Friday, June 1, 2012

1x24 "English as a Second Language" (Of Disney Faces and Growing Up)

"English as a Second Language"
Original Airdate: May 13, 2010

Remember how I mentioned last week that most of the characters on Community are fundamentally similar but externally different? I feel like this theme aptly applies to “English as a Second Language” in terms of both Jeff and Annie as characters. It is not hard to argue that Annie Edison is a driven character – she plans and organizes her life into neat little piles, and when things happen that shake her systems, she panics. Interestingly enough, Jeff is fundamentally similar to Annie. I mentioned in my “Football, Feminism and You” review that both Jeff and Annie are characters who thrive on being in control. Jeff enjoys the taste of power and manipulating things and people, while Annie is terrified of things she cannot control and this causes her to exert more control in life. In “English as a Second Language,” Jeff insists on maintaining his own plan: he desires to get out of Greendale within four years, and no more. If it were up to him, at this point, he would graduate in three years and ditch the study group. He does, in fact, assert that he’s not at Greendale to “schedule around BFFs.” (And how different this is from the Jeff Winger a few years later). But both characters work and strive for their goals, and both characters are (arguably) a bit selfish in those pursuits. But it’s interesting to compare a self-proclaimed slacker like Jeff Winger and the studious Annie Edison and realize that they both are driven by different motives, but are equally driven nonetheless.

So, let's break down the plot for this episode, shall we? It's nearly finals week at Greendale, which means that the study group will no longer be together next year if they don't take a class together. Annie assumes that everyone was preparing to take Spanish 103 in the fall (and everyone but Jeff decides that since they originated as a Spanish study group, this would make logical sense). The self-proclaimed leader of the group claims that he has already fulfilled his language credit with two semesters of Spanish and can't afford to take extraneous classes if he wants to graduate within four years. Annie seems crestfallen -- she had assumed that everyone would stay together and take a class in the fall. The rest of the group agrees. And there are a few things to note that are interesting about the opening scene. First, there's a good little Britta moment in the opening when she asks if making a comment about the dean's PA system would result "in another Avatar situation." I love that at this point in the series, people are still lovingly teasing Britta for her faults (the Avatar situation), rather than blatantly making fun of her. Even though I admit that Britta Perry does kind of have a revolution from self-appointed study group leader to group-appointed buzz kill, she IS endearing in how hard she still tries for the group and fights for them. Even in this episode, when Britta becomes abrasive to Annie, she immediately feels a sense of remorse and returns to a sweet-natured voice. This is quite unlike the Britta Perry that we see in, say, “Cooperative Calligraphy.” By season three, I feel like the blonde has toned down a bit and she and Annie have returned to “normal” in terms of their friendship. At this point in the series – this, being “English as a Second Language” – nothing major has happened between Jeff and Annie to cause a rift in the women’s friendship (though this will soon change). Again, it’s a pity that they had to fall apart because of Jeff. Anyway, digression.

Also, what’s interesting is that the rest of the study group is behind Annie – they all assumed that they would spend the next few years together as a group. Jeff, apparently, is still more concerned with making his reservation for one on May 23, 2013 (which is a Thursday, by the way and would have been the series finale… if we move back to Thursday nights at some point) than he is about keeping friends. And really, Jeff’s evolution and story are the forefront of this television show, so I expect to see him evolve. What I didn’t expect was for him to recognize the idea that he needs the group more than they need him (see: “Remedial Chaos Theory”).  It’s endearing (and a bit sad) how much Annie attempts to persuade Jeff to take Spanish 103 with the rest of the group. It’d be easy (and understandable) if she was excited about the five other members joining her in the fall – surely Britta, Abed, Troy, Pierce, and Shirley taking the class would be enough. But for Annie, it’s not. She wants everyone – including Jeff – to stay with her. For Annie, it is once again about a sense of control. She has this desperate notion that if they all stayed together, life wouldn’t be so bad or unbearable. And that’s not inherently a bad thing, to be honest. That’s why we all long to take college classes with at least one friend and why we usually don’t enjoy going to parties where we don’t know anyone. It’s the longing for familiarity that drives us. And in Annie’s case, sometimes it drives us to do selfish things. 

(But even the rest of the group has a limit – 6 A.M. classes aren’t anyone’s cup of tea and they grow silent when Annie mentions that this is the time Spanish 103 will be meeting. Heck, even I wouldn’t stay with my friends for that.)

