“Debate 109” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, November 12, 2009.
“Meta” became perhaps the most common descriptor of Community as its run went on; a google search for “Community NBC Meta” returns two and a half million results. But meta-ness wasn’t necessarily baked into the show from the beginning. Through the first eight episodes, it functioned almost entirely as a straightforward sitcom, albeit one with an uncommon awareness of tropes. While the earliest era of Community often consciously tried to zig where other shows might zag, it left the subversion at an implicit level: we, the savvy audience, recognize more of these sitcom tricks than the characters themselves do. Through our first eight pieces for this series, we’ve only actually used the term “meta” once or twice, because the show hadn’t gotten there yet. That changes in “Debate 109”. The episode still functions much the same way most previous episodes have, with clear A, B, and C plots that dovetail at the end. But the difference is that the B plot sits outside the show, commenting on it and shedding light on the rest of the episode from angles only achievable beyond the fourth wall.
The source of this groundbreaking meta-ness is, of course, Abed, who would be the engine of most of the show’s self-referential flights of fancy. In this episode he’s the conduit for the oldest postmodern trick in the book-within-a-book: the creation within a work of an analog to itself, in this case his film-class series of shorts entitled “The Community College Chronicles”, which seem not only to mirror but to predict the lives of his friends. Two weeks ago he made a movie that plays as a low-rent version of last week’s episode, “Home Economics”. Troy reacts to the discovery with a “This is wrinkling my brain” moments before his in-film counterpart does1. When confronted, Abed explains that he is able to seemingly predict the future simply because he has so thoroughly come to know the other group members that he can predict how they would react in every situation – presaging the more involved mental simulations he would eventually pursue in the Dreamatorium.
Abed has, essentially, boiled his friends down to the types that they were conceived as in the Pilot. He first breaks down Shirley into the opposing forces baked in from the first episode, provoking and matching an “Aww, that’s nice!” and a “Watch it, boy.” Then he dissects Jeff: “he acts like nothing affects him, but things bother him more than he lets on”, and “he’s also very vain”. By running forward simulations based on these types, Abed’s TV-conversant brain has made the same decisions, and thus the same episodes, that the real-life Community writers room did from the same starting point.
The simple visual of the “Community College Chronicles” is funny: they’re filmed on the same sets but in a cheap handicam style and with actors who barely resemble the real cast. But the meta aspect also raises interesting questions about the reality and depth of these characters. Are they fully realized humans, or are they just predictable collections of types and tics? Or are they one on the way to becoming another? How much can TV characters truly surprise us while still remaining consistent characters? How much of commercial fiction can be original and how much spills out of preexisting, deterministic narrative frameworks? Shirley goes back and forth on whether the films truly matter, demanding that Abed tell her her future but also dismissing his predictions as nonsense… until they’re not. By the end even Abed is unsure. Britta comes out of the C-plot able to kick cigarettes because Pierce’s inept hypnotherapy grossed her out, so she calls him a genius, which was one of Abed’s most implausible premises. Upon finding out it’s a full moon, he worries that Shirley really will be chased by a werewolf. Of course, that confluence of circumstances happens because it’s funny to us, the audience – in other words, by authorial fiat. Abed is keenly aware of sitcom patterns, but not so aware that he can recognize the denouement of the plot about his awareness. He doesn’t go so far as to break the fourth wall and ‘figure out’ that his real life is a TV show in this episode, as he eventually will, but this is the subplot that sows those seeds.
In breaking down Jeff’s main character traits, Abed also clues us in on how the A-plot is going to go. In a setup that feels similar to “Football, Feminism, and You”, the Dean has set his sights on Jeff to help save Greendale’s flagging sports program (the best compliment they get is that their basketball team is “really gay”). Only this time, he doesn’t want Jeff to recruit – he wants him to be the star, using his lawyerly skills to join Annie on the debate team, coached by my beloved Professor Whitman. The Dean’s offer of “a night of companionship, if you know what I mean” – Jeff doesn’t want to know – turns up the heat on his pursuit of Jeffrey, which would soon become a dominant character trait. But the bigger element introduced into the show’s mythos here is the existence of debate rivals City College. Jeff has gotten into the swing of blowing things off and doing the bare minimum, because that’s good enough for Greendale; in his first round of debate, on the side of “Man is Evil”, he hits on a moderator and leads the crowd in a rendition of ELO’s “Evil Woman”. But this is varsity debate, and what’s good enough for Greendale isn’t good enough to beat anyone outside it. His hijinks earn zero points, and it looks like Greendale is going to lose.
Greendale as an institution has been low-status by its very nature since the Pilot, but only in a nebulous, embarrassing sense. The existence of a rival, objectively superior community college across town adds specificity and urgency to the Dean’s constant efforts to gain a shred of dignity for the school. The City College rivalry will become a reliable engine of external conflict later on, most notably in the two-part S2 paintball finale. It emerges here pretty much fully-formed, with CC embodied not by Dean Spreck, but by star debater Jeremy SImmons, played with perfect smarm by Aaron Himelstein2. Simmons is as instantly hateable a character as Community has turned out so far; wearing a soul patch and a fedora, which even in 2009 was inexcusable, he wields his paraplegia as a cudgel on the debate stage to emote about how man is good, then sneers smugly as soon as he’s off it, ordering cronies to kick trash cans and singing parody songs while tooling around in his high-powered wheelchair. He’s a villain you can love to hate, an archetype the show hadn’t really dabbled in before. Jeff tries not to care, but we see the very traits that Abed just identified – his vanity, how bothered he is under the surface – burn through when Simmons cruelly taunts Annie with the specter of her high school trauma. Fighting for Greendale’s honor still doesn’t interest him. But he’ll fight for Annie.
