Friday, February 8, 2013

4x01 "History 101" (Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes)


"History 101"
Original Airdate: February 7, 2013

I’ll be completely and utterly honest for a moment, if that’s okay.

I hate change.

No, really, when people say that they “hate” change, it’s usually quite hyperbolic. I actually detest change. And I think, more than anything, change scares me. I am quite a planner – I like to have things organized, I enjoy using post-it notes, and yes, occasionally I like to color code spreadsheets. I’m meticulous and organized and I like my life to be the same way. Here’s the problem with that: life is not predictable, nor is it stagnant. For those of you who are anything like me, chances are that you love the IDEA of change more than actually changing. Where some people would feel nothing but excitement at the prospect of moving to a new state or switching careers, I feel the same excitement momentarily and then… a swell of panic rises in my chest.

Who will I eat lunch with? Will I make new friends? I’ll have to switch churches and find a new grocery store and –

See how easily my excitement is overshadowed by fear? A lot of bad things happen, I have learned, whenever you base a decision on fear. You cannot live your life properly if you’re attempting to stay in the present and never move forward. And sure, it’s scary. It’s different. It’s not easy. But you’ll never truly live unless you learn to change.

With those words in mind, I found myself relating quite a bit to Abed this week. And I’ll be honest – I was surprised. I don’t normally relate to the filmmaker, but his desire to stay in his “happy place” (a physical manifestation we saw throughout the episode, but also known by its pen name – “the comfort zone”) resonated with me. We may have laughed at the absurdity of a multi-camera, laugh-track doused sitcom or a children’s show about talking babies but the truth is that we ALL have those places in our lives. Come on – whenever those of us who are a bit shy attend a party, we tend to bring along our outgoing friends. And we stick with them the entire night because to venture outside of our – wait for it – comfort zone or our “happy place” would be scary. That’s why we always seek to find familiar faces in crowds whenever we attend events. It’s not because we’re dependent on anyone else for our self-worth or acceptance, necessarily – we just LIKE familiarity. And it’s okay to like familiarity and comfort.

And I think one of the biggest things that people missed – those peoples’ opinions I perused when reading through Tumblr, anyway – most about “History 101” was that it was not mocking those who are uncomfortable with change. It was not belittling the audience or preaching to them. It was a meta episode in that yes, of course, it addressed the scariness of change and the inability sometimes to reconcile with things that are new. But here is something to remind everyone reading this blog-review currently: things WILL be different this season of Community. Have you ever moved to a new place, be it school, work, or a new state? I moved from Pennsylvania to Florida when I was in 8th grade and I hated my life for the first month. I talked on AIM (anyone else remember good ‘ol instant messaging days?) with the friends that were still up north. I longed to speak with them and they would send me pictures and you know what I discovered?

Life moved on.

I was kind of floored, actually, because that meant I had a choice – I could choose to live in the past, to drown myself in photos and memories of friends who were wonderful people but who were not a part of my daily life anymore… OR I could choose to accept that I had wonderful memories with them, keep in contact if possible, and make new friends. I chose the latter and haven’t regretted it since. And so, dear readers, know that Dan Harmon is not a part of this show anymore. If you feel something different and notice that things look different and perhaps become irate and huff and cross your arms over your chest in bitterness, lamenting the “good ‘ol days” when Harmon ran the show… you will forever be disappointed. Your lenses are tinted and you’ll never look at the show the same way again. And, I hate to say it, you’ll probably stop watching a perfectly wonderful show because you cannot detach yourself from what was and move forward to what’s to come.

But enough preaching from me, eh? How about I discuss this episode and why I really enjoyed it as a season premiere! “History 101” was written by one of the coolest people you’ll ever not-really-meet-but-meet on Twitter, Andy Bobrow (@abobrow). Go and thank him for the episode, why don’t you? So in case you were too busy laughing or sulking in order to remember what the plot of this episode actually was, let me fill you in: it’s a new semester at Greendale, but it’s more important than that – it’s the study group’s first day of their LAST year of college. Everyone is processing this development differently, and no one is thinking about it more than Abed. While the film student struggles to come to grips with the fact that the group’s time at Greendale is dwindling, he heeds Britta’s suggestion to find a “happy place” within his mind. That place, as it turns out, is an Abed-directed sitcom about the study group and their lives. In it, there’s a laugh track, which… is a joke I don’t think many people actually understood, let alone appreciated beyond its face value.

