Friday, January 3, 2014

5x02 "Introduction to Teaching" (Welcome to Greendale, Mr. Winger)


"Introduction to Teaching"
Original Airdate: January 2, 2014

I had one professor in my entire college career that I really connected with. It was at Palm Beach Atlantic University, a really small school located in West Palm Beach which is probably the nicest place in the world to go to school. My professor, David Athey, was the man who taught me the most about creative writing. I took two classes from him. I was a co-editor of our school’s literary journal. I’ll never forget the moment I knew I was one of Athey’s favorite students: he was going to have to miss class and instead of cancelling it, he asked ME to lead the class. I was delighted because let’s be honest, I love control and organization and I’m Annie Edison. So I sat outside with my Creative Writing for Publication class and led everyone in discussion and critiques. And I was so proud to do it.

David Athey taught me a lot. He was the first person who made me realize that I was truly passionate about writing but also that I could always improve. He reminded me to find my voice and to never stop trying, submitting poetry, and – most importantly – no matter how many rejection letters I received, he always encouraged me to never stop writing. I’ve found few college professors to be as influential as he was in my life, but that’s my personal experience. Every college classmate I’ve spoken to has a David Athey – they have someone who invested in them or impacted them in some way, shape, or form. This notion of what a person can mean to someone else, this relational experience, really, is at the forefront of Community’s second episode “Introduction to Teaching.” In the episode, Jeff reluctantly settles into the role of teacher, but doesn’t want to change his behavior in spite of the new position. Annie, meanwhile, is at her best as she attempts to motivate Jeff into becoming a better person for his students. Elsewhere, Abed sets out to accomplish his goal for the year (becoming better at working with other people) and takes a class on Nicolas Cage with Troy, Shirley, and Britta. But he struggles when he’s asked to categorize Cage as an actor as either good or bad. And he realizes what we could all use a reminder of: people aren’t strictly good or bad. In my New Girl review (a.k.a what I occupied my time with during hiatus) of “The Box,” I explained that Schmidt spent the entirety of the episode asking the wrong question. The question shouldn’t be “am I a good person?” but instead should be: “is what I am DOING good?” And Abed realizes this at the end of the episode, I believe, in regards to Nicolas Cage but also in regards to PEOPLE. People can’t be shoved into neat little boxes with labels on them. The moment you try to label someone definitively is the moment that you drive yourself and them crazy with expectations and limitations.

But before we get too deep into what it means to be a good actor or bad actor or how Jeff and Annie and the newly introduced Professor Buzz Hickey feature into this episode, let’s review the plot of “Introduction to Teaching,” shall we?

So Jeff – er, Mr. Winger – begins his first day of teaching Fundamentals of Law and it hasn’t quite hit Jeff that he’s a teacher yet, especially when the students start to ask him questions. This is a guy who was disbarred from being a lawyer, spent four years at a school where he and his friends learned essentially nothing to aid them in the “real world.” Jeff Winger took blow-off classes and talked his way out of everything, but he’s in a tight situation because unfortunately Fundamentals of Law isn’t a blow-off class. It’s a real class with real students and for Jeff, that means that if he doesn’t actually figure out how to teach them… there will be REAL consequences. See, I don’t believe that Jeff actually thought through the idea of being a teacher. I know he didn’t because he essentially admits that to Professor Hickey when they meet. So Jeff’s solution is – just as it always has been – to coast with his class. And while Jeff struts through the hallways after class, smiling at women and insulting Leonard, he becomes even more aware of the fact that he may not FEEL like a teacher, but he IS one. His position and status at Greendale has shifted – no more is he the leader of a rag-tag study group that ruled the school. No, now Jeff is a teacher, which means that he has certain responsibilities and a new labeled box to fit in (if we’re sticking with the same analogy throughout the episode), whether he likes it or not.

Jeff meets Buzz Hickey, a gruff Criminology professor who is played by Jonathan Banks and I don’t watch Breaking Bad but that dude seems pretty tough and intimidating, so I can only imagine the character he played on the series. Hickey is a great addition to Greendale for a few reasons, primarily because he fills an interesting role that hasn’t really been explored before. He’s not necessarily a nemesis of the study group, but he’s also not an ally. While Chang was a villain, Hickey is just this looming, intimidating presence that hovers around Greendale. He’s comparable, in character purpose, to someone like Ian Duncan who was never really a friend of the study group, but also not completely their enemy.  Hickey is meant to fill the void left by Pierce Hawthorne (we see this clearly at the end of the episode), but the way that Harmon and his team chose to execute this was pretty superb. They’re not REPLACING Pierce. They didn’t introduce an elderly, racist old man who says offensive things. They’re not trying to make a “new Pierce.” What they’re doing instead is introducing someone to the group who appears to have the same dynamic that Pierce did. The group is wary of him, but I think that they’re also intrigued by him at the same time. So while the creative team decided that there needed to be a seat filled at the study room table, I commend the means by which they chose to fill that seat.

