Friday, February 17, 2012

1x18 "Basic Genealogy" (Right, Wrong, and Family)



"Basic Genealogy"
Original Airdate: March 11, 2010

The boundary between right and wrong is often a murky one to discern. A lot of things are pretty clear to most people. For instance, we all pretty much  know that it's not a good idea to steal things or commit armed robbery. But in smaller matters - boundaries between friends, family, and everyday judgments - sometimes that line isn't so clear. Jeff Winger is not used to feelings of guilt, for the most part. He's a character who used to lie for money, so his moral compass often finds itself askew. However, there are moments where he seems to realize that he actually unconsciously wants to do what's right. And that's the beauty of his character's progression - he's redeemable because of this. And one of the things I enjoy most about "Basic Genealogy" is the parallel it draws between Pierce and Jeff, highlighting their relationship. Overarching the episode though is the question of what it means to be a family. Each storyline has a different take on this, and I'll get to those in a little bit. I think that quite honestly, Jeff is thrown some mighty curve balls in this episode in regards to his character development - he has to deal with emotional pain (and actually come to terms, rather than mask it), morally deciding what is right and wrong, and the idea of what it means to be friends with someone.

So the plot for this episode involves Greendale Community College's Family Day and nearly everyone's respective families are visiting, including Pierce's ex-stepdaughter Amber (a pre-"Smash" Katharine McPhee!). However, the beginning of our episode involves the demise of Slater/Jeff. Jaime mentioned this when she conducted the first re-watch of our episode last night (thank you again for doing that for me!), but Jeff is actually a good boyfriend. We are initially met with the idea in the pilot that Jeff is some skeevy, womanizing guy (which... okay, that wasn't far off) who will never change or grow. For however unpleasant I find her, though, Jeff really takes his relationship with Slater seriously. He committed to acting like a grown-up, which is ironic because in this episode Slater acts childishly while dumping Jeff. Even though it is asserted early on that Jeff has a fear of commitment, he mentions to Slater that he would have brought his mother to Family Day to meet her (except that his mother still thinks he's a lawyer). This, to me, does not scream "fear of commitment" at the moment. I feel like just as Jeff began to feel comfortable and safe in the relationship, perhaps thinking that it could work, Slater took the rug out from under him (I don't like Slater, but I know we've been through this).

I like this episode mainly because it focuses on pairings that are not usually frequented: Troy/Britta, Abed/Shirley, and Pierce/Jeff. Rather than completely leave Annie out of the episode, however, the writers subtly kept her in the background and brought her to the forefront when necessary (and she truly played an integral part in the Pierce/Jeff story). What intrigues me so much about the idea of the family arc is that everyone has a different idea of what family should look like. For Britta, family means respect (and we saw this when she lectured Shirley in "Comparative Religion"). And maybe it's not even so much of the idea of respect as it is about the drive and desire to prove something to the world that causes Britta to become involved in Troy's family situation. The athlete informs everyone that his grandmother is visiting for Family Day, and he intends to hide out away from her for the day. Interesting to note as well is that Britta, Annie, and Jeff all do not have families involved in Family Day (though we do hear, as I mentioned earlier, mentions of Jeff's mother). Returning to Troy though, the young man believes that family means spending time together, but only when it's required. Everyone within the study group has rocky literal familial relationships, which manifest themselves somewhat during the Family Day. Shirley and Abed have visiting family as well. Abed seems sort of detached from the festivities, which is not a huge departure from his normal behavior. However, Shirley's focus for the day seems to be about proving herself - she wants everyone to believe that she is a good mother. And she is. It's the same kind of base idea though that Pierce and Jeff have when they occasionally act like villains - they try too hard to please others, so they end up becoming the people they feared they would be in the first place.

After Jeff returns to the study room, he announces that Slater dumped him, which earns surprise from Abed, and concern from Shirley and Annie (Britta, on the other hand, attempts to contain her laughter). And for a moment, Jeff demonstrates near-emotion. It is very short-lived, however. Shirley instructs Troy and Abed to put a dead bird in Slater's car (she really hates Slater), and I think it's endearing that Troy and Abed immediately get up to follow Shirley's instructions. Jeff attempts to convey that he is fine, but the group isn't buying into his spiel. And then, we get an introduction of a pre-"Smash" Katharine McPhee. I don't think that McPhee did a terrible job in this episode acting-wise, because Amber is supposed to be this sort of conniving, heartless and attractive woman. Jeff begins to hit on her, but Pierce soon appears, effectively shutting down that operation. And to his credit, when Jeff was denied Amber (via Pierce), he didn't go after her because he knew it would be wrong. He stayed his distance, which is more than we could say for Jeff Winger in the pilot episode. He also genuinely seemed to want to make conversation with Amber during Spanish and seemed to take an interest in what she was saying about photography school.

