“Communication Studies” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, February 11, 2010
Hello and thank you for coming to my TED talk about cringe comedy. Community was not a cringe comedy — arguably, to the detriment of its popularity. But that doesn’t mean it shyed away completely from provoking the sense of vicarious embarrassment that cringe comedy often delivers. This type of humor was so prevalent during the early days of Community that an occasional strain of it would have to show up every once in a while, if only as a reflection of the times. Earlier episodes contain isolated cringey moments1, but this is the first one i can think of where each storyline leans on humiliating and shaming the characters to such a degree. While this quality puts it more in league with contemporaneous works, it puts it out of step with the identity of the show as i know and love it, and as a result i find myself not really caring for it much at all.
i don’t think “Communication Studies” is the worst episode of season one, nor would i even describe it as “bad”, but after repeated viewings over the years it is the one that has fallen the most in my estimation since i first saw it. While it does contain sequences that i adore, something about the overall tone of both plots strikes me as incongruous. It may seem unfair to compare it to the brilliance of “Romantic Expressionism”, the previous installment, because almost anything would seem like a disappointment following that. Yet this episode feels labored and clunky in all the ways that one did not, and i think a lot of this has to do with the show returning to some wells that it should have left behind by now.
After mostly eliding the idea of a Jeff-Britta romance in the previous episode, this one collides with it head-on by employing the inciting incident of a drunken voicemail. Already you can feel my eyes rolling — what a hacky bit of contrived sitcom setup! Yet the very shopworn nature of its premise also brings the episode to its greatest strength, as Abed immediately recognizes the clichéd power imbalance this will create between Britta and Jeff, leading inevitably to the conclusion that Jeff must, in turn, also get blackout drunk and leave Britta a rambling, slightly horny voicemail of his own.
Other commenters have said as much and i’ll probably just keep on saying this as the series continues, but we never really got enough bonding between Abed and Jeff. It was my favorite part of “Investigative Journalism”, the last episode where they shared substantial screentime, and it’s my favorite thing about this episode2. What i love about their relationship is how they both treat social interactions as a sort of game. For Jeff, the game is about manipulation and getting what you want from people. For Abed, it’s more about observing behavior and types, and assigning specific roles within an ongoing narrative. Game does recognize game though, and this generates the essential tension between them, where they each have an understanding of what the other is doing, but choose not to interfere, because it doesn’t conflict with their own ends. Their mutual respect is built on the biggest trait they have in common — they both view themselves as the person who sees the world more clearly than anyone3. If nothing else, they’ll always be the first two members of the study group to see each other’s value.
While the Jeff-Abed dynamic may be the saving grace of this A-plot, especially during the Breakfast-Club-dance montage, there is no such joy to be found in the rather dire B-plot involving Chang, Troy, Pierce, Annie, and Shirley. First of all, there is no way a story this slight required more than about two or three of these characters, tops. But this setup had problems at the basic scripting level4— Troy and Pierce are ashamed of not getting any valentines during study group, so they arrange to have fake gifts delivered to them in the middle of Spanish class. Why take a secret shame and broadcast it to a wider audience? Obviously this is all done so that Chang can get involved, thus setting up Annie and Shirley to anonymously retaliate, but each development that unfolds from this false start feels continually unnatural. It would be one thing if Troy and Pierce actually did send the fake Princeton letter, but Shirley and Annie are typically portrayed as too intelligent and cautious for such a bush-league prank. Maybe that’s the joke — that exacting petty revenge is an area where these two are woefully inept. As i mentioned in my review of “Spanish 101”, i do enjoy the two of them together5, but seeing Pierce and Troy involved in the same plotline is a reminder of another early pairing the show seemingly realized wasn’t all that interesting in the first place and had discarded.
So on the one hand we have these awkward attempts to rekindle the attraction between Jeff and Britta, and on the other there’s Troy and Pierce getting repeatedly punked by Chang, all culminating with a resolution at yet another school dance. That leaves the one plot thread that i think works in this episode — the relationship between Jeff and Professor Slater. After his wild, drunken night with Abed, it is revealed that he made outgoing calls to both her and Britta, with no memory of what he said in either case. Slater brushes him off when he arrives at the dance, while Britta dolls herself up and greets him warmly — what did he say? Which one is he dating now? It’s standard romantic complication, but for a moment it actually manages to generate some uncertainty about the future of this little triangle.
