Friday, July 13, 2012

2x04 "Basic Rocket Science" (Of Annie and Greendale and Space Buses)

"Basic Rocket Science"
Original Airdate: October 14, 2010

Have I ever mentioned that Annie Edison is practically my spirit animal/soul mate? She’s the type of young woman who is driven and serious and dedicated, often to a fault. She, just as easily as Britta, can become a buzz kill. But she has respect for herself, partially because she worked so diligently to piece her life back together that she HAS to hold onto that respect and partially because she wants other people to see her as an adult. But what’s great about Annie Edison – what’s really great – is that she knows how much she still needs other people. Sure, she’s tightly wound and a perfectionist, but that doesn’t mean she isolates herself from the group… until this episode. In the minds of the audience, Annie is the last person we would assume would transfer schools. After all, this is the young woman who got Chang fired so that she could keep her study group together. We’ve come to grips, I think, at least slightly with how much Jeff needs the study group and what they mean to him. Throughout the second season (and the third too, for that matter), we learn that the study group, once viewed as nothing more than annoying classmates, becomes his family and his best friends. He loves them. But what does the study group mean to Annie, in particular? “Basic Rocket Science” is an episode that touches on this question, much like someone accidentally touches a hot stove – there are these brief moment of realization and poignancy that is then quickly removed. I’ll return to this intriguing (or absurd, depending on your point of view, really) analogy later on.

To note something else that is of interest, this is the first episode (apart from “Modern Warfare”) that was an homage seemingly for homage’s sake. Now, don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t mean that I disliked “Basic Rocket Science,” in the least bit. I do appreciate this episode for the comedic aspects of the episode (and the homage itself, even though – admittedly – I haven’t seen the entirety of “Apollo 13”). This episode did force the study group closer together than they have ever been before. The group is trapped within a claustrophobic space bus, which forces them to confront issues with themselves and each other that are uncomfortable. It’s definitely interesting territory because everyone seems much more vulnerable when they are in the bus than when they are outside of it – Jeff becomes more sensitive to leadership, Annie is less rational, and Pierce is… well, Pierce is mad. The only person who avoids this vulnerability is Abed who is, instead, at the control seat. Interesting, no? We’ll discuss later on the first emergence of the Jeff/Troy power struggle as seen in this episode.

Now, in case you all were just so enthralled by the fact that my blog-review was returning (shh, let me have this one) and managed to forget what the episode was actually about, never fear because I am here to remind you! "Basic Rocket Science" opens with the dean calling a meeting regarding a space simulator that City College plans to launch the following week. Since City College is pretty much the Wil Wheaton to our Sheldon Cooper, this doesn't sit very well with Dean Pelton. He wants Greendale Community College to launch their own space simulator before City College manages to launch their own. City College, the dean argues, will be able to put an astronaut on their school's brochures. And what will Greendale have? A foosball table. I think that the two relationships that intrigue me most in Community are not Jeff/Annie or Jeff/Britta or Troy/Britta (even though I enjoy watching those relationships and friendships for various reasons), but Dean Pelton/Greendale and Jeff/Greendale. Both have a rather tumultuous relationship with the community college – the dean tries so hard to make Greendale something that it is not, because he can’t accept things the way that they are. He doesn’t believe that he is better than mediocre, so he has to continuously attempt to prove it to others in order to prove it to himself. Jeff, on the other hand, adamantly and continually affirms that Greendale is the worst place in the world. And yet, he defends the school (as we will see in this episode), and becomes depressed when it is taken away from him (as we saw in “Course Listing Unavailable”).