Later that day in Spanish class, Annie is literally so desperate to keep the study group together that she’s willing to try and find a class that they can all agree on, even if it's not Spanish. Furthermore, she is trying to work around Jeff’s schedule in order to be together. Again – it’s this notion that doing life with the study group is much better than doing it alone. Furthermore, doing life with the group together is much less scary than being thrown back into community college without anyone there to support you. Jeff claims that he's not  "big on planning ahead," and yet there's inherent irony in this -- the entire episode is spent emphasizing the fact that he plans to escape Greendale in four years and nothing will deter him.

Annie finds a class at noon -- Anthropology -- and points at each group member, asking if they'll join. Britta is the first person to agree to take Anthropology. And I think that everyone needs the study group for various reasons. You can hear Abed briefly say the line “you guys understand me,” when Annie discusses how much she likes their study group. And I think that the group is exactly what Abed has needed throughout the years at Greendale for the same reason that Pierce needs the group – they will never really be excluded. Even when Pierce does villainous things and even when no one can seem to understand Abed’s behavior, the group still accepts them. For Britta and Troy and Shirley, their need for the group circles around comfort and familiarity. Britta isn’t the type of person who seems like she makes friends easily, so the group is literally home for her. Shirley, we know, had a group of women that she studied with before but they kicked her out. I think she realizes that she is welcome and safe from that experience with her current study group. And Troy? I think Troy needs to feel important and valued – he needs a place to “fit,” and since football didn’t quite work out as well for him as he might have hoped in high school, the study group is his comfort zone and his place of significance.

Jeff continues to emphasize that he's not going to plan his schedule around the group and has to take a full load of classes to graduate in four years. Britta makes the claim that they'll stay friends no matter what. And Annie makes a valid counter-point to Britta’s argument. Anyone who has ever moved or graduated from anything recognizes that this is a fallacy – you will only stay friends with people you make an effort to stay friends with and ONLY if they also make the same amount of effort in regards to you.

Chang enters the classroom and dismisses everyone else so that he can have a private conversation with Jeff.  The Spanish teacher then admits that he falsified his faculty credentials, and asked Jeff how he could have prevented being caught. He additionally admits that if anyone finds out about him faking being a Spanish teacher, the entire class will have to retake Spanish and their grades will be invalid.  I think it’s interesting that they chose to parallel Jeff’s pilot arc with Chang’s for this episode (and I suppose for subsequent episodes). It makes it interesting because Chang very quickly comes to terms with being fired. He actually embraces the benefits of it, thanks in part to Annie, I presume. Jeff spends (arguably) the next two years STILL trying to come to terms with being disbarred and at Greendale before he comes to some sort of epiphany in “Introduction to Finality.” It’s intriguing to see a character who we’d normally think of as less appealing and likely to learn lessons actually ACCEPTING his failures better than Jeff. At the end of the conversation, the audience realizes that Annie's recorder -- the one that she uses to record notes for all of her classes -- was on and has captured the entire conversation.

Now admittedly I have never SEEN Good Will Hunting, so half of the episode’s story arc was lost on me. There's an entire sub-plot of Troy being able to miraculously fix a broken water fountain and a sink. He is approached by Jerry (our good friend from season three!), who tries to recruit him to become a plumber. I do think that it’s interesting that Jessica (@MetropoLois) noted the longevity of the Troy-as-a-repairman storyline, wondering if this is the longest-running storyline in the series. Nevertheless, the first time that Troy is approached by Jerry and another plumber, he flees.

Annie is listening to her notes in the library, when she comes across the confession from Chang to Jeff in the Spanish classroom. Annie chooses to utilize (and abuse) the information that has been given to her. Like I have said before, Annie is a selfish character. We often forget this though because of how big her doe eyes are and how many skirts she wears. But she’s proven on multiple occasions that she can be just as crafty as Jeff. He wounds her with this information earlier in the season in "Football, Feminism and You," and in this episode, he will fault her for the same thing. Annie evidently brings this information to the attention of Dean Pelton, who informs the Spanish class that Chang has been let go thanks to an anonymous tip. Annie then asks if the group will have to retake the class. The dean surprises her, however, when he insists that he won't make them do such a thing and will just bring in a substitute. Annie’s manipulation, then, backfires. She never intended to make the group suffer, that much is evident. She had always hoped that their grades would be invalid and they would have to spend the next year together. She didn’t anticipate suffering through stress with the group to pass their final. 

