Friday, February 15, 2013

4x02 "Paranormal Parentage" (Ghosts of the Living)

"Paranormal Parentage"
Original Airdate: February 14, 2013

There are some episodes of Community where I think that Pierce and Jeff could not, in any universe whether parallel or present, be similar. After all, the elderly man is racist and brash and unforgiving a lot of the time. Jeff, while selfish and vain and egotistical, is also driven to do the right thing when it comes down to it. But then there are moments – usually flickering ones and sometimes entire episodes – where I realize exactly how Pierce and Jeff have been constructed similarly since the pilot episode. Jeff has been fighting this notion for just as long, too. He continues to insist that he is nothing like Pierce, much like he insisted that he detested Greendale and desired only to return to his former life. But Jeff and Pierce are more alike than any two characters on this series, frankly. They’re prideful and stubborn. They both have issues with their fathers. They both insist that they’re better off alone, but both are the worst versions of themselves when they are. Both need to be needed and want to be wanted and find it hard to find people who will accept them in spite of all of their flaws. But both have changed and both have grown. And even though they are STILL growing, both characters have learned that sometimes moving forward requires the sacrificing of vices once held onto tightly. By the end of the episode, Jeff learns to admit that he may not be as stable as he insists, while Pierce realizes he may not always feel needed by the study group but there ARE people who need him, genuinely, and that’s beautiful.

Oh yeah, and it’s Halloween and stuff.

Before I even begin talking about the episode, I want to talk about the intensely critical (and also problematic) comments that I saw while perusing Tumblr last night. I’ve mentioned before that I do not read critical reviews (The AV Club, HitFix, etc.) before I write my own. The reason, really, is two-fold: 1) I do not want someone else’s opinion of an episode to color my own; 2) I do not want to inadvertently steal ideas and phrases from someone else’s work. I do, however, like Tumblr and am usually within the “Community” tag on Thursday nights. What I saw last night (and last week, as well) really disappointed me. People were unhappy with the episode. People were griping and complaining. People were lamenting the fact that “the show is not the same.” And truly, this bothered me until I realized exactly WHY people were doing it. When I took AP Psychology in high school and studied sociology, we learned about something called a self-fulfilling prophecy. For those who aren’t aware, the definition is as follows:

A prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true, by the very terms of the prophecy itself, due to positive feedback between belief and behavior.
Those currently tearing apart the show at its seams and berating the “new writers” (by the way, here’s a heads-up: the first two episodes were written by veterans Andy Bobrow and Megan Ganz, respectively. These two people have been writing for the show since the second season. I don’t know where people are getting the idea that “new” writers are in control of the show – the only thing new about the show is that Dan Harmon is no longer the showrunner. Which, again, people seem to presume that Dan wrote every episode of the show. Heads up: he did NOT and, quite honestly, wrote very few episodes of the series) are actually enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bear with me momentarily, because here is my theory: those who are criticizing the show? They went into this season already hating it. They didn’t even give the show a chance. They believed, prior to the premiere, that the show would be “different” without Harmon and that self-fulfilling prophecy came true, as they BELIEVED everything to be different and therefore now are “noticing” everything that is different. They’re constructing their own version of reality and placing their trust in it, which is exactly what a self-fulfilling prophecy’s purpose is. And, I’ll step on some toes and take it a step FURTHER – those who are intensely critiquing the show went into this season WANTING an excuse to hate it. Because if they can “prove” to themselves that the show is different without Harmon, it means they have an excuse to give up on the show all together. It means that they can finally cut a show loose that they’ve subconsciously wanted to. It’s a harsh, but plausible truth.

The bottom line is that these people have “convinced” themselves about something they already decided was true. They predicted that the show would be terrible without Harmon and went into the show’s premiere fully believing their prophecy. Community stood no chance, and will stand NO CHANCE against these people. Nothing the show does from here on out will ever be good enough because the fact of the matter is that these viewers? They’ve already made their decision about the season before they even saw it. And whatever happens, no matter how amazing or similar to the past three seasons, will never be good enough. That, dear readers, is a quite sad truth.