The dean has, in his possession (I don't know exactly how he got it from the museum) a space simulator sponsored by KFC. The space bus, as it were, is pretty gross and dingy, but the dean assures his colleagues that he has just the crew  to clean it up. This is, of course, our study group. He calls them together on Saturday and insists that them cleaning up the simulator is punishment for a prank they pulled -- creating a new school flag with the symbol of a literal butt on it. When the dean announces that the way he found out about the prank is because someone from the group told him, six heads look at Annie accusingly. Annie is a person who – as we’ll discover later on via Britta – is tightly wound. It’s not that she isn’t a fun person to be around, or someone who is incapable of joking. But someone who is both tightly wound AND driven can often be stubborn and unrelenting. She clearly does not find the E Pluribus Anus flag amusing – the implication is that she doesn’t want her friends to disrespect the place where she attends school. And, truthfully, this isn’t a terrible thing to want. But Annie KNOWS her study group – she knows her friends and their personalities. So shouldn’t she have expected this kind of behavior from them? And, if so, then what is the real root cause for her desire to transfer? (You’ll hear my theories in a bit.)

I tend to believe that the rest of the study group enjoys pulling pranks (and things like the flag) and participating in wacky shenanigans because of, ironically, their love for Greendale. I believe that I mentioned this concept in the “Course Listing Unavailable” review, but the reason that the study group picks on the school and expresses their hatred for it is because it actually provides them with security from the real world. Each and every study group member has faced something outside of the four walls of Greendale that was tough, and so they retreated within its four walls for solace and comfort. They found this within their friendships with each other and their relationship with the school itself. It’s safe to pick on Greendale, really – the group knows they’ll always be accepted there. It’s a weird, crazy, backwards place that is their home. And no matter how much they may deny it, the fact of the matter is that they love their home and would be lost without it.

Once Dean Pelton leaves the group to get to cleaning the space bus, Annie abruptly says that they should all go and get coffee, but Abed and Troy have already entered the bus (when the dean explicitly told them not to do so). The rest of the study group follows the pair inside and examines the simulator (which has seen better days), with Annie and Pierce growing steadily more nervous, both for different reasons. Britta, meanwhile, uses a word twice (and Jeff once, when he's repeating Britta later on) in this episode when she talks to Annie that I think is really interesting. She says that the young woman shouldn't have "tattled."  This is actually an interesting Britta/Annie episode too, when you step back and consider it. The episode that I skipped (“The Psychology of Letting Go”) is one of my least favorite episodes, mainly because it drives a wedge between Britta and Annie that never is resolved (much like the conversation that Jeff and Annie have in “Intro to Political Science,” where they slap a ‘resolved’ band-aid on a conversation that is not over). Britta still has a lot of pent up bitterness toward Annie for the events of the Transfer Dance, and the word choice that Britta uses (and repeats) is interesting: “tattle.” She accuses Annie of tattling on the group, which is a word that – in my experience – is traditionally used in reference to children.

The fact of the matter is that Annie and Britta’s relationship was de-railed thanks to their involvement with Jeff. It’s easier for Jeff to think of Annie as a child (hence the head pats and kiddos which he admits are a crutch later on in the following season) because that way he doesn’t have to face whatever feelings and emotions he has for her. Britta, on the other hand, treats Annie like a child for a different reason – she doesn’t want to see Annie as an equal. And this isn’t Britta being harsh and cold to Annie, necessarily. I’m not the type of fan of “Community” who hates Britta and loves Annie. It is, however, important to know that – much like Jeff – things bother Britta more than she is able (or willing) to vocalize. In “Romantic Expressionism,” she was so concerned with appearing cool and collected that she buried the jealousy she felt toward Annie and Vaughn until she very nearly exploded. Similarly, Britta often turns her inability to vocalize feelings into barbs that she uses. A word like “kiddo” or “tattle” is a way to place distance between characters. Britta isn’t ready to be good friends with Annie again, and maybe she’s even not ready to trust the young woman completely. So, she keeps herself guarded and her walls up and the easiest way to do so is through using those words.

(Which, I now realize is a LOT to get out of just one word. But whatever.)

And yet, when Pierce moves to insult Annie moments later, the blonde seems appalled and offended. I think that there is a part of Britta that WANTS to be mad at Annie, but who never really can. She cares so much about Annie as a friend that she can rarely stay mad at her (see: “English as a Second Language”) for very long. That doesn’t, however, mean that their relationship isn’t rocky, because it is.

