Friday, January 10, 2014

5x03 "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics" (The Game Continues to Be Afoot)


"Basic Intergluteal Numismatics"
Original Airdate: January 9, 2014

Community is a show that takes a lot of risks. It’s a series that at any given moment can be a Western or a zombie movie or an action parody. It’s unafraid to be bold and brash and weird and wonderful. And that’s why it has always been endearing to me. It’s this unflinching where other series would flee that has made Community what it is – made it have a cult-like following of individuals who are willing to try everything and anything to save their beloved show. There is, however, one particular element that this series has never quite mastered: romance. Where series like New Girl and Parks and Recreation and The Office (and even recently The Crazy Ones) seem to excel in this department (or at least try their hand), Community often slides into something much worse than failure. They simply fall onto this trajectory of doing nothing at all.

I love Jeff and Annie as a pairing and I have loved the idea of them since “Football, Feminism and You.” And though I truly did love “Basic Intergluteal Nuministics” and (most of) their dynamic throughout… well, flirtation and romantic games have expiration dates and I’m fearing that the writers are attempting to draw out Jeff and Annie’s for as long as humanly possible. When Liz Meriwether was interviewed after “Cooler,” she said this when asked why she chose to have Nick and Jess finally kiss and it has always truly stuck with me and made her stand out as a showrunner:

It just felt right. I mean we’ve sort of gotten to a place where it felt like organically in their relationship something like this could happen. I mean, we spent the season watching them get closer and closer as friends and then, the original draft of “Cooler” didn’t have them kissing and then we, you know, it was a really good script and we went to table as a draft of the script without them kissing and then we just all sort of looked at each other and felt like it sort of felt right. It also felt like if we didn’t have them kiss, it was kind of like pulling our punches; like we were not really being true to the characters in this moment.

New Girl had spent its first season and first half of the second season exploring the possibility of a Nick and Jess romance. The idea first percolated in “Cece Crashes” and continued to be explored throughout episodes like “Injured” and “See Ya,” finally culminating in the second season episode “Fluffer” where Nick and Jess confronted their chemistry. The New Girl writers and Liz knew one thing: if they were to be true to who they knew these characters to be, eventually they would HAVE to address those feelings and either move on or grow together. So they took a risk with “Cooler” and haven’t looked back since. It would have been easy for the team to try and keep their audience guessing for another year – to write moments of tension and romantic chemistry that ultimately amounted to nothing. But that, they knew, would be detrimental to their characters and would alienate part of their fanbase. They knew that even if they failed, they had to TRY to write Nick and Jess in a romantic light in order to be true to the characters. Because after two years of living together and chemistry simmering and long looks and stolen glances, I think Liz and her team knew that Nick and Jess WOULD have had no choice but to do something about that chemistry.

I have to hand it to the Jeff and Annie shippers: they’re a devoted bunch (I, of course, being one of them) and they’re resilient. Even in the worst of circumstances (“Anthropology 101”), this section of the fandom manages to keep their faith in the couple alive. And I believe that the Community writers are aware that their fandom is split into these factions of shippers. I KNOW they are aware of this. And to appease Jeff/Annie fans, they continue to write scenes and episodes tinged with romantic chemistry because Joel McHale and Alison Brie work so well together. “Basic Intergluteal Nuministics” dances around the “Jeff and Annie of it all” without giving us much progression but also without demeaning Annie as a na├»ve schoolgirl or OVERLY emphasizing the age difference/creepy factor of their relationship (the word “creepy” is mentioned which irks me, but I’m sure I’ll rant about that momentarily). Additionally, while it doesn’t seek to resolve their chemistry or make any firm decision regarding their relationship, it DOES provide evidence of growth and some great parallelism between both “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” and “Basic Lupine Urology.” I have to commend Erik Sommers on his work, because while those above paragraphs may give the indication that I did not care for the episode, I quite enjoyed it. I enjoy when Jeff and Annie go on adventures together and solve cases. But – and here is the BIG but – I will discuss below while this ultimately is unsatisfying to me not as a shipper but as a lover of character growth and development. The Community writers are NEARLY there, but they’re still hesitant when it comes to completely committing to or developing the show’s romantic element. And whether you ship Jeff/Annie or Duncan/Britta or Troy/Abed for all I know, this unsatisfaction, this not-quite-there element WILL leave a tiny, gerbil-sized void in the series as a whole.

