Friday, January 3, 2014

5x01 "Repilot" (We're All Story Circles in the End)

Dual Redundancy: TV Review: Community 501/502: "Repilot ...

Original Airdate: January 2, 2014

I tell the story of how this blog started every chance that I get.

I like telling it, because looking back on how the blog began gives me perspective, not just on my writing but on life in general. I began writing about Community during its third season. My first blog-review was read probably three times (and two of those were likely by Jaime). And then I wrote my “Geography of Global Conflict” review. Looking back on it, it’s not spectacular. But I was proud of it at the time because it was long and because I had put my heart and soul into analyzing the episode. So I tweeted it to Dan Harmon. And then Dan Harmon replied:

My life, quite literally, has not been the same. Two years, 160 blog posts, and over 75,000 pageviews later, I’ve learned a lot about myself as a writer. I’ve learned a lot about television and pop culture. I’ve struggled and I’ve encountered writers’ block. And the reason that I tell the story of how this blog began is because it’s impossible to move ahead until you remember where you started. I’ve never taken the fact that Dan Harmon tweeted me lightly, even though to most people, an 140-character message wouldn’t seem that important. But that tweet was. And what resulted from that tweet – the friendships, the writing, the struggles and the triumphs – has taught me about who I am as a person. It’s reminded me that I could have quit this blog a long time ago. That tweet reminds me that sometimes it takes something seemingly insignificant to change your trajectory. It reminds me to take risks because you’re more likely to miss out on something amazing if you don’t.

When I reviewed Community during our first (long and dark) hiatus, I started something called #CommunityRewatch. “Regional Holiday Music” had ended, and I realized that the best way to continue to appreciate my favorite series would be to remember where it started from – to remember where all of these characters had begun their journeys. And what I found when I re-watched the pilot episode was this: all of my beloved characters had grown and evolved throughout the course of three and a half seasons. At their cores, there were still these kernels of truth buried there. They’re truths that Abed notes in “Remedial Chaos Theory.” But what happens over the course of five years is that people change. They grow. They progress or regress and sometimes they do both within the course of twenty minutes. That’s what I took away from the pilot when I re-watched it, really. I recognized Jeff Winger… but barely. In fact, in my review, I noted that he wasn’t necessarily unrecognizable. He was incomplete. In “Regional Holiday Music,” Jeff was a guy who realized that he had a group of people who loved him, who would ALWAYS love him. He cared about those people. But in the pilot? In the pilot Jeff is coming out of a place of loss – he lost his job. He lost his life. He lost his pride and his recognition and his fake Bachelor’s degree. When people act from a place of loss, it’s never very good.

“Repilot” finds Jeff back at the very beginning (which, if you’re a singing nun, is a very good place to start). We find him in nearly the exact same place as we did in the pilot. But there’s a little something different about this Jeff Winger – he’s been changed. Over the course of four years at Greendale, whether he liked it or not, six people changed his entire life. But as we’ll soon discover in “Repilot,” just because you’ve been changed by a person or people or circumstances doesn’t mean you can’t be hurt again. There’s this story circle that Dan Harmon has that I’ve always been fascinated with. The final step of the circle? The character returns to their familiar situation “having changed.” But what happens with a circle is this – it never stops moving. Dan Harmon never constructed a “story line” or a “story mountain” for a reason. He’s a smart guy: he knows that characters don’t move from point A to point B and then stop. He knows that characters (and people for that matter) never stop growing and evolving and changing and screwing up and finding themselves at rock bottom and then being changed. Our lives are circles, not lines or mountains. Whenever we accomplish a task, we move onto the next one. Whenever we hit rock bottom, we find a way to pull ourselves back. We keep moving. We’re all stories in the end. We’re ALL circles.

(But before I get too deep or analytical, let’s talk about the plot of “Repilot,” shall we?)