Pierce, however, is striking out big time with his ex-stepdaughter, so he naturally goes to Jeff to help. And I love that Annie is in the background, watching the Pierce/Jeff scene take place. In spite of the fact that Jeff tries to be that "guy who doesn't care," he does care. People and things affect him more than he lets on (re: "Debate 109") and Annie knows this. Throughout the episode, she serves as his moral conscience, consistently reinforcing what Jeff already knows. And the reason he does go to her is because of this - because he genuinely wants to be a better person, and the first step in that is recognizing when you aren't being one. Pierce, meanwhile, genuinely wants to feel accepted by people. And he told Jeff in the pilot that he had seven failed marriages, but couldn't understand why. At this point in the series, we take pity on Pierce - he acts like a jerk sometimes, but we understand that deep down he has a desire to be loved and have some sort of version of a family. He's alone a lot (because of his actions, he isolates others and because he isolates others, he feels alone, etc.), but is just as in need of a family as anyone else.

Jeff, being Jeff, refuses to help Pierce get into good graces with his ex-stepdaughter, and - since she was being observant - Annie steps in to help. This is one of my favorite Jeff/Annie scenes and not in a romantic context but because of how completely honest and  upfront they are with one another. She's also never afraid to call him out on his crap. Additionally, Jeff still doesn't believe that Pierce even qualifies as a friend at this point (that opinion will change at the end of the episode, however).

But the best part about what Annie did was that she didn't DO anything (nor does she at the end, really). See, I'd love to believe that somehow Annie is the catalyst that always sets Jeff to rights. And while I occasionally think that this is the case, I feel like throughout this episode it isn't. Jeff has the right answers the entire time - he knows exactly what do do. It just takes him running into Annie in order to actually follow through with his actions. Essentially, he's just being confronted with a physical manifestation of his own conscience. She doesn't tell him anything he doesn't already know - just what he wants to hear.

I absolutely love everything about the Troy/Britta interactions in this episode (additionally, I love the Shirley/Abed story too). I think that the fun dynamic with those two is the idea that Britta is so determined to always be right, and Troy isn't afraid to tell her when she is completely and utterly wrong. But the best part? He still sticks by her in spite of it. 

Back to the Pierce/Jeff storyline, what's adorable and endearing was that Jeff had no bad intentions up until the point in which he and Amber made out. He was genuinely making an effort for the sake of his conscience. He was trying to be a good friend and helped Pierce out when he needed it. And then, fully convinced he had fulfilled his obligation, he left (just as Pierce asked him to do). But then, Jeff's moral line gets a bit blurrier. But even when the waters get a bit murky, Jeff still knows what he has to do in order to be a good friend. He does, after all, still agree to Pierce's terms and attempt to leave after he's charmed Amber with stories of how great Pierce is. And in order to appease Pierce (and help him continue to be in good graces with Amber), he does end up staying. 

Poor Shirley deals with difficulties in being criticized by Abed's dad for how she disciplines and raises her children. Poor Shirley desperately tries to be everything for everyone - she tried to be a good wife, and attempts to be the best mother possible while still juggling school and her study group family. She likely feels this underlying pressure to do everything right all of the time. Thus, criticism is hard to deal with. But she's not a bad mother, as Abed assures later on. Nor are her children "bad." Shirley is someone who always goes out of her way to help others, and her boys picked up on those qualities, which is why they help out Abra without being prompted to do so.

In the Troy/Britta story, Britta offends Troy's grandmother early on in the episode, and the elderly woman insists that Britta find her a switch. Britta decides to follow through and I feel that the reason she stays is because of her pride. We've talked about this quite a bit in regards to other characters, but admitting defeat is not something that Britta Perry does willingly or often. And this is why she always gets herself into insane predicaments. As such, she ends up getting whooped with a switch by Troy's grandmother while Troy looks on, horrified.