On much less of a downer, this episode may have cracked my top ten, depending on how the remainder of the season goes. I have always intensely admired Megan Ganz (@meganganz) as a writer. I think that the thing I love most of all is how she writes dialogue and banter. Her first episode, of course, was a bottle episode and the wit and humor and solid one-liners throughout “Cooperative Calligraphy” blew my mind. She’s an amazing writer, truly, and I feel like she’s always had a great grasp on who these characters are at their cores and what they want. I feel like all of the writers have a great grasp on that (I’m not leaving you out, Bobrow or Saccardo or Mebane or Basilone!), but I have always felt that Megan’s intimacy with the characters is a bit deeper. None of her episodes have ever disappointed me, and “Paranormal Parentage” is no exception to this. She’s done a fabulous job and is on my list of female writing role models. GANZY, WE LOVE YOU.

What I really love about “Paranormal Parentage” is the exploration of interaction between characters who don’t get a lot of screentime together. Shirley is very nurturing toward Troy in the episode, and not in a condescending manner, frankly, which I think exhibits a lot of growth. Meanwhile, Troy and Annie have some nice moments together which remind us that their characters understand one another on a fundamental level that we sometimes ignore. Elsewhere, since last week’s “History 101” was Abed-heavy, he laid low and watched Cougar Town. When Abed is driven to accomplish something, he doesn’t quit. And that includes watching the Halloween episode of his favorite sitcom.

The Jeff/Britta storyline this week was perhaps my favorite out of all of the arcs they have had together. It was wonderful to see their typical banter, Britta’s need to “therapize” and her inadvertent ability to actually really help Jeff. I think that’s what I love so much about her character (and I’ve mentioned it countless times before). Anyone could have told Jeff that he had issues with his father. Annie or Troy could have, or Shirley and Abed and Pierce. But instead, because Jeff is so reluctant to open up to Britta, he doesn’t delve into over-sentimentality. He’s buried emotions down that crack the surface of his facades when she FORCES him to. And she forces this, ironically, by irritating him. See, his subconscious is unguarded because he’s not TRYING to process his feelings and emotions – he is simply acting and responding. And this uninhibited subconscious allows him to be helped without his realization. It’s something that Britta does completely by accident, but something she has been brilliant at. And I’ll discuss her and Jeff more in-depth later on.

In case you, too, were locked in a panic room this week and couldn’t concentrate on the plot for the episode, let me fill you in: it’s Halloween at Greendale and the study group – sans Pierce – is gathering to carpool to Vicki’s costume party. Pierce, of course, was not invited to this party because of his antagonistic relationship with the young woman. The group gathers in costumes (Shirley is Princess Leia, Abed and Troy are Calvin and Hobbes, respectively, Britta is a ham, and Jeff shows up as a boxer). When Britta snarks at his choice of costume, he insists that he’s participating in a couples costume (really there’s no other way to put it than that) with Annie this year. She, he says, is going as his boxing ring girl. Unfortunately, that message doesn’t translate well over text and Annie shows up as the girl from the horror movie The Ring (which, by the way, I HATE BECAUSE I HATE SCARY MOVIES. I’ve only seen it once for this reason).

Troy gets a call from Pierce, in which the elderly man says he’s locked in his mansion’s panic room. The rest of the group feels bad for their friend and they decide to make a pit-stop on the way to the party and go rescue him. Jeff, of course, is the first to always judge and become skeptical of Pierce’s motivations. He’s never been a very trusting person in general, but when it comes to the eldest member of the group, sometimes Jeff is just plain… cold. Which is ironic because Pierce hates being left out and alone (as evidenced in a lot of episodes, most notably “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” and “For a Few More”), and Jeff? Well, as we saw in “Biology 101,” Jeff doesn’t fare too well when isolated from the group either. Instead of acknowledging this similarity, Jeff consistently chooses to assume the worst in Pierce and isolates him further.

The only reason, in fact, that Jeff is aboard rescuing Pierce from his panic room at the mansion is because Dean Pelton shows up in the study room (dressed as a sexy boxing ring girl, to boot) and…well, suddenly helping Pierce out doesn’t look like such a terrible option. The group shows up at Pierce’s (tacky) mansion and begin to explore. It’s tacky. Did I mention that? Troy points out where the panic room is and the group watches Pierce on the live stream, where the elderly man notes that he accidentally locked himself in there and forgot the code. Pierce then utters a very telling line when he says: “Sorry to be a burden on you guys, but… I guess that’s all I am now.”

