Friday, March 7, 2014

5x08 "App Development and Condiments" (How Five Little Kittens Destroyed Greendale)

"App Development and Condiments"
Original Airdate: March 6, 2014

My mom is contemplating a career change. She’s a pre-school teacher at the moment and doesn’t know what she wants to do in the next stage of her life. But her workplace is fragile and draining and she’s ready to move on. The only problem is that she’s a teacher, which means that parents of her current students are requesting her for their other children in the future. My mom and I were discussing her career this weekend when she admitted that she can’t be afraid to move on with her life. Moreover, she expressed that she cannot be guilted into staying at a place she doesn’t feel called to anymore. Guilt is a powerful thing and one of the most subtle and damaging forms of manipulation. Shame is a direct result of guilt. It’s why we hide ourselves from others; it’s why we put up walls and shut others out. It’s why our relationships falter and fail. Manipulation comes in all forms. It comes in the twisting of words or the twisting of lips or it comes in complete silence. The reason that we manipulate others, as I stated in a recent New Girl review (“Sister II” which dealt heavily with this theme) is because we love the idea of control and hate the idea of sacrificing our pride and egos. Jeff Winger has always been the king of manipulation. He turned an entire group of strangers against one another with a single speech in the pilot. He talks and talks until he gets what he wants. He realized at an early age that if he talked long enough, he could make anything true. Shirley Bennett has the most subtle form of manipulation on the show, but it’s manipulation no less. She loves the control and the power (everyone on this series gets pretty crazy whenever they’re handed even the slightest bit of power), but more than that… I think Shirley just loves being NEEDED. She and Jeff share that desire. Jeff hates being left out of things and so does Shirley. Jeff hates it when others see someone else as more valuable than himself and Shirley feels similarly. Though fundamentally they’re quite different in terms of beliefs, they’re rather similar in many other aspects.

“App Development and Condiments” takes a good hard look at what happens when you place power into the hands of the students at Greendale and allow them to dictate the merits of one another. It goes about as well as you’d expect it to. Seriously, after two paintball wars, three failed documentaries, school-wide pillow fights, and countless other shenanigans, you’d think that Dean Pelton would learn to never involve his students in anything that had even the slightest stakes. Nevertheless, this episode focuses on what happens when certain students acquire power and others lose it. It’s an episode that focuses strongly on the caste system, while also being reminiscent of a dystopian novel like Brave New World (ranking students and grouping them into sub-sections by the app, refusing to allow certain groups certain rights and privileges, etc.). There’s really only an A-plot in the episode which is important in something like “App Development and Condiments” which relies heavily on its genre/homage to carry the story. (You’ll notice that most of those homage episodes that Community does only contain one story, too.) Jordan Blum and Parker Deay wrote the episode and I thought they did a pretty good job in terms of storytelling. The main conflict in the episode is between Jeff and Shirley and this is their token “one story per season” episode, so I’m okay with that. And while “App Development and Condiments” was visually appealing, it was a bit joke-light this week, as the homage episodes typically are.

But before I delve too deeply into the deeper meaning of the story this week, let’s recap the plot first, shall we?

This episode opens with another success of the Save Greendale committee and as they wrap up their meeting, they begin to discuss their dinner plans. Apparently Jeff is hosting dinner or at least planning it and he invited everyone but Shirley. When the group is bewildered, their leader explains that he knows her son always has karate practice so he didn’t want to invite her just for her to decline. This isn’t good enough of a reason for Shirley, who shifts into her higher-octave voice, indicating the beginning of an attempt at a guilt trip. It works on the rest of the group and they all begin to try and shuffle the dinner around to accommodate Shirley… until Jeff uncharacteristically barks at them not to appease her. He explains that they will have other dinners and hopefully Shirley can join. But the woman does what she does best and makes a pathetic face which incites pity from Annie and Britta. Shirley is the queen of manipulation and she often rivals Jeff (as seen in this episode) in this department. Jeff manipulates people with words but Shirley reaches straight for the heartstrings and twists them until others feel guilt. Her lip quivers and people drop what they’re doing to cater to her whims.

I love Shirley, I truly do. It may not sound like it, but I rarely get a chance to talk about her and her faults. I love her most of all when she’s honest with herself and with others. She shuts people out by putting up a front sometimes, but she loses people that are closest to her when she tries to manipulate them into being who she wants them to be or doing what she wants them to do. Ever since we’ve met her, Shirley and Jeff have both hinged on this one thing: they both have never had control over their lives. Jeff got disbarred; Shirley got divorced. Jeff failed as a lawyer; Shirley lost her family. These two people rely on their fallback – their ability to sway people toward them and keep them close – in order to feel loved and validated.