Jeff Winger finds himself in quite a literal circle, as “no good deed goes unpunished” in the real-world of being a formerly disbarred lawyer who become better and then returned to his familiar situation, having changed. He graduated from Greendale in “Advanced Introduction to Finality.” And now it’s a year later and Jeff has failed. It’s ironic, I’m sure to him, that he managed to find rampant success and prestige as a faux lawyer who was smarmy and had no moral compass. But now that Jeff has left Greendale – his sanctuary and home where he encountered the love of six individuals that changed him from the inside out, slowly but surely – he’s found himself back at the bottom. It’s kind of a bummer, really. We WANT the good guys to win in every story. We want people like Alan to get what they deserve and people like Jeff who have actually tried to become better to succeed. Because Jeff’s attempts are genuine. He’s working as a lawyer in an office in a mini-mall trying to help people.

It’s failing miserably, we see, as Jeff’s office furniture is being taken out at the beginning of the episode. He’s hit rock bottom, just like pre-pilot Jeff Winger had. And when Alan approaches with a saucy new deal, well, Jeff has a choice. See, Alan’s client Marvin Humphries is an engineer who recently designed a bridge that collapsed. Marvin went to Greendale and is suing the school because (as Alan essentially says) they’re the only school stupid enough to give him an Engineering degree when he knew nothing about engineering in the first place. Alan’s plan is pretty simple: he needs Jeff to get records from the school’s office because if he tries to get a subpoena, Alan presumes Greendale will just shred the evidence.

And here is where we see something interesting and VERY telling: Jeff defends Greendale. He draws a distinct line in the sand because the truth is that Jeff KNOWS he’s changed over the last five years. He believes that he has. And he attributes his change to the wacky Greendale Community College. He believes in that school and the people there – he believes it to be a good place full of good people who would never shred evidence. Alan, Jeff claims, is on the other side of the spectrum. Greendale is nothing like Alan. (Spoiler alert: this is what sets Jeff off later on, with good reason. When you put your faith in something and it lets you down, be it a person or an institution or a faith, you cannot help but get mad. And Jeff gets mad.)

But because Jeff wants to prove something to Alan (that he still has the Winger moves), he agrees to go to Greendale and get Marvin’s records. There are a lot of pilot callbacks and a lot of parallelism running through the episode, including the opening shots and the intercom-announcing Dean Pelton. Jeff saunters back into the school that changed him, and it’s nice to see a callback to “Debate 109” with his and Annie’s trophy being the only thing in the trophy case now (hey at least the “Most Valued Customer” trophy is gone!). He smiles fondly at it, and it made my heart melt for a moment because this is a guy who can’t help but be changed by the school and by his memories of it. Time has passed – a year, to be specific – and the study group no longer attends Greendale, a fact that Dean Pelton announces when he enters. To save face, Jeff lies to the dean and tells him that he’s returned to Greendale to save it and its reputation.

So Jeff gets directed to the records room, which is actually his old study room, and that’s where he encounters Abed. And then the rest of the study group. They’ve heard about the “Save Greendale” committee that Jeff has spearheaded and they want to help. … Actually, that’s a lie. They don’t want to help (or at least that’s not their primary motivation). Here’s where another callback to the pilot occurs: the study group is back at rock bottom in their lives, only this time they’re pretending that they haven’t hit bottom. They force smiles and feign happy attitudes because that’s what college graduates are supposed to do, right? Greendale brought them together and made them better and… their lives are somehow NOT better. It’s this amazing age-old rhetorical question: “If I’m doing everything right, if I’m trying to be a good person… why can’t I catch a break? Why do bad things happen to me?” (Of course, they don’t vocalize these questions and fears until a bit later, but you still see them bubbling beneath the surface when they greet Jeff.)

The study group is adamant: they’re going to help Jeff save Greendale. As they un-bury their old study room table and settle into their familiar seats around it, Jeff becomes increasingly uncomfortable. You see, it’s one thing to try and forget your morals when you’re by yourself. Jeff set out on a one-man mission. Because if he just did ONE thing for Alan to prove he still had his “moves,” he could ultimately pretend like he hadn’t broken some moral code. He’d be the only one to know what he had done. He’d have no accountability. But seeing Troy and Abed and Britta and Shirley and Annie literally forced Jeff to reconcile what he was about to do with WHO he was. Standing there, I have to wonder if he saw the first day of classes all over again, if he saw the speech he gave to the group to manipulate them. I wonder if he saw THAT Jeff Winger and remembered that he was no longer some sleazy lawyer but the patriarch of a group that wanted to better the world around them.

