“English as a Second Language” originally aired on NBC Thursday night May 13, 2010
Couple things: 1) Community never set out to be “the show that just parodies everything”, and 2) nearly anything that followed “Modern Warfare” would seem like a disappointment. It’s extremely important to keep these things in mind, because otherwise it’s nearly impossible to view “English as a Second Language” in a vacuum, and evaluate it on its own merits. Maybe it’s impossible anyway. Once you’ve seen a show vault from “promising new series” to “all-time classic in the making”, it’s difficult to still appreciate it for the times when it goes back to being the former. The previous episode may have balanced the overarching story and the pop culture parody side of the show elegantly, but this episode proves that balance is not as easy to maintain as it looks.
And let’s not forget, this IS another parody episode. It’s just that the parody element really only involves one character, and never develops into a rich enough concept to sustain even an A-level plot. Eventually this detour will improbably return in the third season, forming a much fuller arc that gets a whole lot weirder and ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than an odd little narrative cul-de-sac. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Good Will Hunting is certainly an offbeat choice for an homage, but the reversal of expectations when Troy first glances at the chalkboard and Ludwig Göranssan’s as-ever on point score keeps it worthwhile. Jerry (Jerry Minor), the Greendale janitor who is apparently supposed to serve in the roles of both Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgård in this scenario, gets a few good moments. i like when Abed comes out of the bathroom stall and greets him. But overall, this whole thread feels like a bit of a “floating” plot point that ended up shoehorned into this episode because it didn’t fit into any of the others, especially since it sets up something that doesn’t pay off for two more full seasons.
Actually, not connecting it to the main plot can also be considered a missed opportunity, since the whole episode is about the failings of academia and its intrusion into the social lives of its students, in a very broad sense. Speaking of a missed opportunity, if they were ever going to write Chang off of the show, this would’ve been the perfect time to do it. They clearly never intended to do any such thing, but exposing his Spanish professor credentials as fraudulent and stripping him of his post as a Greendale teacher does create a big question mark as to where they can take the character from here. i understand why they couldn’t just keep him in the role of Spanish professor, but defanging him created an awkwardness they never really resolved. Turns out when you take a antagonistic, tyrannical nutcase and remove him from power, all that’s left is… an antagonistic nutcase, one who can serve a certain story function here or there, but never really feels integral to the show in his own right. Over the course of five seasons, they try everything from further humanizing him to restoring him to a position of power to giving him an inane storyline where he fakes memory loss in order to set up a massive betrayal only to completely undo the whole arc, all without ever landing on anything resembling a unified answer to the question “Why exactly is Chang in this show?” He seems to work fine as another Greendale background player who occasionally shows up for a gag or two, but if that’s the only point of him, there are plenty of others that can do the same thing. And feeding into his megalomaniacal side only served to make the show a lot more broad and cartoony than it already was. Chang is either so insignificant as to be superfluous, or way too impactful, to the point where it’s all about him. With hindsight, cutting off his character’s role right here might have been the most sensible option. All that said, Ken Jeong does turn out to be an increasingly welcome presence into the show’s later years, as it starts hemorrhaging cast members left and right, so i can’t be too upset about the way things turned out.
One thing about Community that i’ve managed to avoid talking about so far is that it’s a problematic show. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Annie and Jeff’s weird ongoing flirtation. This episode1 mostly sidelines the whole “forbidden romance” side of their relationship, but does itself no favors by positioning the two of them as opposing sides of the central conflict. As great as the performances of this cast uniformly are, it’s just always going to seem gross watching Jeff use his “browbeating the witness” lawyering skills to turn the rest of the study group against Annie when it’s revealed that she ratted out Chang to the Dean2. Jeff may have slightly more reason to be enraged than the others, as he’s been looking forward to his immovable “May 23rd, 2013” appointment since he first enrolled at Greendale. But Annie’s got an understandable motivation of her own, working overtime to keep the study group together when no one else will step up, to the point where she felt she had no choice but to exercise the nuclear option. Her old rehab group having fallen out of contact, the prospect of losing another set of friends becomes unthinkable, especially when it becomes clear that without Jeff there’s no chance of wrangling the others on board. The old dynamic from “Introduction To Statistics” hasn’t changed — Annie still relies on Jeff to maintain her ideal social life, and Jeff still has other things he’d rather be doing. To the extent that these characters have progressed over the course of the 17 intervening episodes, it can be said that Jeff no longer spends quite as much time refusing the call, and Annie shows more willingness to openly reckon with the motivations and consequences of her actions. Both have matured even as they remain susceptible to their old ways, and none of this development is poorly-executed. It’s just when you pull back and realize that this thirtysomething ex-laywer is ostrasizing this inexperienced teenager who has a history of substance abuse issues, the whole scene gets a lot harder to enjoy.
