Tuesday, October 2, 2012

2x15 "Early 21st Century Romanticism" (L-O-V-E)

Early 21st Century Romanticism (2011)

"Early 21st Century Romanticism"
Original Airdate: February 10, 2011

Personally, I think that one of the most important, or at least memorable, moments in a person’s life is when they either hear or receive an “I love you” from someone who is not a member of their family. Because here’s the thing about families – people are born into families and – hopefully – those families express love to one another for the entirety of their lives. Friends, conversely, are people we pick and choose to spend time with, love, and care about. It’s an enormous cliché to claim that we cannot choose our families, but we can choose our friends. And, boiled down in its simplicity, that statement is quite true (though I’d argue that it’s a conscious decision to love anyone, friend or family… that’s a moot point at the moment). Now, I’m the type of person who considers herself to be… emotional. All right, perhaps that’s an understatement. I am super emotional. Once I meet someone, I open up to them rather quickly. It may take a few hours, but generally I’m a relatively talkative and friendly person. I also attach quickly to people on a relational level and seek to form bonds with them. That’s who I am. I am not Jeff Winger. (Finally! I bet you all were just itching for me to arrive at the point of this introduction.) “Early 21st Century Romanticism” is an extremely significant episode in terms of character development for Jeff because he finally opens up to the group and utters three words that always – for better or for worse – alter relationships. Because the truth is that telling someone that you love them (or, in Jeff’s case, telling six people) is scary. Why? Because loving someone always costs you something in return. For Jeff, I think the price is his ego and pride. But more importantly, I believe that it cost Jeff a lot more, emotionally. Saying “I love you,” puts you in a vulnerable position, always, and Jeff had to conquer his fear of abandonment and his insecurities of not being enough in order to take the step that he needed to in regards to his relationship with the study group. But we’ll cover this more in depth later on in the review! We’ll also discuss some of the comparisons and contrasts found in the other storylines throughout the episode. Jeff’s story, Troy and Abed’s, and Pierce’s all focused on themes of love – what it means to love someone, the sacrifices you make for love, and what a lack of love will do in a person’s life. Britta and Annie’s storyline is a bit different and sharp in contrast as it looks at what pride and ego can do in a person’s life (the very vices that Jeff must sacrifice to make his “right step” at the end of the episode) and to their relationships with others.

We'll begin the review by recapping the plot of this episode. It's Valentine's Day at Greendale, and that means half of the campus is thrilled and half are retaliating against the day and its social conventions. Troy and Abed both pine over the librarian -- Mariah -- throughout the episode and decide to ask her to the Valentine's Day dance so that she can choose which one of them she likes better. Annie and Shirley lay rather low throughout the episode (though it's interesting to note that they are both wearing black on Valentine's Day), the former tagging along as Britta embarks on a mission to befriend a lesbian named Paige and invite her to the dance. (Don't worry, we'll get to that story momentarily.) Elsewhere, Pierce is popping painkillers like they're candy and beginning to grow more and more agitated and distant from the group as the episode wears on. And Jeff?  From the very start of the episode, Jeff expresses his extreme disinterest in participating in or believing in any sort of love or close friendship. He tells Troy and Abed that he doesn’t believe in love, or best friends, or doing things. It is only when Pierce enters the room, grumbling and griping about Valentine's Day, that Jeff changes his tune. Because I think he sees a reflection of what he COULD be, if he doesn’t let the group into his heart soon. And he isn’t a fan of that picture. At all. And he even snarks at the notion of opening his heart to someone else – what will happen if he doesn’t, he asks? Will he miss some sort of deadline? What’s also interesting is the growth and parallelism from the beginning to the end of the episode. “Early 21st Century Romanticism” begins with the notion of opening your heart (which Jeff dismisses; which Pierce then walks into the room and also dismisses) and concludes with the acknowledgment that you NEED to open your heart and let other people in (which Jeff affirms; which Pierce dismisses).