Panicked over the loss of Dan Harmon at the helm of Community, many viewers feared the show would turn into something completely different. Why they all believed that the NBC sitcom would change its entire formula and vision when all of the actors and vast majority of the writers stayed aboard is beyond me… anyway, the biggest (irrational) fear was that Community would somehow become a multi-camera sitcom, a la The Big Bang Theory. It was a genius move, then, to poke fun of this fear in Abed’s “happy place.”

But the joke was much more than that, readers. The entire vision in Abed’s head really reminded me of the Scrubs episode “My Life in Four Cameras,” where – to escape the pain of reality – J.D. imagines what his life would be like if it were a sitcom. At the end of the “episode” within his mind, everyone is happy – patients live, no one fights, and no one is fired… until that sitcom world begins to crack and reality bleeds through. J.D. is startled from this fictional Eden by realizing that he constructed the idea of a sitcom – this place where there are laugh tracks and exaggerated characters but where everything is happy and resolved at the end – because he wishes reality was reflective of that.

Similarly, Abed’s construction of a laugh-track soaked sitcom isn’t just a tongue-in-cheek meta reference to Community’s Harmon-less next era. It’s a commentary on how Abed’s perfect world would be. Because television, as Abed said once, makes sense. It has logic. It has structure. People laugh when there are jokes and things get resolved at the end of episodes, and no one is unhappy, and if they are, well… it’s not for very long and it’s not dramatic. Sitcoms are perfect world to escape to. And escape, Abed does.

(As the opening credits roll, we see what we would see in a traditional sitcom – snippets of hijinks, where there’s “nothing but laughs and smiles… and then we re-run!” I think that Abed’s sitcom is just as important to focus on throughout the episode as the main plot, because this “happy place” reveals a lot about where Abed’s security still lies – namely, in the fact that he wants everyone to be happy and together. Also, the vast majority of the moments in the opening credits of Abed’s sitcom are ones that have already occurred – moments he reminds himself of and wants the study group to remain forever in, such as paintball, “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Introduction to Finality.” Troy is even wearing the jacket he did at the beginning of the series. Abed doesn’t like endings and he doesn’t like change, so he’s choosing to remember his friends as they once were, not as they are currently.)

The group, sans Jeff, meets at Greendale and hugs, excited to take History of Ice Cream together and to begin an entirely new (and final) year at Greendale. The finality bit scares Abed, but he internalizes all of his fears this episode, so the group fails to notice. Annie decides to attempt loosey-goosey-ness again (remember how well that worked for her last season?) and she and Shirley vow to pull a prank together. Upon walking to class, the group notices a crowd of students outside. As it turns out, the class was overbooked and is only available on a first come, first served basis.

Luckily for the group, Jeff has already saved everyone seats (Britta and Annie are surprised, and the latter remains skeptical most of the episode of Jeff’s true motivations, but praises his “new Jeff” behavior). Meanwhile, Troy and Britta hold hands as they walk to their seats, which I found insanely adorable. But, I’m digressing.

Dean Pelton enters the room and informs the group that someone hacked into the registration system and printed out fake History of Ice Cream admissions tickets. Everyone is aghast – what does it MEAN? The dean then decides that there is only ONE possible way to solve the overcrowded class crisis, and that is by having those who wish to earn a spot in the class participate in “The Hunger Deans” which is a Hunger Games-style contest, involving 35 different tests of strength and agility. The winner of each test receives an admission ticket into the class. The group, rightfully so, takes one look at the challenge and decides to bail.

