Friday, March 23, 2012

3x12 "Contemporary Impressionists" (The Darkest Timeline Returns)

"Contemporary Impressionists"
Original Airdate: March 22, 2012

This episode was dark. And usually I will come up with some witty opener or an analogy that relates to the theme or plot of the episode. But the truth is that these characters have reached dark places in their lives. Two stories in particular - our Jeff/Britta storyline and the Troy/Abed one - highlight this. And I think that a lot of things, in Jeff's case, can be boiled down to the concept of fear. What keeps Jeff grounded, ironically, is the fear that he isn't good enough. So he, as a character, strives for others' attention in order to validate himself as a person. In excess, this is obviously a dangerous thing, especially when coupled with anti-depressants. An excess of something (be it a person, substance, etc.) can cause chaos in our lives. In Jeff's case, an excess of self-pride (in an already egotistical man) can cause hyper-narcissism. In Abed's case, an excess in fantasy can be dangerous in reality. And this is, at its core, what the episode was truly about. Thankfully for Abed and Jeff, they both have people in their lives that look out for their well-being (in Troy and Britta, respectively). Both characters want what's best for the other. However, Britta and Troy approach the issue of a friend's slow descent into delusion differently (and we'll discuss later which I found to be more effective).

Before I begin the review, I have to - again - discuss the importance of re-watching episodes. Central Florida preempted the beginning of the episode because of coverage of a Trayvon Martin rally (if you don't know about the case, please read up on it -- it is a sad, tragic case that deserves justice), so I missed the first six or so minutes. During my first watch, I felt pretty neutral -- I assumed that this would be an episode "too weird" for new audience members to embrace. During my second watch of the episode, I discovered everything that you are about to read, and really came away with a new understanding of the characters. During my third watch, I realized that this episode only had a few moments that I didn't connect with. Otherwise, it was quite an emotional, dark episode that I think set up even more events to come.

If you need a plot refresher for the episode, here goes: the entire group returns from winter break (this episode was actually supposed to air before "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts," so bits of continuity are off), where we learn that Abed has been hiring celebrity impersonators to reenact scenes from movies with him all break. Annie doesn't find this very amusing, but Troy is enthralled. Britta announces that she gets to study and diagnose someone for a Psychology mid-term assignment. And Jeff announces that he started seeing a new therapist, who prescribed him anti-anxiety medication. Britta is horrified at this, noting that Jeff has a large ego as it is -- anti-anxiety drugs will only enhance that to the point of dangerous delusion. And I absolutely adore Jeff/Britta stories because she's usually so frank and curt with him about his flaws. She's not afraid to call him out on being, say, a narcissist. And I think that's what makes their dynamic so intriguing - he very rarely ever admits that he is the person she claims he is (this differs from his relationship with Annie, where he apologizes for things being his fault, etc.). But this episode is a nice example of how their dynamic as characters has grown.

Or perhaps this is the episode in which Jeff finally recognizes the ability for Britta to be that person in his life. He won't feel bad if she calls him out on how he acts - he's used to that from her. In this episode, he doesn't need a soft person like Annie (and even though we have seen her grow, Annie taps into Jeff's emotions and feelings, which works on a dynamic level for them); he needs someone like Britta who will slap his face, insult him, and tell him to get his act together, no questions asked. Jeff needs both women for different purposes, and Britta is a person who - for however flawed she is otherwise - is dedicated to her friendship with Jeff and strives to ensure that he doesn't fail as a human being. And that's what I adore about Britta - she's the kind of person who will be the "buzz kill" because it's what people need. And perhaps this makes it sound like no one needs an Annie or a Shirley, but that's simply not the case. Every study group member has a different role to fulfill, both in Jeff's life and in one another's lives. Britta gets the ability to exercise her gift for severity quite well during this episode -- and it's effective. Notice how, at the end of the Troy/Abed story (which we will get to in a little while), the roommates and best friends confronted one another, but seemed not to have grown. That's because, fundamentally, Troy wanted to preserve his friendship with Abed. There's this notion that sometimes we care more about a relationship than a person. And don't get me wrong - Troy cares IMMENSELY for Abed as his best friend. But Britta cares more about Jeff than she does about their relationship -- she wants Jeff to be bettered as a person, and doesn't care if he hates her in the process; she won't stop trying, throughout the episode, to make Jeff leave the party and spare himself from a breakdown. And I think that's why, at the end of their arc, Jeff comes to the realization that he needed her help. Abed doesn't come to this realization. But we will get there, like I said, momentarily.

