Friday, March 9, 2012

1x21 "Contemporary American Poultry" (The Taste of Power)

"Contemporary American Poultry"
Original Airdate: April 22, 2010

There is an oft-quoted line from the original Spider-Man comic (and subsequent movie) that says "With great power comes great ___." (I didn't even have to finish, because most of you have already completed the line in your heads, haven't you?) Truly though, with great power does come great responsibility. And as we near the end of the first season, Jeff Winger has never been more powerful - his command of the study group is undeniable at this point, as is his ability to always fix, always provide, and always demand respect and attention from them. Perhaps the most evident example of this is something he does in the episode - a silencing gesture that the study group always obeys. And in its own way, Jeff's mini-Winger speech when he discusses being sheep versus being wolves applies to the group. Up until this point, there hasn't been an episode where they have become wolves. And in this episode, I'd argue that they don't either. They appear to be, perhaps, if you squint. But in all actuality, the study group is merely a flock of sheep choosing to follow a new leader. And there's something to be said about being a flock of sheep: it's not intended to be a compliment. And sheep are not inherently dumb animals, as one might think. They are merely animals who travel in herds (for reasons of comfort, protection, familial access, etc.). In a lot of ways, the study group IS like a herd of sheep - they stay together because they desire companionship. However, sheep need shepherds in order to guide and corral them, lest they stumble into danger. And this is where the leader steps up. Now, we've discussed egotism, vanity, and selfishness quite a lot in recent blog reviews as they pertain to Jeff. But we have also discussed his growing fondness for the study group and his increasing dependence on them at this point in the story. Jeff does not take kindly to a loss of power or control or attention in regards to these people. Not only does it unsettle him, but it also drives him to do things he usually wouldn't do (re: "Beginner Pottery"). I like that this episode displays the intra-group threat because we have seen how Jeff reacts to being threatened from afar, but when he loses power over the group from within, he begins to slip into desperation.

(What  is interesting to note about power, too, is that it usually always somehow linked back to fear. Jeff, for however secure he may appear externally, harbors insecurities of being left alone and without the group. Perhaps in the pilot, he never would have expected this, but the truth remains that - at this point in the series - he's beginning to need the group more and more, and in this episode they do not seem to need him at all. Therefore, when Jeff has power over the group, he keeps their respect and also keeps them around.)

I adore this episode because it showcases the brilliance of Joel McHale and Danny Pudi, the latter of whom is not usually overlooked, but rarely brought to the forefront in stories with Jeff. And indeed, when stories of significant emotional revelations occur in either of these characters, one or the other is usually present (i.e.: "Critical Film Studies"). I've always felt that there are two people in the study group that Jeff goes out of his way to protect - Annie and Abed. And I feel like there is this strange but mutual understanding between Jeff and Abed that we set up at the end of the last episode ("The Science of Illusion") - almost as if they are both outsiders and are keenly aware of this. Evidently, Abed is usually cast in stories that highlight his eccentricities, but this is a story that focuses in on how Abed can become normal (or what his definition of "normal" is). It's a very poignant episode for both characters, as they come to a mutual understanding of why the other acts the way that they do.

In case you've momentarily forgotten what "Contemporary American Poultry" was about, here's a brief refresher: at Greendale, there is only one good food in the cafeteria -- chicken fingers. And since there is only one good food, this runs out constantly. Jeff and the study group leave early for lunch and still manage to get there after the chicken finger supply has run out. They then realize the reason for this is because Starburns is the fry cook and skims chicken fingers to give to people. Jeff then hatches a scheme -- they'll knock Starburns out of the kitchen and replace him with Abed so that the study group can have power over the chicken and use it for good. Abed agrees to this and becomes the fry cook. But suddenly, rather than taking a backseat to Jeff's leadership, Abed begins to make decisions for the group (effectively knocking Jeff from power). Jeff, of course, does not take kindly to this. And Abed eventually realizes the price of power and leadership. (More on that later, though.)

