“Beginner Pottery” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, March 18, 2010
Anyone who writes about Community for long enough will eventually face the question of what its setting means. Why is Greendale? What is so special about this place that it draws all these broken people together, subjects them to outrageous torments, and sends them on a journey of self-discovery, often against their wishes? In the early episodes of season one, the answer appears to be “Greendale’s just a crappy school and the characters must improve themselves if they hope they get out of it.” But at some point, the answer becomes something more along the lines of “Greendale is a surreal nightmare, but one that might actually foster improvement in its characters, out of sheer necessity.”
How does this process of mandated self-improvement actually work, then? If we’re to land on some kind of answer, it would have to do with the gradual relevation that Greendale is not merely a school, but a breeding ground for wild situations that escalate into famous movie scene homages at a moment’s notice. What distinguishes Greendale from other sitcom settings is that it’s a place where pop culture exerts a disproportionate amount of power. Characters like Abed are aware of this power, and actively try to harness it for their own entertainment. Others live in fear of it, having learned from experience that their reality can suddenly splinter into a self-referential minefield of genre parody without warning. Either way, it seems, the only rational response is for these characters to behave as though they actually are characters in a story, learning whatever life lessons they must.
“Beginner Pottery” finds Community on the verge of a breakthrough. Somehow, all throughout its first 18 episodes, it hasn’t yet taken the plunge into full-on stylistic pastiche. Its earliest episodes were always full of pop culture references, but no more so than any other show on the air at the time. Isolated moments such as Abed’s Batman rescue in “Introduction To Statistics” proved the show’s established world was malleable enough to accommodate the occasional flight of fancy, but until this point, no subsequent epsiode ever attempted to apply that approach to an entire plotline. That changes with “Beginner Pottery”, wherein Professor Slaughter1 demands such intense commitment to the simulated reality of his parking lot-bound Sailing class that Pierce is given up for “dead” when he clumsily falls overboard the S.S. Nose Candy. All aspects of this story — from the framing and editing to the performances and score — combine to create a pitch-perfect imitation of “disaster at sea” movies like White Squall or The Perfect Storm, resulting in a series of solid visual gags2, that reach their apex when we get a view of how absurd this action looks like from inside of a classroom. What’s most notable about this approach is that it is never used to deflate the actual stakes of the story. Pierce may not be in any real danger at any point, but the principle he represents, his foolish stubbornness that tests Shirley’s beliefs about what makes a person good, is treated with the dignity it deserves. Pop culture homage serves the story, not the other way around.
The other plotline, which the episode takes its title from, doesn’t quite make its point as grandiosely, but it does reinforce this view of Greendale as a world where pop culture wields undue influence. Professor Holly(Tony Hale)’s obsession with making sure no “Ghosting” takes place within his pottery class mirrors Professor Whitman’s one-track fixation on Dead Poets Society3, but this character trait turns out to be an incidental conflict, a Chekovian gun that goes off at the perfect time, just as Jeff’s feelings of inadequacy about measuring up to the preternaturally talented Rich reach their breaking point. Jeff and Pierce are often positioned as points of comparison with each other, but normally that occurs organically, when they are both part of the same plot. This episode4 puts a new-ish spin on that dynamic by pitting each of them against a separate set of challenges and then presenting them as contrasting forces, much in the same way that “Physical Education” contrasted Jeff and Abed as they navigated a couple of narratives that were wholly unrelated, except in theme.
In that episode, the theme was “vanity” and “changing for others” — in this one it’s “dealing with failure”. Initially’s these characters’ approaches couldn’t be more different: Jeff saunters in wearing sunglasses and hitting on women, while Pierce shows up in full ship’s-captain regalia and attempts to christen the boat with a wine bottle. Despite appearances, though, they both prove to care very deeply about doing well in these classes, which puts each of them in conflict with a fellow student. In Jeff’s case, he reacts to Rich’s inexplicable knack for pottery by trying to expose him as a fraud, because obviously anybody who’s better than Jeff at something must be lying about their level of expertise. Pierce’s is to forge on ahead like nothing has gone wrong, claiming his place within the crew even if it costs them all their simulated lives. Despite Shirley being the one who changes her approach to leadership in reaction to his persistence, this is a Pierce story all the way through, one of the earliest example we have of his refusal to let others leave him behind.
