Tuesday, May 5, 2015

6x09 "Grifting 101" (Treading Water) [Contributor: Deborah MacArthur]


"Grifting 101"
Original Airdate: May 5, 2015

The theme for this week's episode is "treading water." No, wait -- it's "grifting." Grifting is the theme. The theme for this review, however, is "treading water," because that’s what Community has been doing a lot this season.

Last week they gave us a season 6 version of the perfect Community episode ("season 6 version" because a truly perfect Community episode would mean the return of Troy and Shirley, and maybe a visit from Pierce's ghost). “Intro to Recycled Cinema” checked off the two fundamental requirements for a good episode: high-concept surrealism grounded by honest humanness.

That's the stuff that makes up episodes like “Contemporary American Poultry” and “A Fistful of Paintballs/For A Few Paintballs More,” which were great because they mixed the weird and wonderful nature of this show with its core concern for the humanity of its characters. In “Contemporary American Poultry,” Abed wants to connect with people and Jeff wants to control people and those are both very human desires, but Community filters them through the lens of mafia movies with a side of chicken fingers. “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More” take Pierce's fear of being left behind and Annie's need to help the people she cares about and surrounds it with paintball chaos, Westerns, and Star Wars.

The key to really good Community episodes that are distinctly Community has always been the humanity in the eye of the weirdness tornado. Striking that balance between strange and sincere is difficult to do, but the series used to be pretty good at accomplishing it – unfortunately, “Grifting 101” fell a little short.

The Episode

Here’s the thing: it’s not that “Grifting 101” completely left out the character in favor of the concept. This episode wasn’t a cold, unfulfilling nothingness encased in pop culture references and I don’t think it exists purely because one of the writers watched The Sting on the night before the script was due. But “Grifting 101” fell back on some tired old character traits for the “human” part of the plot and those tired old character traits cannot fool us anymore, nor do they make us think actual progress is being made in character development or story arcs. This is where the aforementioned theme of treading water comes in. The show isn’t moving anywhere and I’m starting to suspect that it’s not even trying to move anywhere.

We know that Jeff gets unreasonably angry and bothered by people being better than him at something or belittling him in some way. We’ve seen that story play out multiple times over the course of this series (we’ve even seen it this season – four episodes ago!) and bringing it back up doesn’t add anything new to the character of Jeff Winger or to the story. Last week gave us something new when Jeff revealed his fear that his life was going nowhere and he could be stuck at Greendale forever while everyone around him moved forward. The difference between last week and this week is the difference between a sandwich and a mass of cotton candy: yes, they are both edible and delicious but one is an actual meal and the other is mostly air. I can’t live off of cotton candy, Community.

And having a character hang a lantern on the rehashing of old ideas does not excuse the rehashing of old ideas. Annie calls out Jeff for “getting jealous of something dumb” when he tells them not to take a class in grifting and yep, that’s what happens. Jeff gets jealous of something dumb. This dumb thing is a grifting professor who’s better at… lying? Is it lying, or is it just that Professor DeSalvo wasn’t impressed by Jeff’s years-long lawyer scam? Either way, it’s dumb and it makes Jeff angry.

Jeff’s dumb jealousy has him team up with the group so they can grift the grifting professor, and they’re really bad at it. He uses telegrams and bad actors to try and sell a grift – but it’s not a grift! At least, it’s not the real grift, which involves 1) Britta tempting DeSalvo into collaborating with her on a grift, 2) Britta punching DeSalvo and chasing him through the halls, 3) Professor DeSalvo faking a fall down the stairs, 4) getting a payout from the school for $50,000 in cash, 5) getting the briefcase full of money lost within the school, 6) causing DeSalvo to reveal his fake injuries for the fakes they are, 7) giving him an ultimatum: pretend the $50,000 payoff never happened and admit the group grifted him, or pay the school the money he lost.

DeSalvo says that he was grifted, the group celebrates together, and it all ends well for them. I will give the episode credit for the group being very unified and good to each other throughout the whole thing. Even when they were making fun of Jeff (and Jeff was making fun of them) it all felt very lighthearted and had a fondness to it that undercut the mockery. Not devolving into any in-group fighting or pettiness was probably the saving grace of “Grifting 101,” but just a taste of character development akin to what we saw with Jeff last week would have made it so much better.

