“Romantic Expressionism” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, February 4, 2010
“Romantic Expressionism” is a near-flawless episode of television, and the strongest outing this show has had since “Comparative Religion”, so naturally i want to open this article with some real clickbait-level critique: Why was Community so bad at shipping?
It’s a fair question, for a show that built its whole premise on an explicit will they/won’t they dynamic. And yet, despite setting the events of the show into motion, the developing relationship between Jeff and Britta feels distinctly obligatory more often than not. Part of Jeff’s maturation process involves learning to be okay with being just friends with Britta, and another big part of it is building genuine connections with the rest of the study group. That doesn’t leave much room for positioning them as some kind of OTP endgame, like a normal show would. Ultimately, Community may have been too self-aware to play any of those old familiar budding-sitcom-romance tropes straight. It’s telling that when Britta and Jeff finally DO hook up, it happens right in the middle of them making fun of the idea of hooking up.
Given how quickly the show sidelines the Jeff-Britta romance, it almost plays like some kind of cynical bait-and-switch on viewers who are accustomed to that kind of thing in their TV shows. But as far as i can tell, Dan Harmon was 100% sincere about it, at least from the outset. Things just unfolded differently than they had originally planned, and in much less predictable fashion. What i love so much about “Romantic Expressionism” is that any forward momentum on the Britta-Jeff relationship in this episode is strictly subtext — nothing overt enough for the characters themselves to acknowledge, outside of the odd discussion of whether one of them wants children. They spend nearly every one of their scenes together, but on the surface, none of their interactions go beyond platonic. It’s only the history between these two that makes it into something richer. With Jeff content being Professor Slater’s boyfriend, his interactions with Britta are now free of any tension between them — that is, until Annie takes a romantic interest in Britta’s onetime paramour, Vaughn.
Yes, Vaughn (Eric Christian Olsen) is back, for the third and final time, though his presence would linger offscreen through the end of the season. In my review of “Social Psychology” i wrote about how his character didn’t really fit into the larger world of Greendale, and this seems to account for why he’s effectively written off the show as soon as he’s served his plot functions. In each of his three outings he’s an outside source of conflict within the group — first as romantic rival, then jilted ex and diss track-writing bandleader, and lastly as prospective love interest. The difference between the first and final conflicts is a sign of how much deeper and more complicated the study group’s involvement in each other’s lives has grown. A love triangle is probably the simplest romance plot in existence, one that can happen with any random set of characters. But two friends, one of whom had doggedly and fruitlessly pursued the other, working to sabotage another’s romance with someone that one of them had previously dated, by redirecting their interest to a fourth friend on whom they had nursed a longtime unrequited crush — that’s a very tangled web, requiring all kinds of setup and backstory and establishing of stakes. It’s easy to see how an episode like this could become too convoluted to work. Yet the whole story1 plays out elegantly, with multiple comedic and emotional payoffs, and succeeds wildly both in furthering the overarching plot of the show and deepening the relationships between its main characters. It’s one of several points in season one where the show seems to find a new gear, while still generally remaining a conventional single-camera sitcom — pre-”Modern Warfare” Community at its best.
Even if the show wasn’t doing stellar work with its character relationships, this would still be a standout episode on the strength of its genius B-plot alone. Using the Troy and Abed friendship to focus on Pierce’s perpetual outsider status, while bringing in Shirley and Chang as contrasting forces, is an idea so good that it’s shocking it took this long for it to happen. The premise of these characters getting together to riff MST3K-style on bad movies is immediately plausible, and could have easily just ended up being another throwaway gag along the lines of the “Pierce has ear-noculars” or “Pierce helps the Dean create the Human Being” bits from previous episodes. Instead, this plot takes the time to explore an important aspect of Pierce’s character — his competitive streak.
