Friday, December 16, 2011

1x01 "Pilot" (Back to the Place Where Our Story Begins)

Original Airdate: September 17, 2009

A very wise singing nun once said that to start at the very beginning is a "very good place to start." (And now that I've gotten The Sound of Music stuck in your heads, let's continue!) Perhaps one of the most entertaining and beneficial things that you can do as a viewer in order to evaluate a television show's progress is examine the similarities and differences between the pilot episode of that show and the most current episode aired. What this does is allow you to focus on the character development and progression of the show in general. As to recap your middle school or high school English class, you may recall that there are really four categories of characters. There are dynamic characters (characters who change), static characters (characters who essentially do not grow or change), round characters (developed characters), and flat characters (these are usually represented caricatures - characters who are not developed). What a re-watch of the pilot episode will help determine is whether or not the characters were dynamic, static, round, or flat to begin with and whether or not they have developed since that first episode. In case you didn't know where this was going, a re-watch of the pilot episode of Community reveals a lot about the character of Jeff Winger, in particular. We can ask the question: what has Jeff learned about his circumstances since the beginning of the series? What has he learned about others? About himself? Jeff - apart from his Winger speech and typical snark - is sort of unrecognizable in the pilot (if we compare him to the Jeff Winger from season 3, for example). Maybe though, "unrecognizable" isn't the best term to describe him. Maybe it's more... "incomplete." There's something lacking in his character, and it's something even he doesn't recognize (and perhaps the viewers don't recognize either. At least, not initially).

In case you need a refresher, let's discuss the premise of the pilot episode. We meet the character of Jeff Winger, who has recently been disbarred as a lawyer by the state of Colorado because his college degree was "less than legitimate." His desire is to cheat his way through the first year (and likely the next four years), and sleep with the hot girl from Spanish class. We come to know her later on as Britta. Initially, Jeff is presented as a bit smarmy, but sort of endearing in his attempts to get close to Britta. He makes effort to go out to dinner with her. However, when it is proving to be more difficult to do so through unforeseen complications (the introduction of five other study group members), he soon dissolves into full-on mean-spirited smarm and sleaze. This is so weirdly not the Jeff Winger in season 3, and I love that. I mean, let's review quickly: the Jeff Winger in the pilot? He's the same character who defends Abed later that semester when he's being picked on by a bully. This is the same character who tackles Annie to the ground because he thinks she's in danger. This is the same character who cried when the puppet Horsebot 3000 died in the puppet show. Oh, and did I mention that this is the same character who - later in the first season - will give up his chance of getting with Slater in order to help out a friend who he really doesn't even like that much? This is what character growth and development looks like. Jeff didn't immediately change and become a perfect person. Doing these nice things didn't negate all of the smarmy things in the pilot and throughout the seasons. But this is what should happen with characters - they need to grow organically, not drastically. (Take notes, folks. Yeah, Ryan Murphy, I'm talking to you about Quinn).

We're introduced to Abed early on in the episode, and I will pause to say that Danny Pudi perfected this neurotic, quick-paced demeanor of Abed's character in the pilot episode. Abed changes pretty dramatically in terms of how much the character becomes toned down later in the seasons. And we don't usually think of Abed as "toned down," but just watching the pilot made me realize how... normal he has become over the course of three years. I have to praise Danny because he does very well with those adjustments and making them in the necessary areas. He makes Abed more human, and it's both endearing and wonderful.