Anyway, back to the story: two app developers enter the study room with a beta test of a new app called MeowMeowBeenz. It’s an app with adorable little kitten faces that essentially replace a star rating system. You get to rate anything – professors, friends, co-workers, events, etc. – and you can give them a “rating” of anywhere from one to five MeowMeowBeenz. It’s a pretty simple concept and the school is going to beta test which means that in about ten minutes, we’ll all be saying:

It’s day one of the beta test, and people are beginning to figure out how the rating system works: you can rate other people, which means that you hold power if you are a higher number than someone else, obviously. Jeff is baffled by the obsession with this system and notes how stupid it is. Of course Jeff Winger thinks it’s stupid – Jeff Winger is the cool guy and he always has been. People flock to him and not just because they mistake him for the Statue of Liberty. When Jeff loses his power and his sway over people (“Contemporary American Poultry,” “Beginner Pottery,” “A Fistful of Paintballs,” etc.), he becomes insecure and a tad obsessive. Abed explains that MeowMeowBeenz is logical and takes all of those things – those immeasurable qualities that make people attractive – and turns them into numbers and data. He loves it, obviously.

Back at Jeff’s office, he encounters Hickey who puts on a birthday hat in order to ensure that he doesn’t get downvoted. He then gives Jeff a warning that – in any other show – a character would heed: MeowMeowBeenz is going to destroy Greendale. It’ll, in his words, “make East Berlin look like Woodstock.” Of course, this is Community where no one listens to anything or anyone with a logical idea so Jeff ignores the man’s warning. In the cafeteria, he meets up with Britta and Annie, both of whom have downloaded and are using MeowMeowBeenz. Britta then explains a concept that Annie had relayed to her – the app is weighted, which means that as your rating increases, your ratings of other people become more important.

The system makes sense to Annie, who is all about logic and reason and order: if you are likable, you have the power to make others more likable as well. This is the way that Annie sees the world, which is fundamentally different from how Britta and Jeff view the world. Annie sees the good that can be accomplished through the app; Britta and Jeff can only think – through their slightly jaded worldview – of the chaos that could ensue when one person holds more power than others or when one group holds more power. Britta is all about equal rights and fighting the man and, well… you know. Jeff on the other hand doesn’t become nearly as interested in MeowMeowBeenz until he realizes that Shirley is a 5 and also realizes how she GOT there. She’s manipulating those around her with her false kindness in order to build herself (and her own empire) up. When Vicki only gives Shirley 4 MeowMeowBeedz, Shirley lets everyone in the cafeteria know what the woman did and – because Shirley holds the most power – everyone downvotes Vicki so that she goes from a 3 to a 1.

While Annie claims that Shirley rose to 5 status because of her kindness, Jeff knows that she got there by using and choosing the people around her. So Jeff registers for the app, vowing to expose it for the sham that it is and – in the process – plans to dethrone Shirley and expose HER. He wants the people around him to realize what he already knows: Shirley is just as manipulative as he is but she conceals it with high-pitched squeals and brownies. This is what Jeff DOES though. He always tries to expose the people around him for what they are when, ironically, the vast majority of the time the finger should be pointed back at himself. Don’t get me wrong, in “App Development and Condiments,” Jeff Winger is no saint. He behaves similarly to how he does in “Advanced Documentary Filmmaking” and “Asian Population Studies.” He’s so consumed with exposing a façade that he often forgets that there are people that are beneath that façade that he could actually damage.

Nevertheless, Jeff Winger is nothing if not persistent so the following day he decides to play the entire school just like Shirley is doing, boosting his communal rating by hanging out with different cliques. It works, and Jeff goes from a 1 to a 2 pretty quickly. Meanwhile, Abed is content to hang out with the crowd of 3’s that he belongs to and actually the side-story with Abed is rather sad. EVERY story with Abed since “Geothermal Escapism” has been quite sad, actually. He’s lonely and the study group is of little to no comfort to him these days and so he drifts off in the episode to be with strangers who share his MeowMeowBeenz ranking. He makes small talk now, because that’s what a 3 does and that’s who he is. He’s settled literally into the middle of the road and he doesn’t want to move because he’s actually content there.  Meanwhile, Shirley approaches and compliments Jeff but it’s a false compliment – he knows it and she knows it and both knows what the other is up to. Because as Nick Miller aptly said just a few weeks ago: “You can’t lie to a liar.”