Hickey reveals that he’s been teaching for fifteen years and laughs at Jeff’s remark that for him, teaching Law is a “temporary gig.” In the study room, the entire gang gathers around their new and varnished table and all tease Jeff as he enters the room. He requests that they don’t tease him for becoming a teacher, but Annie insists that he should be proud: teaching is the most noble profession there is! (I can attest to that, and it’s not just because my mother and roommate are teachers.) Jeff reminds Annie of something very crucial, however: he was never really a lawyer so he doesn’t know how to teach law. And he certainly can’t fake his way through teaching a subject he knows little to nothing about.

Abed then excitedly notes that there is a two-day class (that’s… a thing?) on Nicolas Cage titled “Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad?” It’s something that Abed has been desperate to know the answer to, and Jeff excitedly agrees to participate in the blow-off class. Annie admonishes him, as she always does, and Jeff chastises her for reminding him that he is a teacher. Now, here’s what I loved about the episode: it was reminiscent, in terms of the Jeff/Annie plot, of “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design.” As someone who is a fan of the Jeff/Annie pairing and has never been very quiet about that, I applaud Andy Bobrow for this episode. It’s a return to the Jeff Winger and Annie Edison that I love. Gone are those awkward head pats and constant dialogue reminders of age differences and how Jeff should be “creeped out by his feelings for Annie.” In my season five wishlist, all I wanted in terms of romantic relationships on the series was for the writers to commit to something or not at all. Waffling and simply pandering to shippers irritates and frustrates me more than anything this show has ever done.

But what “Introduction to Teaching” reminded us all of is that Jeff and Annie will ALWAYS have opposite views on how to handle responsibility. Their default settings are different – when Jeff is overwhelmed, his default is to slack off. When Annie is presented with responsibility, she rises (nay, soars) to the occasion and charts and diagrams and does everything in her power to obtain the best grade she can. Because Annie is driven and always has been. What was great about this episode (really, thank you Bobrow because this is not being typed sarcastically) is that it focused on the friendship that Jeff and Annie have in spite of their default personalities. It showed us how Jeff and Annie have both grown from the third season (remember “Geography of Global Conflict” where Annie threw a tantrum and Jeff danced around his feelings?). In this episode, Jeff and Annie butt heads and it’s GREAT because regardless of whether or not they feel anything romantically toward one another (and… well, we know what I think the answer to that question is), their friendship and their individual personalities should always be more important than any romantic pandering or shipper bones the writers choose to throw our way.  “Introduction to Teaching” reminded us that Annie is no schoolgirl with a crush on Jeff and that she is unafraid and unapologetic when he’s in the wrong. And it showed us pretty great growth in Jeff who actually FOUGHT for Annie.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: back to the plot!

Professor Sean Garrity (one of my favorite recurring characters) is teaching the class on Nicolas Cage that Abed, Troy, Britta, and Shirley enroll in. Before class even truly begins, Abed raises his hand and asks if Garrity knows the answer to the question regarding Nicolas Cage. And rather than respond directly, Garrity references Abed driving a television studies professor insane (“Competitive Wine Tasting”) by proving that there was, indeed, an answer to the question of “Who’s the Boss?” (ANGELA). Abed’s mind, Garrity admits, is something that is to be admired. But the question posed in the class they’re currently taking HAS no answer. This stuns Abed who is a person like my brother. My brother doesn’t have Asperger’s, mind you, but he is an Engineering major and a really smart one at that. He makes sense of the world through science and formulas and equations. I was never that person. I make sense of the world through art and literature and writing. To Abed, there are no unanswerable questions and everything can be explained if a person just tries hard enough, if they just SEEK the answer. And when Garrity instructs his students to watch five Nicolas Cage films by the following week, but to ensure that they space out their viewings, Abed is baffled.