The other characters approach these gatherings as a fun, casual hangouts with friends, and enjoy them as such2. That’s why everyone else’s lighthearted roasts of the low-budget filmmaking on display earn chuckles all around. But Pierce’s attempts at riffing on Kickpuncher3 get nothing but crickets, especially when he inevitably falls back on racist stereotypes. By the end it’s clear no one wants him there, but thanks to Abed’s inability to read social cues, Pierce ends up invited to the next occasion anyway. Determined to elicit laughs at any cost, he turns to Greendale’s resident sketch comedy troupe to help him compile a crib sheet of pre-loaded zingers by viewing Kickpuncher 2: Codename Punchkicker beforehand. Shockingly to him and no one else, frantically rattling off of a string of canned one-liners before anyone can get a word in edgewise just makes Pierce look even more desperate, leaving him no recourse but mock outrage and broad pratfalls — the latter of which finally gets him the reaction he wanted.
If there’s a weak point to this plot, it’s that it really has nothing to do with the A-story, and honestly could’ve fit within just about any random episode. But that’s also kind of the charm of it, and it does serve as a lighter counterpoint to the more serialized and emotion-driven conflicts of the main plot. When Jeff and Britta’s meddling only succeeds in re-traumatizing Vaughn and putting the final nail in the Annie-Troy coffin, their blow-up spills over into an argument that sees the entire study group sniping at each other. From the first episode, this show has been interested in how quickly these people tend to devolve into petty squabbling without some kind of guiding force. It’s an apt examination of how fragile the peace among such a disparate group of friends can be — but with this cast, and the writing they are given, it’s also as funny as hell nearly every single time. As accusations, jealousies4, resentments, and betrayals of trust come flying around the study table from all directions, this third-act meltdown produces a fast-paced volley of amazing punchlines, with very little room to breathe, that flows as naturally and rhythmically as a classic vaudeville routine. Future episodes of this show would continue to exploit the “bickering in the study room” dynamic, culminating in such masterful breakthroughs as season 2’s “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Advanced Dungeons And Dragons”.
The guiding force which finally defuses the conflict in this episode comes, of course, from Jeff, and the realization that maybe everyone in the study group is lowkey sexually attracted to each other5. And here’s where we get the funniest and most resonant sequence of the episode, as different combinations of group members simply look around, semi-awkwardly reacting and emoting at each other. As if intent on showing off what you can do with a talented ensemble cast, this scene follows up its previous volley of verbal punchlines with a succession of visual gags, made up entirely of facial expressions and gestures that say just as much as any amount of words could. It almost feels like a fool’s errand to try to describe it, other than to say that it is a marvel of shorthand in storytelling — the combination of editing, acting, and Ludwig Goransson’s score coming together to create yet another brilliantly-realized climactic moment.
But of course, the story needs to end with some kind of resolution, and that’s when Vaughn re-enters the picture, serenading Annie with a bad, treacly, stupid, and yet actually heartwarming and kind of awesome acoustic guitar song. Though it doesn’t hit quite the same comedic or cathartic high note as the penultimate scene, it’s appropriately romantic and it gives us a chance to see Annie be happy. Sometimes it’s okay to just let something nice happen to a character. Anyway, the real positive outcome here is Jeff and the study group’s acceptance of her new relationship — not that she needs their permission to date outside of their circle, but that she knows she won’t have to choose between them — at least, not for now. Though they haven’t explicitly forbidden inter-group relationships yet, it’s already clear that the tension from the whole “everybody stealing glances at each other” incident is far from settled. Even the final line of the episode6, though strictly played for laughs, somehow maintains an elliptical quality. As much as the show seemed content to mostly kick its relationship cans down the road, it would at least continue to keep its possibilities open, to the bittersweet end.
NOTES AND QUOTES
- End tag: Troy and Abed’s remake of Kickpuncher, with Troy playing the role of Kickpuncher and Abed playing every other role7 is somehow even cheaper and more amateurish than the clips we see from the original. At the time, we would have referred to this type of shoddy, fan-made filmmaking as “Sweded” — or at least i would have. i really liked Be Kind Rewind at the time
- Speaking of Kickpuncher, the facsimile of 80s low-budget exploitation we see in this episode is so amazingly spot-on that if not for the absurd title, i could have easily believed that this was some obscure cult classic in real life. i guess i might also mention that the original pressing of the season one DVD set came with a short Kickpuncher comic credited to Troy Barnes, but actually by Jim Mahfood
- From the Guest Stars Who Are Not Vaughn Department: this episode features appearances from Greendale staples Leonard and Star-Burns (the latter of whom inspires Jeff and Britta to intervene when he makes a creepy remark about Annie), the sketch comedy troupe is played by members of Donald Glover’s Derrick Comedy stable, and the cast of Kickpuncher is played by Derek Mears, Angela Trimbur, and Randall Park (!)