It’s day eight – yes, EIGHT – of the beta test and the entire Greendale community has done what they do in these sort of situations: they lose all common sense and go absolutely bonkers. It’s getting real Brave New World-esque when the MeowMeowBeenz divide the students into sects from 1’s to 5’s. The lower numbers are the outcasts or the servants, essentially. They have the menial jobs and positions within the school’s new caste system and are not allowed to socialize or interact with the higher-ups. Everyone has a “badge” of sorts – their phone or device brandished on their arm with their MeowMeowBeenz number identified on it. There’s a special area for the 5’s only to socialize (Annie apparently is there as a 4, serving as the assistant to Shirley, essentially). But Chang is growing worried of the lower numbers beginning to grow suspicious and question the system.

A 5 named Koogler has an idea – they’ll host a talent show. Shirley likes this idea, too, and believes that it will help others of a lower order “believe in the system.” Because if Shirley can keep others believing in the system, then she can remain in power. She can continue to exist above Jeff for the first time EVER. Jeff was always the popular one; Jeff was always the one with the most sway. He convinced the group to desert her for dinner and for once, Jeff is not the one everyone is listening to. SHE is. Don’t you think that after years of being one of the most underappreciated and undervalued group members that Shirley would flock to this power like a moth to a flame? Abed, meanwhile, is the most unhappy that he’s ever been and is in the most power that he could ever dream of. You would think that this would be a field day for the self-proclaimed lover of control, no? Instead, Abed is miserable. He’s lonely at the top and would rather be mediocre with other mediocre people than forced to be popular without any real substantial relationship to anchor him.

In the halls, Britta receives a text that Starburn sent informing her of the talent show that is being hosted because of the nervous 5’s. Britta accidentally wanders into 4 territory, where she’s intercepted by Jeff, a newly crowned member of that class. As he ushers her into a private area, Britta informs him of the talent show and that this is the perfect opportunity to take down the system. Jeff’s motivations aren’t as in line with Britta’s as the woman would like to believe, though, because he’s more interested in taking SHIRLEY down. As Jeff explains to Britta though, it’s hard to crack that category unless there are other 5’s in your corner. So he decides to sign himself up for the talent show in hopes of impressing a 5 with more sway than Shirley.

Jeff decides to use stand-up comedy as his talent (I guess because Joel hasn’t done any stand-up recently, Jeff doing it is the next best thing!) which manages to impress everyone in the crowd minus Shirley and Britta. The latter is upset because Jeff stomped on and insulted the 2’s on the way to the top. At the end of his performance, Shirley eyes Jeff and is about to downvote him when she’s upstaged by Koogler, who ranks him as a 5… and so does the rest of the student body. Jeff never cared about the politics and injustice and democracy being taken away like Britta did. She arguably had the purest motives going into MeowMeowBeenz and she manages to sustain her purity of heart almost throughout the entirety of “App Development and Condiments.”

The battle has been won, however, and Jeff enters the realm of the 5’s, prepared to remind Shirley of her place. Jeff is motivated, remember, by his ego and his pride. He is ALWAYS motivated by this, even in the midst of his most well-intentioned actions. Shirley wasn’t right in this episode. She’s not right to manipulate the people around her and call it “kindness.” She’s not right to be selfish, but then again, neither is Jeff. Jeff isn’t right to want the status quo to return simply because he was on top when it left. And while he claims to want to put an end to Shirley’s reign of power, what he truly wants is to reinstate HIS. Shirley knows this and Jeff knows this and so they dance – literally – around each other during the first 5-only event, trying to out-manipulate one another by whispering secrets and lies to their fellow 5’s.

Elsewhere, Britta is trying to awaken a revolution and manages to do so by placing  mustard on her face (it was brought up earlier in the episode that when she has mustard on her face, she seems less aggressive and intense). It works, and she leaves the common area with an army of 2’s and 3’s who are ready for change. Jeff and Shirley are also ready for change. Instead of hiding behind manipulation and lies, they decide to confront each other about their faults. Jeff accuses Shirley of being one of the angriest and most vindictive people he knows. (He’s not entirely wrong.) Shirley, meanwhile, knows that Jeff hates the new rules because it means HE is no longer in charge. The rest of the 5’s are kind of bummed that Jeff and Shirley are harshing their buzz and are being rude to one another so they downvote them all to 1 status and banish them outside, where the outlands are. (Shortly thereafter, Britta and Starburns and their army of mediocrity bursts into 5 zone and take over.)

