Friday, May 4, 2012

3x18 "Course Listing Unavailable" (Goodbye, Greendale Seven)

"Course Listing Unavailable"
Original Airdate: May 3, 2012

Does anyone remember how I opened last week's episode review (without cheating and scrolling down the page)? I noted that Greendale Community College is kind of an absurd place. But it's a place where people oddly find themselves learning life-altering lessons. This week, Jeff describes Greendale a bit differently than I did -- as "a prison." In "Course Listing Unavailable," the study group goes through a mourning phase at their sacred community college. It's not, however, entirely due to the death of their classmate Starburns. It is, in fact, mourning the notion that they are actually AT Greendale -- watch closely and you'll notice that the study group members go through each stage of grief throughout the course of the episode. We'll study them individually as they occur, and I'll highlight what I think they mean. And this episode definitely hinged on the psychological progression of grief -- again, the thing Community does best is taking an episode that is presumably about one thing and flipping it on its head to have it focus on another larger (and often more important) topic or issue or character development.

And it truly WAS interesting to see each character deal with grief in their own way -- the manner in which each of them initially handled Starburns' passing says a lot about the way they view life and death. Abed, for example, seems like the type of character who would remain detached and emotionless in the fact of something like a death. But it's touching to watch him agree to create a video tribute to Starburns. He feels the compelling need to do so without entirely understanding why. And I think that's character growth for him, to be honest. As we saw in "Contemporary Impressionists," when he and Troy argued, Abed always needed to see the bigger picture, to understand the motivations and reasons he should agree to do what Troy told him to do. This time, Abed decides to agree to Starburns' wishes without much hesitation or questioning (and he does, indeed, fulfill those wishes in the end tag). In terms of Jeff as a character, much like "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" or "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons," we realize that Jeff Winger is subtly taught more lessons at Greendale than he realizes. And it, in turn, makes him a better person.

(Before we progress with the review, since I mentioned the writer of the episode last week, I felt I should do similarly this week! "Course Listing Unavailable" was a fantastically written episode, and that is thanks to Tim Saccardo (@timsaccardo). So go throw him some nice tweets if you enjoyed the episode, will you?)

As it is customary for me, we've now come to our plot recap portion of the review: Starburns, as we learned at the end of last week's episode, was killed in a car explosion. "Course Listing Unavailable" opens with Troy, Annie, and Abed watching a video of Starburns' will and testament. And I really do think that it was nice of Starburns to want Abed to be the one to make a video tribute of his life. Clearly Alex (it's his real name!) wasn't a cherished character among the study group, but it's funny because maybe he cherished them a little more than they did. The study group meets in their usual room and it's awkward silence until Annie bridges the gap and insists that they have to discuss the death of their classmate. And, of course, this is in character for Annie. We've seen that she is not the sort of woman to let things go unnoticed. Like I've mentioned before in reviews, it's clear that she views the world in black and white - there are non-complex things and there are complex things. Emotions, to Annie, are not complex at all. And it's difficult at times for her to understand someone like Jeff, who continues to skirt around the notion that he actually HAS feelings and emotions.

Britta siezes (the day!) the opportunity to practice some of her psychology skills on the group, encouraging everyone into a role-playing exercise -- she will be Starburns and the group can say or ask whatever they like to her (as him). And I think that it's endearing that the rest of the group agrees with Troy in asking for Britta with help dealing with their emotions. Sometimes, like I've noted before, the audience forgets what Britta's original role in the group was, in Jeff's mind. In spite of how much he pokes fun of her, she really IS the heart of the group. If nothing else, the rest of the study group tries to include her in some fashion, whether or not they actually believe what she says and does. They love her, even when she's being - in their mind - stupid. But being a friend means caring about what your friends care about, even if you do think it's stupid. Because it's not the object that your affection is placed in; it's the person.

The study group doesn't "do" the exercise right, which frustrates Britta. But this is another great example of how Britta's attempts at being a shrink appear to backfire for her. We laugh her off in this episode as the "wannabe" psychologist who is actually doing everything wrong. But in reality, as we'll see at the end of the episode, the group makes it through all five stages of grief so subtly that none of them notice or credit Britta. But I think it's brilliant how much of an unknown impact Britta is causing on the group. It makes the emotions more genuine and the feelings heartfelt when you realize that she is trying so hard to be good at something and seemingly failing but, ironically, becoming exactly what the group needs.