Annie and Shirley notice, when Pierce sits at the study room table, that something is amiss -- the elderly man is sneaking pills. Britta enters the room, not-so-casually informing the group that she has a new friend named Paige and that the young woman is (complete with a perfect Gillian Jacobs hand flourish) a lesbian. The entire study group turns to Pierce, who usually makes fun of Britta and accuses her of being a lesbian. Instead of a snappy remark or joke, Pierce reaches into his bag and opens his mouth to read from a prepared statement (which then cuts away as he takes a deep breath, remaining my second-favorite cold open in the show's history, second only to "Investigative Journalism"). 

I love that – post-cold open – even ABED appears shocked at what Pierce’s prepared statement said. In fact, this is actually quite a good episode to remind us that Abed is human and has feelings. Pierce leaves the room (moonwalking), and pops another pill as he exits. The group then turns to Jeff and explains that they need an intervention for Pierce. Jeff dismisses their concern, which leads to him making a snarky comment about The Barenaked Ladies. And then, quite suddenly, every other group member leaps to the band's defense.  One of the most important things to realize about this episode is the way that Jeff perceives himself in regards to the study group, the way they perceive him, and the way things actually are. (Okay, so maybe that’s more than one thing.) Jeff, rightfully so, thinks of himself as the leader of the study group. And the rest of the group seeks him out for advice, approval, and guidance (see: “Investigative Journalism,” and “Asian Population Studies,” for example). It’s hard to imagine that they could function without him when they instinctively turn to him for everything. 

But, the reality is that the group does not always need Jeff. This episode is a hinge – it represents the moment Jeff realizes that the group can, and WILL, function without him present. They will not dissolve into utter chaos. They will not blow up the study room. And I think, honestly, this revelation terrifies him (but we’ll get to that later on). For the moment, Jeff is frustrated – frustrated with the notion that he has to babysit the group all the time, frustrated with how they are a nuisance in his life, frustrated with how they rely on him for everything and WANT him to be better than he is. Because the truth is that Jeff, I am certain, is tired of having to be good. He’s tired of having to care about Pierce and about little things that he wouldn’t usually care about if it weren’t for the group. When I wrote a review of “Accounting For Lawyers,” I explained it this way: He [Jeff] cares long before he can recognize the emotion. And that happens a lot, to be honest. Similarly, Jeff loves the group at this point, but can’t recognize that it is love that he feels until “Early 21st Century Romanticism.”

After their argument, Jeff storms out of the study room and runs -- quite nearly -- into a lurking Duncan who has overheard his tiff with the group. Duncan, quite honestly, may be the most important character in this episode.  He is certainly the most unintentionally advice-giving and truth-speaking character. But I'll get to that later on.  Duncan invites himself to hang out at Jeff's apartment to watch the Liverpool vs. Manchester United soccer match, but the former lawyer hesitates. Ironically, even though Jeff is in an argument with the rest of the study group, he initially is unwilling to back out of his commitment to attend the dance. And this is so… unlike Jeff Winger from season one. First season, Jeff would do anything to get out of a commitment. He blew off Annie’s Halloween party in order to get a shot with Professor Slater. He prioritized himself over his friends and relationships with them. But this season (or at least this episode), Jeff is different. So what changed? What fundamentally caused him to act differently? Arguably… nothing. Sometimes, people remember that there are others who need prioritizing. Jeff has always been a person who cares, but it just takes him a bit longer to arrive at it than others. After their conversation, Jeff allows Duncan permission to come over and watch the game, and - nearby - Chang is eavesdropping on this bit of information.

Pierce’s story, in contrast, is about what happens when you’re left on your own for too long. Apologies – perhaps I have been watching too much Doctor Who, but hear me out. The study group, in its simplicity, is a wonderful thing because it provides necessary support and – pardon the pun – community. When one member of the group is isolated from the others, things usually don’t turn out so well (re: “Biology 101,” “The First Chang Dynasty,” etc.). The beauty of the group is that they are there for one another. But Pierce is a prime example of what happens when you forbid others from being let inside of your heart -- what happens when these people, the ones that you NEED around you to prevent you from being stupid or selfish or reckless are absent. And, in the end for Pierce, it's not a pretty picture.