These two plot lines on their own are both amusing enough, and would work well as pieces of singular comedy even if they never intersected, but Community goes the extra mile by giving us a scene between Jeff and Pierce that forms the emotional crux of the episode. Chevy Chase has by all accounts been a nightmare to work with since time immemorial, but a scene like this demonstrates why it might seem worth it to put up with his shitty behavior from time to time. You need someone with his ineffable mixture of gravitas, buffoonishness, and impeccable sense of comic timing to really make a scene like this — where a man delivers a heartfelt speech one moment and then rows away on a canoe on wheels the next — land as effectively as possible. Chase has the range to play both the pathos and the ridiculousness of this character at the same time, to the point where it becomes difficult to imagine anyone else could have played him in quite the same way.
The scene needs to both drive Jeff’s change of heart and set the stage for Pierce’s eventual triumph, and it succeeds on both counts, leading to an uproarious rescue from a broken sprinkler, and a revised flashback with Jeff’s mom imparting the lesson he wished he had heard from her. The final twist, revealing the depth of the verbal abuse Rich has suffered at the hands of his own Beatrice Horseman-like mother, is maybe a little darker than it needed to be, but it’s in keeping with the show’s m.o. that someone who appears to have it all together is hiding and suppressing a lot more pain under the surface. Deconstructing archetypes has always been the order of the day here, and it even extends to throwaway jokes like this one. Community, at this stage is concerned with questioning our assumptions — not just about the people in it, but about what we expect from a TV show, and what can happen when its creators start pushing beyond those limits. It has been a fairly standard sitcom up to this point, if a frequently excellent one, and could have easily just coasted on being this type of show for its entire run. It arguably still was this type of show, whenever it wasn’t indulging in the kinds of concept episodes that became its calling card. But once it started following its true ambitions, there was essentially no going back. The potential here was just too great not to exploit, and Greendale was the place that made it all possible.
⁃ End tag: Chang strolls into the YMCA locker room in a bathing suit, only to find he’s been robbed again. Conveniently, this also serves as our Changwatch section for the episode, as it’s following up an earlier scene where Chang enters Spanish class shirtless
⁃ Most Meta Moment goes, naturally, to Abed in the scene where he provides real-time voiceover for Jeff’s envious emotional state until Jeff tells him to stop. Fitting that only two episodes from Abed will be doing actual voiceover for the study group’s Scorsese/Goodfellas homage
⁃ This week in “Annie’s pretty young, we try not to sexualize her”: Jeff and Abed leer on as Annie runs her hands up and down the world’s most phallic “vase” in a shot that seems specifically calculates to make for a viral GIF. Not sure if this also counts, but apparently at some point Rich teaches her to check for breast lumps
⁃ Rich returns most prominently in season two’s “Asian Population Studies” to once again provoke Jeff’s jealousies, this time playing up the bond between him and Annie. But my favorite appearance from him is probably that season’s “Epidemiology”, where he plays the role of doctor-in-a-zombie-movie who inevitably gets infected
⁃ The main flaw of this episode is that the other characters besides Jeff and Pierce don’t get a much to do besides have a few funny reactions. Even though Shirley is ostensibly the one who gets an arc here, it’s all reliant on Yvette Nicole Brown’s performance and facial expressions and isn’t really supported by the writing. Star-burns also has a supporting role in Sailing class but doesn’t even get a line, i don’t think
SHIRLEY: i had to get up so early for my bus, i caught the tail end of what Cinemax gets up to at night. Subscription canceled! i got that channel for Eddie Murphy movies, not stimulation
ANNIE: idon’t know, your last “blow-off class” ended up teaching me to live in the moment, which i will always regret and never do again
JEFF: This class is like a redhead that drinks scotch and loves Die Hard, i suggest you all get her number
PROFESSOR SLAUGHTER: From the moment you climbed aboard, i saw seamen inside you. More importantly, you’ve stopped giggling at the word “seamen”. And that’s the mark of a real seaman
TROY: Damn, he’s ghost riding the jib!
ABED: Well, anyone can be a lawyer. You can even represent yourself. But you can’t do surgery on yourself, it’s illegal. You’d get arrested. And then you’d get a free lawyer
PIERCE: Now i know what the “C” in captain stands for. (everyone gasps) Crabapple
TROY: i hope i get multiple personalities. i get lonely in long showers
PROFESSOR HOLLY: Look! (points to an anti-Patrick Swayze poster) i had it made before he died, it’s not in bad taste
JEFF: Pierce, do you still have the number of the private investigator you used when you thought Ross Perot was sleeping with your mom?
PIERCE: That thing that some men call failure, i call living. Breakfast. And i’m not leaving until i’ve cleaned out the buffet
BRITTA: i mean, i feel bad for him, but things have been running smoother since he drowned