The group then gets locked into the space bus and Pierce begins to freak out because he is claustrophobic. Abed races out of the bus to go don a more appropriate outfit. And then, quite suddenly, the simulator begins to move and the Atari-Colonel Sanders begins to speak and insist that everyone sit down. As it turns out, the vehicle is being towed from where the dean parked it earlier that morning. Jeff's frustration begins to manifest itself when he realizes that there is no phone signal within the vehicle and he insists that Greendale deserves the flag that they made for it.

Back at Greendale, Dean Pelton is panicking because the study group has left with the simulator, which he is supposed to display to the press later that afternoon. If the group doesn't manage to return for the launch, City College wins. Abed, in the study room with the dean, informs him that the simulator's windows open once the simulation is completed. So, the film student begins to walk his friends through the steps necessary to open the window.  This is the beginning of a great arc for Troy (that really continues throughout the rest of the season and subsequent one too) in terms of his character development as a leader. I’ve noted before that both Jeff and Troy can be classified as leaders, but both for very different reasons. Jeff is the type of leader who commands attention simply by existing. People gravitate toward Jeff, in spite of the fact that he does not want them to. He begrudgingly accepts his role as the head of the study group, and yet manages to not entirely break apart the group itself. But Jeff is selfish, and that is one of his greatest – if not his greatest – vices. He has too much pride and too much of a lazy attitude to commit fully to things that need attention. He’d rather take shortcuts (such as trying to open a window with a fire extinguisher) than do things that – while seemingly absurd – would benefit the group (like Troy, accepting Abed’s advice and heeding it). Troy is completely selfless, as we saw in the last few episodes of season three. He is the type of leader who is unsuspecting – he’s not the person people automatically follow. But he EARNS the respect of those around him, and THAT is what is important.

And Jeff and Troy clash in this episode because of the fact that Troy “pulls rank” on Jeff, who – until this point – had been able to save the group and was never questioned as the leader. Jeff does not like being helpless or vulnerable, and he is both of these things in the episode while in the bus. Because the truth is, he is threatened by the idea of someone taking his role away from him (much like he is threatened and scared by the prospect later on in “Course Listing Unavailable” of someone taking Greendale away from him too).

Suddenly though, everyone begins to snap within the space bus. Pierce has already been driven to near-insanity by the small, enclosed space and is locked up by the rest of the group in the back of the bus. Britta snaps at Annie, insisting that the fact that they're in the space bus is all her fault anyway. And this is where we learn the truth about why Annie had been so apprehensive to get into the bus to begin with... she was helping to sabotage Greendale's launch in order to get accepted into City College.

It’s interesting though, her excuse for wanting to transfer. Was the flag the last straw for her or… was there something else, too? Remember that Annie has known these people for two years and then, suddenly, can’t handle their behavior anymore? And what’s really intriguing is what happens to Annie – the petite brunette goes from an upstanding perfectionist and moral do-no-wrong to someone who sells out her own school for a chance to get ahead. That doesn’t sound very much like Annie Edison, do you think? I am left to wonder what the real motivation for Annie was, in the end. There’s no doubt that she was probably frustrated with not being taken seriously in the group. But perhaps, with everything that had happened post-Tranny Dance, it was more than that – perhaps Annie just wanted to be seen as an adult and someone capable of making her own decisions. Perhaps this was another shot at “living in the moment” or “living for herself.” Because, indeed, this is a selfish thing to really do – Annie is humiliating the school that she won the debate for half a year earlier. So what, then, is Annie’s motivation for transferring? Perhaps she needed to place distance between herself and Jeff or herself and Britta. Maybe that was a part of her decision-making process. I tend to believe that it was a combination of all the things previously mentioned – a desire to actually DO something and to be uninhibited… that, of course, backfires.

The study group is ready to jump at Annie for what she's done (not unlike how upset they were when discovering that she was the reason behind their difficult Spanish final the previous semester), but Jeff stops them. He insists that no one should be allowed to mock Greendale but them -- they have EARNED that right by attending the community college.  It’s only after Jeff makes his inspirational speech that he relinquishes his leadership role to Troy. It’s an interesting time to choose to do that, too, don’t you think? Nevertheless, the group settles in to complete the simulation.