Jeff and Shirley, now banished from the rest of the school, have it out in the courtyard where Jeff admits that he didn’t invite Shirley because he knew she couldn’t come and Shirley accuses Jeff of liking control. Jeff denies her claim and then counters, explaining that he loves it. Jeff and Shirley don’t get many stories together. We’ve seen them as gossip buddies, as partners, and as dueling rivals in foosball. In all of this time, we’ve never really seen the extent of their friendship though, which makes “App Development and Condiments” a bit difficult to navigate. Are we to assume Jeff and Shirley have always been friends? They barely interact, apart from their token episodes, which they do admit to in this episode. And while Jeff seems to always defend Shirley, he also seems to do that for everyone else in the group. This episode felt more like the show was trying to remind us that there WAS a Jeff/Shirley dynamic rather than further it.

As it was, Shirley and Jeff make up when they realize that for two completely opposite individuals, they often have a lot more in common than they would think (namely that they both like the taste of power and control). Uh, Shirley… you guys have ONE thing in common and it’s a pretty negative quality. I wouldn’t go jump and make BFF bracelets anytime soon. While Jeff and Shirley’s moment goes unresolved as they never do apologize for their behavior, something else gets resolved: the 5’s get dethroned. Starburns interrupts the apology between the pair in order to usher them back inside. The 2’s and 3’s, led by Britta, are now holding council to convict the 5’s of their crimes. This is Britta’s MOMENT, y’all. She lives for this sort of stuff, for bringing the oppressed their victory and for condemning the unjust. She’s riding pretty high on her power (“high on my own drama?”), turning all 5’s into 1’s and ensuring that everyone is on a level field, when Jeff and Shirley enter and the pair both agrees, for once, in this episode: they need to find Britta’s off switch and put an end to MeowMeowBeenz.

And so, Jeff launches into a miniature Winger speech and notes that there IS still a 5 among them – the app itself. Everyone checks and Jeff is right: the beta testing period has ended and that means that the app is now available to be purchased. It has a 5-star rating, which means that it holds all the power and in order to completely strip MeowMeowBeenz of any further condemnation or power, they need to delete it. The entire school follows Jeff’s leadership and does what he asks, then they all depart because it’s SATURDAY and they, in typical Greendale fashion, have become so consumed with something so trivial that they’ve lost eight days of their lives. Sometimes I wonder how people have lives outside of Greendale who attend that school.

Britta, however, verbally laments her lack of power as she watches it slip from her grasp. Really though, I understand that Britta was focused on the power and sway that she had because, let’s face it, people don’t usually LISTEN to Britta but… I felt bad for her, too. She was lonely. She has been lonely a lot over the past few weeks and it’s pretty sad, actually. The way that she says “no” when the students all leave and she’s by herself in the midst of destruction just reminds me that without Troy and without her friends beside her, Britta is actually quite a lonely character. She and Abed had that in common this week, actually, and they’re more alike at this point than any of the other characters in the study group.

The following week, Jeff invites Shirley to dinner and when the woman explains that she can’t, he whips a take-out menu from his pocket. Shirley coos and the two walk off, Jeff’s arm around Shirley. So maybe their issues weren’t entirely resolved in “App Development and Condiments,” but that doesn’t mean that Jeff and Shirley haven’t learned some lessons. Manipulation is a habit. It’s a compulsion, just like biting your nails or tapping your feet. But it’s not an unbreakable habit. If you surround yourself with the right people and are humbled by these individuals, you can make it through.

And if you don’t… well, I’ll promise to rate you as a 5 on MeowMeowBeenz.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode:
  • Can I please give an award to whoever decided upon Joel’s wardrobe this episode? You know what viewers want and we are forever indebted to you for it. Bless you, wardrobe department. BLESS YOU.
  • OUTSIDE DAVE WAS IN THE EPISODE BRIEFLY. I love when my favorite shows cross paths, even slightly.
  • “As long as you’re happy, I’m… unsettled.”
  • “Say Hitler ONE MORE TIME.”
  • “You know what they say: 5’s have lives, 4’s have chores, 3’s have fleas, 2’s have blues, and 1’s don’t get a rhyme because they’re garbage.”
  • “I’m a Psych major. Words are my weapons!” “I’m a security guard. Weapons are my weapons.”
  • I guess we're just going to presume that Hickey and Annie are the smartest out of the study group members and went home because they're entirely absent from the final act of the episode.
Thank you all for reading this week’s review! I’ll be back next week with “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing.” Until then, folks! :)


  1. I'm so on board with this review, and have only skimmed it. Thank you for putting such work into it! I'll post another comment shortly. :)

    1. Nice! This episode engages you on many levels- it gives you many things to roll around and play with mentally, most really fun and also some very apt cautionary reminders. No other 30 minute series seems have episodes that can be this enjoyable and still with this much original content and depth each week. I think your review demonstrates that.

  2. OUTSIDE DAVE! I knew there was a New Girl connection there somewhere!

  3. This episode is interesting! I really like it. Thanks to share--