Other things:
  • Annie is adorable when she brings up the grifting class. She's still so excited by taking classes with her friends!
  • "Who's gonna come with me and show this guy what's up? I'll pay you back!" "I'll get it from your parents!" "Tell them I spit on their wealth! And thank you." Cute, but also: Britta, what do you do with your money from bar tending? You have to have an hourly wage, and you're a good bartender so I'm willing to bet you're getting tips, so where is your money going?
  • In this episode, grifting names are ridiculous. In the TV show Leverage, which is about a bunch of grifters and thieves, the grifting names are references to Doctor Who and Star Trek. I don’t know what I’m saying here except that I really like Leverage.
  • Does Add/Drop Week not exist at Greendale? If it's the first class, they should just be able to drop it and get a refund if they don’t like it.
  • "The African telegram! The Jim Belushi of grifts!"
  • Because the Internet.
  • How many pairs of the same style glasses in different colors does Elroy own?
  • Jeff was Britta’s boyfriend? Really? Unless that was just a line to catch DeSalvo’s interest, I’m not buying it.
  • "That movie was terrible!" "You slept the whole time." "Yeah, that's worse - the dialogue seeped into my dreams – my whole brain was long and quiet."
  • Britta lived in New York!
  • Dean Pelton was counting the stacks of money in the briefcase and somehow ended up with (at least) two layers of two rows of six stacks adding up to 21, which goes to show exactly why this school has no money and why Frankie is so desperately needed.
  • Look, Community, I don't care how many times you call Britta the heart of the group. That is not her role. The heart of the group was Troy and you will never convince me otherwise. [Jenn's note: Amen, sister friend.]
  • The audio on the cardboard boxes when Abed was switching out the briefcases was hilariously loud, which makes me think it was intentional. Was the obviousness of this switcheroo another reference to The Sting?
  • Being on Yahoo means that Leonard was able to give the finger!
  • I guess we were supposed to assume that the group not knowing how to grift/yelling at Jeff for not having a grift planned was for the benefit of Chang?
  • And yes, Matt Berry (who I know from The IT Crowd) was very fun throughout the episode so, points for that?
Do you agree or disagree with Deb's assessment of this episode/season as a whole? (For the record: I agree.) Hit up the comments below with your thoughts about the episode, try not to grift each other, and come back next week for another episode and review of Community by Jenn. Until then, folks. :)

7 comments:

  1. Part of what makes the grift work is that they "appear" to be unable to figure out how to grift without watching The Sting (and even then they can't do all of the construction). Talking about their struggles isn’t just for Chang, but like Ocean's 12, it is done so the mark is overconfident. And the end of a great grift is putting the mark in a position to only do what you want. It was a good grift, but it needed to be clearer what was happening.

    Here is where I disagree with both of you: they are all heart of the group. Every one of them represents a part of the heart and how it has to have sync’d chambers that seem to work against each other thrive. Britta is the dark cloud that unites them and reminds them they are not that special: the anti-Winger. Annie is and remains hope. Troy struggled to care about anything but the moment. Abed is the steady beat that couldn’t comprehend the now, but couldn’t stop thinking about the alternatives. Shirley represented the belief in something greater, while Peirce was the desperate to prove himself the most important and relevant. It is why, I think, Shirley struggled without Pierce in the writing.

    I think this episode was a B to B - (if they are real), and I think this is why they leaked the paintball when they did. How do you hide a weak episode? You talk about a future episode way too early. They also should have referenced Ocean's 11 instead of the Sting as the main reference, but I don't think it would have made up for what this episode lacked.

    Probably the only plus of this episode is that the group worked together for a common cause. They have really struggled to do that lately. If they could have flashed back to the real plan being made, it could have helped show their personal progress. Additionally, it was a bummer how little Dean and Frankie were used.

    Thanks for the review. Just as an aside, when I open a new Chrome tab and type the letter “I” it fills in itsjustaboutwrite. I guess I’m addicted.

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    1. Interesting take on the heart(s) of the group Matt, and I agree. Though I think the paintball theory is overreading into things: it was leaked just before the season actually started.

      My take on Grifting 101 is that this seems to have always been thought of as the more lighthearted, frivolous episode after Jeff's darker confessions in the previous one. It's a sequencing Community has used before, following Origins of Vampire Mythology and Virtual Systems Analysis with the very low-stakes Basic Lupine Urology. (BLU also has somewhat more meat on it because Jeff dislikes seeing Annie turning into himself for a moment - but that's not something the episode hints at constantly.)