Since we're discussing character growth and development, I'll continue tracking the progression of our characters. We'll return to Jeff, because I have a short essay in regards to him:
  • Jeff: Jeff starts out as a self-centered, egotistical smarmy jerk. And, honestly, what else is he supposed to be? He's a recently disbarred lawyer who used to lie his way through everything. And that's worked - until now. Now he's forced into a place where all of his "real world" tactics and strategies won't help him, as Duncan advises. In fact, the very aspects of his character that people used to fawn over him and pay him for, people used to resent him for. And really, Jeff's only ambition is to look after himself. We really don't see him progress completely through this (because he's human after all) by the time we hit season 3, but one thing that we do see is dynamic growth throughout the seasons. We've seen Jeff go from a selfish jerk who has no desire to spare feelings in the pilot (calling out Abed on his disorder in front of everyone) to someone who - merely two years later - spares Britta's feelings by not telling her what "to Britta" something actually means. Jeff has a lot of issues and is one of the more complex characters. This makes sense because he is obviously the "leader" of the group, and thus the one that we tend to focus on more. He's insecure, and it's obvious at the beginning of the series that (even if they don't realize it yet) the study group needs him. They flock to him with this weird sort of dependence. I believe it's just the next episode where instead of asking Jeff to arrive on time, they all sweet talk him (Annie gives him hole-punched notes for his binder). And I'm not exactly sure where to pinpoint the moment that the group stopped needing him as much as he needed them. Honestly, I think that it's during "Early 21st Century Romanticism" though - the moment that Jeff expects the group to call him with their problems and beg him to fix them is the moment that he realized HE has been fixed by THEM. And that's when he tells them that he loves them. It's not a pivotal moment, but it's impactful because we then spend the rest of the time in our series following his dependence on them. It's amazing to me, how much I absolutely love Jeff now. Yet when I watch the pilot (as funny as I found him), it's weird to see Jeff Winger as a shadow of what he became. It's awesome.
  • Britta's a bit more interesting to develop. She starts off the series as someone who deflects Jeff's advances, but I'd say that she's pretty much an open book. She tells Jeff snippets of her life, and is upfront with her expectations of him and of herself. Yet in "Pascal's Triangle Revisited," she literally has developed into this guarded person. I mean, don't get me wrong - I still absolutely love Britta as a character. But the Britta in the pilot episode seemed to know where she stood on issues. She had a moral compass of right and wrong, and she was really out to protect everyone in the group - she was their watchful eye. She's really quite soft in the pilot. Everything about her is, from her wardrobe and hair to the way she inflects sentences. It's so intriguing because now I don't describe Britta as "soft" in the least bit. Britta is someone who has completely backwards views on life, but accepts herself because she knows she's flawed. And we accept her for that reason too (and love her for it). And I think she really has grown to pride herself on being imperfect - in making mistakes and being rebellious. Pilot!Britta seemed to want to protect an image - an air of having it all together, if only for the sake of protecting the good people of the study group from the Jeff Wingers of the world. I just love her so much.
Soon, we meet the five other people who will change Jeff's life. Even though Jeff set up a fake study group to meet and get close to Britta, she takes the opportunity to invite Abed, who then takes the opportunity to invite others from their Spanish class. First of all, re-watching the pilot, it's amazing how young they made everyone look (especially Alison Brie). It's also nice that we briefly were able to learn about these characters: Annie is initially skeptical of Jeff, Troy immediately wants others to do the work for him, Shirley is concerned about her kids and Pierce is... well, Pierce. It intrigues me that the original idea for the friendship pairing was supposed to be Pierce and Troy. And I only say that because Troy makes a snide comment to Abed in this episode (and really there's not a whole lot of love there in the first few episodes - a lot of frustration). But now, look at Troy and Abed - they are arguably the greatest bromance since Turk and J.D.! It's definitely neat to see how even as a writer, you have to be willing to concede your initial ideas in favor of actor chemistry. Donald and Danny  had awesome chemistry together, and the writers bounced off of that (sort of like what happened post-"Debate 109" with Jeff and Annie). It's hard as a writer to part with your ideas - you want them to work because they're YOURS, but I applaud the Community writers for doing what worked, rather than what they may have wanted.