And then Garrity warns the filmmaker to be very careful, because that’s the thing about questions that have difficult or seemingly unattainable answers, isn’t it? We tend to fall down rabbit hole upon rabbit hole trying to explain a scenario or answer a question until suddenly it’s not even about the question or scenario anymore but something more psychological. The question of whether Nicolas Cage is a good or bad actor starts off just as that: a question regarding Nicolas Cage. But the further Abed travels into that rabbit hole, the more he begins to drive himself insane, because by then it’s not about Nicolas Cage anymore, but about some deeply philosophical question of whether or not anyone is strictly good or bad. The original question isn’t what drives Abed into his spiral; it’s the obsessiveness with which he pursues the answer.

Elsewhere, Jeff (er, Mr. Winger) is attempting to prepare a curriculum but he doesn’t know the first thing about how to do so. Hickey is with him and tosses away the curriculum guide. Because the reason that Greendale students don’t learn anything or care about their classes is that the professors don’t care about their classes or students. Hickey intimidates Leonard into respecting Mr. Winger and then shows him to the teacher lounge, which looks like it could be straight out of Mad Men with booze and cigarette smoke. All of the other teachers laugh at the ridiculous notion that Jeff should plan ANYTHING for his students. Chang, meanwhile, tells Jeff of a foolproof plan: just break the students into groups and have them grade each other, that way Jeff has no work.

Jeff, whose default as I stated earlier is to do as little work as possible, is slowly falling in love with this idea and casually dismisses the notion that he needs to plan ANYTHING for his class. At La Casa de Trobed (I missed typing that), Shirley, Annie,  Britta, Troy, and Abed are all watching a Nicolas Cage film and are all equally baffled. Abed still has no answer, and he’s beginning to become baffled at the actor and needs to know exactly where Nicolas Cage falls on the spectrum of good to bad. Meanwhile, Annie steps away to call Jeff and see how he’s doing (aww), and Jeff is at a raucous faculty party, slacking off and smoking cigars with Hickey and Chang. While he claims he’s preparing for his class, Annie is suspicious as he hangs up. The following day, a confident Jeff (er, Mr. Winger) roams the halls, chumming it up with faculty members and commanding students not to run in the halls. He likes this power because let’s remember “Repilot,” shall we? Jeff had hit rock bottom and was powerless to change his circumstances. While at Greendale, he was at the mercy of his professors and Dean Pelton. And when he returned to Greendale, he did so out of desperation. But now? Now Mr. Winger is in control and he’s – in typical Jeff fashion – wielding that power and charm and charisma to slack off.

Unfortunately for Jeff, this backfires completely when Annie shows up, having enrolled in his class. And she has questions for the teacher. In fact, it appears that while Jeff is floundering on how to teach, Annie is excelling and essentially co-teaching her fellow students. When Jeff dismisses the class, Annie confronts him and… well, she plays teacher. Annie’s always excelled at being in charge and it’s something Jeff has always let her do, so he shouldn’t be surprised when she takes the reins from him in “Introduction to Teaching.” Annie’s always been really good at motivating Jeff, to be honest. And for whatever (#pathological) reason, he DOES listen to her. Oh sure, he grumbles and he complains and he whines and he groans. But he stays to look for the purple pen and he offers to roll her diorama to the Biodiorama-rama and he follows her advice and her lead. Because deep down, though he doesn’t want to admit it, he knows that he can be a better teacher if he TRIES. And Annie knows that. It’s funny, really, that Annie has always seemed to know that about Jeff – his capabilities and how he sells himself short of them. She’s always there to spur him toward what she knows he can be.

And he, in turn, hates her for it. Because though he rolls the diorama for her, he bemoans having to do work for a fake conspiracy class. And though he stays to look for the purple pen, he yells at her. And though he knows he should heed her advice, he can’t make default!Jeff accept that. So when Annie says that she’ll be quizzing him before class the next morning to ensure that Jeff is fit to teach the students, he snaps at her (but takes all the books with him that Annie have him) and then insists “I hate her I hate her I hate her I hate her” to Professor Hickey in the cafeteria. Jeff doesn’t really hate Annie, of course (as evidenced by what he does later in the episode), but he hates what she makes him DO. He honestly hates that he has to work so hard for things that he thinks are so pointless.

So here is Hickey’s solution: make Annie drop his class. The method by which Jeff will be able to get Annie to drop the class is pretty simple: give her an A- instead of an A. It’ll drive her crazy (a fact that Hickey knows because he does that to Annie) and she’ll be out of his hair. Jeff is conflicted, though, and insists that Annie is his friend – he can’t just punish her because she did something he didn’t like. Hickey insists that Jeff needs to separate his two worlds: he cannot be merely Jeff around his friends; he needs to be Mr. Winger.

