as Troy flags him down to announce that he must help Pierce, who thanks to Jeff’s unhelpful input in the cafeteria has gone on a full-on Bad Trip (consisting of some of the series’ finest camera tricks and some of Chase’s finest overacting), and now intends to crush himself to death under chairs and tables. “Are you like a court-appointed guardian for these people?”, Slater asks, incredulous. No, Jeff says: they’re his… classmates. But the reality is that his sarcastic speech to Britta earlier in the episode is, deep down, true: “I enrolled here as a selfish Ioner. But you and the group have given me a crash course in friendship.” So when the Batman moment hits – when Jeff gives in and helps the rest of the group, and the group helps him in return – it is both an announcement that Community has arrived stylistically, but also the clearest restatement of the show’s thesis since “Pilot”. And it’s outrageously funny. That’s the Community I love.

NOTES AND QUOTES

  • I feel like I may have undersold the humor in this episode. The script is tight as a drum, with every member of the ensemble firing on all cylinders. Line snippets like “toy gun to my head” and “Tell me about Woodstock and Sputnik, Pierce” remained in circulation on the AVC Community Board for years.
  • Troy is probably most separated from the major action in this episode, but Donald Glover unleashes some killer line deliveries (his tortured “taking drugs” is sublime) and in the outtakes we see that this is one of the first episodes where they really let him loose to improvise lines, including “Am I good-looking?” and “It’s like Grumpy Old Men but not hilarious!”, which each have a ton of alts, and basically the entire tag.
  • Speaking of the tag, I feel like this is the moment where Troy and Abed’s friendship really crystallizes. As they muse in gravelly Batman voices about the metaphysics of sentient food eating itself, Troy realizes “It’s cool to know other people think about this stuff too.” They’ve gotten into shenanigans before but this is when they really become kindred spirits.
  • Final Troy and Abed thing: I designed Lego Brickheadz versions of Eddie Murphy Troy and Batman Abed last year. They’re pretty cute:
  • Pierce calls his mother by accident early in the episode, and she claims to have seen his father’s ghost. This was later retconned when they wanted to use Pierce’s dad as a living character – supposedly his mom hates his dad so much that she considers him “dead to her” and when she sees him she thinks of him as a ghost.
  • The Dean wears his first costume of the series in this episode: a restrained, even classy masquerade-mask/tux ensemble. It’s easy to forget that the whole crazy outfit schtick didn’t really start until season 2.

CHANG: “Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is sometimes referred to as Mexican Halloween. Which is actually quite offensive to people familiar with Mexican Halloween as a sexual position.”

ANNIE: “Then I can mark you down as being there from 7:00 sharp until upside-down Spanish question mark?”

ANNIE: “I was so unpopular in high school the crossing guard used to lure me into traffic! This party is a second chance at being hip. Cool. *sobbing* LAID-BACK.”

BAT-ABED: “Chex mix. Pretzels. Baby Carrots. PREDICTABLE BUT APPETIZING.”

PIERCE: “Hey man, what’d you slip me? I keep grinding my teeth and I wanna kiss everybody.”
STARBURNS: “What did you slip me, man? My heart stopped racing and I can’t pee!”

“Hi. Michelle Slater, PhD.”
“Britta Perry, GED.”

TROY: “Pierce, are you okay? Hey man, what’s going on? You have a full-on erection.”

PIERCE: “I never saw Beastmaster. I just wanted to be cool.”

And of course, Abed’s entire Batman speech deserves transcription to close us out:

If I stay there can be no party. I must be out there in the night, staying vigilant.
Wherever a party needs to be saved, I’m there.
Wherever there are masks, wherever there’s tomfoolery and joy, I’m there.
But sometimes I’m not because I’m out in the night, staying vigilant, watching.
Lurking, running, jumping, hurdling, sleeping.
No, I can’t sleep.
You sleep. I’m awake.
I don’t sleep, I don’t blink.
Am I a bird? No.
I’m a bat.
I am Batman.
Or am I?
Yes, I am Batman.
Happy Halloween.