So Jeff does in “Repilot” what he did in the pilot episode… he runs out of the room. (“Say you have to pee.”) And he goes to confess to Dean Pelton that his actions hadn’t been admirable. He begins to confess because it is the “right thing to do.” Jeff does this without any prompting from the group. His moral conscience points due north in this scenario without any assistance and that shows growth.  Unfortunately, what he finds next frustrates, disappoints, and angers him. Dean Pelton has shredded the evidence of Marvin’s records. Do I blame Jeff for being upset? No. and the funny thing is this: I don’t even blame him (completely) for turning that anger into resentment and bitterness and that bitterness into action against Greendale and Dean Pelton. I said at the beginning of this review that there are certain truths about characters that will always be true. Annie will always be driven. Shirley will always be giving. Britta is a wildcard. But Jeff? Jeff will ALWAYS be prideful. It’s his one vice that is tied to nearly everything he says and does. His pride and his ego and his vanity are interconnected and when you destroy one, you also destroy a little piece of Jeff in the process and leave him scarred. (Kind of like a Horcrux in that regard, really.)

So when you demolish part of Jeff’s pride and his ego, you force him to return to his natural default because he’s wounded. Our natural default button is not a good thing. We have to train ourselves to be kind. We have to teach ourselves to be selfless instead of self-centered. We have to consciously force ourselves to do better and to BE better. Our automatic default is to think about ourselves and how WE can get what WE want out of life. So when Jeff’s pride in himself and his progress and his pride in his school are wounded, he returns to his default state of manipulation and revenge. He calls Alan and tells the man that though all of the documents were shredded, he’s going to take down Greendale another way and he’s going to use his friends to do it.

This is one of the most distinctive parallels to the pilot that we see in “Repilot.” Remember how Jeff managed to turn the group members against one another in the pilot in order to get with Britta? This is what I wrote about that scene: What's amazing about Jeff as a character though (it's really fascinating) is his ability to read and dissect people in the blink of an eye. It's what makes him admittedly both a good and bad leader of the study group. He can pinpoint a person's weakness and then use that to his advantage (like the words of praise each member of the study group wanted to hear - from listening to that conversation earlier, he recognized their insecurities).

Jeff, you can see at the beginning of the episode, raises a quizzical eye at his friends when they babble about how great their lives outside of Greendale are. He knows they’re lying; he’s not dumb. So he’s prepared to use them to further his vengeance and bitterness by convincing them that they need to file a class action lawsuit against the school for the way it damaged them. Jeff attempts to convince the study group members that Greendale damaged them. So one by one, the group begins to explain what their current jobs are. Annie essentially pushes drugs (and pens) for pharmaceutical companies and Britta points out the irony. Britta works as a bartender, meanwhile.  Troy is seemingly unemployed, while Abed develops a new social media app. Jeff had hired him to do a commercial for his law firm and then quit. Shirley drops the biggest bomb of all, though, when she informs the group that Andre left her. Apparently she had been cheating on him with her work and their marriage fell apart. (This is the saddest of all to me, because I just want Shirley to be happy and have her life be successful for once.)

The confessions and bitterness within the group over their current positions in life are exactly the fuel that Jeff needs to convince the group that GREENDALE ruined them. Just like he’s done many, many times before (“Pilot,” “Environmental Science,” “Asian Population Studies,” etc.), Jeff manipulates the conversation. Remember the conversation that Duncan and Jeff had on his first day?  Duncan asked: “I’m asking you if you know the difference between right and wrong,” to which Jeff said: “I discovered at a very early age that if I talk long enough, I can make anything right or wrong. So either I'm God or truth is relative. In either case, booyah!” I loved the parallels between the pilot and “Introduction to Finality” because Jeff said THIS: “I mean, guys like me, we’ll tell you there’s no right or wrong, there’s no real truths. And as long as we all believe that, guys like me can never lose. Because the truth is, I’m lying when I say there is no truth.”