There's a Chang storyline developing in the background of this episode, which will set in motion the plot for episodes later on in the season. And I'm definitely intrigued to see where this storyline is going. Chang, the lone security guard, shoots a tranquilizer dart at the study room window, which causes the dean a bit of concern. Dean Pelton then agrees to let Chang have other students help him so that he isn't a "one man army." I think in the latter half of the season, I'm becoming more invested in Chang. Perhaps because he's interacting with the dean rather than security-guard-whom-I-could-have-cared-less-about. It's nice to see this slow rise to power again, since in season one, this was where Chang was. 

Jeff's ego is slowly growing, and Britta warns him of the dangers of this. And I really enjoy the fact that Jeff actually DOES listen to Britta. Sometimes he jokes and dismisses her as a buzz kill or incompetent. However, in the cafeteria, he clearly has recognized that he has an issue and admits this to her. It's nice to see Jeff - someone we consider to be traditionally single-minded - actually listen to someone's advice apart from his own. It's unselfish. It's also an intriguing contrast to someone like Abed during this episode, who we usually concede to be the "innocent" of the group. And Abed, in a lot of ways, will always remain that person for the study group. Yet in this episode, we encounter the idea that Abed's naivete could be merely that... or could be fundamentally rooted in the idea that he doesn't like being told what to do (as Troy mentions at the end of the episode). So doesn't that notion alone provide us with some insight? Is Jeff the selfish one? Or is Abed?

In the cafeteria, the group is approached by a French Stewart impersonator (French Stewart himself, actually!) who announces that Abed owes him $3,000 for all the celebrity impersonators that he has hired over break. Abed casually says that he doesn't have that kind of money, and French Stewart announces that the group could pay off Abed's debt by working at a bar mitzvah that weekend, dressed up as impersonators. Annie, worried, announces that they will discuss it. Once Abed leaves the table, the group seems to decide that feeding into Abed's delusions is a bad idea.

And Troy - initially - defends Abed as his best friend and as someone who is traditionally misunderstood. He refuses an intervention because he doesn't want to dash Abed's view of reality. Troy is a good person and insists on helping Abed live comfortably in a bubble, essentially, of never-growing-up. And I think that in a lot of ways, Troy is beginning to realize that this isn't always what his best friend needs. Sometimes being a best friend means being tough and realistic - it means calling friends out when they are beings selfish or downright wrong (re: Britta throughout the episode). But Troy also wants to preserve the friendship that he and Abed have, and not muddy Abed's view of the world up with "reality." So he goes out of his way to help his friend (much like Jeff does in "Critical Film Studies") only to discover that Abed really doesn't WANT to change. He wants people to accept him the way that he is, to leave him that way, and to bend and change around him. But sadly, that's not how the world works. And the easiest way for Abed to cope is to detach himself, as we see at the end of the episode.

And I'm still torn between two notions -- is Abed really selfish? Or is he just so detached from reality that he genuinely doesn't understand that what he is doing is wrong. Regardless, Troy wants to cater the world to Abed. And that makes him a fantastic best friend. Why? Well, besides that fact, look at how far Troy has come since "Environmental Science." In that episode, arguably, the Troy/Abed relationship is finally established. Initially though, Troy insisted that friends only do things for HIM, not the other way around. The extent now to which Troy has developed and grown astounds me. But the problem for Troy is that, in order to cater the world to Abed, Troy has to go out of HIS way to do so. And this usually leads to frustration on his end when Abed can't seem to understand or reciprocate the emotions involved behind the actions.