But of course it’s all a ruse, and Britta went to all the trouble of putting on this whole act just to reveal to Jeff and Slater that he only has eyes for his girlfriend. Love the one you’re with, i guess. None of this is exactly surprising, so why does it work? Once again we must give credit to the Jeff and Abed scenes for doing the heavy lifting here. In his efforts to direct Jeff into a believably drunken performance, he challenges the notion that he’s truly happy with Slater, using his past feelings for Britta as motivation. Jeff gets dismissive, and then defensive, but this episode introduces just enough doubt to plant the seeds for “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited”. Earlier in the cold open, Jeff and Slater had been play-acting the role of contented couple. But as their later confrontation proves, even the most low-maintenance relationship can have friction6. Similarly, some of the most demanding friendships can also be the most rewarding. Seeing the balance of power restored between Jeff and Britta is a beautiful thing, even if it took several jabs at each other’s expense to get there.
Maybe my core issue with the episode is how much it’s driven by this notion of retributive justice. After a certain point, what gets everyone back in each other’s good graces is their ability to laugh at themselves. It’s almost as if these stories could have simply been resolved in the first act. Along the way we feel the pain of public and private humiliation on behalf of these characters, but it doesn’t function like regular cringe comedy. Cringe relies on a certain amount of self-unawareness, and i don’t know if there’s ever been a cast more self-conscious than this. Before Community went all-in on being “That Meta Show”, it tried on all kinds of modes. But the meta aspects — represented here by Abed’s comparisons to Who’s The Boss and reenactments of Molly Ringworm (?) movies — always stood out the most, and the longer the show went on, the more inextricable this side of it became. What i’m most grateful for these days is that in the end, it did get to stay on the air long enough to figure itself out, and if that meant there would still be uneven episodes from time to time, they would at least fail for more unique reasons.
⁃ Since i complained about a lot of stuff in this episode, i think it’s only fair that i point out how much i love the use of Ludwig Göransson’s gorgeous composition “If i Die Before You”, which is a music cue that i wish this show had used as frequently as “Greendale Is Where i Belong”
⁃ End tag: in a rare credits scene that actually concludes a story thread from the episode, Troy and Pierce step outside to head home for the night, where it is revealed that Chang is taking Pierce out on his moped for yogurt. Donald Glover yelling is funny, i guess, but that’s about it for this one
⁃ The “elegant lady’s pantsuits” is an interesting way to avoid cross-dressing clichés, but what i find much funnier than that is Troy and Pierce entering the dance wearing oversized Vincent Adultman-style trench coats over them
⁃ When Jeff goes to seek his help, Abed is shooting an episode of The Community College Chronicles — this time, it’s a scene that has already taken place, rather than one that hasn’t happened yet. i guess they retconned his ability to predict the future
⁃ Speaking of retcons, Abed claims to have never made it past the opening credits of Who’s The Boss?, and then in the following season’s “Competitive Wine Tasting” he demonstrates such a high level of knowledge about the show that it induces an existential crisis in the Greendale professor who literally wrote the book on it. Of course, since this is Abed, i 100% believe he could have gone from zero to expert in the time between
⁃ “Bitter, butter, Beetlejuice?” – Michelle Slater, trying to remember Britta’s name and inadvertantly setting up one hell of a brick joke in the process
DEAN (over PA): But remember, Cupid’s face is magic marker on nylon, so love is not only blind, but also dizzy, and a little belligerent
ABED: Yup, Meryl Streep has two Oscars because of her baking. (beat) Oh, that’s sarcasm, but i forgot to inflect. This sounds WAY more like sarcasm. Inflection is SO interesting
JEFF: Can i get you something? Water, smelling salts, an alibi for Cobain’s suicide?
ABED: No, i have NO idea what i’m talking about. i’m Abed, i NEVER watch TV
TROY: Yeah… they’re not made up
ABED: One Papa John’s commercial and he thinks he’s Christian Bale
JEFF: She wants everyone to be honest, but she lies to herself. She’s seen the world, but doesn’t get it. She has more fights about stuff that doesn’t matter than a Youtube comments section
ABED: Movie reference
SLATER: It sure seems like you and Britta are friends the way my mom’s pool cleaner was my uncle
TROY: WHAT? You work… you work at Princeton?
BRITTA: That was the first 20 seconds of a 40-minute message. Very informative