The chemistry between Joel McHale and Alison Brie is pretty undeniable3. It has been channeled into a friendly or mentorly relationship in previous episodes, to the extent that when Shirley sees Jeff and Annie kiss in one of Abed’s videos she dismisses it as ludicrous. But it explodes into full on sexual tension during their study session, which due to the topic of the debate is full of considerations of man’s base urges. Jeff gets so flustered by cleavage and Hobbes quotes that he walks out of the room and leaves his cell phone behind (“I can get another one!”). At this stage the show had been very conscious of the age difference between Jeff and Annie, which is considerably larger than the one between McHale and Brie; Jeff considers his attraction to her a problem that he has to avoid. But as Troy tearfully says4, you can’t unring that bell: the moment Annie takes her hair down in this episode will reverberate through the gambit kiss at the end of this episode, Jeff’s ginger pat on Annie’s head, and all the way through to their authentic kiss at the end of “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited” and beyond.
The second day of the competition still bears little resemblance to actual collegiate debate, which is more concerned with talking fast to fit in more points than it is with delivering the best performance of getting choked up at your own arguments. It’s fun to see Jeff turn on the actual lawyerly Winger Charm, busting out quotes from a simple desert handyman… named Jesus. Greendale is ahead on points, but then Simmons tries his gambit. He shreds his cards, drives to the end of the stage, and launches himself into the air with some hilariously overblown wirework. Suddenly the debate isn’t academic; Simmons really does have enough faith in humanity to believe that Jeff will catch him, which is a surprisingly wholesome belief from such a loathsome character. And he’s proven right! “He hates me… yet he caught me. Man is good!”
But Annie also knows that there’s some real stuff going on she can take advantage of too. Abed’s plot has been all about the predictability of his friends’ actions, and Annie can predict the consequence of her action easily: She turns Jeff around for a kiss, and he drops SImmons to the floor like a sack of potatoes. “He was horny, so he dropped him. Man is evil.” Both object lessons work like a charm, because, of course, man is both and neither. Especially the specific man named Jeff Winger.
NOTES AND QUOTES
- The C-plot about Britta subjecting herself to Pierce’s hypnotherapy to try to make him feel better is fairly insubstantial and disconnected until the end, but it does nicely set up Britta’s compulsion to try to fix people using inept reverse psychology, which will soon become her major. And it gives Chase the chance to do some great physical comedy.
- I love the casting on “The Community College Chronicles”. Even though the show frequently deals in doppelgangers for its characters5, the folks Abed has been able to scrape together bear only the slightest resemblance to the actual group, which is probably what you’d end up with if you tried to cast a webseries about your friends in real life.
- Yvette’s delivery in this episode of the line “‘Imma die by werewolf” eventually spawned this freestyle rap from Alison Brie in the Season 3 gag reel. It’s 45 seconds of pure delight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q26Fn34XuZg
- The tag features the actors who play Troy and Abed in Abed’s movies trying to recreate the famous Spanish Rap from Spanish 102 (which had already gone viral by the time this episode was being made), much to the consternation of the real Troy, who has become a preening director. I believe this is the first time we see Troy and Abed collaborate on making a film, which will become an integral part of their friendship.
WHITMAN: “Jeffrey, as debate coach I am offering you the opportunity to spend the night drinking from the cup of life rather than romancing your nether regions in front of the E! Channel.”6
PIERCE: “And when you feel the desire to light up a cigarette you will associate these urges with things in your life that disgust you: bad tasting food; sex with men; wearing attractive clothing…”
TROY: “Why am I crying? Will I accidentally listen to “Come Sail Away” by Styx again?”7
WHITMAN: “Little trick for achieving the proper competitive mindset: I always imagine my opponent having aggressive sex with my mother.”
WHITMAN: “By Zeus, what sort of jackassery is this?”
JEFF: “You and I are going to study harder than we’ve ever studied before and beat City College tomorrow!”
JEFF: “No. Who am I, iCarly?”
SHIRLEY: “What’s my destiny. Am I gonna die in a car? Is it gonna happen soon?”
PIERCE: “ I may be a little older. My ideas may seem weird, my fashion sense may cause envy. But I have a lot to offer, and I will not be pitied!” *immediately pratfalls into an entire drum set*
SIMMONS: “Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc”
ANNIE: “Nuclear BOMBS”
SIMMONS: “Nuclear families”
JEFF: “Abu Ghraib”
SIMMONS: “Apu from the Simpsons!”
WHITMAN: “Your preparation was impeccable. You remind me of a young me, with slightly worse hair.”