But before we delve too deeply into what was, this week, essentially the Jeff and Annie Show, let’s backtrack and discuss the plot of the episode, shall we?

Community is good at being self-referential, so when there was mention of an elusive Greendale criminal named the “Ass-Crack Bandit” (soak it up because that’s the last time I’ll be using his full title in this review) in “Intro to Political Science” in season two, it was only a matter of time before Dan Harmon and company centered an entire episode around the character. I was skeptical, I’ll admit, about the episode, wondering exactly how many characters I would be able to write about such an absurd premise. I should learn not to doubt Community, of course, but the point of the episode wasn’t really about the Bandit in the end. While “Basic Lupine Urology” and “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” were episodes structured similarly to this one, they were solvable and WERE solved. Jeff and Annie unraveled the conspiracies at night school; they also managed to determine who had boiled their yam in Biology. But “Basic Intergluteal Nuministics” ends unsolved: we, as the audience, are left uncertain as to who the Bandit truly is. It could be ANYONE. And that’s quite a refreshing choice for the writers to make, leaving this case unsolved. Not everything gets solved in a twenty-two minute episode and not everything gets solved in real life. Perhaps, too, that is the message they are attempting to convey with Jeff/Annie: not every couple with chemistry gets together and not everyone manages to address their issues.

It’s the re-re-opening of Shirley’s Sandwiches and everyone is clamoring to be in the cafeteria. Garrett, of course, is struggling at his locker and as he bends down to pick up his notebooks and pencils… bam. A quarter finds its way into his buttocks. (Never thought I would actually type that sentence out in a blog-review.) He runs into the cafeteria and announces that the Bandit from over a year ago is back. And everyone freaks out, as they do at Greendale.

Meanwhile, Dean Pelton confronts the study group (much like “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” say goodbye to the rest of the group apart from Jeff and Annie now because you won’t be seeing much of them later!) about the Bandit’s return after enduring a press conference about the ordeal. He enlists help in the form of my season five wishlist item Professor Ian Duncan who returns after his time away helping his mother who was not dying. Duncan has been recruited to help profile in order to determine the ACB. (Annie also points out that she brought up the presence of the Bandit two years ago during her political campaign, but Dean Pelton dismisses her.)

Actually, Dean Pelton kind of irked me this episode which usually doesn’t happen. Often, I find him endearing, clumsy, but essentially well-meaning. This episode, the dean was a bit harsher and colder than usual to the study group members he loves so much. Perhaps he’s beginning to crack under the pressure or perhaps this week the dean was supposed to be the hardened and tough delegator and police chief character Abed sought in “The Science of Illusion,” but whatever the case, I hope we return to a more light-hearted and in-character Dean Pelton soon enough.

Annie’s got ideas on how to catch the ACB so naturally she turns to Jeff. And by “turns,” I mean saunters into his office and props herself up on his desk like she’s hoping he’s got an army of raisins because she has a big scoop for him. (I’m just going to keep finding ways to reference every episode this show has ever done with a Jeff/Annie storyline.) Annie’s mapped out the Bandit’s strikes and noted that she believes he is taking a shortcut in order to assault his victims – the teachers’ lounge. Jeff, as he always is whenever Annie gets a scheme in her head, refuses to assist or even acknowledge the importance of the ACB. And then Annie’s face grows into her formidable one.