And so post-“Modern Warfare” Community gets off to kind of a bumpy start, portending a stretch of episodes where the show didn’t always seem to know exactly what it wanted to be. It wasn’t until several episodes into the second season that it was able to find its footing and get back to doing what it does best — finding novel concepts, mapping them onto the world of Greendale, and sending its characters on wild journeys through narrative and genre. After showing what it was truly capable of, it had to rebuild itself from the ground up, reinforcing the foundations for all of its future excursions. Whether they soared, stumbled, or just never got off the ground, they always did so in a way no other show would dare attempt.
⁃ End tag: if “The Art Of Discourse” was an attempt to justify the presence of Pierce, “English As A Second Language” really goes out of its way to rehabilitate his image by making him the unsung hero of the study group. Hooking up with replacement Spanish teacher Doctor Escodera (Marlene Forte) to make sure everyone gets passing grades qualifies as possibly the most baller move he ever pulled, but what’s great about this resolution is that it can hardly be considered altruistic. Pierce is shown to be an incurable horndog who’ll hit on anything, and surely the fact that he never seeks credit for their academic success proves that he’s aware how sleazy an arrangement they’ve made. He’ll return to the role of “unlikely savior” in the season two finale, but only after spending that entire season driving everyone else away
⁃ This episode introduces one of my favorite little verbal tics of Community: where a character will point to each of the others, while repeating a one-word question. This time, it’s “Anthropology?”
⁃ Absolutely no acknowledgment of Jeff and Britta’s hookup in the previous episode, which is probably for the best, as the way the finale handles it makes it pretty clear that this show is just not equipped to carry any kind of long-term relationship baggage. Part of me does wonder what it would’ve been like if they tried to just go on pretending it never happened, but they must have wanted to avoid turning this into any more of an albatross than it already was
⁃ Of course, with so much focus on Jeff and Annie here, including a throwaway moment where Annie all but confesses she’s trying to dress in a more professorial style because she thinks he’ll be into it, they probably just don’t want to distract from that pairing. They just could not stop punting on the possibility of that relationship, much in the same way they never stopped punting on Chang
BRITTA: Will anyone back me up if i say this is ridiculous, or is it gonna be another Avatar situation?
ANNIE: Of course you think that, Britta. It’s obvious from your name your parents smoked pot
CHANG: Okay, come back in ten minutes. And if anyone asks, i sent you to learn things
JEFF: Did you say “keytar”, or did you just pronounce “guitar” like a hillbilly?
DEAN: Word of advice: if an Asian man says he’s a Spanish teacher, it’s not racist to ask for proof, okay? You ignore your mother’s voice and get right into that horse’s mouth
TROY: i couldn’t understand a word Doctor Escodera was saying. And why is she teaching Spanish if she’s a doctor? Go cure something!
JEFF: You’re wearing protective goggles to destroy my car?
TROY: The only thing that makes sense is this. (points at head) Learning. Thoughts. So i can think, and get a student loan, and grind my own coffee, and understand HBO
ABED (recounting the plot of the episode): You said you record all your classes, Pierce called it a spoiler alert
JEFF: Did the Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants poison each other’s food so they were too sick to leave? No! i’ve never seen it, but i’m pretty sure they mailed each other pants!
TROY: i’m gonna be sophisticated, and have no job. Or a job that looks from a distance like i do nothing
SHIRLEY: My horoscope predicted suffering. No no, that’s good. Horoscopes are the Devil trying to trick us