The group arrives at the bar mitzvah, dressed as their celebrities (with Jeff about to don a suit to become a Ryan Seacrest impersonator -- the inside jokes with this never fail to amuse me). Britta confronts Jeff about leaving the party - she knows that if he stays, his ego will only get larger, and this will become dangerous. Earlier in the cafeteria, when he encountered a slight surge in ego, he acknowledged it to Britta. And instead of dealing with his issues, Jeff chooses the easiest way out of his problems. Or rather, he's just trying to suppress any sense of issue in his life (it's what Jeff does best). Instead of dealing with WHY he has a large ego, he takes medication to suppress it. And of course, when his emotions aren't dealt with, they are easily triggered. And - like I mentioned earlier - I really enjoy that, in his moments of desperation, Jeff decides to turn to Britta, who he knows will be brutally honest with him.

Slowly but surely, the bar mitzvah is getting out of hand -- Abed and the others keep moving from their assigned "quadrants," which is frustrating to Troy. The whole reason he agreed to the event in the first place was because French Stewart threatened that - if Abed didn't pay his debt - he would hire people to hurt the film student. Jeff's descent into insanity rapidly grows out of control until, when the boy whose bar mitzvah they are performing at wins an award for "Most Handsome Young Man," Jeff snaps. He becomes a Hulk-like egomaniac and "ruins" the party (the boy is thrilled that his father hired a Hulk impersonator). Troy breathes a sigh of relief when French announces that the debt has been paid for Abed.

And Donald rarely gets a chance to shine, using his "serious moment" acting chops. But the scene in the blanket fort is perhaps one of the best things that he has ever done. When Troy returns home from the party, he realizes that Abed is there and has hired more celebrity impersonators the entire time. Rightfully so, Troy is upset with his best friend. And I love that he consistently acknowledges (to the group) that Abed is different -- magical and fantastical, living in his own world. And yet, Troy treats him the same way he would treat anyone else. He expects Abed to learn and to know and to grow, and it frustrates him that Abed won't be "normal" sometimes. Which is ironic, because Troy spent the beginning part of the episode convincing the group that Abed's fantastical nature was the best quality about him. And see, this is the thing about excess -- even good qualities (ego and fantasy) can be detrimental w hen there are too much of them.

The absolute cutest thing ever (and props to Danny Pudi for this one) is the way that Abed sort of shuffles his feet when he sits down on the bunk. The subsequent conversation feels a lot like a parent-child dialogue would. Abed - ever the either a) innocent child or b) forcibly innocent child - doesn't understand why Troy is upset. And if he does, even a little, he cannot reciprocate the appropriate emotions to assist Troy and move forward in their relationship.

And it's not even that he can't reciprocate, perhaps - Abed doesn't like being constrained. He doesn't like being constrained by reality or by others' opinions or by what they tell him to do and not do. As we learned from their dialogue, Abed doesn't want to trust Troy - he wants do what he feels he should do. Troy, the wiser, knows what's best for Abed. But it's up to the latter to allow that to happen (and Abed, deep down, doesn't want that). He doesn't like change. And fundamentally, he doesn't want to change who he is as a person so that Troy can feel better. Because in Abed's eyes, there's nothing wrong with how he is. 

And clearly we are headed back into the darkest timeline, folks. Buckle up. Because it looks like Chang is about to rise to power and Troy/Abed will begin to fall.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
- Can I just say that my favorite part of the first few moments was the fact that Annie and Britta actually hugged? No wait... I lied. PIERCE AND BRITTA HUGGED, YOU GUYS.
- Jeff really DOES have swagger. And Joel looks mighty fine with scruff and aviators.
- I love the "intervention" callback. Apparently the group does a lot of interventions. Maybe as much as this group of friends.
- "If you had hit a small student, they could have died."
- "Britta, how could an apple make that clear? Imagine it expanding? Use a balloon." "I was on my way to lunch!"
- "Even his shadow! LOOK AT HIS SHADOW!" (Jim Rash continues to steal every scene he is in.)
- I love that Pierce continues to refer to Abed as "Aybed."
- "No, no. More like a taller, hotter Ryan Seacrest."
- Not!Moby is in this episode! I LOVE THAT!
- Shirley may not have been in this episode a lot, but she owned her scenes. Her Oprah impression was golden. And her kiss with Jeff was hilarious. Also, Britta's subsequent "No, God! No!" killed me, as did Troy's reaction.
- I'm fairly certain that Britta had a yellow "Occupy Greendale" bumper sticker on her car.
- The return of Evil Abed!