At La Casa de Trobed, Abed has kind of… well, he’s snapped a little bit. Strung throughout the entirety of the apartment are note cards on strings, detailing Nicolas Cage films and his roles within them. Troy and Annie return home and the latter tries to convince Abed that perhaps Nicolas Cage is neither good nor bad – maybe he’s just crazy. But Abed doesn’t subscribe to Annie’s theory. You see, he believes that Nicolas Cage could be crazy… but is it GOOD or BAD? And therein lies what I noted earlier: Abed’s continual questioning leads him not closer to the truth, but further from it, down new rabbit holes (the class wasn’t meant to ask if Cage was crazy) with no answers in sight. Troy and Annie are understandably concerned for their roommate’s well-being.

The next day, Mr. Winger instructs the class to break off into groups and Annie objects, noting that this is Jeff’s way of getting them to learn by teaching themselves, not by him actually DOING anything. The two then get into a convoluted argument which ends with Jeff seemingly winning and Annie leaving the classroom. While Jeff is regretful, the entire class is stunned and Garrett wonders aloud how Jeff managed to win an argument against ANNIE EDISON. (I love that the entire class places weight on this accomplishment.) Jeff explains that you don’t win against Annie – “you let her argue with herself until she loses.” The entire class seems even MORE intrigued by this notion and Ski Cap (aww, he’s cute!) asks for confirmation that it’s possible to win an argument without actually arguing.

And as Jeff begins to explain how he used to win against prosecutors, he takes to the chalkboard and begins to draw a circle and explain his concepts and… holy crap, Jeff Winger is actually TEACHING the students something without even trying. I think that’s always what stuns Jeff the most: that he has all of these capabilities, but he’s never really learned how to put them to effective use so he believes that he has NO capabilities whatsoever. Jeff is so proud of himself, but also remorseful for how he treated Annie (though his argument with her actually helped him learn how to teach), so he rushes into the cafeteria and finds her crying. So he adorably instructs her not to cry (#PATHO-FREAKING-LOGICAL), and then explains how he enjoys teaching. But Annie’s not crying about that: she’s crying because Professor Hickey gave her an A- on a project and she thinks it’s her fault. So she tells Jeff (who knows the truth behind the A-) that she’s going to have to drop his Fundamentals of Law class so she can focus on her other courses.

In Professor Garrity’s class, meanwhile, Troy and Britta and Shirley are discussing the varying opinions of whether or not Nicolas Cage is good or bad when Abed – disheveled and frenzied – enters the classroom. Garrity has undoubtedly seen this behavior before and warns the group to stay away from Abed who then proceeds to explain that while the Nicolas Cage question was difficult, it wasn’t unsolvable. But the man cannot seem to come to any definitive conclusion about Cage and then just snaps into full-on impersonation mode of the actor. Embarrassed, Abed then leaves the classroom and Troy follows.

Jeff storms into his shared office, demanding to know why Hickey gave Annie an A- (“How could you? What were you thinking?”) You know what I love? Parallelism. And you know what I love more than parallelism? Character growth and development. But what I love more than both of those things is when they’re combined in one writer’s work. Andy Bobrow also wrote last season’s Christmas episode “Intro to Knots.” Do you recall what that episode was about? Well, in case you’ve suffered side effects of the gas leak year, let me remind you: the study group worked on a group project and Annie led Jeff to believe that they failed, when in reality the group had gotten a C-. Jeff, irate, snaps at Annie: “When are you gonna grow up and realize that grades don’t matter outside of school?”

Let’s flash forward to Bobrow’s first episode of this season, which finds Jeff confronting Hickey about Annie’s (much higher) grades, demanding to know “what kind of monster minuses the best student in his class.” Man, if that’s not some devotion, I don’t know what is. And it’s not a romantic #pathological moment, but it’s a moment that demonstrates Jeff growing as a person and realizing that the things that are important to others don’t always make sense to him but that doesn’t negate their importance. Annie’s always going to be concerned about her grades. And truth be told, I think he realizes that he’s better when she’s around because she motivates him. But it’s even more than that: Jeff knows how hard Annie works, not just for herself but also for the sake of others (like him) and believes that she deserves a better grade. And then Professor Hickey defends himself by saying that “we [the teachers] don’t work for them [the students].” It’s a statement that’s important because I’ve never really considered the dynamic between faculty/students at Greendale before this episode. But I like that this will seemingly be a running theme throughout the remainder of the season. This notion that teachers don’t work for students is expressed by Hickey but it’s not echoed by Jeff. He realizes that teachers cannot slack off because that trickles down to their students. And, like it or not, the job of the teacher is to prepare his or her students. If he (Jeff) isn’t doing that, then he essentially says that he’s failing his students and failing his job. It’s a nice to see this mature, developed, insightful side of Jeff Winger. I really like it.