It’s Jeff, ironically, who insists that they participate and take the class together. When Annie points out that they can just take another history class next semester, Jeff drops a bomb – he’s graduating early and is only a history credit shy of being able to leave Greendale. The entire study group is stunned and hurt that Jeff didn’t tell them he had taken extra classes. But the former lawyer doesn’t want to take a history class without the group. In an interesting turn of events, however, the study group doesn’t FORCE the man to take the class together.

What’s interesting, really, is that JEFF is the one to insist that he’s changed. Annie chastises him for being selfish – he, she says, only wanted the group to take the class with him so that he could feel better about leaving early. The former lawyer tells her that “new Jeff” isn’t selfish. In fact, to prove it to her and to the group, he’s decided to win seven spots in the class for them all. And I really love this character development in Jeff. Sure, in “Biology 101,” we saw Jeff Winger have somewhat of a mental breakdown over not being in a class with the study group. But that was fueled by his own insecurities and jealousies over the group letting Pierce back in (and seemingly ruining Jeff’s year).

This time, however, Jeff is determined to be with the group simply because he wants to be with them. He knows their time at Greendale is limited – “[their] time [at Greendale] can’t last forever,” he yells after Annie. So Jeff vows to make his time count, which is actually something pretty mature and wonderful about this self-proclaimed new version of himself. Sure, his motives are still partly selfish (he wants to win a seat in class so HE can graduate early), but they’re also selfless (he doesn’t want to win the aforementioned seat unless everyone else takes the class with him). There’s always been a dichotomy of selfish selflessness about Jeff Winger and it’s never more evident than in “History 101.”

(I also love that Jeff prepared a Winger speech to tell them that he was graduating early.)

Meanwhile, in Abed’s mind, the filmmaker is writing his own version of the futures of the Greendale Seven – due to a mistake in the community college’s system, the group will have to spend the next three years repeating their time at Greendale. Of course, in Abed’s mind, this is the most comforting conclusion: when on the precipice of change, the best thing to do is step away and hit the reset button. Change does more than scare Abed, though – it paralyzes him. The most comforting notion, then, is to never have anything change. That is his happy place. And that is where he decides it is best to stay, forever.

In the cafeteria, Jeff is attempting to win seven balls, which serve as admission tickets to History of Ice Cream. Unfortunately, a vast majority of the student population stands in his way, including Annie Kim and Leonard (both of whom he takes down to get his admission prize). Elsewhere in the school, Annie and Shirley are attempting to pull a senior prank, but the perky brunette’s ideas are falling a bit flat with Shirley. The mother of three then suggests they put popcorn in Dean Pelton’s car and the two set off to do just that. I really like the Shirley/Annie dynamic and wish we had more episodes with them. Shirley humors Annie in a lot of ways, but also teaches her. And Annie? Well, we learn that Annie is just as insecure about graduation as anyone else. In fact, she’s beginning to second-guess her entire life (again), talking to Shirley with dread and anxiety about a life that she has yet to start.

Elsewhere on campus, we learn that Troy and Abed’s first day of school tradition is to throw pennies into the campus fountain and make wishes. Since Abed is watching “The Hunger Deans” unfold, Troy invites Britta and the two begin to cast coins into the fountain and make wishes. Except… well, Britta is doing it wrong. To amend for her “incorrect” wishes, the blonde climbs into the fountain to retrieve her coins, which incites panic and bewilderment in Troy and the two hilariously argue while alternately throwing coins in and back out of the fountain.

I really do love the Troy/Britta dynamic because it’s unexpected and flawed and wonderful BECAUSE of that. These two do not always get along. They’ll be the couple who argues over which cereal to buy or how to potty-train their child or which route is quicker. But the reason I love them is because Troy cares so obviously for Britta and she causes him to mature, while he causes her to loosen up a bit. They balance one another out well comedically and emotionally. And that’s what I’ll say about that!