Next week we head into a Pierce/Shirley story again - "Digital Exploration of Interior Design" will feature the two working on their sandwich shop idea. It's also the first part in a two part all-out blanket fort/pillow fight between Troy and Abed. And I don't know about you all... but I feel like war is coming. Until then, folks!


  1. As insightful as ever, Jennifer.

    For me, the Jeff/Britta storyline felt rushed, while the Troy/Abed sections moved much more naturally, indicating this was only the tip of a large iceberg. It was also interesting to see Abed's reality in a way I feel we haven't seen since the video he created about his parents back in the first season.

    On a less psychological level, I'm a bit uncomfortable with what appears to be the increasing use of graphics. Last week we had two title cards, now thought ballons and expanding apples. The alternate timeline "game board" worked because it existed outside of our universe. These new elements just seem very cartoony. I know I may be over-reacting. And I'll live with them. But they feel forced -- something I don't expect from Community.

  2. I don't think Abed is an innocent, and I don't think he's selfish, but I do think that he doesn't like change. Especially in situations where he's emotionally invested in some way, because it's difficult for Abed to even get emotionally invested. Abed is, fundamentally, a planner. He's like the director of the film: he's on the outside, he's visualizing the shots, he knows what the actors/characters in the monitors are supposed to be doing, how they're supposed to be delivering their lines, but he is not in front of the camera and he does not get attached to what's going on because that scene might get cut, that character might get dropped, and those lines might be changed.

    But when he is invested, it's dangerous for him. Like in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas", it's obvious that Abed is an emotional guy. He was emotionally invested in sharing Christmas with his mother, and when that fell apart, so did he. I think Abed's issue is that he just can't deal with significant shifts in his life as smoothly as he should be able to.

    Abed is invested in his friendship with Troy as it is. They're two weird guys who hang out in a Dreamatorium and crab walk home on occasion. Even when they try to be "normal", they're still doing it together, they still did it in a very weird way, and they're still ridiculously in synch with each other. If their friendship changes - if Abed stops being as weird as he is, or if Troy grows up and becomes more normal for real, not the bizarre Stepford Troy version of normal in "Urban Matrimony" but the legitimately scared-for-his-friend normal that we saw in this episode - Abed will be just as lost as he was when he didn't see his mother on Christmas.

    I think it's less that Abed doesn't like people telling him what to do, and more about how Abed finds a certain amount of safety in staying the same for a very long time, because "changing" is such a slow, difficult process for him. He wants to keep Troy the same, too, because Troy is at risk of outgrowing Abed very fast if Abed doesn't distract him with things like the Dreamatorium and wacky hijinks.

  3. I think when we look back at this episode at the end of the season we will see that everything hinged on these 22 minutes. The beginning of the wedge between Troy and Abed, obviously Chang's coup, and Pierce's redemption. Pierce has been rather well behaved recently, but we know he rallies the Human Beings to "burn this mother down." I imagine Pierce will be Chang's main rival after the coup. Is it next Thursday yet?

  4. I mean...shippers are gonna ship, but I think your Jeff/Britta analysis is SPOT ON. What I saw there was the true foundation of Jeff and Britta's friendship. Cause I actually think that friendship is stronger BECAUSE they have slept together...there's just gonna be a level of intimacy there that isn't there with the others. And you're right, Britta isn't afraid to call Jeff out on his crap. And everyone needs someone like that. It shows mega growth in Jeff as a character that Britta is the one he went to with this. I don't think Season One Jeff would have.

    I also think you hit the nail on the head with Troy and Abed. Abed has remained pretty static as a charcter while Troy has grown immensely. His protectiveness of Abed and then his subsequent frustration with him was spot on. Well played, Donald.

    And GungaJason is right. The rest of the season is gonna hinge on the fall out from this episode. I, for one, can't wait. As long as it all gets put back together in the end.

    1. It is interesting in some ways that Abed possibly enabled Troy to be more immature for a while, and now he's unintentionally spurring Troy to be more of an adult.

  5. I'm wondering does the increasing use of the visual gags mean something other than that they have a budget for them?

    Was it just the easiest way to communicate certain ideas developing, or is it an homage to something, or does it signify something else, like how things are getting more and more outrageous/cartoonish?

