I am not, by my nature, a “laugher.” I can appreciate a well-told joke, but usually with a smile and a nod. I may laugh politely in public, but I spend a lot of time finding things funny without actually laughing at them. The reasons I am this way (and you can ask my wife about our strange, mirthless life together) are probably buried under layers of emotional trauma I’ll need years of therapy to overcome, but when I say that I laughed out loud a lot at tonight’s Community, that is probably the highest form of praise I can pay it. That the laughter came wedded to a plot that was pretty well constructed and managed to deepen most of the characters in fun and interesting ways was even better, and after this episode, it seems even more likely that this is going to be a show with places to go.
Doing a second episode is one of the hardest things to do in television. You have to repeat the things that made people like the pilot (since they’re presumably watching because they did like it or someone who did convinced them to give it a shot), but you also have to figure out ways to expand the show’s universe in ways that convince the audience the series has something to say. And you can’t repeat the pilot too much, lest everyone think you only have one thing to say. “Spanish 101” has a doubly hard challenge because the pilot was a premise pilot and, thus, didn’t leave a lot of sense of what the show would be from week to week beyond the vague idea that it would take place at a community college.
“Spanish 101” immediately dives into the rough business of building the show from the ground up. One of the problems with previous college-set shows has been that, unlike high school, everyone’s college experience is incredibly, personally specific. If every high school is basically the same with a few different elements, every college campus is basically different with a few similar elements. The culture at my college was almost certainly different from the culture at yours, even if there were certain elements in common (like how Ken Jeong’s Senor Chang – apparently a regular – is almost exactly like my freshman Spanish teacher, except not a ridiculously attractive woman). So it’s hard to come up with the kinds of universal experiences that drive shows like these beyond stories that are already overdone, like stories about having awful roommates.
Community gets around this by mostly focusing as much as it can on its specific characters and figuring out both how they’re types and how they’re individual characters within those types. And when it goes for one of those storylines that every college show has done – the students protesting some injustice on foreign soil – it does so in a closely observed way that also reveals some new facets of one of the two lead characters. By showing Shirley and Annie leading a protest on behalf of murdered Guatemalan journalists, the show both managed to find an “issue” that was something you hadn’t seen on TV before with plenty of satirical moving room and figured out a way to expose just how much Britta’s good girl act is just that. Britta clearly cares deeply about things, but she’s not moved to actually do anything about them, something the show contrasts nicely with Jeff’s inability to actually care about anything.
As nicely as that storyline worked to delineate more of Britta’s character beyond simply being a foil for Jeff, it wasn’t what made me laugh so much. What made me laugh were the scenes where the show set all of the study group members bouncing off of each other, Senor Chang’s introduction of himself and the whole storyline with Jeff and Pierce. If, every week, the show is going to be about putting new spins on the old college storyline clichés, then the study group is going to be our home base for going out to explore those stories. The pilot didn’t really use Chevy Chase as much as the promotions for the show might have led anyone to believe. (I suspect this may be because Pierce was written as a smaller character in the original script, and when Chase signed on, creator Dan Harmon just didn’t beef up the part into a “star” part, instead deciding to save Chase for later. Like episode two!) But he was turned out in full force here, revealing Pierce to be a desperately lonely and kinda weird old man who’s randomly decided that Jeff can be the surrogate son he never had. These notes of out-of-touch-ness and odd familiarity are being played to the hilt by Chase, and now it’s obvious why he signed on to play this character.
All of this concluded with a wickedly funny send-up of the kinds of poignant montages we get at the ends of movies aiming for inspiration, where a chastened Jeff and an enthusiastic Pierce wandered through Pierce’s long “Two Conquistadors” conversation in lieu of actually doing the assignment as presented. (There’s always one group that tries to turn one of these assignments into something more epic than it needs to be.) As Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” played, the two dressed in robot suits, waved Israeli and Palestinian flags and did some sort of softshoe routine in Afro wigs. It’s a completely gratuitous sequence, over-the-top and goofy as all hell, yet it works both as something to make the viewer laugh and something to show off how the characters are already growing and changing (would the Jeff of the first few minutes of the pilot have gone along with this?). “Spanish 101” wasn’t perfect, but it did most of the stuff a second episode has to do and then some. It leaves me with even more faith that this show will be good than the pilot.
- Shirts used as currency. I think I’ve seen that somewhere before, but it still paid off in seeing Jeff in Abed’s shirt.
- Speaking of Abed, any thoughts on his character? I usually enjoy meta-commentary, but I can already feel where I’ll start to find it tiresome coming from him.
- Does Harmon just like Matt & Kim THAT MUCH?
- "Morning, Jeffrey. People were jazzed to see me too."
- "If you think of grandsons as metaphors for friendship, I think you'll agree with this Transformer here that it's time for ours to become a man. By reading from the Torah."
- "We can have a candlelight vigil like lesbians have on the news."
- "My knowledge will bite her face off."
- "Oooooh. Hemingway's lemonade."
- "Defy oppression. Have a brownie."
- "We are gonna take this and put it in a museum for crazy people."
- "You're bailing on our first sausage fest?"
- "What we have so far. Well, we have something incredibly long and very confusing and a little homophobic and really, really specifically, surprisingly and gratuitously critical of Israel. It's called ‘Two Conquistadors’. It should probably be ‘Dos’; I mean it is a Spanish class.”
- "The woman that I kind of like is out there in the moonlight caring about something stupid."