“Contemporary American Poultry” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, April 22, 2010
Emotional anchors — that’s what made Community’s concept episodes work so well. Such a simple and important idea, and yet one that is so often overlooked in discussions of this show. Mostly what people seem to focus on is the precision of its parody — how they’re able to adapt the camerawork and the editing to match whatever genre they’re spoofing, perfectly evoking its mood. Not to dismiss the impressiveness of that feat, but if that’s all there was to it, Community would be just another stylish sketch show. Pop culture pastiche is the very definition of “nothing new under the sun”. But using a format-breaking concept episode to advance the plot or deepen character development — that’s a truly radical notion, and if Community wasn’t the first to try it, they certainly took this approach further than anyone had before.
The time was right. Twenty episodes into its run, Community was really hitting its stride. The cast had more or less perfected their performances of these characters, and the writing was giving them consistently strong comedic and thematic material to play week after week. While never quite straying from its original “college friends helping each other” conceit, the show had always displayed potential to eventually become something more. The grandiose payoffs of episodes like “Interpretive Dance”, “Physical Education” and “Environmental Science” showed a willingness to aim for big emotional high points, and the referential detours in “Beginner Pottery” and “Introduction To Statistics” proved they could craft sequences that pushed its filmmaking and storytelling beyond the conventional sitcom format. All the while, a meta streak ran through episodes like “Debate 109” and “Investigative Journalism” that lent the show an extra layer of artifice and provided its unique viewpoint. Basically, all the pieces were in place for this. When i talk about early Community episodes “showing promise” and “having potential”, what i mean is that the show had the capability to produce an episode like “Contemporary American Poultry” from the start. All it needed was time, a little trial-and-error, and a willingness to experiment.
But time was the most crucial factor that allowed this episode to work. Leaving the emotional content aside, even the majority of the humor in the episode is derived not from mafia movie riffs, but from these characters and their relationships to each other. That wouldn’t have been possible without the painstaking work each of the previous 20 episodes did setting up the cast and their environment. Actually, for being a concept episode, this seems surprisingly restrained compared to what would come later. It’s not wall-to-wall elaborate setpieces like “Modern Warfare”. The homage aspect is mostly confined to Abed’s voiceover and a few montages, as if they were being cautious not to go overboard with it. What makes “Contemporary American Poultry” feel like such a dry run for later experiments is that the story itself stays resolutely grounded in character1.
That approach makes the mafia movie gimmick the ideal choice for their parody episode maiden voyage. Scorsese is nothing if not a master of the character study, and the episode largely adopts his style, resisting the showier likes of The Godfather2 or Scarface. The classic rock soundtrack, the constantly moving camera, Abed’s expository narration — these signifiers are recognizable even to anyone who hasn’t seen a frame of Casino or Goodfellas, and the rise-to-power/fall-from-grace structure of the script3 follows the archetypal mafia arc to the letter, while somehow still remaining an episode of Community through and through.
Before dropping into freeze frame and voiceover, the episode lays out several typical sitcom conflicts, including Shirley’s new crush4 and Abed’s lack of social graces. But these aren’t misdirects — they are starting points for actual stories that have beginnings, middles, and ends, all while a complete mafia movie plays out around them. Shirley wants Sexy Dreadlocks, then gets him for a little while, before inevitably losing him. Each character in the study group goes through a similar journey of desire, acquisition, and loss, following the most basic version of Dan Harmon’s story circle. But for Abed and Jeff, this journey represents nothing less than a struggle for the soul of Greendale itself, symbolized by its dependence on cafeteria chicken fingers.
Chicken fingers are the stand-in for drugs or any other Macguffin valuble enough to go to war over in a mafia movie, and in Greendale, it might as well be the Spice Melange from Dune. Seeing the power that they have over people, Abed goes all-in — leveraging his access to the fryer for goods and favors until he’s fielding offers from people who can’t lay claim to anything greater than owning a bicycle and teaching tennis. Jeff, who threw this power around casually, without regard for the consequences, recognizes in Abed a version of himself who doesn’t know where to stop. The others accuse him of being jealous, but what he’s really jealous of is Abed’s lack of ego. Abed may be giving people what they want, but what he wants is the feeling of acceptance this position affords him. The difference between how they occupy positions of power is that Jeff takes advantage of others, while Abed becomes so generous that others end up taking advantage of him. Jeff employs mercernary tactics to achieve fairly inconsequential gains, while Abed explicitly sets out to make people happy and winds up running the entire school.
