“Interpretive Dance” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, January 21, 2010
Back in May, we ran a “Best Episode Of Community” tournament. Perhaps predictably, it was the gimmicked-up concept episodes that proved to be most popular. Chances were, if voters could immediately identify an episode by the genre or filmmaking style they were parodying that week — paintball, documentary, Rankin-Bass stop motion, Dungeons & Dragons, Law & Order — it would essentially cruise to the next round, at least until it got eliminated by a different gimmick episode1. And most notably, of all the self-consciously meta homages contained within these episodes, almost none of them came from the show’s first season2.
To those less familiar with this show, these results may appear to indicate that Community’s parody episodes tend to be their best, and that the show didn’t really hit its stride until after the first season. Yet from what i’ve seen, this characterization is hardly representative of the typical Community fan’s opinion. The parody episodes may have been some of the most memorable, but they only ever worked as well as they did because Greendale was such a strongly-established setting from the start, inhabited by its murderer’s row of well-defined characters. Breaking from format doesn’t mean much unless there is a clear format to break from in the first place.
So at first glance, an episode like “Interpretive Dance” may come across as mid-season filler, with no real strong hook or concept to grab the viewer, just a couple of standard sitcom plots that unfold more or less how you’d expect. But as time goes on, i find myself appreciating episodes like this one more and more — the ones where they’re not trying so hard to reinvent the wheel, or even provide much more than simple television comfort food. To me, these bread-and-butter episodes now seem as crucial to this show’s legacy as any of its more ambitious fare, and i think there are a couple of reasons for that. One has to do with the thrill of watching Community take all these baby steps towards its grandiose destiny, as Tereglith and i have discussed numerous times. But there’s also a certain “What if” appeal to them — a sense of how different this show might have been, had its creators not harbored ambitions to explode the parameters of televised storytelling to the very limits of possibility.
The reason i’m employing such lofty language is to contrast it with just how resolutely conventional this episode is. Britta and Troy are both embarrassed about taking dance classes. Jeff has been dating his Economics professor, Michelle Slater (Lauren Stamile) for a few weeks and must now reckon with the consequences of revealing their relationship to the group3. For a show that often spent so much time mocking TV clichés, this is stock, even trite material. Yet it’s in the details and the execution that even the most tired constructions can be made to shine, and writer Lauren Pomerantz, with director Justin Lin4 bring genuine wit, style and panache to what would otherwise come across as fairly routine sitcom business.
Britta and Troy are often singled out as the two characters from the main cast who undergo the most radical transformations during Community’s run, but until this point, their growth had been occurring independently of each other. The Britta-Jeff and Annie-Troy ships seemingly went bust in record time5, and although they’re not quite presented as a potential couple yet, this plotline certainly feels like a test run to see if Gillian Jacobs and Donald Glover could generate sparks the way Alison Brie and Joel McHale did in “Debate 109”. Despite the fact that they’d eventually become an item in The Season We Don’t Talk About, the tension between their characters here is driven more by their opposing natures than any kind of conscious mutual attraction. Still tethered to a self-image driven by football-derived popularity and the attendant notions of machismo that come with it, Troy is guarded throughout the episode, terrified of being exposed as a dancer. Britta, who has seen her share of failed reinventions, is far more open to change, and encourages Troy to embrace this new side of himself, just as with Jeff whenever he betrays any inkling of development. Over time these two characters would evolve far beyond their respective positions, and it’s possible to imagine a version of this episode airing during season 2 or 3 where their roles are reversed entirely. As it is, Troy is still in the process of opening up, Britta has yet to confront the rut she’s really in, and this episode inches them just a bit closer to the middle ground on which they’ll meet.
Tereglith made a very good point in his review of “Introduction To Statistics” about how Jeff seems intent on dating Professor Slater mainly because it lets him cling to his old identity6. If he can get with this woman, he thinks, that must mean he could never really belong at Greendale. But that episode ended with Jeff reaffirming his commitment to the study group7, and each subsequent misadventure he’s had with them has only served to strengthen that connection. The old Jeff had zero qualms throwing the study group under the bus for the sake of a hot date. Now, the inherent skeeziness of a teacher-student relationship functions as merely a cover for his true motivation behind wanting to keep this new romance hidden from the others: namely, that once the secret’s out, it becomes something much more real and definable, which he hasn’t yet figured out how to reconcile with the tight-knit community he’s formed.
Characters keeping secrets from each other, often for no good reason, is an age-old staple of sitcom plotting. The episode seems aware of this and yet unable to do much about it other than blow their covers as early as possible and have the characters try to justify their secrecy. At least in Troy’s case, he makes the conscious decision to reveal his secret life as a dancer during the emotional climax of the story, swooping in for the rescue when Britta becomes so flustered by the sight of Jeff and Slater holding hands that she forgets the steps during the incredibly Greendale-ish dance troupe’s performance of “Tea For Two”. Jeff and Slater, on the other hand, end up being forced to come clean when the whole study group catches them making out through the library window, due to some mix-up with the back door to the study room, lightly foreshadowed in the cold open during Annie’s “Prelimawow”. Troy’s third-act turn makes his confessional dance another triumphant and visually-stylish moment of the kind i discussed in my review of “Environmental Science”8, while Jeff’s loss of privacy amounts to mere complication, especially when the Dean’s interrogation of their relationship status reveals that he doesn’t “technically” consider himself and Slater an official couple.
