This post contains spoilers through the Dec. 8 episode of Community.
I watched last night’s episode of Community with a friend who had never seen the show before, which I feel like makes me both a good friend and a bad one. Good, because who doesn’t want to be introduced to one of the most innovative shows on television. And bad, because this was an episode that epitomized how hard it can be to get into this show casually: it’s in a form that the show doesn’t usually take, it doesn’t have a long-arc plot (except in its continuing exploration of Abed’s alienation), and most of its jokes rely on long-established tropes about the characters. That said, it was a good example of all of those things, and in a small (and sometimes over-signaled way) a good deconstruction of the false cheer of the holidays, which can get overwhelming.
First, since I’m running this conversation with MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd on Tuesday (come! send me questions!), I cannot say how much I appreciated Jeff resorting to his mad law skills to shut down one of the parts of Greendale he hates most, declaring, “Glee club, meet ASCAP,” with vengeful joy. We tend to get grumpy fatherly Jeff a lot more often that we get smart lawyerly Jeff, and sometimes, I think that’s a shame. Jeff doesn’t really want his responsibility for the rest of the group, and the disjunct between his discomfort with that role and his own angst about his relationship with his father can be funny. We all brace for the mistakes that we’re afraid of making. But I prefer the reminder that Jeff was really good at something once, and built that talent and joy for the law on a totally hollow foundation. That’s a much more interesting darkness. And his quest to get back to the law, and this time, be legit, makes for an actual arc. I’m not sure I think Jeff’s daddy issues will ever be meaningfully resolved. And I’m not sure I much care. What I want to know is more about the life Jeff is going to build, not the life he’s trying to avoid.
I also really appreciated Britta in tonight’s episode. This season has hammered home the idea that Britta is just the ultimate killjoy to a point where it’s exhausting, and I think an unfair representation of people who care about social issues. “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” did a much better job of illustrating her genuine ambivalence between wanting to do something good for the world and wanting to better her own life than constantly hammering at her as a fraud and a hypocrite. So I appreciated that she was the hero tonight, saving the day with a show of actual, genuine enthusiasm that broke the spell of Mr. Rad’s false cheer. Community‘s always been on board with Abed’s brand of “I guess I just like liking things” brand of gawky sincerity. But that’s ultimately kind of inward-looking. And I thought it worked well to both illustrate the limitations of that kind of happiness generation and emphasize that sometimes following your heart and humiliating yourself is the better part of valor.
Honestly, those two paragraphs were sort of an attempt to avoid discussing Annie’s song, which I thought was the worst part of the episode. I get that this is supposed to be a joke on the Alison Brie fanboys, that, as Jeff puts it, “Eventually you hit a point of diminishing returns on the sexiness.” But I thought this played like a less effective spin on the sexy baby thing than Abby Flynn on 30 Rock did. It lacked that sort of core darkness, the idea that there is a deeply compromised safety in attaching yourself to men. The only real darkness here was the idea that Annie is sexually incompetent, something the show’s already poked her for this season when Jeff told her she was saying the wrong thing and wearing the wrong lipgloss in “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It’s one thing for Annie to figure out what she wants from a sexual relationship. It’s another to turn her into the ideal woman for Jeff. You’re not really satirizing the idea that Annie exists for male viewers’ sexual consumption when the parodies of those urges are all about correcting her so she’ll be a more delectable object of that consumption.
Megan Ganz and Annie Mebane write in to say that Annie’s song, which they wrote, was intended to be a pure satire of the sexualization of Christmas (“‘Santa Baby’ with a head wound,” as Megan put it). I think that it’s certainly an uncomfortable tweak of that, but I do think it’s part of a larger pattern of the critique of Annie’s sexual expression that’s part of this season that’s functioning in a really interesting and uncomfortable way this season. Which I imagine is one of the challenges of working in a writers’ room. In any case, I appreciate the context on their intentions from Megan and Annie.