What I love about the Jeff and Annie dynamic is this: Jeff always helps Annie out, but it’s never because there’s something in it for him. He helped her cart her diorama to the Biodiorama-rama not because she sent him passive-aggressive text messages, but because he consciously chose to assist her. And he CHOSE, out of his own free will and volition, to go to night school because someone nearly blew up Annie (with a tiny explosive car). Jeff chose to help Annie discover who sabotaged their Biology project and he stuck by her even when she was being difficult. And Jeff admits in this episode that he CHOOSES to help Annie because she asked him to. There’s nothing in it for Jeff Winger: he’s getting no money, no parking spot, no accolade or recognition. He’s simply getting the chance to help Annie and that is something that Jeff always jumps at the opportunity to do. He wants to be the guy that she admires and he wants to be her hero.

So when Troy suffers at the hand of the ACB and Annie gets kicked off the case by Dean Pelton when she makes the assumption that a teacher’s hand is the one behind the quarters, Jeff agrees to help Annie with whatever she needs to solve the case, provided she keep the information on the down low. Greendale is feeling the effects of the return of the Bandit, as students pass out informational flyers on how to keep themselves safe (Belts, Briefs, and Buddies are the three keys), but the ACB continues to strike everyone and the school is slowly dissolving into panic, everyone wary and suspicious of everyone else and everything.

Back at the study room, Troy is recovering from his ACB attack, Shirley is manning her sandwich shop, Jeff and Annie are on the case, and that leaves the remainder of the study group, Dean Pelton, and Duncan in an attempt to determine more about the Bandit’s personality and motive. Spoiler alert: the group isn’t doing a very good job. (The dean’s best idea is to dress up Chang backwards and use him to try and lure the Bandit into a trap. It’s not a very good idea.)

Jeff and Annie are doing what they do best: searching for clues. They’re reading the notes left by the Bandit after he victimizes individuals when Jeff realizes that the Bandit is quoting Dave Matthews Band lyrics. Annie and Jeff combine their theories and decide to find teachers who are fans of Dave Matthews. As it turns out, there are eight teachers at Greendale. So they begin their search.

Elsewhere, there’s a rally that Troy is leading where he informs the other students of the importance of “Troy’s Law” (the idea to keep cameras in the bathrooms so that students will be safe from the Bandit) when disaster strikes: the Bandit is hiding under the bleachers and attacks students en masse at the rally.

In the halls of Greendale, Jeff and Annie meet up and decide to pursue their search together which leads them to none other than Ben Folds! (I seriously loved his cameo.) Professor Bublitz is the next on their list of teachers who love Dave Matthews, but when Jeff and Annie enter… the professor runs. And so, in typical “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design” fashion, the duo sets out on a pursuit of him throughout his botany lab and… manage to destroy nearly his entire inventory in the process. Bublitz wasn’t running from them because of his guilt, though. He was trying to protect his plant. Unfortunately for Jeff and Annie, Dean Pelton hears the commotion and calls them both into his office.

Now here is where things get interesting: Dean Pelton confronts the pair regarding their escapades and then switches the conversation from Jeff and Annie investigating teachers and destroying school property to their personal relationship. Understandably, the two are confused but Dean Pelton is relentless: “Let me be like, the fiftieth person at this school to ask… what is this? What is this creepy business?” (Jeff and Annie are notably offended by the use of the word creepy so don’t get up in arms about it, shippers. And – as Michelle on Twitter pointed out – the dean’s standards for “creepy” are a lot different than ours.) But then Dean Pelton notes that perhaps Jeff and Annie enjoy teaming up and going on “cutesy adventures” together where they get to hold hands and “address [their] urges in semi-acceptable situations.” And if that’s not a meta-commentary on Jeff/Annie, then I’m not sure what is. Because here’s the truth: Jeff and Annie work well together; Joel and Alison have fantastic chemistry and every chance that the writers get to explore that chemistry, they take. The problem I like to discuss ad nauseum, of course, is the fact that the writers NEVER pursue this dynamic in its entirety. It’s a tug-of-war game: Jeff and Annie flirt; they back away because one of them mentions their “creepy” age difference; Jeff and Annie pair up and nearly kiss; they dismiss the relationship and reveal that Britta and Jeff have been sleeping together the entire season; Jeff and Annie have heartfelt moments of genuine discussion; they have ANOTHER character note that Jeff is “creepy.”