Jeff continues to win balls for the study group and runs into the dean’s office, specifically to tell Annie that he won one for her and will continue to win them for the rest of the group. Annie doesn’t appear very amused or excited, however. I think that she’s become less and less apt to trust Jeff whenever he tells her things and makes promises, which is pretty interesting. Sure, I still believe that she harbors feelings for him, but… she doesn’t seem to be the doe-eyed and na├»ve girl in “History 101” that she was merely two years ago in “Anthropology 101.” Annie’s grown quite a bit and perhaps it’s her own insecurities about her future that are hardening her heart and mind right now, but, whatever it is… she wasn’t too thrilled with Jeff the entire episode. Or perhaps she is trying her best to wall herself off BECAUSE she knows Jeff is leaving and she is too – that feeling anger and bitterness toward Jeff is better and easier than feeling SOMETHING for him without a chance of it coming to fruition.

Again, digression. Sorry!

Jeff’s commitment to the study group reaches new heights when he enters into the tango portion of the competition with Dean Pelton as his partner. During their dance, Jeff drops a bit of a bombshell on the dean – Jeff believes the dean was the one to forge the History of Ice Cream admission tickets once he realized Jeff was graduating. Though he denies it at first, Dean Pelton eventually admits that this is true, and he wanted Jeff to stay at Greendale likely just as much as Abed wants to keep the group together. Once the dance contest concludes (and Jeff puts some suave moves on Dean Pelton to ensure he wins the last admission ticket), Jeff sidles up to the table where Abed and Pierce are (did I mention Pierce is in this episode? He totally is!) to boast about how he’s so close to getting their last seat in class.

Abed’s happy place begins to crumble and, much like Inception, the filmmaker travels within his happy place to ANOTHER level of happiness in which he imagines all of the Greendale Seven as cartoon babies (watch what each of them are doing in the scene – it’s pretty hilarious!). When the study group returns to the games and realizes that Abed is fracturing, they all band together and hold hands, hopeful that somehow the connection will get through to Abed. The only one who is left on the outside, however, is Jeff. Annie allows him to leave so that he can finish the games and win the last seat. (It’s important to note, however, that Jeff looks guilty and remorseful as he leaves the table. He may have desired to graduate early and wanted to do so with the study group and with them alone, but what he wants in that scene more than graduation and returning to his life as a lawyer is to stand around and help Abed any way he can. And he does move toward the table to do just that. In fact, he muses that he hates “new Jeff” – this version of himself that isn’t OUT for himself only.)

I think the most important thing to note in this episode is the non-Winger, Winger speech. Jeff doesn’t provide any words of wisdom – not really. Abed actually ends up inadvertently saving himself. How? Because he speaks things into his own mind and heart that he knows to be true. He knows that his friends will always be there for him, even if they’re not physically there for him. But it’s not Jeff’s words that help him come to this realization – it’s his OWN. Abed isn’t crazy, nor is he locked in his own mind with no way out. Yes, he hates change. And yes, he finds it difficult to function when change is necessitated. But he KNOWS what the truth is and has to remind himself of it. And alternate!Winger’s/Abed’s speech focuses on how the world outside of Greendale is scary, and that change itself is scary. But what’s also important to remember is that the group has ALREADY changed – they, themselves, have changed over the course of four years together. It’s not as jarring as the bigger change of leaving Greendale, but they HAVE changed no less. And they’ve changed each other through their friendship. That change was scary too, but the results were worth the fear it took to get there.

In Abed’s mind, Jeff affirms the notion that even when they’re not together someday, they’ll ALWAYS be together. It’s something that really resonated with me and resonates with a lot of people who have moved on from friends in their lives. It strikes Abed, and causes him to emerge from his catatonic state, where he relates this revelation to the rest of the group. He tells Annie that she should take some forensics courses, as alternate!Annie had decided to do that (which I assume will be an important plot point coming up this season).

At the end of the scene, Jeff attempts to begin a speech – one that he’s likely practiced and involves a metaphor of ice cream – but Abed stops him from completing his sentence. He’s fine, he insists, because he realizes that what the Jeff Winger in his mind (also known as himself) said was true. It wasn’t Jeff Winger who saved Abed from himself. Abed had the power and ability to do it all along, without the former lawyer even uttering a word.

