“Environmental Science” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, November 19, 2009
From August to December 2009, i was an intern at the sports department of a TV news station. My time there was mostly spent in the editing bay archiving old game footage, or in the field tagging along on coverage of local events. In between assignments, the other interns and i would hang idly around the disorganized hoard of TV screens and desktop monitors strewn about the work stations of the sports staff. Most of these would be tuned into various games and broadcasts they needed to watch for their jobs, while they attempted to finalize their segments for that night’s program. But every now and then, one of the producers would actually go out of their way to put something on, which we would all gather around to experience as a group. And one of the shows they were most fond of watching during these times was an exciting new NBC sitcom called…. Community.
i had watched and enjoyed the pilot a month before it aired that summer, having been a longtime fan of Joel McHale from his run on The Soup — early viewers could access the episode by liking the show’s Facebook page1, a promotional strategy NBC probably abandoned almost immediately. The presence of Chevy Chase in an apparent comeback bid also fueled my curiosity, and i was delighted to see a network TV show offering new comedic opportunities for John Oliver and Alison Brie, whose work i had admired on The Daily Show and Mad Men, respectively. That pedigree alone was enough to pique my interest, but it was clear the show had a lot more going for it in its own right, and from the beginning it always felt like it could become something that transcended the conventions of live-action television.
The visual style alone drew me in. The show premiered during the height of The Office’s popularity, and right around the time that the influence of the canceled-but-suddenly-relevant Arrested Development began showing up in newer sitcoms. The cinema verité-style camera work employed on those shows was still very much in vogue then, and audiences had grown well-accustomed to the sudden zooms, hangdog mugging, and shaky whip-pans that came with the territory. To see a series debut in this landscape that took a more deliberate and skillful approach to its compositions, framing, and editing, while still maintaining a breakneck pace in its punchlines and performances, felt like a breath of fresh air among the other single-camera comedies that were taking over2.
But what REALLY hooked me on the show was the writing. It’s fair to say i’d never seen anything quite like its heady blend of silliness, snark, sentiment, sincerity and pop culture hyperliteracy. It felt like someone was mashing all of my “things i want to see a TV show do” buttons at once, for a 22-minute stretch. Moreover, the show was able to take these elements and build intricately-layered but concise and satisfying stories around them, often heightening the emotional tenor to comical degrees before releasing it in an epochal catharsis towards the end. It was an effect i could only compare to the climactic moment of victory from some 80s underdog-sports movie, and something that, as far as i could tell, no other show was doing at the time3. “Debate 109” was arguably the first Community episode that hits this kind of triumphant high note4, and from there the show’s ambitions would only grow more and more grandiose.
All this leadup is just a way of saying that, as far as “Environmental Science” goes, all i really want to talk about is the last 5 minutes. This was the last episode of Community i watched at my internship, and the last one i’d see until i had the chance to catch up with all of season one on DVD, shipped over from something called Netflix. Yet it left an indelible mark on me, in a way that i still haven’t recovered from, and it’s all due to that resolution where three or four unrelated plot threads collide and everything comes together and pays off in almost obscenely elegant fashion. With the possible exception of 30 Rock, no other sitcom at the time was equipped to pull off anything close to this — it could only build to this kind of grand finale out of such chaos thanks to its formal aesthetic choices and conscious resistance to trends5. When i recall what this time in my life felt like, i will always associate it with images of an estranged salsa-dancing wife twirling to Celtic folk music, a nervous entrepreneur acing her public speaking assignment, and two young men dueting on a song from An American Tail to coax a rodent out of hiding.
So let’s retrace the steps that got us there. Señor Chang, unhinged in the best of times, has begun maliciously inflicting a draconian workload on the Spanish class, effectively making it impossible for anyone to earn a passing grade. The study group pressures Jeff into persuading their teacher to drop these requirements, assuming that his silver tongue can get them off the hook, but what actually gets him in good with Chang turns out to be the keen observational skills he picked up from his experience selecting juries. Quickly deducing through a series of jackhammer-subtle clues6 that Chang’s marriage is on the rocks, Jeff seizes the opportunity to swing from Chang’s overworked pupil to his trusted confidante and wingman, which gets him out of writing a twenty-page essay but does nothing whatsoever to help the study group or the rest of their class. When the group exposes Jeff’s Faustian deal, their impulse is to ostracize him, which in turn makes him defensive. They correctly accuse him of leveraging Chang’s mercurial nature to his advantage, he resents them for putting all that responsibility on his shoulders, and he and the group are seemingly on the outs. But at the upcoming school dance, he realizes there might just be a way to repair more than one damaged relationship.
