Friday, February 24, 2012

1x19 "Beginner Pottery" (Meet Doc Potterywood)


"Beginner Pottery"
Original Airdate: March 18, 2010

Everyone cares about how they are perceived, regardless of if they admit it or not. There's a social psychological concept that was developed by Charles Horton Cooley called "the looking-glass self." This theory essentially states that "people shape themselves around the perception of others, and then reinforce other peoples' perceptions of themselves." It's this notion that the way we see ourselves is shaped by how we think other people see us, which then confirms their perceptions of us in the first place. It's an intriguing concept in general, and one that is particularly applicable to this episode in which two characters who care a lot about perception are faced with the opinions of others: Shirley and Jeff. Now, Shirley does not delve into full-out crazy like Jeff does in the episode. However, it is definitely noticeable that both characters are affected by the opinions of those around them. And, beyond that, both are unsure of how to deal with situations which present them with a lack of control. Both learn that at the end though, it is better to accept yourself the way that you are - whether or not that is socially acceptable (in Shirley's case) or whether or not you even like yourself some days (in Jeff's case).

The plot for this episode is basic, in a sense. The study group diverges into Pierce/Shirley/Britta/Troy and Abed/Annie/Jeff when they decide to take different "blow-off" classes during their spring semester. The former opt for a sailing class, while Jeff's group decides to take Beginner Pottery. The episode opens though with Britta and Shirley, the latter explaining how she had to take the bus because her ex-husband needed their van. Britta snarks about his new girlfriend, and Shirley responds with: "Kind people are always kind, Britta. Not just when it's easy." See, for Britta, it's easier (and I think in Jeff's case too) to rebuff the anger and feelings with cynicism and sarcasm. But for Shirley, it's a struggle. It's difficult for her to keep face when her world is falling apart. She cares about how others see her, and she wants them to have the best picture possible.

But let's discuss Jeff, momentarily. Since he's the title character of the series, I've spent a great deal of time talking about his character throughout these reviews. As vain and as self-centered as Jeff Winger can be, he also cares immensely for the study group. It will be roughly another year until he realizes exactly what this means, however. But this doesn't stop him from caring about how the study group perceives him and his actions. Presumably, Jeff is used to attention - he is used to people admiring him and fawning over him (he was a lawyer, after all). What Jeff is not good at, however, is accepting his own limitations. Everyone is human, and therefore everyone is flawed. And Jeff knows that - he realizes that he is imperfect (okay, most of the time anyway). He just always wants to be less flawed than the people around him. Because when you're less flawed than those around you, people look up to you. People recognize your importance. People notice you. Jeff wants to be noticed. He CRAVES to be noticed. And, I've argued this before, despite his initial unwillingness to be the leader of the study group, Jeff actually NEEDS to be the leader. And he doesn't want that taken away from him.

Rich, therefore, provides a nice foil to Jeff. This new character presumably is perfect at everything. And we realize, through everything coming so naturally to Rich that things actually DON'T always come naturally to Jeff. Up until this point, the audience assumed that there wasn't a single thing Jeff couldn't lawyer or charm his way out of or into. And honestly, this is probably what Jeff believed too, going into the class. Rich is a character whose good-natured attitude demands nothing in return. He gives and gives freely. Jeff is a character who gives, but only when there is something to gain in return. And the most striking thing to Jeff (even when we re-meet with Rich again in "Asian Population Studies") is that no one could possibly be THAT generous. Especially because Jeff himself isn't that generous. There must be some sort of string attached. The only reason that he believes this is because he knows how true it would be of himself.

Abed, Annie, and Jeff begin their pottery class by meeting Rich, and Abed's voiceover narration of Jeff is particularly enlightening - he discusses how Jeff has shown his competitive side, and even his envious side. Jeff cuts him off before he can finish, but clearly Abed recognizes that Jeff's response to Rich is neither of those things. (We also lean pretty hard on Shirley's niceness this week, which is really served to undercut the duties that she is assigned in class which force her to be tougher).

I also think that there is a nice parallel between Rich's evidently crazy mother and Jeff's well-meaning one. We say things to kids all the time - you can do anything you set your mind to;  you're special, etc. And people can use those affirmations to either turn to one of two extremes - they may turn out to be like Jeff (full of too much confidence) or Rich (good, but have it never be enough). Of course, most of us end up normal and not at all like either of those two. And we learn in this episode that when Jeff feels threatened by someone, his automatic reflex is to dethrone them (and he consistently does this with Rich). This marks the beginning of Jeff's descent into insanity (which - again - we see evidence of in "Asian Population Studies," also with Rich). Remember that this takes effect when outsiders who are better at something than Jeff interfere with the people who already admire him. Abed and Annie marvel at Rich in this episode, and in "Asian Population Studies" later on, Annie begins to fawn over Rich (which doesn't fly with Jeff).

So now that we've discussed a bit about Jeff, let's cover Shirley's development in this episode. Shirley is not the most confident person in the world, and she exhibits this in "Beginner Pottery," as she becomes the captain of her sailing class' ship. She never wants to upset the balance or order of things, and so she leads in the same way she does everything else - with kindness and gentleness. She learns, however, that this doesn't always fly in the face of crisis.