Security guard Chang confronts the dean with a proposal -- he wants more man-power, new uniforms, and stricter punishment enforced (including pepper spray). And Chang's rise to power is, of course, going to be a large part of the dénouement of this season. Since we haven't really been exposed in full to his eccentricities since "Contemporary Impressionists," it seems fitting that he would return now to wreak havoc on the group. Chang, I believe, is best as a villain when he is in power. The first season, he played a large role in the lives of the study group. He had power over them and abused that power to the extent he was allowed. Last season, I wasn't a huge fan of Chang's arcs. He's not usually my favorite character to begin with, but since he had no power over the group, he seemed a bit more pathetic and flat. I realize now that this was probably to evoke sympathy from the viewers, and there were times where I felt more invested in Chang as a character (when he was calming Shirley down in "Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts," for example). However, we know that there is much more than this to his character -- he is a maniacal, power-hungry psychopath and he is at his best and worst when allowed reign over something. He is the perfect nemesis then, for the group, because he has both been an intra-group enemy as well as an external one.

Dean Pelton denies Chang's security requests, and then his secretary appears with a letter -- the dean has to deliver bad news to the study group soon. Meanwhile, in the study room, Britta's exercises may not be very helpful or correct tactically, but they do examine some interesting character traits (Abed, for example, is not a robot and can connect with people and things -- he's horrified at Britta's puppy exercise). And thus, we enter into the first stage of the episode: denial. Jeff, throughout the episode, denies any sort of emotional attachment to Starburns, but it's more than that -- he denies any sort of emotional investment in Greendale. Remember, Jeff has had a difficult time in the past making peace with being a part of this school ("Football, Feminism, and You"). And I think that, even then, he didn't quite fully come to terms with being at a school that taught him lessons he didn't want to learn (or think he needed to learn). He's in denial, I think, over how much he actually NEEDS this school and would miss it if he lost it. And that's how Jeff views life -- he doesn't wallow, but he also doesn't grieve (and there's a difference). He doesn't allow himself to open up to emotions very often, so he has none to deal with. It's not until reality hits - reality that directly affects HIM (I went through this extensively in "Investigative Journalism") - that Jeff actually concedes to dealing with things.

The dean enters the study room and informs the group that due to Starburns' death and the chaos surrounding it, Professor Kane had quit. That means that the study group now has received an "Incomplete" for the semester and will have to re-take the course in summer school. (And this is where reality directly affects Jeff. Hard.) Just a sidenote: a lot of people seemed appalled at the idea of summer school on my Twitter feed last night. Did... no one else have to take summer classes at the university level? I went to the University of Central Florida for two years (I transferred in my junior year from a private college), and even then, I had to take a summer class to ensure I'd graduate in four years.

At Starburns' wake, the dean asks if anyone would like to give a eulogy or deliver a few words. And here's where the second stage of grief presents itself: anger. The anger that the group feels is not, I think, entirely directed at Greendale or the dean, even. I think their anger is, like Kubler-Ross' model suggests, misplaced. They feel frustrated with their lives and with themselves, so the easiest thing to do is blame something they CAN blame. Most of them feel like their lives have been wasted, but is that the truth? Or, even if it is, is it the WHOLE truth? Haven't they made choices to land themselves at Greendale in the first place? So, then, who is really to blame for heir outrage?

One of the most interesting things to note is the fact that Jeff likens Greendale to a prison -- one they will never escape from. The irony is in the fact that he (and the rest of the group) get the opportunity to do so later on in the episode, but it's forced upon them. Even so, when they receive this chance, they fall into despair. So why does everyone hate Greendale so much? Is it because the school is weird and doesn't make sense? (Kind of like life?) Or is it even more elementary than that -- is it because they view Greendale much like teenagers view living with their parents? I won't be dense and believe everyone had decent parents and living experiences, but for the vast majority of people when you're a teenager, you think that the worst thing ever is to be "trapped" at home. But at home, people love you and take care of you and understand you. When you move out and live on your own (even if it's just to a dorm), there's this weird sensation -- this longing for things that you thought you didn't want because they were familiar. Because they made sense. And maybe, just maybe, that is what the group and Jeff feel.

