Friday, January 13, 2012

1x10 "Environmental Science" (Selfishly Selfless)


"Environmental Science"
Original Airdate: November 19, 2009

What does it mean to be selfless? According to the handy-dandy Dictionary, we find that the definition of selfless reads as follows: "Concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than one's own." I've said a lot throughout my reviews that Jeff is a selfish character. And really, every character on this show is selfish at some point in time. But we have to remember that pre-Greendale, Jeff's only concern was looking out for his own well-being. He didn't need to worry about how his actions affected others, so long as he got paid, won cases, etc. But at Greendale, Jeff is forced into a relationship with six other people - a relationship he's not used to yet, and one that he grows to gradually accept and eventually love. 

This episode is another little turning point in Jeff's character in regards to his selfish vs. selfless nature. Because we know, as viewers and as human beings, that no character is completely self-absorbed 100% of the time. Jeff has redeeming qualities and a soul, despite the fact that his moral compass is a bit off-kilter. He's a good guy at his core, but he really has just started to perhaps realize that through his relationship with the group (as a whole) and the individual relationships within. Britta taught him in "Home Economics," for instance, that he should strive to set goals (even if that goal is something she detests - materialism). The group needs him as their leader, or so we believe. But remember something important that I have said before: this was once Britta's study group, and this episode is another example of how early season 1 Britta is quite different from the rest of the seasons. The forefront goal in her mind is still to protect the group from Jeff Winger. She doesn't trust people as easily as Annie does - Annie always gives people the benefit of the doubt (she did to Jeff in the pilot and this episode too). And truly, the rest of the study group seems to blindly follow Jeff for the most part. Britta, however, is a bit jaded from the world (which isn't a bad thing, necessarily) and thus is more hesitant to let people in, and even more hesitant to let those people hurt people she cares about. She's entrusted Jeff with "her" group of people, and so far he's proven to be flawed but redeemable in his handling of them. This is arguably the first episode that pits Jeff against the rest of the study group. We a see a Jeff vs. "group" dynamic later on in the seasons ("Early 21st Century Romanticism" - which I may reference a bit in this review - and "Biology 101"), but this is the first time in season 1 that the group kind of bands together as its own entity against Jeff personally (with the exception of the pilot, which was more or less Britta vs. Jeff though). And I think that (much like those other two episodes I just mentioned) it's more than just a fight about something silly - it's almost as if the group is representing his conscience, or in the very least the "good" things he's learning at Greendale.

The main plot for this episode is a Jeff/Chang one - the Spanish teacher is being extra hard on his class recently because his marriage fell apart. Thus, in anger, he's given the class a twenty-page paper to write (in EspaƱol!) and the study group is obviously not very fond of this, so they send Jeff to talk to Chang and convince him to ease up on the workload. In two other subplots, Shirley recruits Pierce to help her prepare for a speech in her Marketing class that Friday, while Abed and Troy work on a Biology lab project involving a rat and the song "Somewhere Out There." Essentially, they are training their rat (Fivel) to respond to a song. The rat does manage to do this. Additionally, overarching this entire episode is the revelation that it's "Green Week" at Greendale, which means that the Dean is going all-out to make it a great, environmentally friendly week (hence the title, "Environmental Science"). 

And I'll momentarily talk about Chang, because obviously he was an integral factor in this week's episode. I really do miss Chang as a teacher. It's not that I didn't appreciate his Gollum-like characteristics in season two when his character pretty much pined to be in the study group. He was a bit more pathetic though in that season. And I think that was the intention - to characterize him in that manner as contrasted to the first season. The first season portrayed Chang as a ruthless teacher, so in the second season I did feel this twinge of pity toward him as a character. But I like the return in season 3 to Chang wielding some sort of power. He's this maniacal, power-hungry man who - like every other character on the show - is dimensional in the sense that we root and cheer for him when Duncan picks on him in "Pascal's Triangle Revisited," and we love seeing his interactions with the study group because he provides a nice foil to the intra-group crazy. It's fun to have a "villain" of sorts (even though I don't see Chang as a pure villain... perhaps just a misguided character with a power trip) that is outside of the study group and causes the group to band together against him (a la season 1). Ironically though, this episode is one where Chang is still an outside force to be reckoned with regarding the study group, but in being that, he manages to drive a wedge between Jeff and the group.

(As a sidenote, here's something that I found interesting: the study group claimed that Chang didn't teach them any Spanish beyond how to say "hello," "goodbye," and "that table is female," but if you look on the chalkboard behind him during classroom scenes, you'll see that Spanish words and phrases are clearly listed. Evidently - according to his essay - Pierce knows how to say "la tienda de manzana" too. I just think that this is hilarious because we've seen the study group take three classes together so far, and yet in all three of these classes they don't seem to remember or learn anything of substance at all. Perhaps because they're a study group that doesn't really know how to study. Just a slight amusing digression!)