Since we're on the brief subject of my favorite character, let's take a run-down of her, Shirley, Troy and Pierce's development, shall we?
  • Initially, we're introduced to Annie as this adorable, naive, and more-than-slightly neurotic girl. She's the kind of person who craves attention from others, and who is meticulous and detailed in everything that she does. And even from the first episode of the season, she desires to be treated like an adult. Her desire to be treated as a woman and not a little girl makes frequent reappearances throughout the series. It's difficult for Annie because she IS the youngest in the group, and people forget that they can't treat her like a child. And to be honest, Annie only occasionally acts "girlish," if you will. Yes, she giggles about crushes (but I do too, and I'm almost 23). And yes, she has had outbursts. But honestly, she's one of the most grown-up characters in the show. She's the character that a lot of the others turn to for advice. She apologizes. She owns when she's wrong. Instead of going to Shirley for advice, Jeff unconsciously finds himself gravitating toward Annie in "Basic Genealogy." And the reason it's so hard for Annie is because she is literally trapped in the in-between. She doesn't want to lose what it means to be a child (nor do any of us, really), but she doesn't want to be seen as such. She wants people to ultimately look at her for who she is, not how old she is (and that's very similar to Shirley's character too).
  • Shirley, we know, had thinly veiled rage issues (as noted in the pilot and also "Debate 109"). And she does seem distraught and upset over the life choices that brought her to Greendale. It's not something that she is proud of, but it's something that she has at least accepted (unlike Jeff, who hasn't quite gotten there yet). This episode also is where Shirley gets her first "That's nice!" line. And I'd like to think that over the seasons, Shirley has become more accepting and less judgmental. I mean, sure...she has her moments, as every character does. But she's beginning to see past characters' beliefs and personal quirks and into their hearts. And that's what's lovely about her character - she's so quick to agree and (for the most part) forgive.
  • Troy is a lot like Jeff in the way that he's pretty egotisical in this episode. He's just like any other college freshman though - students come out of high school thinking they're all that and a bag of chips. And Troy's desire is really for others to see him in a certain way. As Jeff said, he's doing everything to please others - it's all for them. And that is exactly why people come out of high school wearing their "Class of [fill in the blank]" t-shirts to college. It's a different type of insecurity - a less overt one, if you will. But it's insecurity, no less. In the rest of the seasons, we've seen Troy accept who he is and not really care what others think about him (save for "Epidemiology" - but even then, he finally accepts who he is at the end of the episode). This is the guy who would rather spend time watching TV with his best friend than decide on a career path. He's the guy who saved Britta by dancing on stage at a recital. He's the guy who made a giant blanket fort. He's the guy who has accepted himself for who he is. Yes, he still struggles with the details (how much of a leader should he be, for instance?), but he's probably the one character who really knows himself. And that's awesome.
  • Pierce's desire has always been to be respected and admired. So it stands to reason, then, that the pilot is no different. And it's not. He (much like Troy) brags about who he is and what he's done for himself. And really, Pierce's desire to be accepted runs through every season we encounter. He always feels like an outsider in the group. And the reason? He drives the group away and then pities himself for it. He's not a villain - he's simply (like the rest of the group... see a running theme?) insecure. If he's not a part of a group of people, then who is he? Can he truly fall back on his former success? Will anyone care?
Jeff's first Winger speech really encapsulates the theme of a lot of his speeches. Namely, they usually have little to no significant substance to them. What's amazing about Jeff as a character though (it's really fascinating) is his ability to read and dissect people in the blink of an eye. It's what makes him admittedly both a good and bad leader of the study group. He can pinpoint a person's weakness and then use that to his advantage (like the words of praise each member of the study group wanted to hear - from listening to that conversation earlier, he recognized their insecurities). Amazing. You know what's interesting? Two things really: 1) he doesn't mention Britta in his "what makes you awesome" speech, and 2) instead of pinpointing a weakness or insecurity of Abed's, he highlights legitimately the benefit of Abed as a person (or well, maybe the benefit of his disorder - so yes, Jeff is still self-centered, in case you were wondering).

Britta though, calls Jeff out in front of the group and kicks him out for being a lying creep. Jeff (with a packet full of "answers" Duncan gave him) leaves the library, only to find that Greendale has started trying to teach him lessons. "What you have, my friend," Duncan tells him, "is a second chance at an honest life." And yet, at the end of the episode - despite all of the bad stuff he had done to the group - we realize that he isn't a terrible person after all. He's just... misguided, we should say. And the group then agrees to help him study for their test the next day. And here's the most pivotal moment in the entire series (it's the hinge that everything will swing on): the moment that Britta says "it's your study group" is the moment where a) she relinquishes control, because up until then, the group had turned to her to lead them and b) Jeff's life officially changes for the better.

Additional de-lovely aspects about this episode:
- "Abed, nice to know you and then meet that order."
- Was the Dean originally supposed to be married? He wears a wedding ring and this intrigues me a lot more than it probably should. But I have to know!
- Okay... seriously, what was going on with the blazer/track pants combination on Jeff?
- "Abed, I see your value now." "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."
- "I'm a student." "...well that cannot be an inspiring journey."
- "Interesting. It's just the average person has a much harder time saying 'booyah' to moral relativism."
- "Pierce! Let's discuss this creepiness."
- "You know, bluffs this weak are how your people lost the colonies."
- "You have become something unstoppable. I now pronounce you... a community."
- "Woah, you just wrinkled my brain, man."
- "The funny thing about being smart is that you can get through most of life without ever having to do any work." PREACH.
- "Can you guys hear me? Am I deaf?"