The problem is not that there is a push-and-pull element to Jeff and Annie. That’s natural. There was a push and pull with Jim and Pam. There was one with Nick and Jess. There is one with Andrew and Sydney. There was one with Barney and Robin (and Ted and Robin). The problem, of course, is related directly to the Liz Meriwether quote that I opened the review with: push-and-pull relationships have expiration dates. If you refuse to act on that chemistry or consistently acknowledge it and then back away, your audience is left befuddled at best and frustrated at worst. The meta-commentary within that Dean Pelton scene is that the writers know they can isolate Jeff and Annie in a shenanigan-filled story and that the characters can carry it with the weight of that unresolved tension pulling the plot. (That’s why I noted two other episodes from two separate seasons throughout the post that are quite similar in plot and execution.) Instead of taking a chance on developing the relationship, however, the writers continue to use Jeff/Annie as a means by which to propel their stories.

Now, I also noted earlier that I appreciated this episode a LOT more than other Jeff/Annie ones because in the process of propping the A-story with the pairing, the writers refused to let Annie’s character be demeaned to the “schoolgirl” she has often been portrayed as. Additionally, the story did not hinge on the “creepiness” of the Jeff/Annie relationship and actually barely glossed over that aspect of it. While there were moments of feeling and emotion, they weren’t weighed down with the baggage that tends to shroud their scenes most times. And for that, I am genuinely and completely appreciative. Thank you, Erik Sommers!

As Dean Pelton prepares to punish Jeff for his shenanigans (by making him the water polo coach, undercutting his earlier “creepy” comment when he announces that he’s the assistant coach), the phone rings and the ACB is on the other line. He has noticed Jeff and Annie’s attempts at unmasking him (and also tells them to get a room and wonders aloud if their pursuit of him is just a way to get close to one another and, well, in the words of one Britta Perry… DUH DOY). The ACB hangs up, but the dean traces the call to the Greendale stables (THEY HAVE STABLES?) and he, Jeff, and Annie head there to investigate.

It is there that our favorite #pathological pair encounter their second chase scene and confront… Starburns. (Heyyyyy remember how the last time Jeff and Annie saw him they were in that one episode called “Basic Lupine Urology”? What a funny coincidence.) Dean Pelton  holds a press conference where Starburns admits to having faked his death to avoid meth charges, hidden in the Greendale stables, and also admits to being the man behind the ACB. Troy is wheeled in and slaps Starburns as vengeance for what was done to him, but Jeff leaves the room and Annie follows after him. What occurs next is a near-direct parallel to “Basic Lupine Urology.” In that episode, when Todd broke down on the stand under the influence of Annie and confessed to a crime he didn’t commit, Jeff said: “It doesn’t make any sense. People don’t half-confess to crimes.” Here, Jeff knows that Starburns is innocent (in that episode, Jeff defended Starburns’ innocence too, ironically) and Annie is the one who says: “Innocent people don’t confess.” Clearly she learned nothing from her trial last year with Jeff. For shame, Miss Edison! The pair have a semi-heated argument in the hallway, where Annie finally breaks down what has been bugging her: perhaps Dean Pelton is right. Maybe they are just using solving crimes as an excuse to be closer to each other. What’s pretty great about this is that ANNIE is the one to admit this truth and ANNIE is the one to let the case go because maybe, just maybe, ANNIE is the one who is ready to let whatever she has or doesn’t have with Jeff fizzle out if it continues to lead nowhere. What’s interesting is that JEFF steps forward and places a platonic hand (HAHAHAHAHA) on Annie’s shoulders (to her credit and maturity – bless you writers – she doesn’t swoon or coo and plainly acknowledges his presence) and tells her the reason he took the case: he WANTED to help her.

And thus solidifies my theory that Jeff is not willing to let Annie go and is more interested in pursuing her than she is him. BOOM.