Now, the Britta/Annie storyline is interesting because, in stark contrast to the theme of Valentine’s Day (and to, frankly, what Jeff learns throughout the episode), this storyline is fundamentally about selfishness and vanity. Britta – while not entirely well-meaning – does go into her friendship with Paige befriending her because she thought the other woman was cool (and, well, Paige being a lesbian put her a step forward on the “cultural progress” cool scale). So what’s interesting, then, is not the way that Britta treats Paige but the way Britta treats ANNIE (and, conversely, the way Annie treats Britta at the end of the episode). We all know the two women have had an unsteady relationship. And the fact is that Britta can often be quick to belittle the petite brunette for her lack of experience and naïveté. She spends the episode attempting to prove that she knows more about life, more about people, and more about relationships than Annie, chastising her for asking questions because it makes the brunette appear homophobic. Britta always strives to be the most “accepting” member of the study group. In “Studies in Modern Movement,” she attempts to prove a point to Shirley by letting a stranger hitchhike in their car. She wants to prove herself to the world, Britta Perry does. And when she makes grand gestures to attempt to accomplish this… she often fails. She lets her ego, her desire to “win” and “be right,” and her pride stand in the way of genuinely being able to locate flaws and faults in those she desperately needs to.

Britta approaches Paige at the vending machine, and -- in order to prove something to Annie -- asks the other woman to the Valentine's Day dance. Meanwhile, Annie and Paige's (similarly brunette) friend chit-chat, and both realize something important -- neither Paige nor Britta are lesbians. Britta only THINKS that Paige is, and vice versa. The moment Britta returns from the vending machine is pretty reminiscent of episodes like “The Psychology of Letting Go,” where the blonde patronizes Annie. And I don’t mean to be mean-spirited toward Britta. I genuinely love her as a character. However, Britta is a bit abrasive in the second season, and has some pent-up bitterness that usually manifests itself in sarcasm. And, unfortunately, sometimes it’s directed at those who desire to help her. Annie could have saved Britta from embarrassment and disappointment later on when Paige makes snippy remarks to her, but instead, the brunette keeps quiet and prepares to enjoy the sure-to-be trainwreck.

Back at Jeff's apartment, he and Duncan are hanging out and enjoying the game. This episode is one of the reasons that I miss Duncan so much. He can be a complete and utter tool when he chooses to be (and generally is just a selfish guy looking for a way to scrape by on doing the least amount of work possible), but this is one of those episodes where Duncan is not only RIGHT, but he is also POIGNANT. Though he openly mocks Jeff for being dependant on the “six-headed ball and chain,” at the end of the episode, he makes a very astute observation. As rid of his ball and chain as he may be, Jeff’s character growth throughout the episode relates directly to his friends – to being the “savior” and rescuer of people. In this case, he’s forced to rescue someone (Chang) he can barely tolerate. And it’s an interesting parallel, is it not? Moments earlier, Jeff was compulsively checking his phone, worried that his friends would call and need his help. Yet, when Chang needs help and a place to live, Jeff’s immediate response is to do anything BUT help.

Chang shows up at Jeff's apartment (with the former lawyer's drivers license in hand), and requests to watch the game. After he breaks one of Jeff's lamps, Chang insists that he make it up by ordering a pizza. Instead of doing so, Chang calls Starburns at the dance and invites him (and everyone else Starburns can manage to find) over to Jeff's apartment for a party. What’s amazing is that Jeff Winger is the “cool guy” and yet… does not seem to enjoy doing much socializing with others. Perhaps it was just his mood, but I choose to believe that Jeff is much more of a homebody than he appears.