Abed is like all of us – scared, anxious, and afraid of change. Nothing confirms this notion than reading through tweets and Tumblr posts about how disappointed people were with “History 101” because it felt “off” or “different” or “weird” or “not the same.” None of those are adequate phrases to describe a problem. Merely, they’re our way of conveying how changes make us FEEL. When something is new, it’s perfectly acceptable to feel uncomfortable. But try looking at this season of Community from a fresh lens. Don’t look at it as a post-Harmon anything. As soon as you begin to wallow too much in “Harmon is gone and things are not the same,” you’ll find yourself able to nitpick and pinpoint perceived flaws or holes. Your viewing experience will turn sour and you’ll disappoint yourself and those fans around you. Yes, this season premiere felt a bit different to me but that’s because it was SUPPOSED to. When someone as integral as Harmon leaves (and takes his narrative voice with him), things will not be the same. Things will HAVE to change.

(If you’re still absolutely and completely certain that “History 101” flopped… re-watch the episode. Since starting these blog-reviews I have watched each episode at LEAST twice before writing a review and it honestly will change your perspective if you do. So please do that before going off on rants about how this season is terrible and different, etc.)

And let’s take a leaf from Abed’s book and remember that change is a part of all of our lives. We don’t have to accept it, certainly, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. And it definitely doesn’t mean that things return to the way they were. The best thing to do is accept the past for what it was and look toward the future with anticipation.

I know I am.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
- “Congratulations. It’s me.” I feel like Joel should just enter every room this way.
- “They overbooked it so it’s first come, first served now.” “Just like real ice cream!”
- Momentary Jeff Winger in glasses? I approve of this. Let’s have a repeat performance soon, shall we?
- “Don’t you read Garrett’s Twitter feed? He posted a crisis alert about it.”
- “Jeff, you’re graduating early?” “Well, graduating after 30 can’t be characterized as ‘early.’”
- “Oh my God, there are SO many levels to this!”Can I request more Shirley/Annie shenanigans, please?
- “I don’t think anyone’s gonna miss wars!” “Uh, Star Wars. Thumb wars, wow… Storage Wars!”
- “This… isn’t a conversation… is it?”
- “The fountain works!”
- “Guys, I have something to say.” “Yay, like always!”
- Unpopular opinion: I’m not looking forward to Chang’s arc. But then again, I’m not really a fan of Chang to begin with.
- I love that the tag was essentially making fun of the short-lived and terrible comedy Work It.
- I’m really loving the fact that Dean Pelton moved next door to Jeff.
- "You smell like the floor of a movie theater." "Yeah, but not for the usual reasons."

It’s good to be home, y’all! Join me next week as I review our Halloween episode “Paranormal Parentage,” which is written by the ever-so-talented Megan Ganz and features the study group at Pierce’s mansion.

Until then, folks! :)

2 comments:

  1. I see where you are coming from, and I admit, I've been both both really looking forward to, and really dreading the return of the 'new' Community, so I can also see from the point of view of being 'mocked' about fearing change.

    From the first scene, I realized what was going one, but by the end, I kept hoping for yet another layer of removal at the end...as though the entire episode was his imagination.... we are left to think History of Ice Cream was a real class and Jeff was punching Leonard and others? That's a bit too zany for the reality of the Greendale Universe (albeit that reality was already breached during the 3rd season as Harmon figured it was being cancelled anyway).

    There were some character choices throughout the episode that made me cring; by the end, I decided I'll keep watching this season with the hope that a grand story arc is being set up so that we can have our "Bobby walks out of the shower scene" moment at the end of the series.

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  2. I think you missed the reason why Abed had a crisis within the sitcom...it's a sitcom. Of course, Annie or someone else would figure out a solution that restores and resets the episode to its beginning setup and not the beginning of the series (a total reset). That is the structure of sitcoms. But that also means the countdown to graduation would continue. So, he went deeper into sitcom land and invented the Greendale babies.

    I do think the episode wasn't as fluid as before.

    -bG

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