“Basic Genealogy” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, March 11, 2010
Workplace sitcoms are just family sitcoms with a different setting. Community was somehow both and neither — mainly because over time, it grew into a show that could be whatever it felt like being on a given week. At this stage, since it’s still in the process of growing into that show, we’re still mostly in “How To Flesh Out A Sitcom World 101” mode. Introducing heretofore unseen family members is an extremely common device for filling in backstory or explaining certain character traits. The main difference is that most shows will use it to develop just one character at a time, while Community deploys it here to develop nearly its entire cast. This is one crowded-ass episode, with its collection of multiple interwoven plots and one-off gags often running the risk of feeling cluttered. But other than one plot point that feels a bit dropped and picked up whenever it’s convenient, most of it flows together pretty well, though the episode as a whole ends up feeling a little uneven.
That one plot point — Professor Michelle Slater unceremoniously dumping Jeff in the cold open — is a fairly big one, and is supposed to drive his whole arc for this episode. But it feels disconnected to the events of the episode, because Jeff’s behavior isn’t too much different from how he’d act even if he hadn’t been dumped. At least, the earlier version of Jeff that relentlessly pursued Britta and tends to disregard Pierce’s feelings would’ve acted the same. It says something about his character’s development that the show needs to come up with a reason for him to revert back to his old ways. But it’s almost as if the plot of this episode is what drove that decision in the first place, not the other way around — none of it works unless Jeff is single, so Slater has to break up with him out of the blue and with zero fanfare.
Certainly Jeff tries to play it off like the breakup means nothing to him, rejecting the need for support from his friends. On the one hand, they hadn’t been dating for very long and didn’t seem all that serious when we did see them together. On the other, we’ve seen Jeff describe her as “the perfect girlfriend”, and all parties involved, the audience included, knows full well that this man’s callous demeanor belies an extreme emotional sensitivity. The moment Amber (Katharine McPhee) appears in his sightline, we know that this rebound attempt is pure cope, a transparent cry for help. His approach to picking her up — ruling out the possibility that she’s a student or a teacher on the basis of her happiness and beauty, respectively — does seem to suggest that his game has gone rusty, as it requires him to ignore the fact that it’s Family Day at Greendale1.
Here’s where the conceit of the episode comes into play, infecting all three plotlines and enlisting a whole battery of guest stars to fill out the roles of the cast’s family members. First of all, community college family days? Is that even a thing? Is this yet another “wacky Greendale” moment? Part of me wonders whether they couldn’t have found a more organic way to bring in an ex-stepchild of Pierce, so they just threw up their hands and said “screw it, everybody gets a family member!” It’s as if the episode2 wants to deconstruct the idea of families, but it doesn’t know exactly what approach to take. “Comparative Religion” was probably the best meditation on family this show was ever going to do at this stage, but that one worked mainly because it kept the whole cast mostly together. You can’t do that in an episode that includes Pierce’s stepdaughter, Troy’s grandma, Shirley’s sons, Abed’s father and cousin, and Chang’s brother. Instead, we get a bunch of characters split off into their own storylines, yielding a few strong gags but not much of a throughline beyond “families are quite silly, y’all”.
Each storyline is its own kind of mixed bag, though some do work better than others. i personally welcome and enjoy the return of Abed’s father Gobi Nadir (Iqbal Theda), back for the first time since “Introduction To Film”. He serves pretty much the same function in this episode as he did in that one — as the upholder of traditional values in conflict with people who have more modern inclinations — but it lacks the resonance of his first appearance, serving more as a pretext for Abed to congratulate Shirley for raising good children, after Gobi questions her abilities as a parent. It’s a nice moment of affirmation between them, but there’s not much genuine character growth behind it.
The C-plot with Troy, Britta, and Nana Barnes(Fran Bennett) is even thinner than that, but what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in pure venom. This is a cruel, nasty piece of business from start to finish, but one that, for whatever reason, always gets me laughing. It’s just so needlessly mean to Britta that i can’t help but respect it. We’re inching ever closer to Britta as The Worst, the character who paves her own road to hell with her best intentions. In this episode, it starts with trying to prove to Troy that he should value his Nana, and ends with her being mercilessly whupped across the bare bottom with a switch. Something about the horrified shock on her face as she realizes just how far in she’s dug herself, while Troy bursts into anguished tears in the background, reliving every trauma of his own childhood punishment, just amuses me to no end. Then of course, the cherry on top of the scene is Jeff and Amber bursting into the room, entwined mid-makeout, and deciding this maybe isn’t the best place for them to be hooking up right now.
Give Jeff some credit — he did at least attempt to back up off of Amber when he learned she was Pierce’s stepdaughter, and then even tried to help them get closer to each other, thanks to a guilt trip from Annie3. But once it becomes clear that Amber is into him, he gives in to the temptation pretty much right away, and even the revelation that Amber is scamming Pierce doesn’t slow him down much. This is possibly where we’re supposed to register some connection between Jeff’s heartbreak from earlier in the episode and his currently unscrupulous behavior, but i don’t think it gets across all that well. Mostly it just plays like Jeff Winger being a horny bastard and lacking conscience in the moment.