Ironically, Jeff’s mistrust of Pierce in the episode is warranted by the end, but this line struck me (and it struck the rest of the group, as they cooed) as rather important because it DOES reflect how Pierce views himself in the group. He’s never felt valued before and he’s never felt like any of the members of the study group truly need him. Think about it: the last time I remember Pierce actually feeling  validated by someone within the group was “Debate 109,” where Britta needed his help to stop smoking. And then, of course, the kicker in the episode was that Britta “threw him a bone” throughout most of the plot. At the end of the episode, Pierce’s unintentional and failed hypnotherapy techniques actually DO end up helping Britta. But something earlier in the episode is important – Pierce doesn’t want PITY, he wants people to NEED him. And there is a distinct difference.

Everyone in the group has a function. Pierce’s self-proclaimed function (“Pascal’s Triangle Revisited”) is that he “says things others won’t.” And, quite frankly, this seems like an apt summation of the elderly man’s character. But beyond that – beyond the thin, filmy layer – what does the study group really NEED Pierce for? In the elderly man’s mind, there is no response. The group would remain silent. And that is sad, to me.

Jeff calls Pierce out on lying about accidentally trapping himself in the room and Pierce… agrees. He recants his earlier statement and amends it: he actually locked himself in the room on PURPOSE because, well, he thought he saw his father’s ghost. But Pierce has the code to the panic room written down somewhere, so the group (minus Jeff) decides to go try and find the book and get Pierce out of the room. When the leader of the group quips: “What in the Scooby-Doo is happening to you people?” I had to laugh. I love that Jeff is so befuddled by this, as if he hasn’t known these people for the past four years – as if he doesn’t realize that they’ll help Pierce out, help anyone out in the study group. The funny thing is that Jeff is usually the same way toward anyone else in the group except Pierce. He’ll help Annie with her diorama or construct a surprise party for Abed. But Pierce? One look at the elderly man and Jeff calls “foul.” And I genuinely think that it is because Jeff sees so much of himself (subconsciously, remember?) in Pierce that he knows exactly how HE would respond and believes Pierce will do the same.

As the group splits up to look for the book, Jeff continues to try and convince them that Pierce is only acting out because he craves attention, not because he ACTUALLY needs help. He confronts Annie, and his words sting her in the process:
Jeff: He doesn’t NEED help; he needs attention. Are you really this naïve?
Annie: Am I naïve? I’m sure as stuff not your sexy little ring girl.
This Annie Edison is my favorite – when she comes out, claws and teeth bared (metaphorically, of course) and refuses to revert to the girl who once pined over Jeff. She’s insulted and hurt that he insinuates she’s naïve because she cares about helping a friend (remember when Jeff accused Annie of being a child in “English as a Second Language” because she had feelings? You would have thought he’d have learned his lesson then!), and fires back at him. She’s not going to prance along beside him and agree to everything he says. She won’t be THAT girl. Annie Edison is more than that – she’s the girl who whooped everyone in paintball, and she’s not going to let Jeff Winger break her.

(My ONLY tiny quip with this episode is that ANNIE is the one to apologize at the end, when she did nothing wrong in the first place. I would have liked to see Jeff apologize for specifically calling her naïve, but I’ll take his apology to her anyway.)

Meanwhile, Britta insists that she’s going to try and help Pierce get through his grief and his father issues by talking to him. Britta says something very poignant to Jeff – “in one way or another, therapy is helpful.” Some people take issue with the fact that Britta isn’t a very good therapist (a lot of people who hate Britta seem to cite this as reasoning), but this quote is rather illuminating in light of that. Even though Jeff makes fun of her the very next moment for her terrible track record as a therapist, Britta makes a valid point: whether or not Jeff believes her therapy is actually working is irrelevant if it is actually working in some way or another (and it is and does).

The two enter Pierce’s bedroom and Britta begins to look for the book while Jeff just… looks attractive in the corner. Britta becomes anxious and nervous when Jeff begins to insult Cornelius Hawthorne, admitting that she's not sure if she believes in ghosts or not. There's then a  great exchange between her and Jeff:

Britta: I believe people can be haunted by unresolved issues in their past.
Jeff:  Yeah, but issues don’t turn into ghosts
Britta:  Maybe for Pierce, they have!

