A Community Notification For This: S1E13, “Investigative Journalism”

“Investigative Journalism” originally aired on NBC Thursday night January 14, 2010

It’s official — Netflix is where shows go to be reborn.

2020 has seen a slew of existing shows premiering on Netflix and surging in popularity, from Community to Avatar: The Last Airbender and Cobra Kai. These are all shows that had built-in fanbases before finding their current streaming home, but for Community in particular, this new platform seems to have brought it an unprecedented level of exposure. For years, it seemed like nothing could break this show through to a larger audience. Despite its constant availability on Hulu, its creator co-running the most popular adult animation since South Park, and its breakout star becoming a respected recording artist, showrunner, and Lando in his own right, no real moment of widespread discovery ever came. Then, on April 1, 2020, all six seasons of Community landed on Netflix, and suddenly interest in the show skyrocketed like never before1. Check out this Google Trends chart, showing the astronomical increase in searches for “Community (American sitcom)” between late March and mid-April this year.

Following this renewed interest there have been a number of intriguing developments, such as a live table read with Pedro Pascal, which streamed on May 18, reuniting the post-Chevy Chase cast in full for the first time since 2014, and further rumblings of that fabled #andamovie. Surely there’s never been a better time to be a Community fan, which says more about how utterly disheartening it’s typically been than anything else. If you weren’t into this show during its run, you can’t possibly fathom the extent to which the outside world absolutely refused to even acknowledge its existence for the past decade. It was enough to make us diehard fans feel like we were living in some kind of crazy dreamworld.

Speaking of crazy dreams and strategies for increasing a show’s popularity, “Investigative Journalism” is notorious for being known mainly as “the Jack Black episode”. It’s a fair designation, but there is an additional distinction for which it deserves to be remembered — it’s arguably where the show truly becomes obsessed with itself on a meta level. “Debate 109” was the episode that first teased Community’s meta indulgences with The Community College Chronicles, but this is the episode where that flirtation morphs into full-on fixation. This next-level self-awareness starts with its choice of such an intrusive presence as its guest star, whose fame far outshone any of its main cast at the time. Jack Black plays into the most overbearing, flopsweaty version of his typical persona, and all of his scenes go out of their way to highlight just how much this kind of performance clashes with a sitcom which has so clearly defined its comedic world 13 episodes in. A series of flashbacks to scenes from “Spanish 101” and “Advanced Criminal Law”2 reveal that Buddy has been right there with the study group through all of Senor Chang’s classes, a sly commentary on the inherent absurdity of how guest star characters often turn up in the world of a show out of nowhere, while being treated like established characters. By inviting the viewer to contemplate the ridiculousness of focusing only on the same small group each week, while mocking the idea of casting a famous guest spot as a ratings ploy, this character infuses both of the main plotlines of the episode with a metatextual self-critique that in the end, it never backed away from.

But the gag goes beyond mere stunt casting, as Jack Black’s character, Buddy, inspired by watching the group grow together over the past semester, makes one desperate attempt after another to insinuate himself into their ranks against everyone’s wishes, rendering him a most unflattering audience surrogate. After all, our reasons for tuning in to watch this show week after week aren’t all that different from his reasons for wanting the study group to adopt him as one of their own — we want to feel like we’re part of this weird little family, too. This is our first real view of what their dynamic looks like to an outsider — a well the show would increasingly return to as its run wore on. As if anticipating the prevalence of “toxic fan culture”, the script3 paints Buddy as the worst kind of entitled obsessive, complete with his own self-insert fanfiction4, convinced that his obsequious admiration of the group at least qualifies him for honorary membership.

Everyone is understandably horrified by Buddy’s behavior, but for Jeff, this sparks a crisis about his role as the group’s de facto leader, just as he has seemingly found a place of comfort and acceptance at Greendale. When he first see him in this episode as the group is recapping their vacations (Abed and Troy spent it playing a video game that sounds as boring as real life, Britta lost her camera in Amsterdam), he’s play-acting the role of Pilot Episode Jeff Winger, summarizing his character’s arc to this point. He’s doing it as a bit, a fakeout before the joyous reunion and group hug, but what he spends this episode learning is that in spite of all the progress he’s made, he is ultimately still that same Jeff Winger who pretended to be a board-certified Spanish tutor because he was hot for Britta. A better version of himself, of course, but one who will revert back to old patterns when push comes to shove. Reinvention is an ongoing process, and you don’t just get to declare yourself changed and call it a day because you’ve made some new friends. Life just keeps sending challenges your way, whether it’s a conflict with someone you care about or a swift kick to the face from an interloper.

Really, it’s all just another way for Jeff to avoid responsibility and coast through the difficulties of living with the choices he’s made. As ever, he wants the benefits of being part of the study group without the burden of the leadership role they will inevitably thrust upon him. But after he first fails to shrug off the group’s5 opposition to Buddy joining them, then finds that trying to direct them in subtler ways still leads to the outcome no one wants, he finally resorts to forcibly removing the pantsless, crying man from the study room — technically fulfilling their request, but in a way designed to make them all feel as guilty as possible — particularly Annie, with whom Jeff had been clashing in the B-plot.

