“Messianic Myths And Ancient Peoples” originally aired on NBC Thursday night October 21, 2010
Shirley Bennett is the most slept-on character in Community and i will not hear a word against her, nor Yvette Nicole Brown’s note-perfect performance.When Donald Glover left, the show lost something truly special and irreplaceable. When Chevy Chase left, they lost something…. But it wasn’t until Yvette Nicole Brown left the show that it started feeling like it just wasn’t the same anymore. And this is a show that had even survived the departure and subsequent return of its creator and original showrunner with its identity mostly intact, and even after all that, it turned out Shirley was the glue holding the whole thing together all along. i’m being 100% serious here, by the way. While not always the best-served by the writing, Shirley brought something unique to this show that should not be overlooked.
Notably, Shirley was the one character with strong social connections (to her church and family) outside the group before they started meeting. And her checkered, sometimes violent past illustrates how important these connections were in keeping her life balanced. You could say the others lacked opportunities for meaningful interactions in their lives, but you couldn’t say that about her. Yet she’s one of their most loyal members, consistently showing up whenever they needed her and going out of her way to make a difference in their lives. At her best, she represents an ideal form of Christianity, one that emphasizes warmth and closeness in human relationships and a willingness to sacrifice her own needs for the greater good. But her beliefs can be just as alienating as they are unifying, especially as no one in the study group1 shares the same faith as her. At their worst, her unyielding values can themselves become a source of conflict. When pushed, she can react with hostility and even bigotry in the name of her religion. Her longstanding rage and violent streak isn’t gone, just channeled into a more specific purpose.
That’s the essential tension of her conflict with Abed in this episode. His movie is an affront to her whole belief system, and there’s no way for her to express that without appearing spiteful and narrow-minded. It’s the same characterization she had in “Comparative Religion”, when she last attempted to bend the diversity of the group into a more homogenous collective. The wrinkle here is that from Abed’s end, he’s merely engaging with Christianity through the lens that he knows — the medium of film. The notion that someone could read the New Testament and take no greater insight from it than “being treated like a cult of personality would be kinda rad” is wildly offensive to Shirley, especially as attendance at her actual church continues to dwindle. What she fails to recognize is that to Abed, movies are just as sacred as the Bible is to her, to the point where his own movie inspired by the story of Christ ends up becoming an endlessly reflective paean to the art of making movies.
This is not a drill, people: 30 episodes in, Community has finally learned to stop worrying and embrace the meta. After keeping Abed mostly on the fringes in the previous two episodes, this one2 places him squarely in the spotlight, Danny Pudi delivering all the quality Abed content a person could reasonably handle. And what this plot demonstrates is that just “being meta” isn’t enough to create a compelling story3. It doesn’t matter how clever your concept is if the execution fails to say anything of substance. Abed thinks he’s creating his masterpiece, but it’s really just some psuedo-profound drivel that anyone can come up with if they’re committed deeply enough to ego. The self-satisfaction and shameless pandering on display is positively Jeff Wingerian, as is the crowd-pleasing effect it has on the student body. When Abed has his Gethsemane moment, it’s almost an acknowledgment that the fawning adulation that’s been lavished on him is in no way comparable to the genuine connections that true communities can provide. This is where he realizes he has forsaken his real friends for a bunch of acolytes that will abandon him once it becomes clear the emperor has no clothes, and how fortunate he’s been to have a friend like Shirley who won’t abandon him, even if it means she ends up destroying of all his filming equipment with a baseball bat.
Over on the “Ancient Peoples” side of the episode, Pierce is dealing with abandonment issues of his own. Since his mother’s death4, his behavior has taken a turn for the worst, as he lacks the tools to work through his actual feelings. So instead, these feelings take the form of Pierce reverting back to the rebellious Boomer teen he most likely was, in an uproarious parody of old-timey “juvenile delinquincy” after-school specials. It begins when Pierce starts hanging out with Leonard and the “hipsters”5, but even before that there are signs that Pierce is getting fed up with the study group policing his behavior and is looking for a chance to cut loose. What he learns is that despite their hectoring, the study group really does care about Pierce, and Jeff ends up being the one who sees that the hipsters act that way partly because they no longer have people in their lives who care about them. This convinces him not to give up on Pierce, although he does pass off Emergency Contact responsibilites to the allegedly nocturnal Britta. Pierce stories often resolve this way, with the study group ultimately accepting him while still keeping him at arm’s length, further fueling the gradual distrust between them.