And with that, Britta begins to inadvertently “therapize” Jeff. What happens is merely what I mentioned earlier: while Jeff’s conscious mind is distracted with insulting Britta, his subconscious is unearthing feelings and emotions associated with his father that bubble to the surface. And both Britta AND Jeff are surprised at these revelations. And when Jeff insists: “It’s the living who choose to be haunted,” he utters perhaps one of the most profound statements EVER on the show. Jeff then continues to talk about Pierce’s father and then… unconsciously begins to talk about his own and how it doesn’t matter WHO his dad was: Jeff is his own man, now, and isn’t defined by his father’s presence or lack thereof... and then realizes that Britta is somehow working therapy magic. And he shuts up.

Elsewhere, Annie and Abed are also hunting for the book and the film student manages to find a secret door behind a bookshelf, leaving Annie alone and quite confused as to where her roommate disappeared to. She startles herself when she looks in the mirror and sees the reflection of Cornelius Hawthorne. Things are starting to get weird. I really do love the Shirley/Troy sub-storyline this episode. A lot of times, Shirley comes across as hesitantly judgmental with other characters. But in this episode, her comments toward Troy reflect less of that (though there is some hesitancy when discussing Britta and her “experience”). She treats him like a child that needs to be sheltered. And I’m still not certain if that is positive or negative yet, since we all know (thanks Bobrow, for “Mixology Certification”!) that Troy is more mature than others see him. But in this episode, Troy’s lack of experience is a concern for Shirley and she expresses it in the gentlest way possible (while also saying that she’s happy he’s dating Britta. Awwww!) We learn that Troy and Britta haven’t actually slept together yet, and Troy’s a bit… naïve when it comes to discussing the subject with Britta or others still.

Suddenly, a jiggling doorknob begins to cause panic in both Troy and Shirley and the former moves toward the door, protecting his friend (AWW, that's nice!), opening it and screaming to find.... Annie. The young woman admits that she's lost Abed, so the three decide to stick together and try to find him before they do anything else. As it turns out, Abed found the control room of Pierce's mansion and is watching the Halloween episode of Cougar Town while his friends search for Pierce's notebook. He tunes into Pierce's bedroom where Jeff and Britta are arguing over the former's father issues.

Here is the beginning of another example of Jeff letting go of his subconscious thoughts while his conscious mind attempts to win a battle of the wits against Britta. All of the emotions he associates with his father (anger and frustration, bitterness, etc.) he flings freely at Britta, leaving him only with the reason WHY he is experiencing those emotions in the first place. There is another affirmation from Jeff in this scene that he will NEVER end up like Pierce (because they are never ever ever getting back together – wait, sorry). And I think that, deep down, Jeff DOES fear he’ll end up like Pierce (does anyone remember “Early 21st Century Romanticism” and its opening? Where Jeff sardonically asked if there was a heart-opening deadline? As soon as Pierce walked in, snarking as well about the holiday, Jeff quickly insisted that opening his heart to others was on his list).

I find so much beauty in the fact that BRITTA NEVER MEANS TO HELP ANYONE. Well, she does MEAN to help people, but her methods are always flawed and they always fail the way that they were initially intended to function (also, see: “Course Listing Unavailable” and “The Science of Illusion” and “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” and “History 101”) but in Britta-ing her plans, Britta actually HELPS everyone else. It’s so broken and backwards and so utterly Britta Perry to unwittingly solve problems.

In the control room, Abed is growing a bit bored with the Jeff/Britta storyline and switches to archived footage of Pierce sleeping in his bed with... a shadowy figure looming nearby, watching. Abed's eyes widen and he seems to find more amusement and joy in this particular footage than in watching his friends. But as the camera pans away, we see a shadowy figure looming behind ABED. DUN DUN DUN.