(And while Jeff claims his actions are platonic, when he makes the same gesture to Leonard – placing his hands on both of the man’s shoulders – the elderly man puckers up. As Jeff walks away, he hilariously says: “We can do better” to Annie and all I want in life now is more of Leonard/Annie.)

In the cafeteria, the school is celebrating the capture of the ACB by placing Starburns in a cage and throwing quarters at him and also enjoying a dance. Jeff is still skeptical, knowing that Starburns is not the true Bandit but uncertain of who it is. Meanwhile, Annie finds Duncan in his office and begins to grow intensely suspicious when the professor acknowledges his love of Dave Matthews, absence on American Facebook, and notices a roll of quarters on his desk. Jeff learns thanks to Starburns that the man is indeed innocent as he suspected – Starburns had taken the blame, as the dean promised to expunge his crimes and buy him a space heater for the stabes.

Annie flees Duncan’s office while Jeff races from the dance and the two run into one another with Annie platonically grabbing Jeff’s forearms and the two not looking at ALL like they’re about to kiss… They head back toward the dance and begin to pursue Duncan, who Annie now believes to be the ACB. But amidst the fog and people, our little #pathological crime-solvers get separated from each other and Duncan gets attacked. Jeff and Annie race through the fog and find one another again, heading toward a dead-ended hallway where they run into a tearful Shirley.

Just as “Basic Lupine Urology” had an emotional punch to it, so “Basic Intergluteal Nuministics” does as well when Shirley begins to speak and delivers somber news: Pierce passed away. Stunned, Jeff and Annie hug Shirley. Neil takes to the Greendale airwaves to deliver a heartfelt, utterly moving and beautiful little memorial that drove me to tears (and is still driving me to tears as I type this up):

“Tonight’s celebration was cut short by some tragic news. Pierce Hawthorne, fourteen-year Greendale student, entrepreneur, and expert heart-attack faker has passed away for real this time. Pierce had been recently banned from campus, but not from our hearts. He is survived by many ex-wives and all of us here at Greendale that called him friend. If you’re listening, Pierce, you were a hell of a D&D player. Time to level up.”

The group mourns together in the study room, each group member hugging someone (minus Jeff and Annie hugging). Finally, holding onto each other, the group looks toward the empty study room table seat and a part of my heart just broke (and is still breaking because I’m crying as I type this up again). Though audience members may have despised him, I loved Pierce. I loved that he was the one study group member that everyone dismissed, but the one that often gave the most sage advice. I love that he saved the group on multiple occasions and I love that he was the oldest person in the study room, but he was just as desperate for love and acceptance as everyone else.

It makes sense that Annie leaves the room and stands outside to watch the rain. Pierce always loved her most of all out of the group. And it makes sense that Jeff follows her because even though he despised him to his face and in front of the group, Jeff genuinely cared about everyone in that study group. And Pierce treated Jeff like the son he never had. In his own weird, dysfunctional way, he cared about our two crime-solvers most of all and perhaps the regret and pain and grief is swirling around in Annie’s mind and Jeff’s mind as they step outside. It’s Jeff who delivers the speech, of course. But this time, his Winger speech is more of an internal monologue directed at Annie, directly relating to everything that happened with the ACB and Pierce’s death and their own relationship:

“Life is weird,” he says. “It’s container for all this little stuff and you get caught up in it. And then the container just… pffft.”

Annie chooses not to comment on Jeff’s mini-speech but notes that the hallway they were running into led to a dead end. They could have had the ACB; they could have solved the case. But Annie is exhausted: she hasn’t slept and probably won’t sleep well, so she resolves to head home, but not before she and Jeff embrace. It’s this brilliantly sweet, unguarded moment between the two that is outside the umbrella of their shenanigans and capers and sexual tension and unresolved issues. This moment, though? Their hug was a genuine moment. They had just lost a friend and I think it interesting and also beautiful that they didn’t hug inside of the study room. They needed a place just for them; they needed a moment to just hug each other without having to think about what it means. They needed to grieve and they needed each other.