It’s easy to forget there even is a B-plot to this episode — despite the title being derived from it — partly because of how frantic and busy the main plot is. But maybe the B-plot — in which Jeff becomes the editor of Greendale’s school newspaper and tries to persuade Annie not to run a story that makes the Dean look racist — just isn’t substantial enough to hold up its end of the narrative6. The episode does make an effort to connect these plots thematically, as Jeff initially throws himself into the position of the easygoing big-shot executive in the cushy office who sends his staff out for pizza and liquor, folding it into his character reboot. Taking on an assignment from the Dean, embracing his circle of friends and even welcoming the possibility of a new member to their group — everything would seem to be coming up Winger at this point. When Abed compares him to Hawkeye from M*A*S*H, Jeff mistakenly attributes the compliment to his newfound laidback disposition. But Abed knows damn well Jeff has never watched the show, and points out that being Hawkeye also involves making tough choices, and taking charge when no one else will. As ever with Jeff, it’s all about surfaces. Being the irreverent cut-up through all 11 years of the Korean War seems fun until you catch a face full of blood spray.

Abed’s words of wisdom and loyal sidekickery finally earn him the nickname “Radar”, but this journalism plot focuses more on the conflict between Annie and Jeff, and there just isn’t enough motivation driving it. Annie is being her usual ambitious self, threatening the Dean with a story that could, at least in his own mind, destroy the reputation for equality he’s attempted to cultivate. But even by Greendale standards, texting only the black students7 on campus to inform them about the schedule change for a Toni Braxton concert seems like pretty small potatoes. Maybe it’s more difficult now to see how this was supposed to come across in 2010, when it was apparently possible to play a moment of casual racism like this for laughs, but nowadays, in this curs’d year of 2020, it’s hard to imagine how this is supposed to be so controversial that multiple characters treat it like a potential career-ender. It plays like one of the “post-racial America” gags this show used to do, a product of a more optimistic time.

That would be a bit of a downer note to end this piece on, so luckily the show manages to pull off another “Winger change of heart” resolution that feels earned. Comparing his behavior to how insensitive and openly hostile to the others he was when they all first met, Jeff chooses to see the best in Buddy, assuming the love and camaraderie he found with the group can have the same transformative power on anyone. That’s when the meta strain that was running through the episode returns, and we learn that Buddy was merely trying to join them as a backup. The REAL “cool group” (Starburns and two unnamed characters played by Owen Wilson and Hiromi Oshima) come in to render the study group’s acceptance of Buddy meaningless, and their adventures presumably continue in some alternate reimagining of this show. Such a transparently artificial and sitcommy ending is really the only way this storyline could have gone. The show is still pretty grounded, but more and more often it’s starting to take on a bit of a surreal dimension. Eventually, it will manage to craft elaborate homage and absurd comedic scenarios without ever entirely breaking from its reality, which is a testament to how Community is still worth discovering, 10 years later and counting.

NOTES

• Well, hi there. It’s been a minute. A year ago, Tereglith and i started writing these reviews, and today i’ve decided to start posting them again. It definitely won’t be as regular as it was before, but i’m thinking once every two weeks seems like a realistic goal for now. Check back here the first day of October!

• Simultaneous biggest laugh and most meta joke of the episode goes to the “mid-sentence theme song interruption” moment, which flies directly in the face of a “Skip Intro” button

• End tag: Troy and Abed audition for Cool Group membership with Starburns by performing “La Biblioteca” — the second callback to that early viral success in four episodes. Pierce catches them in the act and admonishes them for their disloyalty, only to reveal he’s trying to join the Cool Group too, singing his part of “Getting Rid’a Britta” in the face of their rejection. Apparently, musical performance is this group’s go-to for impressing others

• Chang hires an actress to announce his untimely death before predictably revealing how very much alive and unkillable he is, in his one and only scene. Maybe i’m reading too much into it, but this moment plays like a bit of a jab to those who found Chang’s character to be a weak link in the show’s cast

• Pierce’s “wearing ironic t-shirts” gag doesn’t amount to much, but neither does an attempt at making a running joke out of Shirley’s boring Scandanivan friend, Gary. Really, outside of Jeff, Annie, Abed, and the Dean, no one really gets to do very much of note, which serves to highlight just how much of the air Jack Black is taking up

• As for Annie, her ambition for pursuing this story stems from her ongoing desire to transfer out of Greendale. While i can’t say for sure whether this story thread ever comes up again before the season finale, they do mention it more often than i remember at the time

• Finally, we get a moment with the Dean in his office, opening a package containing a Dalmatian suit. Looks like the video he was watching in “Environmental Science” did awaken something in him after all

ABED: You’re like Hawkeye on M*A*S*H. He kept his upbeat humor and charm, even in the 11th year of the Korean War

JEFF (noticing Buddy): ….Did you just teleport here?

JEFF: Well, you already broke the only rule i have: the rule about worrying about rules

DEAN: As you can see, i am resurrecting the Greendale Gazette-Journal-Mirror. And we need a student editor. Someone with real world savvy that extends beyond how to huff the ink

ANNIE: They’ve got me editing the crossword because i’m a girl. (brightening) And because i love crosswords!

ABED: Not all weirdos are bad. Buddy might be a puckish agent of change that changes our lives for the better through a musical montage

BRITTA: Or he could have a row of jars waiting for our genitals

TROY: Yo, i need my genitals

JEFF: Hey, Buddy can sing you guys, great! (sotto voce) Annie’s pretty young, we try not to sexualize her

TROY: i can’t stop thinking about his high kick. His ratio of girth to hip flexibility is mesmerizing

ANNIE: If we’re gonna add a chair for every bong-ripping good-time Charlie with a song in his heart, i move we institute hazing

ANNIE: This article breaks out, i can apply for journalism scholarships. Nobody will care about my time in rehab if they think i’m a writer!

JEFF: i just dragged a screaming, crying man out of a library with his pants down. No, martinis are for Hawkeyes

PIERCE: Listen, guys. We outnumber him six to one. Annie, you flash your breasts as a decoy for the bumrush