Somewhere in Hawthorne Manor, Troy and Shirley and Annie are still searching for Abed. And there is a really nice Troy/Annie moment in the following moments. I loved the Troy/Annie friendship in this episode. We rarely get a chance to visit their relationship, but I think it’s one of the most striking. These two people have known each other (I am not counting Jeff and Shirley who weren’t aware of their history until adulthood) since high school but never really KNEW each other. I love that Troy is the encourager in the group – he’s always trying to tell people that they’re worth something. He assures Annie that he knows who she is; he tells Britta that she isn’t the worst, etc.

Annie falls into the same trap Troy used to – she believes Jeff and Britta know more about the world than she does. So when she believes Jeff was right – that she WAS being naïve earlier – it is Troy who assures her otherwise, saying that: “There’s nothing naïve about helping a friend in need.” He then admits that he enjoys talking to his roommate because it feels easy, and tells her that she can come to him anytime to talk too (which elicits coos from Annie and Shirley). I just love their dynamic. Have I said that already?

Elsewhere, to avoid further conversation with Britta about his father, Jeff locks himself in Pierce's study with some scotch. When there's a banging at the door, Jeff reluctantly opens it, insisting that Britta won't be able to therapize him further. But when the former lawyer opens the door... no one is there. DUN DUN DUN. The room suddenly begins to shake and Cornelius Hawthorne's photo begins to stretch and Jeff high-tails it out of the room. Similarly, a figure begins to poke through the walls at Troy, Annie, and Shirley and the three make a run for it, screaming and meeting up with Jeff and Britta. They re-approach the panic room where they see the feed of Pierce... who is lying on the ground, unmoving. Everyone freaks out.

The group, armed with the code that Jeff found in the study/library, opens the panic room to find... no one. Pierce enters triumphantly, gleefully expressing that he pulled one over on the study group and created the fake haunted house. Of course, Jeff was entirely cognizant of the fact that Pierce was pulling something over on the group (but they all were still properly terrified), and the elderly man’s excuse is pretty much the same one that he gives in “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” for his behavior. He wants the group to VALUE his presence which, admittedly, they don’t. And maybe it’s all of the transmedia that has been occurring in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries recently, but… I believe this speaks to us as well. We’re the study group. We don’t value Pierce. We don’t value his character or his arcs. We feel the show would be better without him. It’s easy to do this – to feel this way – when you look at a fictional character because they can’t hear you. They don’t have “real” feelings you can hurt. But to put yourself in Pierce’s shoes for a moment and remember that nothing you did was ever good enough for your father and nothing you do is ever good enough for the study group… well, that’s pretty depressing. No wonder Pierce goes to lengths to get attention – it’s the only way he can possibly feel validated.

Abed appears and the group is thrilled, until the film student points out the shadowy figure on the tapes. Pierce insists that he had nothing to do with THAT and presses the panic button again, effectively locking everyone in the room. The group begins to freak out when someone from outside the room punches in the code. And the culprit is then revealed to be... Gilbert.

And then, Pierce gets the opportunity to feel validated, to feel useful when Gilbert resurfaces in his life. Pierce, as it turns out, is coping with his father’s death better than his half-brother and the younger man is OFFERED assistance by Pierce. Perhaps the study group has taught Pierce Hawthorne one thing – it is better to be with someone than to be alone. Nevertheless, this is the first time I think Pierce has been needed, perhaps in his entire life, by anyone. It’s sad and beautiful, actually.

The group splits up once more, with Shirley and Abed seemingly headed to Vicki's party together. Pierce, smiling and proud, decides to stay at the mansion with Gilbert because he is needed. Shirley, much like me, coos at that statement. Britta asks Troy if he wants to ditch the party in favor of other things. Nervously, Troy asks WHAT she means and the blonde hurriedly adds to her statement, saying that she wants to watch Inspector Spacetime with Troy since she's never seen a full episode. Troy notes that the first season starts slow, and Britta smiles, saying that after a night of chasing around Winger with his issues... she WANTS slow. It's beautiful and wonderful and completely sold me on Troy/Britta.

Meanwhile, Annie apologizes to Jeff for ruining his night, but he insists that it was Pierce and not her that ruined the night. When Annie asks if he still wants to head over to Vicki's party, Jeff declines. As Annie's face falls, he adds that he has some unfinished business at home to attend to.