Jeff is, like every other person, always torn between the right thing (which he knows... it's not that he's oblivious between right and wrong) and the things he wants to do. Jeff and Amber begin to hook up, and Jeff realizes that Amber is actually grifting Pierce. The woman counters with the fact that Pierce is old and stupid, and she'll use the money to possibly by herself a car. She then concludes with: "Did you want to be a good person right now? Or did you want to be with me?" And as soon as Jeff presumably exits from the supply closet, he walks through the hall and remarks: "Oh, there you are" to Annie, which implies to me that something about Amber's statement reminded him of what Annie had said, not much earlier. Jeff then proceeds to explain to her that Pierce is being taken advantage of, and when Annie asks why he hasn't told him, Jeff explains that it's a bit more complicated than that. After Annie realizes that the complication lies with the fact that Jeff slept with Amber, she begins to hit him. (And as a digression, I absolutely love the fact that it has become a thing between Jeff and Annie that she chastises and hits him while he just stands and grins at her. For reference, see "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design").

And again, one of the best things about the conversation with Annie is that she does not TELL him what to do - she ASKS him. "You still have to tell him... don't you?" she asks. Thus, the decision is not coming from her, but rather she's causing Jeff to think for himself. It's a subtle sort of tactic that works because as Jeff is talking through his rationale (and attempting to justify it to both himself and her), Annie decides that his mind must already be made up. But we know that the reason Jeff  goes to Annie is not so he can be lectured at or preached to - he goes knowing that she is the type of person who sees how good he can be, but wants HIM to see it. The key though is that he has to see it for himself. She can't force that upon him.

Returning to the Shirley/Abed story, Elijah and Jordan don Abra's burka so that the young woman can spend time in the bouncy house. And Shirley assumes that Abed suggested the idea, but the young man assures her that it was all Jordan and Elijah's doing. It's really sweet, then, that Abed compliments Shirley on being a good mother. He's always the observant one, so it's awesome that she got a chance to hear that from him, of all people.

At the Gala Dance (was this part of the All Five Dances?), Jeff confronts Amber about her behavior. He suggests to her that she rip up the check for $25,000 that Pierce had given to her, and instead just spend time getting to know him. Amber maliciously insists that she could go over to Pierce and butter him up, pitting Jeff as the bad guy. It's intriguing to me that Jeff doesn't mind being the bad guy when it comes to Amber.  But in "Biology 101," the reason that Pierce takes the fall for Jeff's antics is because Jeff can't stand the idea of being the bad guy with the group. In the end, Amber decides to take the $25,000 and leave town. Jeff, meanwhile, promises that if she should come back, he'd be around  because Pierce is his friend. And I love the Pierce/Jeff dynamic of it all and how honest they are with one another, even to a fault. Jeff confronts Pierce about Amber leaving, and the elderly man explains that he had just hoped he would have a shot at being a dad and having a family, and encourages Jeff to take advantage of that before it's too late. But it is especially endearing that Jeff reminds Pierce that it's never too late to have a family and be surrounded by people who care about you because he insists that: "If you have friends, you have family."

Well said, Jeff Winger. Well said.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode:
- "Does she look like you but in a wig and lipstick?" "No, that's Halle Berry."
- "I want to believe you're right Britta, but you never quite are, are you?"
- "Small world." "Actually, it's a big world with 5 billion other women in it. Good luck."
- Yvette's hand flourish when she says "Greetings!" is still one of the best things ever
- I love that it literally rains paper balls on Jeff when he  gets booed in the classroom. Nice callback to "Comparative Religion."
- Does anyone else feel almost sad that Annie had no family (or seemingly anyone in the study group or outside of it) to spend time with during Family Day? I do.
- "How much effort do I rate?" "For you? Um... I'd... break a light sweat?"
- "You're becoming dangerous, Annie. It's those doe eyes. Disappointing you is like choking the Little Mermaid with a bike chain." STILL my favorite Jeff line to date.
- I love seeing our recurring cop friend!
- "I hate Glee. I hate it. I don't understand the appeal at all!"

Thank you all for sticking around during hiatus. I know it's been a rough time, not having our beloved show on the air. But I'm thoroughly enjoying doing these re-watches with you all! For next week, I'm torn between two episodes, so I will let your votes decide which we pursue! We can either watch "Beginner Pottery" or "The Science of Illusion." Tweet me (@notajenny) with your response. I'll see you all next week! :)

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