    Maybe using this technique is just an experiment or a short-term fad.

    I've been trying to think of what series have used things like this, but I can only think of Ally McBeal and cartoons.

    1. Oh, and I'd add that right now I don't think Abed is intentionally selfish. He's just not empathetic at all. He does not value money, so he does not understand that his debt & its consequences put pressure on everybody else. He's doing what he wants and he seems to think that's what everybody else does and that he doesn't inconvenience anyone.

      For someone who's interested in fantasy and playing roles he really doesn't seem to know how to put himself in other people's shoes (which everybody isn't as good as they think they are at, but Abed doesn't seem to think about it at all).

  6. It's actually very funny that they had the kid like Jeff as the hulk because it would have been a tad too dark to ruin a kid's party (even if the kid is super spoiled).

  7. Thanks for another great review!

    I find the rescheduling very interesting. If the show hadn't been put on hiatus, I can imagine this being an absolutely awesome episode to come back to after the winter break. I think it was probably a smart decision to move "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts" up for new viewers, though I am really curious about where it was originally supposed to go, and how the change will affect the storyline that's being set up here.

    It's interesting that you mention that Abed might actually be the most selfish one in the group. He said in "Critical Film Studies" that "growing and changing" are really his deal. I think "Cooperative Calligraphy" is also an example of that: he gets really annoyed with the group when they end up doing a bottle episode. Oh, and in "Regional Holiday Music" he manipulates the group into doing the pageant. He actually seems to try to force his will on the group a lot.

    You mentioned Britta's "gift for severity." Is that a quote from the season 1 April Fool's episode?

    Finally, I agree with everyone who expressed concern over the animated graphics. It doesn't seem to fit the tone of the show.

    I'm really excited to see where the writers take these storylines. I'm all for "really crazy, and inaccessible, and maybe too dark."

  8. I think Britta was very misunderstood in this episode. In fact, I think this episode was very misunderstood.

    Firstly, I agree with everything you said about Britta. Because of all the goofiness and frequent mistakes, the characters AND the audience forget that Britta looks after the group. She does, really. Like you said, she just does it with no BS, no beating around the bush...
    I know a lot of people have said that this ep suddenly had Britta be awesome at psych and that she didn't have any business trying to help Jeff, but I think Britta, in Jeff's group of friends, is the only one who could have helped him in this situation. Less because of she's a psych major, but more because she knows Jeff. She knows his flaws. I actually really LOVED Britta in this.
    Also, it was, refreshingly, a nice thing to see Britta being right about something. I think we're very quick to forget that Britta isn't just some 1D character for gags.

    Secondly, the Troy/Abed story broke my heart. Abed, I've decided, is selfish. He DOES like doing what he wants, and like the ep Critical Film Studies, he doesn't really mind what happens while he's getting to do it.
    I love him, and I am IN love with Troy (and Donald, whose acting in this episode was amazing), but Abed does need to realize that he can't live life with just saying "growing and changing isn't my jam". (Paraphrasing from CFS.)
    Troy, wonderfully, proved one of my suspicions right. He isn't a naive little boy - he's an adult. He cares about Abed, and he wanted to help him. Again, I agree with you - I think he was more eager to preserve the relationship he has with Abed than risk it. Did you see the look of relief when Abed asked him if they were still best friends??

    Additionally, I don't think anyone has put these few things into words:
    a.) Abed (when retreating into his fantasy at the end) is friends with Evil! Abed. Or, friendly. Whichever. I don't trust Evil! Abed.
    b.) Gillian was SO CUTE when she held up the apple!! The way she held her arm and the cute - argh, that whole scene was brilliant for her. I wanted to hug her so bad.
    c.) As a fandom, we tend to give Annie more chances to show that she's an adult. Ditto with Troy.
    d.) Most people are worried that Britta liking the whole aviators thing means Bad Things for J/A, but c'mon. Scruffy Jeff in aviators. She's a woman. She might be Britta, but that doesn't stop her from appreciating the good (looking) things in life.

    Also, like you, I went "NOT! MOBY !!!" when I saw him. Epic show is epic.

  9. New theory on the visual gags: animated gif-able