I will never understand why Joel McHale has no Emmy awards or nominations. I love the rest of the cast, don't get me wrong, but Joel? Joel SHINES. And the end of this episode was tear-inducing, as only Megan Ganz could accomplish, in the poignancy and simplicity of the act of Jeff sitting down and deciding to contact his father. But the sucker punch is this: the boxing gloves Jeff had carried around all night? They were his father’s.

Does Jeff NEED his father? I don’t know. But I know that Jeff needs closure, and it’s something he’s been running away from for a long time. He doesn’t WANT, like Pierce, to depend on anyone. Jeff Winger cannot NEED people. But I think what Greendale has taught him and what Pierce has taught him is what I stated earlier: life is better when you’re not alone. The people who loved him became his family, but his real family is broken. And Jeff has two options: he can run away forever from the pain and potential closure, or he can face whatever is on the other side of that phone and know he STILL has six people who love him who are waiting for him.

So he calls his father.

And then he waits.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
- Shirley doesn’t have an ambiguous Halloween costume this year!
- “We do some things! … We do a LOT of things. Not ALL the things. THINGS.”
- I love that there are a LOT of callbacks in this episode.
- ALWAYS read the blackboard and whiteboards. This week featured an epic poem entitled: “Reasons Not to Let Your Friends Do Drugs.”
- Yes, I admit it – I whimpered when I saw Dan’s name in the credits.
- “Oh, put a sock in it, Shorts.”
- “Can it, ham.” As @maryarrr pointed out, Jeff really enjoys the “Can it” jokes.
- “I’m gonna set my shrink ray to ‘Daddy Issues’ and blast that sucker straight to closure!” Sometimes I just love Britta Perry so much, it hurts.
- “Denial’s the first step to acceptance.” “That can’t be right.”
- “I’ll never end up like Pierce.” “Won’t you?” “No! Because I’m nothing like him!” “Aren’t you?” “Are you gonna keep doing that?” “AM I?”
- The score throughout the last scene is just GORGEOUS.

Thank you all for reading through this EXTREMELY long and detailed blog-review! Next week we head to an Inspector Spacetime convention for "Conventions of Space and Time," so get your costumes ready and return here on Friday for my review of the episode! :)


  1. I think it's slightly simplistic to state that anyone who criticizes the new episodes decided to hate the new season before it aired. I, for one, was hoping to be surprised by how successfully the new head writers were able to capture the spirit of the show that Dan built. And while, in my opinion, the first episode failed miserably, the second certainly felt closer to the Community I love. You're absolutely right that these two episodes were written by veterans of the Harmon era, but that still doesn't account for the loss of what Dan provided. Dan didn't write every episode, but he had a hand in the direction of each episode, the planning as well as the revision process; he even worked on the editing for certain episodes. From what I understand, he pretty famously micromanaged the creation of each story. Not all showrunners are like that. I suspect Moses and David aren't... And while they didn't write these two episodes, as the new head writers, they are at the very least involved in the direction of the episodes and the overall arc of the season. Either way, I think it's fair to say that Dan left his mark on this show and these characters. I don't think it's unreasonable for viewers to notice differences.

    I'm not writing off this season entirely. This episode was solid, these characters felt like the characters I love for the most part. I'm interested in seeing where else they are taken this season. But there is still a part of me that will always wonder what Dan had planned for them and is sad that I'll never see that. This might be a slightly tenuous metaphor, but it would be like if Charles Dickens, who wrote his novels in serialized format for magazines, had his story appropriated three-quarters of the way in by the magazine to be given to another writer to finish. It would be hard for the writer to emulate the creator. Obviously, there were other amazing writers that contributed to creating these stories and characters in Community, but all of it was heavily filtered through Dan's sensibilities, his extraordinary way of seeing things. And even if my hyper awareness of the back-story that brought us Season 4 might taint my reaction to these episodes by my own "self-fulfilling prophecies", I have two brothers who aren't familiar with the ins and outs of what happened and they too were able to feel a striking difference, particularly in the premiere. So I don't think it's always down to having decided to hate it a priori. For some viewers, it just genuinely feels off. And maybe that's because we've all loved the same show from the beginning, but often for very different reasons.

  2. You've made a pretty broad generalization about people who dislike the show. We're supposed to keep an open mind, yet you dismiss us with the psychology lessons you learned in high school. At least Britta waited until college to play therapist.