(Truth is a big theme that comes into play in “Repilot,” too. So it’s intriguing to draw my parallels from the pilot, “Introduction to Finality,” and now this episode. But I’ll return to that theme in a moment.)

Jeff leaves the room after the group makes their confessions and finds Alan in the cafeteria. And then Jeff gets scary because when Jeff has no moral compass guiding him and no accountability and literally nothing left to lose… he’s quite frightening and Joel McHale (bless him) does an AMAZING job at playing this character who – much like his study group friends – is broken and despairing. He’s fallen back on manipulation because it’s all he knows, but he is to be feared much more than Alan. Alan is a snake, but you SEE snakes. Snakes slither and most don’t completely blend in with their surroundings. But Jeff? Jeff is like… an alligator when he’s at his worst. He’s the kind of person who will wait just below the surface before he will make a move. But when he moves, he moves to strike and to wound and to kill. He moves with a mission.

Jeff’s warning to Alan in the cafeteria is pretty intense: he notes that Alan has “stepped on the grave of a real monster.” Jeff’s “dark side” (no, not the darkest timeline) was awoken thanks to the skeevy former friend. Alan is an amateur compared to Jeff and should be afraid of his power.  Because behind that power is the driving force of SHAME. What Jeff is essentially saying though is pretty interesting: Alan should be fearful because Jeff had (or has) a moral compass which means that if he does something wrong or bad, he will – at some point – feel shameful and regretful of his actions and himself. That is much more powerful, Jeff argues, than someone like Alan who has no moral code or compass or accountability and essentially does whatever pleases him. In the end, all Alan will feel is empty but Jeff? Jeff will feel the weight of his decisions pushing down on his shoulders. And that kind of person – that kind of monster, as Jeff explains – is SO much more dangerous.

(But then Jeff pauses because Alan doesn’t deserve to get a monologue and I couldn’t agree more.) Jeff beats Alan with his tie, explaining that each hit represents something Alan did to him and the people he cares most about. He’s about to undo the damage that Greendale caused the “only people he cares about” and himself. Back in the study room, the group is realizing that their current positions in life aren’t just less than ideal but that perhaps somehow they have RUINED their lives and are on course to ruin the lives of people around them, too. Annie vocalizes the notion that their lives are worse than when they entered Greendale (with Jeff feigning innocence in having a hand in their arrival at that conclusion).

… So they decide, together, to re-enroll at Greendale.

Jeff is understandably stunned and so are we. (Well, actually, I’m not. The study group expressed before that the reason they ended up at Greendale was because the world wasn’t so great “out there.” It treated them unfairly and unkindly, and Greendale was a saving grace for them. It was a chance to start over, as college is for people. And so when they got kicked down by the world again, it makes complete and total sense that their default response would be to re-enroll in Greendale. It’s a circle, see?)

The group then realizes that Chang is in the study room/records room and the man explains that he’s on work release from being on house arrest because he confessed to his crimes and bless Dan Harmon for knocking out my Changnesia-related season five wishlist item. (The group then hilariously dialogues all of the INSANE roles and stories Chang had over the last four years.) In their recounting of Chang’s rise and fall from fake teacher to security guard to power-hungry ruler to “Changnesia”-faking victim, the study group asserts that Greendale’s rehiring of Chang is not just insane but irresponsible and also life-ruining.