That conscience does return — in the form of a second hallway guilt trip from Annie — prompting Jeff to tell Amber to tear up the check Pierce gave her while they’re at, and you’re not going to believe this, yet ANOTHER Greendale school dance function. When that effort goes nowhere, his next move is to tell Pierce that she’s grifting him, which Pierce already knows. Jeff did the right thing on both counts, but to no avail. None of it brought him the catharsis he seeks. And sometimes, when Jeff Winger runs out of moves, he eventually comes clean, and in this case he confesses to having had sex with Amber. Pierce immediately forgives him, having just admitted he would’ve done the same if their positions were reversed, and that’s when he turns Jeff’s attention to Slater, seemingly moved on from him completely. After about one second of denial, Jeff finally breaks down, sobbing in the arms of the one man in the study group he cares for the least, as if proving his own thesis from earlier — “if you have friends, you have family.” It doesn’t exactly bring things full circle, but it does at least end on what appears to be a moment of real human connection, even if all that amounts to is a shared hatred of Glee.
⁃ End tag: Troy and Abed get themselves trapped in a vending machine, after Shirley’s kids had managed to do the same themselves. What looks fun for little kids doesn’t always translate to full-grown adults, though, as they learn when Troy does…. something painful to himself trying to escape
⁃ Changwatch: Rabbi Chang (Tom Yi) is a decent little gag that actually pays off during the family Pictionary game, which leads to an unseen fistfight between Señor Chang and Pierce. i’m not sure whether his brother’s increduloulsness at Chang’s position is supposed to foreshadow the reveal of Chang as a fraud in “English As A Second Language”, but the idea that both Chang brothers found themselves drawn to non-typical careers for Asian men does seem to hint at some kind of weirdness running in the family
⁃ Maybe my most blisteringly hot take about this episode is that i think Katharine McPhee’s not bad in it, ridiculous early-2010s hairstyle notwithstanding. Her would-be starmaking turn on Smash may have proved she cannot carry a show to save her life, but at this stage she was still just a former American Idol contestant, and it helps that she’s someone we’re not supposed to sympathize with in any way. i guess i just buy her more being cutthroat and mercernary than i do playing some kind of all-American sweetheart/ingenue or whatever she was supposed to be on Smash
⁃ Abra (Emily Ghamrawi), Abed’s cousin, is the other character in conflict with Gobi in this episode. This time, it’s over whether or not she should be allowed to play in a bouncy house. Her presence seems to serve mainly as a leadup to the gag where Shirley realizes that Jordan and Elijah have switched places with her in her burqa, but i’m not sure exactly what kind of note this moment of liberation is supposed to strike. Culturally, it seems questionable, but since the conflict was never about the burqa itself, i guess it was seen as an acceptable turn of events at the time. Being a person from none of these cultures involved, my opinion about it doesn’t count for much, though
⁃ It may seem auspicious that i happen to be posting about the “family episode” on Thanksgiving day, but i swear i didn’t plan any of this. If i was capable of that kind of long-term thinking, i’d be doing a much better job on these reviews. Oh well, happy turkey everybody
SHIRLEY: My sister likes to joke that they don’t recognize me anymore, and i like to joke that she’s just jealous, because she’s barren
TROY: Why would the Bootynator be back with booty, wouldn’t he just try and kill it?
SHIRLEY: And that’s Elijah, like the prophet, and that’s Jordan, like the 14-time NBA All-star
CHANG: Wow, i can’t believe Starburns isn’t a virgin. But judging by that bluetooth headset, his son is! Cha-Chang!
PIERCE: Hey Duck Sauce, that was rude. The call girls i frequent are not nearly as attractive as my daughter
JEFF: You’re becoming dangerous, Annie. It’s those doe eyes. Disappointing you is like choking the Little Mermaid with a bike chain
DEAN: Adios, Señor Chang. Shalom, Rabbi Chang. And to both of you, sayonara
SHIRLEY: That sounds heated. Did she call him a pig’s anus or something?
GOBI: i have to go back to my car and get my emergency shirt. And i don’t even like that shirt!
TROY: Yeah, my mom told me there’d be white people that did this. With pocket watches, and coffee grinders, and pretending to be into steamboats
PIERCE (playing Pictionary): Smiling sideways vagina!
OFFICER CACKOWSKI: And i may just be a simple cop, but people need to know: this isn’t gonna stop happening until Pictionary bans the word “windmill”
TROY (crying): I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU, BRITTA! I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU AT ALL
JEFF: Let’s focus on you — the forbidden fruit that is the ex-stepdaughter of a casual acquaintance
PIERCE: Have a family. Share your life. That and understanding computers are two things you just can’t knock out at the end
JEFF (crying): We always used to watch the shows she wanted to watch. i hate Glee!