“The Psychology Of Letting Go” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, October 7, 2010
In the same way that “The Art Of Discourse” was the key to understanding Britta and Jeff, “The Psychology Of Letting Go” is the key to understanding the character of Pierce. Arguably, Pierce’s character arc throughout season 2 makes no sense without this episode1 — in particular, his mortal terror about being left out of things would play like mere narrative contrivance, had this episode not established him as a man so deep in denial about the death of his mother — possibly the only person who ever loved him unconditionally — that he’d prefer to believe her soul lives on within the confines of a lava lamp.
Everything Pierce does in season 2 — whether it’s falling in with a bad crowd in “Messianic Myths And Ancient Peoples”, hogging the spotlight in “Celebrity Pharmacology”, or his more sinister actions in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” and “Advanced Dungeons And Dragons” — all stem from the trauma of this loss, and what it portends for his own mortality. If he can be left out of this group2, then he can be left behind by the world, and his life will have amounted to nothing.
While Pierce’s loss may instigate the journey he goes through in season 2, the arc in this episode3 belongs entirely to Jeff. Granted, connecting a slightly high cholesterol level to the spectre of imminent death is quite a leap, but it’s exactly the kind of leap that Jeff would make, just as his revenge plan of forcing Pierce to confront his mother’s corpse is exactly what he’d do to offload some of his anger about his mortality. Image might be everything to him, but cutting an impeccable figure by no means guarantees you robust health in the long term. During the first season, i noted several episodes where Jeff and the study group are on opposing sides of a conflict, which would sometimes lead to a moment where one or both sides will come around to the other’s point of view. This episode seems to suggest that Jeff has evolved beyond the need for outside intervention, giving him a character arc that he completes more or less on his own.
Jeff presents himself as living an ascetic-like existence, renouncing the earthly pleasures of an unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle for the sake of vanity. The news that his cholesterol is a little high rocks him because it’s unthinkable that all this discipline and self-denial has produced nothing more than an enviable physique with an expiration date. As Professor Duncan points out, his faith that obsessively taking care of his body guarantees a longer life isn’t all that different in the abstract from Pierce’s faith — follow a certain set of steps, make all the right choices, and the outcome you desire can be yours. The message Pierce’s mom4 records and then burns onto a CD in her dying moments5 may have been intended for Pierce, but it turns out to be exactly what Jeff needed to hear. Life is to be enjoyed while it lasts, not spent relentlessly spreading your own misery to those around you. It’s a lesson we could all increasingly take to heart.
Community is well-known for its ability to take tired old tropes and breathe new life into them, but sometimes these efforts come up short. No matter how many twists you throw in, a story about female envy is still a story about female envy. The novelty here is that Britta envies Annie not because men find her attractive — i’m willing to bet Britta herself is no stranger to male attention — but because Annie actually makes a better and more effective activist than her. This is a thread the show hasn’t picked up for more than a full season, since “Spanish 102”, where Britta feels territorial about the cause she supports. In this case, her objection to Annie raising more money than her stems from Britta’s unwillingness to conform to the behavior society expects from women. Annie smiles at everyone because that’s who she is, and this behavior is totally alien to Britta, who can’t see it as anything other than a form of self-exploitation.
There is a potentially interesting place to take this premise — something about the gatekeeping of activism and Britta’s ego undermining their actual effort to raise money for this cause — but the payoff to this conflict turns out to be an oil wrestling match and each of them explaining their reasons for hooking up with Jeff. Emotionally it feels a bit contrived, even leaving aside the fan service6. For me, the most fun bit of this plotline is Shirley’s resentment at being left out, especially when she points out the absurdity of these two slim, attractive white women acting as if they are actually polar opposites. Her characterization escalates quickly from passive aggression to actively fueling the conflict between them, as if she has decided that if she’s not going to be invited, she might as well get some entertainment out of it. Previous episodes had established her as a person who thrives on drama, but in this episode she plays almost an Abed-type role, albeit through a far pettier form of manipulation and observation than his.
In fact, except for Abed’s part in it, this whole episode pretty much boils down to sitcom business as usual. So far in season two, there haven’t really been any glimpses of the more adventurous show Community was becoming near the end of season one. Three “normal” episodes in a row may seem an inauspicious way to kick off Community’s second season, but we’re at a point now where even the most normal episodes aren’t immune from stray bouts of weirdness. What other show would think to include a whole pregnancy/childbirth storyline that plays out entirely in the background?7 Or a C-plot about one character using his restraining order against the other as a force field? Throughout its run, Community would make fitful attempts to return to a more “back-to-basics” approach, but even at its most conventional there was always a playfulness seeping in around the edges. It makes for a slow but cozy start to its sophomore season as these little story experiments reassert that the creative minds behind this show still have imagination to spare.
NOTES & QUOTES
⁃ End tag: Professor June Bauer (Betty White) discusses the burning questions many fans probably had about the plot of Inception to some African tribesmen in Mimpousa, Congo. An earlier scene had established that she was on paid administrative leave after her little incident assaulting Jeff during class, and this is sadly the last we’ll see of her
⁃ But with Professor Bauer gone, we have the perfect opportunity to bring Ian Duncan back on board as a recurring character, filling in the role of ersatz Anthropology teacher despite his total lack of expertise and an apparently constant state of inebriation. John Oliver may not have ever felt integral to the show, but it’s nice that he kept coming back, even turning up in a few of the show’s best episodes
⁃ The Duncan-Chang rivalry probably reaches its peak here too, following up on the events of “Advanced Criminal Law” and “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited”. Mutually assured destruction was probably the only way to resolved such an absurd situation, but i also love when they later share a moment partying at Jeff’s apartment in “Early 21st Century Romanticism”
⁃ Patton Oswalt’s role as Nurse Jackie for the first time since “Home Economics”, and his dialogue definitely has the feel of one of his standup bits from the time. Meanwhile, Bill Parks, D.C Pierson and Justin Alston fill out the roles of the various men Annie and Britta solicit for donations. Apparently TV critic Alan Sepinwall also appears as an extra?
ANNIE: i’m so glad this tragedy overshadowed Haiti. i didn’t have any ideas for that
SHIRLEY: i told you not to use the East stairwell. My pastor says it’s meth season
TROY: She was so cold and gray…. i saw her underwear!
SHIRLEY: Everybody has some sort of service for the departed. Eskimos, witch doctors, Jewish people
NURSE JACKIE: i can’t be the first one to tell you that the temple doesn’t last forever. i mean, it’s made of hamburger, this is a, this is a Temple Of Doom. And you know what, like the real Temple Of Doom, it represents the inconvenient fact that all good things, be they people or movie franchises, eventually collapse into sagging, sloppy, rotten piles of hard-to-follow nonsense
JEFF: The fact is, everyone’s dying. And we all have these little notions that we’re the exception, but we’re as wrong as we are dead
ANNIE: Um, that’s me. And if a guy wants to make a puppet of me, that’s hardly your concern
PIERCE: You gain levels, and at a certain point, you actually can eat a ghost
DUNCAN: Hold on a sec, i need to use my force field to prevent Chang from getting food
JEFF: Wow, you guys are real downers. i can’t believe i made out with both of you