It’s at that moment that Alan enters the study room, applauding Jeff Winger’s manipulative tactics on his friends, commending him on making “them dance.” Alan then affirms what Jeff had noted in the cafeteria earlier: Jeff Winger is dangerous and the study group doesn’t realize that he manipulated them into nearly suing their school without batting an eyelash. It’s a return to the pilot, with Jeff being confronted openly about his manipulation. And he’s about to become even MORE manipulative. Because the reason that he gives for “lying” is this: he wasn’t lying; he was showing “them the RIGHT truth.” He’s falling back into the Jeff Winger who entered Greendale – this idea that truth is relative. Note that Jeff doesn’t say “the truth” – he says “the right truth.” What he implies by saying that, of course, is that there is somehow a “wrong truth,” too. Jeff’s cushy words are knotted into manipulations because he doesn’t want to believe that he’s still the same person who can lie to his friends like he did on the first day of class by telling them each about the qualities that make them great (remember that first Winger speech?) in order to get what he wants. No, he’s moved past that outright manipulation.

Jeff Winger believes, in that moment, his own lie: he believes that because he sugarcoats his words with things associated with upright moral standing (like the word “truth”). He doesn’t want the group to re-enroll at Greendale because he wants to take the school down because he believed in it and it failed him. So he twists his words and their emotions because he’s still their leader, no matter what, and knows they listen to him. He wants to grasp that moral high road, so he tells them that he’s merely showing them the “right truth.” But what he means is that he wants to show them HIS truth and his alone. So in a complete 180 from his pilot speech about what each member brings to the group as an individual (which, mind you, was still completely manipulative but coated in saccharine), Jeff points out the ways in which Greendale has failed each of them – how they entered the school and how they left it. He says that they entered the school as real people and somehow ended up at the other end as cartoonish versions of themselves. I think this is a really interesting notion and it’s also something to contemplate. Have the group members really become cartoon versions of themselves over the years? (Or perhaps just that gas leak year.) Because Jeff explains that they all had the chance to BE something at Greendale and the school took those chances away from them. They began as broken, hopeless people and ended… just the same way.

Now, while I’d argue that part of Jeff’s speech is accurate (I mean, the group all failed at becoming the “real, successful adult” that you’re supposed to be once you graduate from college), the blame that Jeff places is on Greendale and I think he knows that the blame is misplaced. It’s not the college’s fault, really, if the students don’t seek opportunities for themselves. It’s not the college’s fault if their careers fall apart. Greendale’s goal was always to be a home for those who were lost and a place to rebuild oneself, but that journey was always a two-way street. The school is not a shelter and the group couldn’t rely on its sanctuary forever. Greendale didn’t change the study group. It didn’t make Jeff into a better person, it didn’t help Britta discover a purpose or Troy his leadership or Annie her dedication or Shirley her independence or Pierce his loyalty or Abed his ability to relate to others. A college can’t actually DO all of those things.

What it does is facilitate growth. Greendale was a greenhouse where support and love and acceptance abounded, but – like plants – the study group members did all the growing THEMSELVES.

Troy listens to Jeff’s speech and is baffled: if Jeff didn’t change… then he’s right. Then he’s always been right. And so he signs the papers. Shirley and Annie then affirm the notion that Greendale is in Jeff’s hands. They trust him to be right; they trust him for the truth and have always done so. It’s the ultimate in trust falls, really, for this group to still care about and trust Jeff even when it’s just been revealed that he was working with Alan.

But unlike the pilot, the group doesn’t kick him out; they SEND him out.

The rest of the group signs the papers as well, and the final participant to sign is Abed who tells Jeff that he is the one who brought them all together. Jeff reminds the filmmaker that he did bring them together with lies. And then, brilliantly, Abed turns Jeff’s words around and says that Jeff unites them all with “the right truth.” That visibly stirs something in the former lawyer (perhaps a twinge of guilt) and he leaves to deliver the papers. Abed and the rest of the group then make the decision to burn the study room table because no one else deserves it.