      If there's anything that's been intended as a slighter one for Season 6, it's this one. The rest of the season is probably lacking in character arcs to an extent, but I wouldn't hold it against Grifting 101. Not when the episode does some classic silent movie era slapstick gags with the professor sliding into the stairs, Leonard blocking his path and Garrett leading the briefcase parade. It's always harder to craft in something more serious when the tone is otherwise so silly.

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    2. We knew there would be a paintball episode when Harmon told everyone, but the pictures and the EW article came out this week when the rest of the cast & staff were really quiet. Part of it coming out is to build momentum and anticipation for the episode, but if you had a weak one off episode that was going to drop there would be no better time to do it.

      I hadn't thought about the balance between episodes (dark/light) before. I can concede that might have been the idea. My main problem was the episode was silly, but it wasn't terribly funny. As far as the character arcs in this show, yeah, they really don't do that anymore. I accept that, but they could really have given us 30 seconds of a montage showing how they put the con together with Ocean's 11 music. That would have helped.

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    3. Here is where I disagree with both of you: they are all heart of the group. Every one of them represents a part of the heart and how it has to have sync’d chambers that seem to work against each other thrive.

      Here's why I disagree: everyone in the group has a function because they have a set of quirks and personalities that are unchanging. If we're going to break the group down into the metaphor of the body, Troy is -- and remains -- the heart of the group, IMO. Here's your not-asked-for-but-detailed analogy:

      Troy -- the heart: Troy wasn't always the most compassionate one but he was always the true leader of the group. Jeff was the one who called the shots, but when the group was expelled, TROY was the thing that kept them from plummeting into the darkest timeline. He's the one who constantly brought the hope. He sacrificed himself to the air conditioning repair school for them. He was always the one to remind them all of what true leadership and friendship was. Look at "Mixology Certification." Without Troy, the group constantly crumbles into darkness.

      Jeff -- the head: Jeff is literally the head of the table and the group and he constantly makes the decisions and everyone looks to him. Without him, the group kind of scrambles. He's the representative of the group, too, as the head.

      Abed -- the brain: Abed is the thinker of the group. He's the one with the ideas and the plans and he's more sane than anyone else, as we saw.

      Annie -- the soul: Annie is the soul of the group. She represents all of the abstract ideals of humanity (love, hope, friendship) and constantly fights for those. Without her, the group tends to be a bit restless and a bit less human.

      Britta -- the mouth: In the best way possible, Britta is the mouth of the group. She's the one who won't shut up and the group needs her because she's what often causes them to think and do and act. Without her, there would be no conflict, good or bad. Without her, the group just wouldn't have the will to do much of anything. She's not the heart -- she doesn't represent the moral goodness or the leadership of the group. But she's just as important because she'll constantly fight for what she believes is true and she WILL fight for the group.

      Shirley was the conscience of the group -- the moral center, the one who usually reminded them of what they should and shouldn't do. Annie fills this role to an extent, but Shirley was more grounded in her moral obligations than Annie. Pierce was... the gallbladder? Or the appendix? The part of the body you didn't know you needed until it left and the thing that often kept the rest of you in check, even when you didn't realize it.

      Chang is like... that weird toe on your foot? I don't know. The analogy doesn't quite fit with him, lol.

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    4. I don't think of Chang as in the group. He's on the outside (even in the diorama). I guess Pierce could be the pride? Hands? Mail body part (yeah, I'm stopping here and pronto!)?

      The group needs each other to function. However we breakdown the sections, they are required to exist together, but since Troy's departure, we have had to deal with a system that needs a new heart. When Shirley left, it needed a new soul. Those things aren't back, and as great as Frankie's and Elroy's characters have been, they can't repair those sections. So then if each is a important organ, well, this body is dead.

      If they are all a part of the heart, then we have something that can survive without every piece working, or we can take Harmon's description where the men represent man in three levels of his life (hero, jaded hero, and the one who failed and looked back) and the women represent women in the three ways man sees them (virgin, not a virgin [politeness wins!], and mother [I am adding this description to the Hero description Harmon's used]). I really see this in the first 3 seasons, but it has been lost since, and I don't buy Annie as the soul. My soul is not that competitive.