Doctora Escodera is introduced and she speaks fluently in Spanish to the class, who -- obviously -- cannot understand a word she is actually saying. (For the record, my Spanish 201 professor never made us speak completely in Spanish in her class. I think she reserved that right for the third year students. Thank goodness. I HATED talking in Spanish aloud.) She informs the class that they will be taking a final designed for students at their level. The final will cover the entire textbook. This sends the class into a much-deserved panic.

Jeff, Troy, and Abed are walking from class and again, Jeff notes that HIS four-year plan will be thrown off if he doesn’t pass the exam. Even though we forget it, he and Annie are both insistent on making their plans a reality – these two plans just happen to clash throughout the episode. They’re not mutually exclusive (initially, at least). Abed then perks up when he hears a Lexus' car alarm going off -- it is Jeff, as it turns out. Chang is using his keytar to bash in the windows and the hood because he assumed that Jeff tattled on him to the dean. Jeff insists that he didn't do that because it would only result in his own demise. The two end up fighting on the car and are tasered by Troy and Abed's security guard lookalikes moments later.

Troy’s arc is very important in a few years, and it’s interesting that the original excuse that he gives Vice Dean Laybourne when he turns him down is that he wants to enjoy spending time with Abed. In "English as a Second Language," Troy’s excuse is that he wants to learn and to study and to know stuff. Even so, back in the first season of the show, Troy still had loyalty and integrity that manifests itself in the season 3 final episodes. He believes that it is important to stay true to your word and to do what is important to you. He doesn’t want to take the easy way out – he wants to be more than who he was when he came to Greendale. And by his third year, he really comes to accept this.

In the study room, the group is preparing for their final. In all actuality, they realize that there's no way they'll be able to pass and will likely have to guess the entire exam. Jeff admits with resignation that they'll likely have to take Spanish again next year. And now to the interesting part: Jeff is VERY perceptive of the fact that Annie makes a different noise than the others sitting beside him -- namely, while everyone groans at the thought of having to retake Spanish in the fall, she just hums. None of the other study group members seem to notice (and they all are quite easily thrown off-track when Annie distracts them). But Jeff remembers, perhaps, how crafty Annie can be. How she was pretty good at being selfish when it came to Troy.

(And I never noticed Pierce’s slight flicker of disbelief from Jeff to Annie. I really do adore that Annie is his favorite, even at this point in the series.)

Jeff’s examination of Annie begins with him accusing her of being “obsessed” with the idea of the group being together for their sophomore year. He claims that she would do anything to keep the group together, which is essentially true. We’ve seen what happens when good motives lead good people into bad territory. Annie’s motivation isn’t inherently bad, but it is fundamentally selfish (as are Jeff’s motives for keeping his distance from the group). And I can honestly say that this is the only time besides “Cooperative Calligraphy” where we have really seen Jeff get ANGRY at Annie. And the reason that he is so frustrated with her is, once again, because Jeff only cares about things and events when they directly impact HIM. Annie’s desire to keep the group together conflicts with his desire to graduate in four years. The two cannot, in Jeff’s mind, co-exist peacefully. So instead, he vents his anger and frustrations (perhaps, too, his pent-up frustration about BEING at Greendale in the first place) and blows up at Annie. Even more than that, he encourages the group to disown Annie, essentially. And this actually works, for the most part. Annie insists that she was just trying to save the group (and really, Jeff does something a bit crazy in “Biology 101” in an attempt to “save” the group too, so chew on that for a bit), but Troy, Abed, and Britta label her as psychotic because of it.

In spite of the group’s accusations, they DO come around quickly when Annie makes her Disney face and begin to apologize, but Jeff forbids it. When Jeff notices that she's using her Disney face, he snaps at everyone to close their eyes and not look at her. (Pierce actually keeps his eyes cracked open during the exercise Jeff instructs. Another reason that I love the Pierce/Annie dynamic.)  Annie actually begins to fight back against Jeff, which is different for her because she usually never argues. However, Jeff treats her like a child and insists that she should just grow up. That is, after all, what thinking about potential consequences for your actions and then not doing those actions is, Jeff argues (which… well, if that’s what being an adult is, Jeff may not qualify). And I keep saying that Annie has selfish motives, which is perhaps unfair to her – I believe she DOES have pure motives, but the way that she attempts to pursue them is selfish.

Annie, upset and angry, storms out of the room and says that she hoped their group would amount to more than just passing hello's. When the rest of the group watches her sadly, Jeff is quite harsh: he insists that Annie only wants to cause personal drama and that they all “need to beat her.” (It’s hilarious though that not even one minute out of the room, and Jeff already needs to consult Annie on how to study.)