At the dance, both Troy and Abed are attempting to woo Mariah (the latter explaining the Saw franchise to her). When she chooses, she ends up selecting Troy as her date, rather than Abed. The film student is okay with this decision, handing his glass of punch over to his best friend and departing. One of the things that is so important early on in this season (because it resurfaces in the following season), is understanding the level of devotion that Troy has for Abed. We see it in episodes such as “Contemporary Impressionists,” but the young athlete really strives to spare Abed’s feelings at whatever cost he can. It’s sweet, and endearing, and means that Troy is a great friend. Even when Abed can’t understand WHY Troy acts the way that he does.

As for Troy, we realize that his goal will always be to rescue and help Abed, even when the film student doesn’t realize that he needs rescuing. And even when he doesn’t ASK to be rescued. Because that is who Troy is – someone who cares so deeply for his best friend that he will do anything it takes to make him feel wanted, included, and – above all else – normal. When Troy asks why she didn't choose Abed, Mariah insults the film student by calling him “weird.” Troy, infuriated, leaves Mariah and finds Abed, relaying the conversation. Abed, surprisingly to Troy, agrees with Mariah and notes that he IS weird, which solidifies my theory that Abed is the most self-aware of the group. In spite of perhaps not always liking it, Abed is assured of who he is as a person. He knows what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and what he can and cannot understand. This proves problematic in episodes like “Contemporary Impressionists” and “Virtual Systems Analysis,” where Abed simply refuses to compromise with others and their ideas. Nevertheless, this episode reveals – however small – the truth that Abed will always be protected by Troy, because the athlete feels a compulsion to do so. (And what’s sweet and endearing (and a bit heartbreaking, too) is that Troy assures Abed that “there is someone out there for us” – he doesn’t separate himself from Abed, even when discussing the possibility of someone else coming into their lives.)

Pierce, meanwhile, continues to spiral at the dance and snaps as his favorite of the group (Annie) approaches him. The elderly  man has the opportunity, right then, to make things right – to make amends for his actions and choose to ask for help, to let the group into his heart. Instead, he pushes them further away and Annie walks away from Pierce, looking apprehensive but choosing not to pursue any further action.

Back to Britta and Paige’s story, we realize that Britta actually cares about Paige as a friend. But, being who she is, the blonde wants to defy societal conventions and nothing says “rebellion” to her more than showing up to a Hallmark-holiday dance with another woman, right? After all, if nothing else, Britta Perry prides (there’s that word) herself on being progressive – she chastises Annie for her naiveté, when in actuality, Britta was the naïve one throughout the episode. Annie took the little effort it required to put aside her pride and ego and talk to Paige’s friend. Britta and Paige were too wrapped up in competing with themselves, in proving that they were somehow more progressive than everyone else, that they managed to hurt each other in the process. In order to "defy" society, Valentine's Day, and all the people who are staring at two women dancing together, Paige and Britta decide to kiss... and then both realize simultaneously that the other isn't actually gay.

At Jeff's apartment, a raging party is taking place and Jeff is actually enjoying himself. And I adore that Jeff is actually enjoying himself at the party, because it’s so easy for him to become the uptight puppet master that Buddy accused him of being a season earlier. The truth of the matter is that – prior to this episode – the study group needed Jeff more than he needed them. Even during their fight in “Early 21st Century Romanticism,” he thinks of the group as a nuisance. But he realizes at the end of the episode that the group can function without him – they can sort out their own problems (Annie counseled Britta, Troy comforted Abed, and the group attempted to help Pierce). So, the question Jeff is left to ponder is… do they even NEED him? Or does HE need THEM?

When Jeff discovers that Chang is doing laundry at his place and orchestrated the entire party just so that he'd an excuse to crash at the apartment, Jeff is fairly compassionate at first. Unfortunately though, it doesn't last long and he kicks the man out of his apartment, before shutting down the party altogether. 