      That is why they represent parts of the heart to me both in physical and non-physical forms. They are all incredibly selfish, vain, and childish in each their own way. They also could give in unique ways for each other (if literally not anyone else). Even Abed's and Annie's obsession with tropes and rules don't serve them because their passions are tied not to what is being defined by the tropes or protected by the rules, but to the tropes and rules alone. It is why their characters work so well together (okay, and this part may literally be just Alison Brie is incredible, and I am okay with that). They are focused on the beats and not the blood that gets pumped through.

      Man, this deep in the weeds. I don't know if we are not talking about Frankenstein's monster.

      I do want to mention one thing that always hangs these conversations up and that is the difference between the show and what happens outside of the episodes from Harmon and company. From Harmon, Abed having the only sane form was a decision that wasn't based on anything. Thanks for sticking with the episodes, but Jeff didn't answer his honestly so there is a chance he is sane-ish.

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  2. I’m guessing the comparative lack of comments is a mark of the general fun, but insubstantial nature of the episode – the most commented on episodes so far have been the one everyone hated (“Basic email security”) and the one everybody thought was the best of the series (“Intro to recycled cinema”), and truth be told there’s not much to add to what’s already been said – it was fun, it was nice to see everyone working together for once, but aside from that did anything happen to move any overarching storylines forward? Did anything happen that you will need to remember for future episodes? I’m having difficulty seeing what.

    So let’s talk about Britta instead (another stand out performance from Gillian this week BTW – If any character has benefited from S6 it’s Britta). Deb said –

    Britta, what do you do with your money from bar tending? You have to have an hourly wage, and you're a good bartender so I'm willing to bet you're getting tips, so where is your money going?

    First of all it’s easy to exaggerate how well Britta is doing at the moment – she’s a 34 year old woman working as a barmaid and sleeping on a friend’s couch, after all (even if being a barmaid is the first job she’s done that she’s actually good at). As for the money, we know from last week she’s not spending it on rent, and from this week that she’s not spending it on courses either. I hate to say this but I do wonder if she’s spending it on drugs instead, it’s well established that she is at a minimum a recreational pot smoker after all.

    One other thing about Britta, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that she had changed her hairstyle, it’s much straighter than it used to be and this week it’s also obvious that it’s darker than it used to be. Watching last week and especially the cold opener this week, but I’ve started to form a nasty suspicion – she isn’t changing her look in any random direction, she’s specifically changing it to look more like Annie (her clothes style has also changed). I can’t think of any reason why she’d do this other than maybe still having unresolved feelings for Jeff – an “if it’s Annie you want, I can be an Annie you can actually have” sort of thing. I really hope I’m wrong as I want Britta to be stronger than this, but I’d be grateful to hear everybody else’s opinion.

    As for the Entertainment Weekly article (I hit google as soon as I read Matt’s comment), I had two thoughts, firstly the trivial – it’s now obvious that, when we add this to last week’s episode, “Annie is pretty young, we try not to sexualise her” is a thoroughly dead trope (Alison looks amazing in those pictures) and when you add Harmon’s interviews that he doesn’t think Annie has any feelings for Jeff any more to the fact that it looks like it’s Abed and Annie doing the Mr & Mrs Smith thing in that episode then it looks like the “resolution” Harmon promised us to Jeff’s realisation at the end of 5x13 that he loved Annie is going to be that particular ship taking a torpedo below the waterline. At most, we might get a scene of Jeff finally saying something and getting a slightly sad “Sorry Jeff, but you’re too late” response as Annie goes off with Abed. Rather sad stuff, for the J/A shippers among us at least.

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    1. First, I agree with Richard up to "One other thing about Britta."

      I think the darker hair is part of how this show is trying to a: avoid causing the talent issues with their other projects. and b: portray Britta as too broke for hair color. I don't see her morphing into Annie for Jeff. That could be just me, but they have spent so much time on her this season (yes, Britta has really gotten a lot out of S6), I don't see losing her in another form. She might just be borrowing her roommates clothing, again, becaus she is broke.

      I agree the idea to "not sexualise her" with Annie is long gone, but it is something they do carefully and in small doses. I don't think Abed can run away with Annie, but I think she has the best interaction with him, and she can get things from him that others can't. Once Abed is on the idea, he's locked, and with Annie's drive for perfection she can really work with that focus of his. I get in dangerous waters when I say this, but I don't think J/A is going to get resolution. We are no longer on a story arc. We are adrift in the most interesting show they can put together with no set plans for the future. I don't want it to be, but it sure seems to be going that direction.

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