I like the idea that Jeff controls the group selfishly (and out of this weird jealousy that others may take over this position or worse - not need him anymore) as evidenced in the cafeteria, and that he often stops the group's good ideas from coming to fruition in order to serve his agenda (anyone recall "Competitive Ecology
? Blaming Todd for problems was easier for Jeff than admitting the group's flaws). And that isn't - of course - to say that Jeff never has good ideas or morally sound ones. He likes to call the shots, know the outcome, and make sure that he wins. That sounds all rather plain and simple... except in this episode. And I don't think that Abed's intentions throughout the episode are malicious, because we know from the ending that Abed's struggle is to connect with people, and he admires that Jeff can do this. So he attempts to emulate it. He knows that the group needs Jeff, and wants to feel included, rather than someone who merely watches from the outside (flash forward to season 3, and we realize that the tables turn - notably in "Remedial Chaos Theory" when Jeff is the one looking in from the outside).

Jeff is also very good at justifying destroying other people in order to get what he thinks he deserves. We saw this clearly in the pilot where he turned his now-friends against one another in order to get a shot at Britta. Throughout the episodes, this ragtag group of misfits has come to love one another, but that drive - that desire - in Jeff that fuels him is still one that stems from control and power. Abed's narration explains his view of Jeff's reasoning. And again, Abed notes that when the study group decided to take control away from Starburns, they became wolves. Jeff's Winger speech in the cafeteria seemed to rub off on him (as most of the speeches do - remember, he's the one who applauds in "Asian Population Studies" and, in general, seems enthralled by Jeff's speech-delivering capabilities). However, the reality is that the study group is still a flock of sheep.

But here's what's interesting too is that initially the study group ALL condescends Abed when he announces that he made a decision for them by skimming some chicken off to Chang. Once they learn, however, that Abed is providing better things for them than Jeff ever could (a 10% bump on every Spanish test for all of them!), they start jumping ship. Because here's the deal: if Jeff isn't the leader, what is he? Everyone else kind of has their established role in the study group: Annie is the planner and note-taker, Britta is the "heart of the group," Abed is the pop culture junkie, Troy is the comedic relief, Pierce is the scapegoat, and Shirley is the nurturing one. Jeff is the leader - that's his role. Dan Harmon and the case discussed this very notion at PaleyFest last weekend, in regards to Jeff's character. And Joel admitted that there are these moments where the group realizes that they don't necessarily need Jeff as much (the end of "Remedial Chaos Theory," to be specific). But that is his role - he is the leader. And, as Harmon mentioned, it's often a thankless role, but it's necessary that someone is in it.

Once the study group begins to rely on Abed to provide for them, they really no longer need Jeff to do so and - as a consequence - Jeff loses control of them. Quite suddenly and alarmingly, Jeff realizes that he no longer has power, and it unnerves him. He had been jealous of Abed's power before, but now that control has become personal. Abed, meanwhile, in his scheming has realized that relationships aren't as complicated as he might have made them out to be (that's not, of course, true because we'll explain repercussions later. For the time being, he believes this though), and tells Jeff that everyone has a role in the group. Jeff does not care, of course, for his role being eclipsed by Abed's. And under delusion, Jeff still believes that he has ultimate power and tells Abed that he should probably put an end to the chicken finger operation. Abed though, hasn't done anything wrong - the study group is better than ever (albeit placed in more power, which gives them more self-centered behaviors), with Abed at the top. And Abed then calls Jeff out on the reason that he came to the dorm in the first place - Jeff's ego. And I think that this is part of the reason why, but there's also a duality here of ego and insecurity. The two seem mutually exclusive, but the truth is that they aren't - in Jeff's life, they aren't anyway.

(Remember, let's not deny the fact that Jeff cares about Abed and desires to protect him. When he confronts the study group about Abed's behavior, I do think that there is a genuine desire present to protect his friend. Because see, Jeff - in spite of all his hang-ups and less-than-redeemable qualities, has learned from being in his leadership position. Abed hasn't learned yet about the crippling price that power has and Jeff wants to spare him from this. Because power can do one of three things: it can build you up or it can destroy you. Or it can do both - and usually does.)