As Annie leaves, disheartened that their case went cold (again), Jeff notes that he – the Bandit – would be back. Annie corrects and notes that it could be a “she.” And then… Jeff and Annie look at one another and realization hits: it could be ANYONE. Heck, it could be one of THEM for all they knew. (There’s then a great montage of each major character playing with a quarter and/or generally looking suspicious.)

It’s revealed that the Bandit never struck again and no suspect was ever truly found. Maybe there’s no deep, psychological take-away from an episode about a student (or teacher) who puts coins down the back of people’s pants, but I’d like to think that even in the most absurd of Community episodes, there is still a lesson to be found. And if “Basic Intergluteal Nuministics” taught me anything, it taught me this: sometimes there is no right or easy answer. Sometimes you ask questions into the void of the universe that never get answered. Sometimes people leave your life for unexpected reasons. Sometimes you find yourself in a complex relationship with someone that just doesn’t have an easy resolution. And while I believe that the Community writers were attempting to convey this very notion to us, for me (personally) I will never tire of Jeff and Annie being together in stories... but I’m growing weary of the push-and-pull; it’s an element of the series that I desperately wish the writers would commit to, since they are so eager to commit to insane stories that center around a Bandit putting quarters in people’s cracks. It’s ironic that a series that takes so many risks cannot seem to take one of the, arguably, easiest risks of all.

But I think the message of Community has and always will be this: sometimes you don’t have all of the answers or pieces to the puzzle. Life isn’t a procedural drama and life isn’t an episode of Community for that matter. So maybe Jeff and Annie will just never figure out what their relationship is meant to be and we’ll continue this dance throughout season six and the movie. There are real-life relationships like that, but it’s important the writers remember real-life relationships have CONSEQUENCES when that dance continues. And hey, maybe we’ll never figure out who the ACB really is and maybe that’s okay.

Maybe it’s not important that we figure out every answer; maybe it’s just important that we don’t let anything stop us from trying.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode:
  • I love when we get special credits!
  • “He should be called the run-on sentence bandit.”
  • Duncan/Britta is something I never knew I wanted and now I want it.
  • “Your two cents is change and it’s banned.”
  • “I beg your WHAT.”
  • “We know that he hates money or loves it or doesn’t care about money and hates butts OR loves them.”
  • “Excuse me for being alive in the 90s and having two ears connected to a heart.”
  • Annie picking up the keys with her foot was GOLDEN.
  • “My shoe is untied by British standards!”

Thank you all for sticking with me throughout this review! Next week we take a polygraph test with the group in “Cooperative Polygraphy,” so come back and visit me again soon. Have a great weekend folks! :)

3 comments:

  1. I liked reading this review because it's so right. I think the writers to a less extent are I don't want to say afraid but hesitant to pull the trigger on Jeff/Annie. But in this day and age of TV people don't have the patience to wait unlike say in the 80's (Sam/Diane being a example.) But even in those situations they eventually did something and my fear is that they will not do anything but leave us hanging. Which to me is a bigger insult than any calling us pathological could do.

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  2. Jenn, thanks for the review. I keep thinking that this episode is number 3 on Dan's story wheel where change happens (as part as the long arch of the season) the way Introduction to Statistics introduced Slater, Cooperative Caligraphy created a new backstory for Jeff/Britta to put the storyline to bed, and RCT (okay, earlier than usual, but season 3 was trying to do alot) setup the darkest timeline. Pierce's death is setting change, and everyone will have to rethink their relationships (including Troy leaving).

    I agree with your general idea though. If they never kiss again and never try to have a relationship (even if they just flashback like Caligraphy), it will just feel like a thread left dangling.

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  3. As much as I love the on screen chemistry of Jeff/Annie, I am very much anti-relationship. I worry that the storylines would become too much about their relationship and send the rest of the study group errr... Save community committee... to permanent B and C story lines. I don't have an issue with the age difference and don't find it creepy at all and in many ways think that Jeff and Annie would be perfect together, I just care more about all of the characters too much to root for them to get together.

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