I love the Troy/Abed storyline in this episode because I think it's the first real evidence that we get of Troy caring about Abed as a friend. Like I've said before, we all know that the original pairing was supposed to be Troy/Pierce in regards to friendship, but that didn't work out as planned. However, we see evidence of this in the early episodes, with Troy and Pierce bonding over their mutual adolescence (as Abed puts it), and Troy pretty much being indifferent - and at times a bit cold - towards Abed. We even see almost a one-sided friendship on Abed's end in regards to Troy. "Introduction to Statistics" and "Debate 109" kind of eased viewers into the idea of a Troy/Abed friendship for a bit, but I think that this is arguably the first episode where we really see growth in relation to their friendship. And I really like that Troy is the one to grow, because we've learned that he - much like Jeff - cares about and thinks about himself a lot. And relationships within the group force them both outside of that realm of thought and into one that is unfamilar. Abed is so used to people needing things from him that he gives willingly without expecting a return, necessarily. This isn't the case with Troy. And this is the episode where Troy is the one to reciprocate. 

The study group confronts Jeff in the study room and asks him to help them in regards to Chang. Jeff reluctantly - at this point - accepts the role that was thrust upon him as the leader. I think it's something that he really would never admit to enjoying (but pretty much does in "Early 21st Century Romanticism"). But he enjoys feeling needed, then. At this point in our character growth though, he's still just learning to get over the hurdles of self-centeredness, so the group is still sort of an adorable nuisance to him, more than anything. And I'll explain my thought progression in regards to his selfish vs. selfless nature: Jeff is selfless in this episode for selfish reasons. (Shall I repeat that?) The primary reason that Jeff agreed to talk to Chang was really two-fold: 1) the group would be appeased and 2) he could keep pulling a "C" in Spanish class. His desire to get out of Greendale as fast as he could coupled with the desire to please the study group together caused him to agree to their demands (which makes a bit more sense when Britta asks at the end of the episode if he did all of what he did for the study group and he vaguely responds with "Mmm... kinda.") It's nice that Jeff wanted to help the group, in theory, and I think that there is this decent-sized chunk of him that initially went to Chang with their desires at the front of his mind, and his own desires creeping slowly in the back. But I'm still not entirely convinced that he would have gone to Chang in the first place if he hadn't contemplated the ramifications of Britta's statement first. I feel like this was sort of the catalyst to realization than anything else. (There is the moment where he puts his cell phone down on the table and nearly visibly sighs with exasperation - he's on the cusp of doing something for the group and the group alone, perhaps. But he's still not entirely sold yet on the idea of doing something potentially painful for people he likes without there being some other reason that will benefit him personally. Selfless for selifsh reasons, see? And it's nice in this scene because the study group actually stands up for themselves against Jeff. But remember what they said to him before he left - "Well guess what, handsome hobo? Your gravy train is leaving the station." Just keep that in the back of your mind because Jeff is going to mention something interesting later on in regards to this conversation.

Jeff goes to confront Chang, and what's funny is that he asks if Jeff was there on behalf of the class, but Jeff - while clearly still selfishly selfless - doesn't care about the rest of the class, so much as just HIS group. And then we realize in that moment that Jeff does indeed care about this study group, because he gets excited once  Chang agrees to cancel their essay. But there's this momentary confusion and slight horror when Jeff realizes that he can't help the group out (because Chang decided he would only cancel Jeff's essay, not everyone else's, so long as Jeff would take him out clubbing or bar-hopping). He still seems a bit unsure, but then quickly, any trace of guilt is wiped (temporarily) from Jeff's mind and he's back into selfish mode in no time flat. Because that mode - the "look out for yourself first" mode - is in every one of us, and some more prominently than others. The guilt only resurfaces once Abed enters the room. But I feel that the only reason Jeff feels any guilt whatsoever is because he fears getting caught, not because he knows what he's doing is wrong (there IS a difference in guilt). Because if he hadn't gotten caught by the group - as he will, momentarily - he would have kept up his shenanigans.

The next day, Jeff - clearly hungover from his night out with Chang - is in the cafeteria and confronted by Troy, Annie, and Britta who ask if Jeff talked to Chang and if it helped. Jeff lies and says that his head hurts because Chang yelled at him so much, and then departs out of the cafeteria, black coffee in hand. And once again Annie and (ironically) Troy immediately defend Jeff while Britta is rightly skeptical, noting with an immediate sneer (literally!) that Jeff is hiding something. Abed appears in the cafeteria and we know from his sub-plot with Troy that Fivel escaped from his cage because Troy (who is afraid of rats) accidentally knocked it over and let him out. So when Abed appears in the cafeteria, Troy evades him in order to forgo having to help out his lab partner in finding the rat. It's hilarious to me, in this scene, how much Britta goes out of her way to spare any sort of feelings for Abed, when he just consistently returns blunt statements to her like: "Try to join the rest of us in reality, Britta."

The other sub-plot for this episode is a Piece/Shirley story and I REALLY want another good storyline for these two in the future. What's fantastic about both of these characters is that they both desire respect from the group as individuals, not because of their age, race, creed, etc. (which is why their heart-to-heart moment in my otherwise detested "The Art of Discourse" is wonderful) Pierce spends most of this episode with her and manages to remain - for the most part - completely unoffensive. Their storyline is touching because of the fact that Pierce is genuinely helpful to Shirley and wants her to succeed. Moreover, he volunteers to help her when there's no possible way it can benefit him (well, perhaps a smidge - he does assume, maybe, that she'll tell others how he helped her). This is a nice contrast to last week's "Debate 109" which was all about Pierce offering to help Britta out so that he could feel better about himself and feel respected.

