“Home Economics” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, November 5, 2009
Relationships that achieve a certain level of closeness will, at some point, cross an irrevocable threshold from casually hanging out to far deeper and more intimate terms. Once you’ve reached that point with a friend, you might not always remain so close, but they will always occupy an unmistakable place in your heart. If they hadn’t already, the Greendale Seven advance well past that line in “Home Economics”, as the bonds between them tighten1, and as their personal stakes escalate. Back in episode two, Jeff was actively avoiding getting to know anyone in the study group on even a superficially personal level. Here, having fallen on hard times after being evicted from his apartment, his ego descends to a point low enough that he grudgingly accepts Abed’s offer to move in to his dorm, albeit only after the car he was using as a halfway house gets towed.
As the show’s overarching narrative progressed, its premise necessitated the development of these characters toward becoming an especially ersatz family. Community was unique among the rest of NBC’s Thursday night block of the time, in that unlike 30 Rock, Parks And Rec, and The Office, it was not a workplace sitcom. When a show takes place at a regular job, there’s a pretext under which the same people must interact together constantly2, and the setup for each plotline is essentially baked in. But between college students, these connections are far more tenuous, subject to the caprice of whim, flakery, and class schedules. Community had to resort to more and more contrived scenarios in order to keep its study group together through the years, eventually becoming a de facto workplace sitcom itself3. In these early episodes, however, the main strategy for bringing the group into more uncomfortably intimate territory was to have them get all up in each other’s personal business.
Jeff’s sudden vagrancy and Britta and Abed’s attempts to finesse it into a growth opportunity for him make up the A-plot, but this deeper involvement also extends to Shirley’s concern over Annie’s heartsick fixation on Troy. In a way, Annie and Jeff share a common dilemma throughout the episode, both pining after the lost cause of an impossible dream, unable to move on from idealized versions of their pasts. Whether it’s a fancy apartment or the most popular boy in their high school they long for, they both find themselves receiving unsolicited and perhaps unwarranted advice from their fellow study group members. Just as “Introduction To Statistics” had Shirley meddling in another romantic pairing that had nothing to do with her, “Home Economics” also shows her intervening on someone’s potential relationship — this time playing matchmaker, rather than trying to prevent it. Her motivation for this behavior isn’t quite as well-established in this episode, drawing from an apparently instinctive “Mother Hen” side of her persona rather than anything in her own personal history, and it almost feels as if this role lands on Shirley by default4.
But this is Annie’s story at its heart, and even more so than in “Football, Feminism And You”, the episode that originally soft-launched the Annie-Troy ship, we get a real in-depth look into just how all-consuming her unrequited passion for Riverside’s erstwhile prom king burns. This particular case of teenage infatuation flares up when Troy starts asking Annie for dating advice, and what she gives him amounts to Annie explaining how to date Annie. Helping Troy get closer to Randi5(Shelby Rabara) seems like a great way to spend more time with him at first, but as the Night Under The Stars approaches, and her behavior grows ever more desperate and bizarre, she realizes she has only succeeded in driving the already-remote possibility of romance between them even further into fantastical pipe-dream territory, and by the time this heartbreaking truth sinks in, Troy is off to the East lawn strapped with a six-pack of condoms, leaving her alone to be hit on by Nurse Hawkeye6.
Through each step of this process, Shirley had been insisting that Annie force the issue and lay her cards on the table, revealing the torch she’d been carrying for Troy since they were high school classmates. But that’s not how Annie rolls, and what’s most satisfying about her arc in this episode is that she grows from the experience by staying true to herself. Having successfully resisted Shirley’s urging throughout the episode, the best she can muster is the power move of taking back her Nana’s blanket, seemingly resigned to the fact that Troy will never see her as a potential partner. It’s a testament to her maturity and selflessness that she values Troy’s friendship enough to allow him to pursue his own interest in another person, and this decision empowers her to walk away with her pride intact, aided by the support of Shirley, a friend thoughtful enough both to acknowledge this step she has taken as “huge”, and to cover up the hint of exposed cheek peeking out of her hospital gown.