This is the old Jeff rearing its head, a part of his personality still held over from his pre-Greendale self, which his association with the study group has thus far failed to resolve. We get enough hints about his previous romantic life in “The Politics Of Human Sexuality” to gather that his default treatment of women is so noxious, it makes his relationship with Slater seem positively gallant by comparison. It’s fair to assume that his tendency to unceremoniously bail on his entanglements has a lot to do with avoiding exactly the kinds of difficult conversations he ends up having with Slater in her office after she walks out on the Dean’s questionnaire. Yet after confessing his fear of commitment, Jeff realizes it’s silly to get hung up on the exact label of the person he’s spending so much time with if they’re enjoying what they do and want to continue doing it. Later he will credit Britta for helping him come to this realization, since she showed him he could handle just being friends with someone he’s attracted to. The look on her face when he gives her the flowers is just enough to give away that in the long run, neither of them might be able to handle it.
That moment feels a bit rushed amidst all the other stuff in the denouement, and for that reason the episode ends up lacking the emotional heft of the series at its best. What it does still have is that special early Community feeling, of a show discovering its potential and developing into what it wants to be. It may not smash genres or parody Leone, but it does something equally as important to the show’s legacy — it gives us quality time with characters that we love. The protagonists get their arcs, the overarching story gets some small advancements, and we laugh a bunch of times along the way. If Community had remained this type of small-scale show, it might not have the rabid cult following it does now, but i like to think i’d still love it with just as much of my heart. Despite its flaws, episodes like this are why i love Community, and shows like Community are why i love television. It’s still possible for me to watch today and feel that love, even knowing they were merely showing mastery of the basics before they could ascend to their next level.
NOTES AND QUOTES
- As several sources (including the youtube channel Just Write) have pointed out, there is an earlier episode of Recess which bears a strong resemblance to the plot of this episode. Having just watched “Dance Lessons”, i can attest that it follows the same arc pretty much beat-for-beat, right down to the silly flower costumes giving way to a much livelier, more dynamic performance by the two leads that brings the house down. In its specificity, it’s hard to imagine this similarity being a total coincidence, but i think they do enough different things in this episode to keep it from being a complete ripoff. And as always, Simpsons did a “secret dancer” plot first anyway
- i guess i can also mention that the ending of this episode, where Abed reveals HIS hidden dancing ability9 is also extremely similar to an ending from an early Will And Grace episode. But that trope probably also pre-dates that show, and it’s fun to see Danny Pudi show off his training
- End tag: Troy fills out a crossword puzzle (possibly Greendale’s school newspaper, presumably still being edited by Annie) with Abed’s help, calling out the answer to each clue as the names of the study group members. When they get stuck on “One of two actor brothers named Bridges”, Jeff interjects to tell them the answer is “Beau” and that the pattern is “things you can see on TV, except for Pierce, that one’s a misdirect.” Weirdly, this episode seems to have aired during one of the rare times when Beau Bridges actually wasn’t doing very much TV work at all
- Guest star roundup: Twink Camplan, mainly known at this point for her role in Clueless, doesn’t get nearly enough to do as the Greendale dance teacher, but is a welcome presence whenever she shows up and fits seamlessly right into the show’s world. i also must applaud the casting department for populating the dance studio with diverse body types, without the show making a lot of jokes at their expense. The tap dance performance is portrayed as ridiculous, but more because of the costuming and the choreography than the mere appearances of the people in it
- No screentime for Chang this week, which makes this, i believe, four episodes without Ken Jeong so far, not counting the pilot? Let me know if i’m wrong about that. If i’m right, all this goes to show is how extraneous his character really is in the ensemble, even this early on
TROY: Aw, the last thing i said to him was “Suck it”
JEFF: Can’t i be the friend in the group whose trademark is his well-defined boundaries, like Privacy Smurf, Discreet Bear, or Confidentiality Spice?
SLATER: It’s so unprofessional. But the sneaking does make the sex 38 percent hotte
JEFF: Wow, you do like statistics, don’t you?
DEAN: You guys be extra careful now. Two people of your rankings in this small a room, with this type of lighting, and his upper body, and what her heels and hemline are doing to enhance what were already quite a few favors from God, it’s all the more important to keep it tasteful
TROY: Coach told me it would help with my coordination, and i fell in love with it, in a very straight way
JEFF: Look, as soon as we touch, the blinds will open, and six annoying but lovable misfits will be staring at us
SHIRLEY: Is your heart gonna be okay with this?
BRITTA: i will try to find the tools to survive
TROY: Hey, you don’t get to talk to me like that. You are not Shirley. And Shirley’s not my mom
JEFF: Look, the biggest truths aren’t original. Truth is ketchup, it’s Jim Belushi
SLATER: It’s the Jim Belushi of sexual commitments. It barely means anything, and it grows on what’s there over time
JEFF: Wow, that guy is really taking a pounding in this conversation
SHIRLEY: i brought Goobers. Anybody want a Goober? Get ‘em while they’re goobie!
PIERCE: Culturally, it’s unacceptable. But it’s theatrical dynamite!
TROY: You looked so pathetic, you made going up there the most masculine option