The group falls asleep at their study room table and wakes up with a jolt to the PA system announcements from the dean. They all prepare to take their exam and Jeff warns everyone to not even try to contact Annie. Abed and Troy then have a discussion -- Abed overheard Troy and Jerry in the bathroom the other day, discussing his future as a plumber. Troy continues to insist that he doesn't want that life, and wants to stay in class. Abed then paraphrase-quotes Good Will Hunting and says that the best part of his day is when he looks at Troy's seat and -- for a moment -- sees that it's empty. Essentially the gist of the paraphrase was that Abed wants Troy to do something with his life and to be happy, and he hopes that he'll find that, if it's not at school. The whole thing just upsets Troy, though.

In Spanish class, it's only a few minutes until the exam and Pierce notes that Annie is nowhere in sight. Ignoring Jeff's instructions, Shirley texts Annie who says that she is going to make things right, starting with talking to Chang. The only time that Jeff mobilizes and does something that isn’t for himself is when one of his study group members is threatened. I’ll continue to argue that he is most protective of Annie and Abed, but I believe he’d do anything for ANY member of the group (Pierce included), and proves this later on in the series. He needs the group more than he realizes in the first season, to be honest, and his need for them and acceptance of his love for them only grows from there. So the entire group leaves the exam, determined to save their friend. Starburns then, noticing an attempt to avoid the exam, mobilizes the rest of the class (chanting "We love Hannah!") and they leave as well.

(Also, Jeff's so worried that he kicks down a door. Just saying.)

As it turns out, the screams that the group heard from behind the door were part of a feature on Chang's keytar. He insists that Annie getting him fired was the best thing that happened, and Annie notes that Ben will start taking classes and maybe work on his music. The group then returns to the exam, and afterwards, Annie stands outside pacing back and forth. Once Jeff is done, he joins her and they both note that the exam was actually pretty easy. Annie and Jeff’s hallway conversation ranks as one of my favorites, namely because it exemplifies how the pair usually manages to apologize to one another when they’ve been (knowingly) in the wrong.  Jeff still interestingly thinks of himself as a bad guy (and he continues to throughout the series, in spite of how good he is) and as unfeeling. He doesn’t want Annie to become jaded like he is (or claims to be; see: “A Fistful of Paintballs”). He wants to protect her and grow up, but make sure she doesn’t lose sight of who she is.

Jeff notices that Annie is dressed more formally than usually and says that she doesn't have to wear things like that to look like an adult. Annie slips and admits bashfully that she was going for more of a professor thing, to which Jeff is momentarily taken aback. The pair both realizes what Annie said and its implications, but drop the conversation once the rest of the group exits the exam. As the group walks down the hallway, he notes that if they do miraculously pass Spanish, they'll have to find a class together to take in the fall.

Jeff’s callback to Annie earlier in the episode is endearing because it shows that he really does want the group to stay together, for better or for worse. Because who else will he be able to do life with?

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
-  “Spoiler alert.” “You mean nerd alert.” “Alert nerd!”
-  “… and now, crickets!”
- “Okay, well I haven’t said a single word in this entire conversation and I find that outrageous.”
- “If an Asian man says he’s a Spanish teacher, it’s not racist to ask for proof.”
- “And why is she teaching Spanish if she’s a doctor? Go cure something.”
- Truth be told, it’s not accurate that if you guess on multiple choice questions that you’ll be right 25% of the time. At least that's what I was informed of in college.
- “Someone make her a dude so I can punch her.”
- “Now she’s going to make the Disney face. Her lip is gonna quiver and her eyes will flutter but they won’t actually ever close.”
- “Uh, I can’t wake up Pierce. Is this gonna take an unexpected turn?”
- I think it’s adorable that Annie knows exactly what Jeff will say when she texts Shirley.
- “You don’t like it? I was going for more of a professor thing.” “What? Why?” “What?” “Nothing.”
- The tag is a nice wrap-up and also funny because Pierce ironically saved the study group!

All right, folks. Next week we are headed into the final episode of the first season -- "Pascal's Triangle Revisited"! So join me on Twitter at 8PM EST on Thursday night for our re-watch and then check back here on Friday morning for the review! :)

1 comment:

  1. it's true that in the ways you mention, English is one of the easier languages in the world. However, you left out one key element--that English, plain and simple, makes no sense

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