Jeff underestimates the power that Abed has, however (and I think that he only realizes it once he tells Pierce to be quiet and the elderly man, instead of remaining silent, snaps back at Jeff.) Abed though realizes the Spider-Man quote once the group starts becoming greedy and selfish - they demand more of him and take for granted all he's provided. In Abed's mind, he factored in the ideas of power and respect, but didn't leave room for the idea that (along with those things) comes responsibility and the chance for people to turn on you. Remember: power does not equal respect. And Abed realizes this. And perhaps this is a great episode because it allows Jeff and Abed to learn something fundamental about one another. 

Also, I don't sing the praises of Danny Pudi enough in this blog-review, so I apologize profusely for that, because he is one of my favorite actors to watch - to physically WATCH - act on this show. His facial expressions are always so precisely nuanced, and they are perfectly catered to Abed as a character. Additionally, even though Abed is usually supposed to be stoic and unemotional, Danny does a fabulous job with the emotions that he does express on-screen.

Abed sends the group a message about their selfishness, and the group runs back to Jeff, who - thanks to Starburns - has a key to the fryer which will be able to cut off Abed's power source. The ending of this episode is my favorite Jeff/Abed moment because it's the first time we've seen them be completely raw and honest with one another. Abed mentions that he was "close" - as in close to figuring out a fool-proof formula for getting to know people and be friends with them. To be like Jeff, essentially - the person that other people need. People underestimate Abed all the time, or gloss over him and brush him off as a person. They don't do the same to Jeff because he makes meaningful connections. And for Abed, it's not for lack of trying on his end to connect, but rather (as he says) people do not understand HIM.

There's also this misconception there that connecting to people makes everyone happy. And this is something that Abed still doesn't fully grasp, but Jeff does. He understands that when you put one person in charge, inevitably someone else is unhappy. But Jeff can handle that, because this is his job - he's the leader.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode:
- "Your social skills aren't exactly streets ahead, if you  know what I mean." "If you have to ask, you're streets behind." I love that this has become a "thing" among Community fans.
- "If God were edible - not that I'm Catholic - but if it was cool to eat God, he'd be a chicken finger."
- Picky note: When Britta begins talking about her diabetic cat, she refers to it as a "him" and "he," but then once Shirley is the only person left in the room, says she's afraid she's "going to have to put her to sleep." (I don't get to point out many things with the continuity on the show, so this is my one moment.)
- Joel sounds pretty sick throughout this episode, and more noticeably toward the end.
- "Well, I may not eat meat, but I'm not gonna eat that injustice!"
- "To victory: it feels unfamiliar, but it tastes like chicken."
- "Why do you have a monkey?" "Uh, it's an animal that looks like a dude. Why don't I have ten of them?"
- "Please rename that thing! And this time, not with a contest on Twitter."
- It amuses me that under Jeff's function (on Abed's chart) it lists: "Talking."
- "I don't have an ego. My Facebook photo is a landscape."
- Let's be honest, everyone. Annie is right - wide-ruled paper is awful.
- "I'm sorry, you rushed over that first part. Together." "You. Were. Right."

Can you believe it, folks? We've made it through thirteen weeks of hiatus together! Thank you to everyone who has participated in our Thursday night re-watches! And thank you especially to everyone who has read, commented, and helped promote this blog during that time. You all are seriously the best, and I wish I could physically hug each one of you. (So consider yourselves hugged right now!)

Next week, Community returns with ALL-NEW episodes! Our first one back is "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts" which contains a wedding, Troy and Abed acting normal, and some pretty heartfelt moments (according to those who have seen the episode at PaleyFest). And in case you missed the most epic trailer to ever hit the web, check out what we can expect for the rest of season 3!

As always, join me here next Friday for my review of our new episode! Have a great weekend, everyone. :)


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