Jeff then happily strides into the study room to tell Annie the good news: her project was A-worthy. But Annie is confused and slightly offended that Jeff used his connections with Hickey to change her grade. (Four for you, Annie Edison, for not wanting to accept someone else’s connections over your own merit!) Then Jeff does something he probably shouldn’t have. He lets it slip that minuses are just a teacher’s way of secretly disliking a student. Troy, Britta, and Annie are appalled and no one more so than the brunette who has worked her butt of for five years without this knowledge, presuming that SHE was somehow in the wrong.

... And then a riot starts. (In the words of Ron Burgundy: “Boy, that escalated quickly.”) Back at Troy, Annie, and Abed’s apartment, Abed is dejectedly tossing away all of the Nicolas Cage theories and movies. Shirley enters, worried for her friend and then the two have a fantastic little heart-to-heart that I have waited three years for and that may seem insignificant but is actually quite wonderful. Abed reveals one of his reasons for being obsessed with film: he believed the meaning of people to be inside of those movies. He desperately wanted to connect with people and understand people and he believed that films would be able to reveal how to connect to those individuals. But all he learned from his Nicolas Cage class was this: people are random and pointless. There is no formula and no structure, which means that to someone like Abed… there is no hope. There’s no hope of connecting or growing and that depresses him more than anything. But then Shirley speaks some beautiful wisdom into Abed’s life that she learned from her religion: sometimes you can’t understand everything and that’s okay. Those people – the ones who don’t make sense – invite you to try harder as a person.

Nicolas Cage, she explains, works in mysterious ways. The point begins to click for Abed, then: critics can say whatever they want about the actor – they can call him a genius or crazy and be right either way. Essentially, what Abed realizes is that Nicolas Cage is like LOST (“the meaning of Christmas is that Christmas has meaning and it can mean whatever you want it to”) – he is a genius to some and crazy to others; an angel to some and a demon to others. And then Shirley mentions films to Abed and the filmmaker begins to feel a connection to his friend that I don’t think he’s ever felt and it is BEAUTIFUL.

What’s not beautiful, however, is the ruckus occurring at Greendale, led by Annie and Troy and Britta against the faculty. And as the students protest and demand “slightly higher grades,” Jeff launches into a Winger speech about how students and teachers need to work together because they are all at Greendale for the same reason – because they did something wrong and are suffering by being at the community college. Delightfully (for me, anyway), Jeff’s speech does NOT go over very well and he gets pelted with food. I enjoy the fact that Jeff’s speeches don’t always work. It’s a nice reminder that he’s human and that not everything can be wrapped up with a Winger monologue at the end of 20 minutes. In order to curb future riots, Dean Pelton instructs Jeff to form a REAL “Save Greendale” committee by spearheading a student-teacher alliance. And while Jeff is reluctant, Professor Hickey enters and begins to apologize for his behavior.

(But then Jeff demands that he apologize to Annie and when Hickey says that he gave the young woman an A, Jeff doesn’t seem to accept that as good enough. #pathological)

As penance and apology to Annie and so that Jeff won’t have to be completely in charge, the new Mr. Winger initiates Buzz Hickey into the “Save Greendale” committee (which yes, means initiating him into the study room, too). The first student-teacher alliance is formed and that’s a wonderful thing to see developing at Greendale. The truth is that the teachers and students need one another. Students aren’t the enemies and neither are the teachers.

Jeff was right – these two entities need to work together because the truth is that whatever forces brought teachers and students to Greendale are irrelevant. Both teachers and students are at the community college for a reason and maybe, just maybe, that reason is to grow and learn and change. Together.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
  • Always read the white boards! This week’s: “St_dying is not the same without U.”
  • “Aww, she in your class yo!” I don’t know why, but that was my favorite delivery.
  • “Et tu Brute?!”
  • “THE WHOLE WORLD WILL BE WATCHING THIS ON THE FIRST OF NEXT MONTH!”
  • I forgot to mention that there’s a sub-plot with Dean Pelton trying to get Jeff to teach him to learn Excel. And then there is a song about Excel in French and it may be the best thing this show has ever done.
  • “Are you the coolest person in the world?” “I doubt it.”
Thank you all who have read this and the “Repilot” review! I’m so glad to be back. Come back next Friday when I’ll have my review of 5x03 posted. Until then, folks, have a fabulous weekend! :)

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