This is where the character emotions ground the episode in reality — or at least, what passes for reality in Greendale’s world. At the urging of the group after Abed rescinds his gifts to send them a message, Jeff takes Star-burns up on his tip that disconnecting a single valve can disable the fryer for good. Only problem is, Abed’s there in the kitchen, trying to fry up another delicacy tasty enough to retain the seat of power. Up until this moment, the chicken finger saga had followed the mafia movie template to the letter, building up to the scene where the made man gets whacked. Here, the breakneck momentum of the plot finally slows down enough for Jeff and Abed to actually reflect on their behavior. Their heart-to-heart stops the mafia movie in its tracks, and the scene that plays out is pure Community, the same kind of poignant character-based exchange that unfolded on the steps in front of the library in the pilot, culminating in the symbolic referential switch from Scorsese to John Hughes.
And from there, the episode ties things off in standard sitcom status-quo-reset fashion, right down to the reveals of a new gang taking over the operation and Abed telling the story to the Dean. There’s no indication that the episode we just saw would be anything more than a cute little one-off, but something about it still feels different. It’s as if the show has crossed some kind of Rubicon, ascending to a level of inventiveness and hilarity we always knew it was capable of. If there was any question about it before, there’s no longer any doubt that Community has officially come into its own. After pulling off an episode this creative, this successfully, it’s no wonder they felt empowered to run with it. And it’s no wonder their small, passionate fanbase went wild for it. Community was good from the start, but it didn’t become something truly special until it blew the limitations of its medium wide open. After all, eventually people get tired of chicken fingers.
⁃ End tag: Troy and Abed perform a few clichéd “pretending to walk downstairs” routines as the group steadily loses interest and leaves, only to end on their impressive quick-change finale to an empty room. Not their most classic gag, but definitely nothing to complain about here
⁃ All those episodes exploring Greendale as a setting really pay off here. Besides Star-burns playing the critical role of the corrupt thug the gang has to take out, Chang, the Dean, Leonard, and Garrett all show up to fill out various archetypal roles. More than anything, i think it’s the setting of Greendale that makes the concept episodes such a delight
⁃ This is also a unique episode5 in that there’s really only one plotline. The closest the show had come to doing something like that was “Comparative Religion”, but even that one had the bully fight, in addition to Shirley’s Christmas party. Concept episodes don’t always allow for the possibility of multiple story threads, though later episodes like “Conspiracy Theories And Interior Design” found ways to balance them elegantly
⁃ If Travis is your middle name, do you really even count as a Travis? Pierce, asking the real questions
⁃ i didn’t even mention Annie’s Boobs, the infamous animal mascot that would significantly impact several big plots going forward. Christ, this episode is STACKED
PIERCE: “Streets ahead” is verbal wildfire!
TROY: Not that i’m Catholic, but if it were cool to eat God, he’d be a chicken finger
BRITTA: And if you guys knew how they treated the animals you that you are eating, you would eat them even faster, just to put them out of their misery. And then you would throw up
ABED: i’m really glad you said that, Britta. The idea that you compulsively filter yourself makes your lack of flavor kind of a flavor
JEFF: He gives them to people, just so they’ll act like he isn’t Star-Burns
ABED (voiceover): As far back as i can remember, i always wanted to be in a mafia movie
ABED (voiceover): Back in those days, Jeff Winger was the guy that made things happen. He always knew what to say. And he always knew when to slap the table
ABED (voiceover): At that moment, we stopped being a family, and started being a family, in italics
TROY: i dressed like a crazy pharoah for you, man
TROY: Uh, it’s an animal that looks like a dude. Why don’t i have ten of them?
BRITTA: More insane than programming them to replace auto workers?
TROY: i wouldn’t threaten a monkey. They have more lactic acid than us
JEFF: Oh, and for your information, i don’t have an ego. My Facebook photo is a landscape
PIERCE: You wanna boss me around? Get me an entourage. Get Troy a monkey. That’s what a real boss does
ANNIE: Also, should we make special jackets for our crime family, like blazers with chicken finger patches on them?
TROY: Abed…. my monkey hates this caviar
SHIRLEY: And i caught him stuffing my man full of chicken, and Tyler Perry has a whole series of movies about why that’s wrong
ABED: It’s not that complicated, Jeff. They replaced the “C” in “circle” with a “Z” for zucchini