Meanwhile and elsewhere, some of the tangible consequences of Jeff’s ousting from the legal profession start to rear their head. Turns out it’s hard to afford a lawyer’s standard of living when you’re no longer a lawyer. Much of the humor in this storyline derives from Jeff’s initial denial that anything about his lifestyle will ever actually change, and how abruptly he swings from clinging to the status symbols of worldly success to wholeheartedly embracing communal bathrooms and a-quarter-a-day living expenses. This quality of adaptability impresses Britta at first, but Abed recognizes it as unhealthy, knowing that in his heart of hearts, it will ultimately take more than Knight Rider marathons and unlocked vending machines to keep Jeff Winger fulfilled7. His atypically crude and inconsiderate suggestion is that Britta sleep with Jeff in order to restore his swagger, or at least some sense of shame. But by this time, Britta knows Jeff well enough to correctly predict that all it will take is a paper sack loaded with Italian faucets to remind him that what he truly prizes is surfaces, that for him vanity is meaning and shallowness is depth. It’s a bit of a cynical outcome for this show, but the real upshot is that Jeff now knows he has a true friend in Abed, and that even if his repeated insistence that Britta is “attracted to bums” and “into (him)” is mistaken, sometimes there is value in simply letting someone know you.
Most pleasingly on a writing/structural level8, Pierce gets a C-story that, while still slight, dovetails elegantly with Britta’s journey in playing would-be life coach to Jeff. The Britta-Jeff-Vaughn love triangle may be one big nonstarter by this time, with Vaughn still moping about the way things ended and Jeff’s overtures reduced to blurting his delusions about Britta’s feelings, but it serves as a nice fulcrum to give Pierce’s character some much-needed shading. Sure, he betrays Britta’s trust by going behind her back to talk to Vaughn after she expressly told him not to, and adds insult to injury by joining his white reggae band9 on keyboards and backing vocals and roasting her in song, but by making himself the new target for Vaughn’s ire, he inadvertently helps to smooth over some of the tension between the two exes. When Britta mistakes his petty conflict over songwriting credits for him coming to her defense as a friend, he learns, maybe for the first time, that it feels good to help people that you care about. This feeling moves him to actually confront Vaughn, earnestly10 telling him to lay off of her. A small step to be sure, but for Pierce, this is a moment of growth that’s as huge as Annie’s blanket confiscation, and it’s promising to see it happen for him after so many of his other plotlines left the character flat and unchanged.
But as far as moments of heartwarming go, nothing in this episode tops “You’re pretty cool, Abed” followed by “You’re a huge nerd”11. The little wink that passes between Abed and Britta is a silent acknowledgment of how far these characters have already come together — they’ve gone from misbegotten early attempts to help each other by offering temporary fixes to making real connections and taking the time to understand each other’s genuine needs. A community looks out for its own, and even if they offend or neglect each other along the way, these obstacles can become stepping stones towards forming the kinds of relationships that make all of them better people. At its best, early Community married crackerjack joke-writing with deep-rooted character work that explored profoundly humanistic themes, all delivered by an impeccable ensemble cast. This recipe ensured that it was always funny and unique, even without any reliance on faithful pop culture homages. LATES!
NOTES AND QUOTES:
– TROY (hugging Annie from behind): Hey Shirley, look. I’m Annie’s backpack. Mmmm
– ANNIE: You’re welcome. And… I hate you. And… I wanna have your children
– VAUGHN: You’re toxic, Britta. You know what, you’re like, the exact opposite of an antioxidant
– PIERCE: i tell you, before AIDS, sex was like shaking hands
ABED: Hence, AIDS
– SHIRLEY: Mm-mm! Livinginyourcar, livinginyourcar, you are living in your car
– ABED: You could stay with me in the dorms. My room has a bunk bed, which is kind of a misnomer, because it is the real deal
– JEFF: Hey, wanna see my place?
BRITTA: i can see it from here, two girls are making out on the hood
– ABED: Sometimes i like to pour hot cocoa mix into cold milk and drink it like a cold hot chocolate. i call it “special drink”
JEFF: And someday you will know it by its true name, diabetes
– TROY: Oh, a picnic blanket! Genius. i was gonna lay down newspaper
– ABED: “Cop Rock.” That sounds cool
JEFF: Doesn’t it?
– BRITTA: Guys, what the hell? “Getting Rid’a Britta”? That song was disrespectful to me AND to the definition of rhyme scheme
– BRITTA: Think how much happier the Jeffersons were than that family on Good Times
JEFF: Yeah, but they had good times
– MC DAN HARMON: This song is for Pierce, cause him so old
His body’s made of wrinkles and folds
Stupid and ugly, he smell like a fart
The poo-poo in his pants and poo-poo in my heart
– PIERCE (as the band and crowd loudly sing “PIERCE, PIERCE, PIERCE, PIERCE YOU’RE A B”): i’m Pierce, this song’s about me
– MC DAN HARMON: This rap is by Pierce, Vaughn is dumb
He wears diapers to bed and sucks his mother’s thumb
And when he wakes up, stupid wishing he was me
He has a big poop breakfast with a glass of pee