It’s a beautifully symbolic moment, this desiring to burn the past and the memories of Greendale. And on his way to deliver the papers to the dean, Jeff encounters a hologram statue of none other than Pierce Hawthorne. I got choked up upon seeing Pierce in the courtyard, to be quite frank. And you know what? I love a Jeff Winger monologue just as much as the next person, but Jeff isn’t always right. Sometimes he needs direction and that direction derives beautifully from one of the most broken people ever on the series. Below is part of the speech that he gives (I cut out the irrelevant parts):
“Looks as if you’ve lost your way. […] What I am allowed to discuss is Greendale. And I’ll say this: don’t turn your back on it. Take it from a man with no legal right to be there: you’re in a special place. A crappy place, sure, but only because it gives crappy people the chance to sort themselves out.”
Jeff is not just touched by this message, he’s spurred. He turns his anger from that of bitterness and vengeance to productivity. And he remembers all of the speeches he used to give to the group. He remembers the person that he was when he entered Greendale in shambles and he knows that the fact that he isn’t filing the papers means that he is NOT the same or a worse person than when he entered the school. Greendale gave him the opportunity to sort himself out and it gave the five people he loves most in the world the chance to do the same. So he warns the dean about this, and the dean – sensing Jeff’s passion – offers Jeff a chance to save the school from within: a job as a teacher.

Out in the courtyard, the group is ready to light their table on fire when Jeff approaches and tells them that they’re NOT going to sue the school. He explains that just because they emerged from Greendale differently than they anticipated they would or a bit broken, it doesn’t mean that they have to end their stories there. If they have more growing to do, Jeff says, then Greendale is the place to be. So each of the group members resolves to do that: Jeff by teaching, Annie by pursuing Forensic Science, Abed by learning to work with others, Troy by figuring out who he is, Shirley by learning to run a business by HER standards and Britta by… getting a four-year degree in Psychology and then going to get her Master’s.

And then, in a callback to earlier in the episode where Abed mentioned season nine of Scrubs, J.D. begins the voiceover that was in season nine’s “Our First Day of School” (irony at its finest right there, too):
“Little victories count for a lot around here, even if you never asked to win in the first place. And you have to enjoy those nice moments while you can, because around there, they never last very long.”
The group builds a new table (and gets an F on the birdhouse project they should have done), while Jeff practices writing his name on the chalkboard as the newest member of Greendale’s faculty. And even though the voiceover and episode end on a rather unhappy note (because let’s face it, Jeff is not thrilled to be a teacher), the message is anything but that: “Repilot” taught us to hold onto the small victories in our lives and that we’re all in a process of continual growth. It reminded us that life is made up of those small victories, those tentative steps, and those leaps of progress. And it also encouraged us that if we need to grow, we should stay in a place where we are surrounded by a support community to help us do so.

The show isn’t called Community because it sounds cutesy. The title is a message. No one can do life alone and no one improves themselves in isolation. It takes a community and a body of messed up, broken people that love us too much to leave us where we are at in order to move forward. And I don’t know about you all, but that’s a message worth hearing.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
  • Welcome back Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna! Thank you for a BEAUTIFUL installment and kick-off to season five. It felt like a true return to form and a wonderful “repilot.”
  • “I once saw you convince an arson victim that he liked his house better burnt.”
  • “AFTER EVERYTHING SCRUBS DID FOR HIM!” I'm seriously going to just burst out into tears whenever an allusion to Donald leaving is made.
  • “That’s like me blaming owls for how much I suck at analogies.”
  • “I’m on sabbatical.” “You’re Jewish?”
  • “You’re not worth the monologue. Give me your tie.” “What?” “NO MONOLOGUE FOR YOU.” Joel sold that line.
  • “Don’t blame it all on the gas leak year.” You know, I really like the accountability that was taken here. It wasn’t just a little jab at season four being a “gas leak year” which is why it was so off, but in terms of Annie as a character, essentially Jeff (and the writers and producers) are owning up to the fact that Annie’s characterization issues didn’t just START in season four. Or… maybe I’m reading into that line too much. Eh.
  • “Are you trying to give us all emotional whiplash?”
Thank you to ALL of you who have been patiently waiting for my reviews to come back around! I’ve truly missed (overly) analyzing this series. Stay tuned because later tonight I should have my review of “Introduction to Teaching” posted. Until then! :)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Review!!! I like how you talked about the similarities to the pilot with Jeff and Abed and a excellent analogy how Jeff can be as ruthless as a alligator in hurting people who hurt him or his friends.