Over in B-plot land, lab partners Troy and Abed have lost their rat Fievel, due in no small part to Troy’s debilitating musophobia. Insisting that he needs his help, and presumably his golden pipes, to recover the shy animal, Abed continually badgers Troy to join him in a singing search party through the halls of Greendale. Despite his extreme aversion to rats, and his definition of friendship as unreciprocated largesse, Troy eventually rises to the occasion to save their test subject from certain death at the hands of an exterminator, swooping in to the dulcet strains of “Somewhere Out There”. Shirley is dealing with a deep-rooted fear of her own in the C-plot, so terrified of public speaking that she’s willing to receive assistance from Pierce of all people7 to prepare for the big presentation in her marketing class. Initially, his coaching seems to do more harm than good, causing her to revert to her original plan of slowly stumbling over a set of notecards. But when the make-or-break moment arrives, she finds that while Pierce may not be much of a mentor, he can still boost her confidence level through the roof simply by showing up, sandwich in hands, to offer his moral support.
Finally, we get a very slight D(ean)-plot about Greendale’s typically well-meaning but maladroit attempts to save the environment. i wasn’t able to confirm whether Community’s creative team8 was working under a directive from NBC to weave an environmental theme into this episode, but it follows in the tradition of 30 Rock’s “Greenzo”9 by treating the subject as cynically as possible, through the Dean making a series of Dean-esque blunders. First he announces their rebranding to the name “Envirodale”, which Star-Burns immediately points out is redundant for a school that already has “green” in its name. Then, after advertising a free concert by Green Day, he finds out the band’s name is actually spelled “Greene Daeye”, and that they are in fact a group of traditional Celtic folk musicians. That’s pretty much all the focus this plotline gets or deserves, but it does include a throwaway-yet-significant moment in the Dean’s development, which you’ll find in the quotes section below.
All of these disparate and frankly disconnected elements come together in one of the most satisfying montages the show has ever done, one so effective and memorable that they straight up recycled it in season three for Jeff and the Dean’s “Kiss From A Rose” karaoke video in “Studies In Modern Movement”. It’s a microcosm of everything the show excels at, even though it still hasn’t gone full meta-homage on us yet — elaborately-staged gags that inform character growth, pop culture-referencing silliness that conveys emotional truth, and outright nonsense that serves as the perfect payoff to a compelling story. Jeff and the group make up, Chang and his wife (Andrea de Oliveira) are reunited, Fievel scurries up Troy’s pant leg and back into his cage, Shirley signs “thank you” to Pierce after her speech gets a standing ovation, and everyone realizes that Celtic folk music kinda slaps. Community’s adherence to story structure allowed it the freedom to craft these kinds of meticulously-constructed moments without feeling overstuffed, and i will never forget witnessing this feat of effortless brilliance for the first time, and realizing the potential that this show held was truly limitless. This is the reason why Community is still worth discussing today — nothing is more instructive than art that takes full advantage of the possibilities of its form10. Its legacy has survived dire ratings, questionable creative decisions, cast member defections, and the various controversies surrounding its creator because that kind of impression will always make it feel vital. And the fact that it remains really damn funny definitely doesn’t hurt.
NOTES AND QUOTES
ASSISTANT: We printed 5,000
DEAN: Well, print 5,000 more, i’m trying to save a planet here
BRITTA: Señor Chang, please continue. We respect your authority
CHANG: Thank you, Britta. TWENTY pages on ass-kissing!
TROY: i’m not afraid, Abed. i CHOOSE not to be around rats because they are unpopular. Same goes for centipedes and lakes
DEAN (watching a Dalmatian-man video): This better not awaken anything in me
TROY (standing on the table): Everybody shut up! i’ll kick all your asses. But, y’all have to come up here
SHIRLEY: i believe that, uh, fusing brownies with the, uh, Internet is going to create the next Napster… (clears throat) for brownies
ANNIE (to Jeff): You devious clump of overpriced fabric and hair product
SHIRLEY: Speaking as one of the meek, as soon as i inherit the earth, you a dead man
TROY: You’ve got a weird forehead
CHANG (sobbing): Let me rest gently on your pecs
SHIRLEY: Orgasmically delicious!
CHANG: Although, Winger, YOU should write a one-page essay called “Taking Advantage Of The Emotionally Vulnerable”. (mic drop) Boo-ya
TROY: WHO PUTS PEPPER IN WATER?