Jeff, Annie, Shirley, and Pierce all speak at the wake -- each study group member's speeches dissolve into bitterness and anger, so that by the time we reach Pierce, all he yells is: "Let's burn this mother down!" This, of course, incites a riot in the cafeteria, with people throwing trash cans and stools through windows. Dean Pelton is horrified and confronts Chang, who gives the administrator another chance to agree to his demands. Dean Pelton concedes and signs the agreement. Chang's Army is thus mobilized (and the study group is terrified when they realize what they've caused).

Before we hit the following stage of grief, it's interesting to note that - in the infirmary where the group is treated for various cuts and bruises (and pepper spray) - Jeff actually feels some genuine remorse in regards to the riot that the Greendale Seven managed to cause. He hangs his head and I think that it's at this point he realizes that the anger he felt toward Greendale was misdirected. The group shouldn't take all of their rage out on something that can't (until a few moments later, that is) fight back. The group agrees that when they sit in front of the board the following day, they'll blame Chang for inciting the riot. Chang's minions overhear and report back to him so that by the time Dean Pelton reaches his office, Chang is aware of his plan. And the maniacal man has a plan of his own -- replacing the dean with not!Moby from "Contemporary Impressionists" (and How I Met Your Mother).

The next stage, and arguably the most difficult for the group to come to terms with is bargaining. This stage is, of course, clearly seen when the group lands themselves in a hearing in front of the board. They try (or Jeff, rather) to reason their way out of their behavior, which is unsuccessful. As hard as the Greendale Seven attempts to compromise, to blame their actions on Chang, their attempts fail. In this moment, I think Jeff has two distinct revelations: 1) he won't always be able to save the group. Up until now, he has at least been able to salvage the group with a Winger speech. He got back into Professor Kane's class. He stopped the group from things and kick-started them to action in other situations. But now, Jeff Winger is powerless. And that's a position I don't think we've ever seen him in this position before. And 2) as I mentioned earlier, Jeff realizes how much he NEEDS Greendale. Sure, we know that he's realized how much he needs the study group, but he hasn't yet come to grips with how much he needs the school. He's been taught lessons, but he's managed to stay within the protective four walls of Greendale and I think that allows him to feel safe, honestly. With bargaining comes the notion that you are vulnerable. You don't bargain if you aren't desperate.

The board sides with Chang (and a false testimony from not!Moby) and the Greendale Seven are expelled from their community college. And now we turn to one of our final stages (and the darkest one): depression. You'd think that the group would be thrilled, no? After all of their speeches and their anger, one would be inclined to believe that the Greendale Seven would want nothing more do to with their community college, after everything it put them through -- all of the absurd hoops they had to jump through to get there and to survive. And yet there is something tragic, to them, about the fact that Greendale isn't their home anymore.

As the group sits around the table in Casa de Trobed (nearly the same, if not identical, positions they were in during "Remedial Chaos Theory"), it would be easy, then, to turn back to that episode -- to, like Abed, wish you had the chance at a do-over; to go back one more time and fix something; to alter your course. It'd be simple to slink into the familiarity of despair. That's how each of these individuals started off at Greendale. They ended up there because life chucked them onto the school's doorstep. But they've evolved since then. Do you know what one of my favorite moments in How I Met Your Mother history is? It's when Ted is explaining to Robin the concept behind doppelgangers. He tells her: “Look we've all been searching for the five doppelgangers, right? But eventually, over time, we all become our own doppelgangers, you know – these completely different people who just happen to look like us.” And I feel like that is EXACTLY what Greendale has done for the study group members.