At the dance, Paige and Britta are (understandably) upset at one another. I think it’s interesting that Paige is set up (even in looks) as kind of a parallel of Britta, if Britta Perry had no compassion. Because Paige merely wanted to exploit what she assumed was Britta’s sexuality for the sole purpose of being “progressive” and cool. Britta genuinely liked Paige, and is stung by the fact that the woman only thought she was a lesbian, not that she was cool. Hurt, Britta watches Paige walk away and Annie approaches. I love that this is one of the rare episodes too where we get a chance to see Annie counsel Britta. Moreover, Annie could have launched into a tirade of “I told you so,” but chose to play dumb and let Britta have her moment.

As Duncan and Jeff are cleaning up after the party, the man wonders aloud what it is about himself that makes people drawn to him -- especially those in need of help. Duncan sold this episode for me, mainly because he unintentionally speaks a LOAD of wisdom into Jeff’s life. He explains that Jeff must either stop resisting or admit that he actually is enjoying rescuing and leading other people, since the former lawyer is already half-way through his second year at Greendale. He should accept where he is at. See, Jeff LIKES coming to the rescue of the study group. It's a role that he begrudgingly took, but now can't seem to live without. And then, there is a moment that Jeff expects the group to call him with their problems and beg him to fix them. This is the moment that he realized HE has been fixed by THEM. And that's when he tells them that he loves them. It's not a pivotal moment, but it's impactful because we then spend the rest of the time in our series following his dependence on them.

When Jeff attempts to prove his own point to Duncan -- that the study group could not function without its leader -- and pulls out his phone to replay voicemails he is certain the group left him, Jeff finds... nothing. The group didn't text or call him at all. "Must be in some kind of trouble," the man mumbles, befuddled. Duncan then replies slowly: "Ah. What a relief that would be."  DUNCAN. YOU WIN ALL OF THE THINGS FOR THIS LINE. And I have to abuse capslock because it is true – Duncan recognizes that Jeff ENJOYS coming to the aide of the study group. And Jeff actually IS disappointed that they aren’t in some kind of mortal peril, that they don't NEED him to fix them.

So Jeff realizes in that moment that perhaps Duncan is right – maybe broken people really DO flock to him because he’s making some kind of difference, or doing some kind of good. And when he finds Chang in the garbage chute in the hallway, Jeff decides to live up to his role. (And when Chang says he’ll be gone in the morning, Jeff tries to fight a smile, knowing he won’t. I think Jeff really does enjoy caring for people.)

As Chang and Duncan crash on his couch, Jeff sends a text message to the study group, who have all congregated together on the couches at the now-deserted Valentine's Day dance. Together, they read Jeff's message:

It might not shock you guys to hear the real reason we had a fight today. It wasn’t about The Barenaked Ladies, although I do have some unresolved issues there. Caring about a person can be scary. Caring about six people can be a horrifying, embarrassing nightmare, at least for me. But if I can’t say it today, when can I say it? I love you guys. Oh, and Pierce? Take it from an expert – these knuckleheads are right outside your heart. Let ‘em in, before it’s too late. Happy Valentine’s Day.

And, quite sadly, the only group member absent from hearing this message is the one who needs to hear it the most.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode:
- “The Barenaked Ladies are triple platinum. Are YOU?”
- “THIS is a fight. WE are fighting.”
- “Where are the white women at?”
-  I forgot that this episode was also our first introduction to Magnitude! POP POP!
- “What is it about me that makes broken people flock to me? Is it my height? Do huddled masses mistake me for the Statue of Liberty?”

Thank you ALL if you made it this far down the review! :) I appreciate all of you who have read, commented, or retweeted these blog-reviews over the past year. Can you believe it's been a YEAR since I started these? Again, know that each one of you are so very special to me and I am extremely grateful for everything you have done and said. Next week -- if I can get my act together! -- expect a blog-review of Megan Ganz's gem "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking." Until then, folks, have a great week!


  1. Found this blog via Twitter and it's better than yard margs at Skeepers. Can't wait to read what you have to say about season 4...