These two storylines each explore this theme of human connection and a communal sense of family, but they also get a chance to actually intersect during a second-act study room scene, and i’ll always be grateful for it. Each member of the study group plays their archetypal sitcom-family roles to a tee — Pierce mouthing off, Jeff taking a stern yet distant approach to discipline, Annie tattling, Britta trying to be the voice of reason, Troy laying low, Abed and Shirley feuding. Even their study room table seems to morph into a suburban dining room table for a moment. It’s a funny scene because it plays off such well-worn tropes, but there is a poignancy to it as well, almost as if these characters are coming together to recreate a dynamic they were deprived of and have always longed for. There’s plenty of silliness inherent in idea of the nuclear family, which is why it makes such rich fodder for sitcoms, but there’s a comfort and safety to it too, even if much of that is merely something that has been packaged and sold as an ideal to be consumed since the advent of television. Family means a lot of things, but if i had to define it in the simplest terms, i’d describe it as a group of flawed people trying their best for each other. When i think of Community, it’s not the pop culture/meta stuff that stands out to me, nor the wacky antics of characters like the Dean or Chang. It’s this idea of Flawed People Who Try Their Best, characters making mistakes and accepting that they need other people to be their best selves — characters like Shirley Bennett.
NOTES AND QUOTES
⁃ End tag: Troy and Abed show up to the study room wearing the same outfit as Jeff, and trying their damnedest to speak the exact same words as him, in unison. Annoyed with this childish imitation, Jeff exits one moment before Annie shows up, also dressed in the same outfit, too late to join in the fun. Without missing a beat, Troy and Abed immediately transition into an imitation of Annie’s frustration. Great bit, not only continuing the thread of T&A busting on Winger, but also spinning a new recurring theme of Annie being left out of their shenaningans
⁃ Does this count as a concept episode? Despite the fact that it parodies a lot of recognizable stuff, i don’t know if i’d consider it one. Mostly this is an aesthetic distinction — i feel like i need to see more effort in the visual stylization for this to feel like true pastiche
⁃ i’ve watched this episode more times than i can count at this point, and i’m still taken aback every single time by the dance Britta does when she and Troy are first attempting to film Shirley’s viral video. There’s just something offputting about it, and i’m not certain i’ve ever seen a human move like that, yet it fits perfectly with Britta’s idea of “dancing” somehow
⁃ This is where i answer my own question from last week — “does Community’s pop culture parody work better if you’re more familiar the source material?” — by confessing that i’ve never seen The Last Temptation Of Christ or The Passion Of The Christ, yet i still adore this episode and it’s probably in my top 10 for this season. i assume those are the main things it’s riffing on, other than maybe Jesus Christ Superstar (which i’ve also never seen but i’m familiar with the songs)
⁃ If there’s any actual commentary on religion in this episode6, it’s the idea that viral internet content has largely replaced face-to-face social institutions like church, as the new spaces where disparate groups of people gather to share common experiences7. It doesn’t exactly tie into Abed’s worship-of-self-through-filmmaking, but it does bookend the episode nicely. Autotune God Of Farrrrrts
PIERCE (making shadow puppets): Look, Dolly Parton eating a hot dog
DUNCAN: Do not boo her. This subject’s lack of definition cuts both ways
ABED: You know, being raised by TV and movies, i always thought Jesus just walked on water and told people not to have abortions, but it’s so much cooler than that. He was like E.T., Edward Scissorhands, and Marty McFly combined
SHIRLEY: i’m reacting the way the world does to movies about making movies about making movies. i mean come on Charlie Kaufman, some of us have work in the morning, damn
LEONARD: If you get caught with that, just say it’s your 90th birthday. Suddenly, it’s adorable
DEAN: Unacceptable, and none of your business, and barely the whole truth
TROY: You think that’s dope, check out these… (sighs) “Beat-itudes”
BRITTA: i don’t even believe in God, but i love me some Abed
SHIRLEY: Did you just scripture me, Muslim?
PIERCE: What’s it to you, butt breath?
TROY: Uh — when did Pierce become awesome?
ABED: And now with all this hype, i’ve got a real Snakes On A Plane brewing
TROY(rapping): Dogs love cats there, cats love mice. The mice have little hats, and the hats look nice