The group hits bottom -- Jeff and Britta both admit they're the worst, and Shirley seems resigned to fighting. Annie pulls out some scotch and shot glasses (wonder where her new found love of scotch came from...). They all begin to take a step that would lead them into one or more of the darkest timelines from "Remedial Chaos Theory" -- Shirley picks up a shot glass with scotch in it, Abed looks at the die, Britta smiles at the pizza guy (Kyle!). But it's Troy, not Jeff (and note this very carefully, remembering what happened in "Remedial Chaos Theory" with the role of leadership) who fixes the group. He reminds them that they're all alive and fine and that they're going to get through this rough time together.

This moment seems to careen around a corner, pick up "Remedial Chaos Theory" and wind it around itself. It's the notion that you can't live in any place except the one you find yourself in now. You can't start becoming the person you need to be until you recognize where you're at. And that, friends, is our final stage: acceptance.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode:
-  “If we rub that, will he come out and do celebrity impressions?”
-  “As a psychologist –” “– student.”  “– I hereby offer my licensed –” “– unlicensed –” “– services as a grief counselor.” “Grief causer.” “If anyone needs to talk, the doctor –” “– not even close –” “– is in.”
- “…you seemed smarter than me when I met you.”
- I think that Jim Rash deserves all of the awards ever for his rendition of “Come on Eileen.”
- “Name any other stage.” “What are you, my final?” There was some witty Jeff/Britta banter and I absolutely loved it! Kudos, Tim!
- I literally think I died from listening to Garrett sing “Ave Maria.”
-  “Get some sugar to go with that spice.” Sugar/Spice, for the win.
- “Well, check harder. It’s not like I’m crying because I was being chased by a gang of scary twelve-year olds!”
- I love how Pierce has his arm around Shirley, Jeff has his around Annie, and Abed and Britta have their arms linked together. It shows that the group is in this together… all except Troy, and I don’t think it was necessarily on purpose (perhaps because they didn’t know how to have Troy linked with Pierce or Jeff), but it is interesting to note, given what spoilers are to come for the season finale episodes.
- Stuff like this is why I love the show.
-  “And Britta, you’re not the worst. You’re the best.” This line as well as all of the looks that follow, made me cry. There. I said it.

We're winding down, folks. Technically we only have TWO Thursdays left to celebrate Community. Next week the sequel to last year's clip show - "Curriculum Unavailable" - will air, in which Abed brings the group to therapy. Then on Thursday night, May 17th, don't make ANY plans! Community will air in its normal time slot, followed by an episode of "30 Rock." After that - starting at 9PM - the final two episodes for this season will air back-to-back!

Until next week, folks... Edison OUT! ;)


  1. Dry erase boards love Chalkboard Jokes

    1. I caught that too! I love the little jokes. :)

  2. Thanks for the excellent breakdown of this episode and the others from Season 3. Really enjoy reading your takes each week!

    1. Thank YOU for reading and commenting! I'm glad that you are enjoying! :)

  3. I just want to thank you really for making these wonderful reviews. To be honest, I don't like calling them that because you do more than review the episodes. You give a practically indepth analysis every single time about how the elements of each episode effort our study group and its wonderful to read and to pick up things that I've previously missed.

    And this episode was brilliant once you stop and think about it. It didn't feel like the best 22 minutes of this season by far as you're watching it, but then you pick up on the grief thing and you realise just how amazing this show still can be.

    I've no idea if you intend to continue the review the previous episodes when this season is finished, but I know you'll have at least one attentive reader here if you do decide to do that.

    Thanks again!

    1. Awww, thank you so much for your compliments! I am very flattered. :)

      When the winter hiatus hit, I went back through from the pilot up until "Contemporary American Poultry" and reviewed about 13 episodes, I think. On Twitter, we had "Thursday Night Re-watches" at 8PM EST (and usually had encores at 9:15 EST too) and would bust out our DVDs and watch whatever episode we had slated for the week.

      I'll remind everyone next week again, but on May 24th, we'll kick off those Thursday Night (Summer!) Re-Watches with "Modern Warfare," since that's where I left off before. :) If you're on Twitter, feel free to follow me (@notajenny). We usually choose a hashtag to tweet with the episode too. And then, just as a usual episode, I write up the review on Fridays!

      Thanks again for the kind comments!