Chang announces to the class that Jeff already turned in his essay, and the study group grows rightfully skeptical of this. I'd like to think that when they walked out of the classroom, Britta convinced the rest of the group that she had been right all along and that they needed to confront Jeff on his behavior. Jeff, because he is growing a bit in his character, feels a twinge of remorse and you can see it clearly portrayed on Joel's face, which is lovely. That remorse though, fades into oblivion as soon as it becomes clear that he can coast his way through Spanish class by taking advantage of Chang's emotional state.

The group confronts Jeff in the hallway about his behavior, and I love that Britta's insult is the only one that is directed at Jeff's behavior, rather than a jab at his personal appearance and/or a threat. Ironically, Jeff does not look entirely surprised to see the group, nor does he initially try to Winger his way out of a confrontation. He does, however, momentarily make an interesting point. Remember earlier how I noted Annie's dialogue to Jeff in the study room when they initially asked him to confront Chang? The group never ACTUALLY threatened to kick Jeff out of the group. All Annie said was "the gravy train is leaving the station." That could have meant that they wouldn't help him with his essay, but Jeff's immediate fire-back is to insinuate that they wanted him out of the group. And I wonder why he did that. Jeff's subsequent "fake outrage" is very foreshadowing of his "THIS is a fight. WE are fighting" outrage in "Early 21st Century Romanticism" later on. In both cases, the fights were about something fundamentally (for the most part) erroneous.

Later on, Jeff realizes that maybe the group's emotional outburst was manageable, because an emotional breakdown with Chang is definitely not. And maybe - just maybe - being needed by the study group is much better than being needed by Chang. Shirley gets frustrated with Pierce and all of his speech suggestions towards the end of the episode and says that she'll just end up writing the speech on cards. Troy continues to refuse to help Abed search for their rat, and insists that because Abed would do anything to help Troy, that makes him a good friend. Abed though realizes that their friendship is one-sided and leaves the room, letting Troy ponder what the true meaning of friendship is.

There's a montage of moments from all of the storylines that play over the song "Somewhere Out There" (which is being sung by Abed and Troy because the latter decided to help his friend look for Fivel). Jeff apparently calls Chang's wife and invites her to the "Green Week" concert so that the she and Chang can re-connect (through dance). Jeff is kind of smiling when he's watching Chang and his wife dance together. I think it's a moment so subtle that you'll likely miss it, but it helps us realize that maybe Jeff enjoys this whole "fixing problems" and "not being selfish" thing more than he knows. In Shirley's story, she nervously is reading directly from her cards when her professor informs her that she needs to put them down. As she does so, Shirley notices that Pierce is in the back of the classroom. She then proceeds to give her speech using all of the tips that Pierce gave her. She ends up getting an A and Pierce looks quite proud of her.

The episode ends with the study group realizing what Jeff did to help them (and himself), and inviting him back into the study group once more. And then, everyone dances to the festive sound of Green Daeye!

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode:
- I love that Abed and Shirley clap at the Dean's "Envirodale" announcement, while Annie looks puzzled and a bit upset.
- I want Britta's necklace in the first half of the episode. Also, I want all of the key necklaces we see her wearing throughout the first half of the season.
- Will I just buy that Troy and Abed took a Biology lab and not a class, even though a lab is usually a co-requisite for a class? I'll let it slide, writers, since you've been so good to us.
- "In a way, all of you are right. ...okay, what was I tuning out?"
- "Wait, you ARE convincing!"
- Anyone notice this poster in Chang's office? It appears he keeps tabs on his students. Either that or Jeff is just really famous around Greendale.
- "...teaching us the word 'esposa' means 'liar'..."
- Donald Glover screaming, squealing, and/or crying will always be hilarious.
- "My head still hurts from all the yelling. And my pupils are more sensitive to light because he yelled so much."
- "That's not a filler word." "Whatever, Valley Girl."
- "You devious clump of overpriced fabric and hair product."
- "Let me rest gently on your pecs."
- The outtake of Chevy falling back in the chair and Gillian freaking out is HILARIOUS.
- "We found the stupid rat. And Abed's gonna shut up about it now." "It's true."
- The tag is wonderful. And one of the more underrated ones, but hilarious.

Next week we're re-visiting our first Christmas at Greendale with one of my favorite Shirley-centric episodes, "Comparative Religion." Have a wonderful weekend everyone! :)

2 comments:

  1. "...it's almost as if the group is representing his conscience." --Do you think that continues to be true throughout the series? I think the group, and particularly Annie and Britta, continue to act as Jeff's conscience while he slowly develops one of his own.

    I like what you said about Jeff's selfish selflessness. I think that continues to be an important part of his character, even into season 3. He still looks out for himself, but do you think the ratio of selfishness to selflessness is changing gradually?

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