Jeff continues his descent into crazy when confronting Rich outside of pottery class. The newcomer is an excellent potter, even though he is in a beginner's class, and Jeff doesn't believe that someone that good could be a beginner at something. We then learn that Rich takes a pottery class to unwind because he's a doctor (seemingly solidifying how perfect he is). But even when Jeff dissolves into complete insanity, he's still attempting to defend himself and insist that he doesn't care. This is a mechanism that he utilizes a lot in order to deflect. And it works, because he uses Winger speeches to convince people of all sorts of things. But he never truly can hide his insanity for too long.

Returning to our sailing storyline, the crew is working seamlessly together... well, until Pierce's shoelace comes untied and he nearly gets thrown overboard. This unfortunately lands the group with a "D" for the day. Later on, Pierce actually gets knocked overboard, and "drowns" in the parking lot because Captain Shirley chooses to steer her boat away from the storm rather than rescue Pierce. And I love this idea that Shirley differentiates between strong people and kind people. I feel that this large part of her wants to remain "nice" because that's the way she's always been. But I also think that there's a deep fear in her that if she stays nice, she will continue to get walked on and taken advantage of. She gave her ex-husband their van, and gave him the ring back. She's put up with a lot for the sake of kindness. But what she doesn't realize is that there doesn't have to be a choice - being strong and being kind are not mutually exclusive. She wants to be respected, above all else, regardless of if she is kind or strong. And I think that she believes that being tough will gain her respect. What she doesn't realize yet is that this comes at a price. Is she willing to sacrifice her beliefs and friendships in order to gain respect from those in her life?

Jeff's insanity drives him to his breaking point, in which he violates the one rule that Professor Holly has in his pottery class - no reenactments of the pottery scene from Ghost. Jeff then gets kicked out of class, and - though let go - his streak of insanity is not over. In fact, he approaches Pierce about hiring a private detective to research Rich and find his faults. Pierce, ironically, is the person who talks Jeff back from the ledge. And I really enjoyed the Pierce/Jeff scene. They're both completely upfront and honest with one another about their fears and limitations. And I think it just goes to show that no matter how old you  may be, you will always have insecurities. But Jeff learns in this scene that he can't let those insecurities define him as a person or as a leader. He can't let the fact that he is bad at one thing define who he is. And Pierce's explanation of failure is just perfect. I love that these two had a very father-son moment without it being explicitly so. It felt organic and natural for Pierce to be teaching Jeff a lesson about failure. Moreover, how refreshing is it that Pierce did not let his insecurities define him as a person, nor does he let them stop him from living (or being sane - well, mostly)? The person who has messed up the most explains life to the man who wants everyone to believe he is perfect. It's a nice parallelism. And it really hits home with Jeff.

Meanwhile, Pierce wants to get back into his sailing class, even though he technically "drowned" earlier that week. He does this by rowing a lifeboat with wheels across the parking lot toward the vessel where Starburns, Shirley, Troy, and Britta are. Before he is able to reach them, he hits a sprinkler which causes his boat to "flood." And I think that the lack of concern and kindness displayed by the rest of the crew in the wake of Pierce's attempt to get back on the boat is what hits home with Shirley. She realizes that she could spend the rest of her life being feared and respected, but lose her values. In the end, she acknowledges that she wants to be nice (but in actuality, she maintains her strength, proving that you don't necessarily have to choose one virtue over the other).

There's a nice wrap-up as Jeff is allowed back into pottery class. He admits to Rich that he is bad at something - an admission he's struggled with and will continue to struggle with. However, with Rich, Jeff seems to begrudgingly admit his faults ("Asian Population Studies" again) and imperfections. And I think that this is what makes a great foil. The image then of Jeff's mother being a realist and acknowledging (albeit in Jeff's imagination) that he's not very special and that he'll be great at some things, but not at everything is significant because it highlights, I think, how Jeff will begin to see himself from now on.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode:
- "Your last blow-off class ended up teaching me to live in the moment. Which I will always regret and never do again." ...until the finale, Annie.
- "Hello my precious blueberries!"
- I love that Jeff leans over and mouths "Don't worry" to Annie and Abed when Professor Holly talks about his "zero ghost policy."
- "If I were ever to make an effort in that class, you'd think I was the cat's pajamas too." "Cat's pajamas? Okay, Pierce."
- We get associations with Britta and Psychology even in the first season.
- "It landed on that Hundai... I mean... mermaid's car."
- "Guess where Rich is from?" "Couldn't have been Crazy Town. You'd have gone to high school together."
- "Um, I can swim, racist."
- "Good luck, Pierce." "Don't need it. Never had it."

As most of you are well-aware, Community finally has its return date set - March 15th! This means that we only have two more weeks of season 1 re-watches and blog-reviews before new episodes air. :) As all of you, I am absolutely thrilled that we'll have our beloved show back on the air shortly. In the mean time, next week we will be watching and reviewing one of my all-time favorite Britta episodes: "The Science of Illusion." Until then, have an excellent weekend everyone!

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