Thank you to all of you who participated in my live-tweet re-watch of the pilot last night! I seriously had a blast, and can't wait to continue these throughout the hiatus. Next week, we'll be watching my favorite episode of the first season - "Football, Feminsim, and You." This is literally the episode where I officially fell in love with the show. Milady/Milord does Thursday Night Re-Watches as well (we're doing "Comparative Religion" next Thursday). So join us there between 8 and 8:30. Then around 9:15, hop onto Twitter (@notajenny) and bust out those season 1 DVDs to join me in our 1x06 re-watch!

Thanks, as always, for reading. :)


  1. Do you know, you've voiced everything I've been thinking since I re-watched the pilot yesterday.

    If you noticed, you barely had anything to really say about the PLOT as such, but more about the characters. And that is how the show started, what the show is based on, and what keeps the show alive. It's not the "theme" or the story or any particular ship. It's the characters.

    They're human. They're perfectly, a hundred percent human. With the same problems - only not. And that's the human race in general. We're all pretty messed up.

    That's why we love Community, and that's why this show is the a critic's love, why once we like the show, it becomes life - it's relatable (and also totally the opposite of everything I just said... which makes it more awesome, b/c in the end, you have no idea what you're saying).

    I don't know if I made sense here to other people, but in my head, this seems to fit. :/

    I love your review. :)

  2. I am so glad you're still doing these reviews during the hiatus! They're really the highlight of my Friday.
    Anyway, the Pilot is truly one of my favorite episodes of the whole show. I started watching Community at the end of Season 2 on hulu (after Steve Carell left The Office I was looking for a new show). So, by the time I finally saw the Pilot I already had some idea of the characters and the premise of the show, but (and here's what I think is so great about this episode) after watching it I finally felt like I understood each of the characters and their motivations. Each character was so fully fleshed out even though we only had a few minutes to get to know each of them (except Jeff). I immediately laughed at the joke where the Cambridge chimes are really just coming out of the Dean's boombox (does that define both Dean Pelton and Greendale, or what?), and by the time we got to Abed's "Am I deaf? Can you hear me?" I was dying of laughter! Furthermore, I think the Pilot is a great example of story development in general (and Dan Harmon's story circle technique in particular). You can really see the arch of Jeff's character throughout the episode. One of the greatest Pilot episodes (IMO) is the one for The West Wing, but I would hold the Community Pilot up against that any day.
    One other random observation, and you kind of touched on this in your review already, but I think it's interesting that besides Jeff and Britta, Abed is the most fully-realized character in the pilot. The other four are just on the periphery and don't have much to do, but Abed really helps to drive the plot along. That's why the more I think about it the more I realize Abed is my favorite character.
    Again, thank you for a wonderful review as always. I'm looking forward to next week!

  3. I can't believe how much I enjoy your reviews.

    Also: "And here's the most pivotal moment in the entire series (it's the hinge that everything will swing on): the moment that Britta says "it's your study group" is the moment where a) she relinquishes control, because up until then, the group had turned to her to lead them and b) Jeff's life officially changes for the better."

    WOAH. You just wrinkled my brain, man.


  4. I had never noticed the wedding ring on the Dean until you pointed it out! You learn something new every time you watch :-) And I agree...the character growth in Jeff is astounding. Kudos to the writers and to Joel as well.

    I'm totally taking my season one dvds home with me over Christmas. Hopefully, I will be able to participate in real time with the rewatches.

  5. @Sroojana - It is a very plot-light episode, is it not? The entire episode is really based around the characters themselves and what we learn about them through the first episode. It's so much more fun to watch and dissect when you already know how they evolve in the future! And your comment most definitely makes sense. :) Thanks for reading!

    @Jessica - Yay! So glad you're able to comment! :) And yes, exactly what you said about the characters being fully fleshed out in the first episode. It's not as if they're caricatures: we really (even from the brief glimpses of Annie, Shirley, Troy, and Pierce) get a sense of who these people are from the first episode. And I love that Abed is one of the first people we meet. I mean, we meet him at the same time as Jeff - our principal "lead" of the show. I think that exemplifies how fundamental he is to the show as well!

    @Nannysox - Hahaha, thank you for your comment! I'm glad you're enjoying. :D And yes - that was totally a wrinkle my brain moment too.

    @Kim - It is interesting to watch first episodes and current episode. Character growth is seriously amazing. And I'd love it if you could participate in the real-time re-watches as well! :)