In the study room, the dean has informed the mass amount of students who have gathered together with Abed to try and bring back the space bus that there is a point at which the space bus will be out of range and thus too far away to bring back in time for the launch during the afternoon. When the study group calls in their location... everyone realizes (with great disappointment) that the simulator is too far out of town in order to make it back in time.

Disheartened, the group then discusses the reasons that they love Greendale, and it seems that all of them love and appreciate Greendale BECAUSE of its absurdities and oddities, not in spite of them. And it’s brief and hardly as in-depth as the conversations and emotions in “Course Listing Unavailable,” but the conversation is significant because the weight and importance is placed on Greendale and what it means to the study group. We often forget that this place is not just a school for them, or even a home -- it's the place that literally made them who they are: a group. Shirley apologizes to Annie for the way the group behaved earlier -- no one, she explains, should have to choose between their friends and their school. Britta affirms this but also adds: "But you shouldn't have tattled." But -- in a slightly surprising revelation -- Jeff explains that he was the one to tell the dean about the flag. (The revelation that Jeff tattled is one of my favorite moments in the episode, simply because of Annie’s disbelieving-turned-proud face.)

Pierce, who has been locked up the majority of the episode, says that he feels better and less claustrophobic and crazy and requests to be let out. The group agrees that the man seems calmer, so they oblige him... which has unfortunate results, because Pierce then rushes to attack the Atari-Colonel Sanders and rip the monitor from the wall. Ironically, this is the best thing that could have happened because Jeff peers through the now-gap in the wall and notices the driver's seat. The study group pages Greendale and insists that they're coming to rescue the school.

With Annie at the wheel, the simulator careens through the streets and races back just in time for the launch in front of the press. I know it’s supposed to be played for the homage factor, but the return of the space bus to Greendale is something that I think is pretty significant for the Greendale Seven – they’re back home, back where they belong, and being welcomed with open arms and loud applause and cheers. Yes, their adventure was absurd because who, exactly, would be causing all that commotion for a space simulator at a community college? (I think Jeff’s disbelief and amusement in his face when he steps out of the simulator really conveys it all.) The whole idea was crazy to begin with, but that’s Greendale. And the study group realizes, albeit only briefly in this episode, that they need this place in their lives, whether they admit it aloud or not.

Since Annie failed to sabotage Greendale's simulated launch, Dean Spreck of City College confronts her and declares her "not really City College material after all" to which the petite brunette smiles and says: "Thank you." Elsewhere, Jeff acknowledges Troy as the Captain of the mission, even if he DOES manage to throw in a little bit of sarcasm when he declares it. And then, for the third time this episode, someone humors Abed and his whims -- Jeff asks if the filmmaker would like to get in the driver's seat of the vehicle, but Abed declines and says that he doesn't think there could be anything cooler than what he experienced today in his commanding role.

… and then the bus explodes and the dean flies the E Pluribus Anus and everything is confirmed as absurd and weird and yet somehow right.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
- “Can we stop walking in slo-mo now?” “… you guys are walking in slo-mo?”
- “How did you know it was our design? We submitted it anonymously… whoops.”
- “This is all my fault.” “Very much so.” *Annie gasp* “Hey, when you go fishing, sometimes you catch a boot.”
- “And Greendale becomes just another school on my resume that no one can call because it doesn’t exist!”
- “There is a time and a place for subtlety and that time was before Scary Movie.”
- Continuity nitpick: If it’s a Saturday, why are there SO many people roaming the halls with backpacks in the library?

Thank you all for joining me for our Thursday night re-watches on Twitter and for reading this blog-review! I really do appreciate all of you and your dedication to both the show and my craft. :) Next week, we return to what is probably my favorite (and only) Shirley/Abed episode: "Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples." Join me on Twitter at 8PM EST with the hashtag #ABED and have a lovely week until then!


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