- Jeff and Brita’s revelation to Troy that Annie has nursed a longstanding crush on him, and also that Annie is hot now, causes Troy to revert back to his full “popular high school jock” mode, for maybe the last time ever. i can’t say it makes me miss his earlier characterization, although the way he delivers the line “like tarantulas and me peeing my pants” in an affected tough-guy bravado does get me every time
- Revelations from the big study room argument: Shirley marks Pierce’s e-mails as spam (“who the hell’s Pam?”), Annie and Jeff definitely haven’t moved on from their kiss in “Debate 109”, Troy has made specific comments about Britta, possibly from his time spent dancing with her
- We ALL like Annie’s nose, Vaughn. That one monkey should’ve been called “Annie’s Nose”
VAUGHN: See that’s G, it’s the most important chord. In my mind, it stands for…. God…. But not like a Bible God, because i think that God is in everything
JEFF: You know what i don’t get? He never wears a shirt, he never wears shoes. Why hasn’t he died from lack of service?
ABED: Actually, if she doesn’t mind reinforcing the stereotype, i think Shirley would have fun talking smack at a movie. Care to join us?
PIERCE: What, you think i’m too old to make monkeyshines at a picture show?
ANNIE: Britta, can i ask you something about Vaughn?
BRITTA: Oh, yes, i still don’t know if that’s his first or last name
ANNIE: Troy? The other day after Spanish i thought he was trying to hold my hand, but he’d just mistaken me for Abed
TROY: Ohh, FBI warning, i’m so scared
JEFF: Let’s not confine ourselves to your wheelhouse. This problem won’t respond to tap dancing or casual revelations that you spent time in New York
BRITTA: Chemistry — sexy. You know what else is sexy? Annie
TROY: Maybe it’s because i knew her back in high school, before she dropped out. She had braces, and acne, and a pill addiction, and a nervous breakdown ending with her running through a plate-glass door screaming “Everyone’s a robot!”
TROY: i have the weirdest boner
PIERCE: Come on, guys. i’m starting to wonder if you even deserve to call yourselves a community college sketch comedy troupe
VAUGHN (carrying ice cream cones): Sorry it took me so long, they made me find a shirt
VAUGHN: Oh, actually, everyone is my bro in the whole entire universe, you know, because everything is connected. Rocks… eagles… hats
TROY: Let’s do this. Red Shoe Diaries. i think you know i have a thing for butt stuff
ANNIE: Hey guys, thanks for getting involved in my love life, that was super cool and mature of you. Oh, and since you’re both clearly idiots, i should probably let you know that i’m being sarcastic!
JEFF: Shut up, Leonard! Nobody even knows what you’re talking about! …..i did eat all the macaroni. It’s messed up that he knows
PIERCE: And Tom Selleck just stood there…. just stood there and watched him die
TROY: Yeah, but you’re doing it with the speed and determination of the incomparable Robin Williams
BRITTA: Fine, i cared. i’m a girly girl. i like boys, and i don’t like it when they’re mean to me, and i don’t like it when they stop kissing me and start kissing my friends. i’m not that cool. i’m not Juno, okay homeslice?
JEFF: Yeah, that kiss wasn’t for pleasure. It was strategic and joyless
ABED: When you guys first came in, we were as wholesome as the family in the Brady Bunch. And now we’re as dysfunctional and incestuous as the cast of the Brady Bunch
SHIRLEY: First of all, i don’t talk like that. And second of all, where i’m from it’s perfectly normal for women to talk about their male friend’s backsides
PIERCE: So just to be clear, i don’t have a shot with any of you?