While Glee was premiering on Fox in the fall of 2009, NBC was airing a new comedy of its own. Unlike Glee, an hour-long program which pretended to be comedy but which ended up plowing for drama and reaping awkward silences, Community was a half-hour program which knew it was funny and aspired to become funnier. Like Glee, it faced its first turning point in its ninth episode.
Glee‘s ninth episode, “Wheels,” is an unsparingly serious episode in which we learn that Artie’s in a wheelchair and that Kurt actually can sing “Defying Gravity,” but flubs a note on purpose because he wants to protect his dad. It’s not a bad episode; Artie hadn’t gotten nearly enough attention as a character, and Kurt, in sacrificing himself in a small way to try to smooth his father’s path, shows a complication in his character that utterly evaporates by the back half of the season. Even the C-plot, where Sue takes on a girl with Down’s to be in the Cheerios, is part of a series of actions calculated to humanize her. In many ways, the episode hits. And unfortunately, “Wheels” signaled a willingness by the folks making Glee to take themselves seriously. There had been some serious moments before: Will’s soul was in jeopardy when he tried to make April Rhodes the star of the glee club, and Sue and Will fought in front of the kids, and oh yeah, Quinn got pregnant because (in the words of the British citizenry during the reign of King Stephen), God and his angels slept. But “Wheels” was not lightened by humor. There was, in retrospect, no turning back.
Meanwhile, after eight episodes, Community felt stilted. Not only did we not know who the characters were, but the elements of the characters which became their touchstones were mostly absent. Britta was still a very self-possessed and super-chill chick. Annie still feels like little Annie Adderall, stuck in high school and nowhere near becoming self-possessed. Troy and Abed are connecting, but only very slowly; Troy still knows all the cheers from high school, while Abed is still fending off his father. (Mr. Nadir is played by Iqbal Theba, the same guy who tells Schue that his hands are tied about twice a week. Iqbal Theba and I are the overlapped portion of the Glee-Community Venn diagram.) The ninth episode, “Debate 109,” fixes most of those problems. Abed’s ability to pare down his friends to their simplest elements looks like prognostication, while Jeff and Annie kiss and realize they like kissing each other. Britta and Pierce do weird stuff. These are the concerns that are carried on throughout the rest of the show before the calamity of Season 4. Speaking of:
In my cosmology, I also think it’s important that I only watched the first three seasons of both shows. I tried to watch Season 4, during which time Dan Harmon had been booted, but I gave up almost immediately. The new showrunners, whose names I have not bothered to learn because history will forget them anyway, seemed to think that Community got people involved because it referenced pop culture pieces; people got into Community because it did pop culture.
For that reason, “Contemporary American Poultry” deserves a special place in our hearts, as the first episode that makes a specific allusion its friend for the whole episode. “The Science of Illusion” featured Annie and Shirley as a very Law & Order or NYPD Blue pairing, but at no point does the show go out of its way to make the episode a Law & Order spoof. (That happened in Season 3. People say it’s good. I’ve never watched Law & Order on purpose, so I won’t purport expertise.)
“Contemporary American Poultry,” within four minutes, has set the groundwork for its Goodfellas riff. The foundation is pleasantly goofy Community fare – the gang (sans Britta) is lusting after the chicken fingers in the cafeteria, but they never do manage to get in line quickly enough. Realizing that Starburns is their problem, Jeff comes up with a solution that is quintessentially his: get somebody else to do the work so that he will benefit. In this case, that work is getting one of the study group members in as the fry cook, who will distribute a significant portion of the chicken fingers for the rest of the study group. Abed quickly makes the connection. “It’s like a Mafia movie!” he says; instantly, the action freezes and Abed’s voiceover is heard: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be in a Mafia movie.” Goodfellas clicks, and the rest follows from there.
It’s easy to say, “Okay, let’s do a Goodfellas parody in a twenty-odd minute sitcom format,” but to actually convince the viewer that “Contemporary American Poultry” is Goodfellas without fatalities is something else again. Dan Harmon is, like Quentin Tarantino, a fan as much as he is a creator. The obvious markers are there in the episode. The music backing the early going is the same kind of ’50s/’60s fare that provides the soundtrack of young Henry Hill’s life. The video I just linked to, in about three minutes, shows the way that the camera is always moving. Often, it will zoom in on a character (like Henry when he’s about to get beaten up), or it will recede from a character to show what’s going on in the background (as it does from Tuddy when he’s writing a list), or it will recede away from a character as if it’s cringing in fear (as it does from Henry’s father when he’s about to put down a whipping on his truant son.) Similarly, the camera is ready to zoom in on a moving target; Abed bringing the chicken fingers out of the kitchen for the first time, when it zooms in on the plate after having focused on the lunch line, recalls the kitchen of the Copacabana, and even if you didn’t immediately see a reference to Goodfellas, Abed’s voiceover talks about how the study group had no more use for lines after he took over in the kitchen. (I had some technical difficulties with the video – fast forward to :51 or so to see what I mean.) The receding camera took a parabolic jump back from frying chicken to Abed at the fryer just moments before. And, in terms of faithful shots and background music, there’s no substitute for Community‘s cover of “Layla.” I’ve always thought that Annie’s eviscerated backpack, hung up straight and tall, reminded me of Frankie Carbone’s hanged-up body in a freezer. (Maybe now’s not a great time to bring up the fact that the end of The Godfather shows up around halfway through, but then again, Abed leads with “Mafia movie.”)
“Contemporary American Poultry” also revolves around a heretofore unprecedented gambit; Abed takes control of the study group from Jeff. Allow me a bit of indulgence: I’m going to quote myself from a piece I wrote before Season 4 premiered:
What I’m saying is that Remedial Chaos Theory, which is the best episode of Community, hands the title of main character to Abed after Jeff had held it so long and to such great effect over the previous two seasons. One of the reasons I keep coming back to Critical Film Studies is because in hindsight, it acts as a prelude to what will go down in Remedial Chaos Theory, where Abed physically takes control of the situation from Jeff. Abed has not only made the plot happen by suggesting that Jeff is inadvertently creating six alternate timelines, but when he realizes that Jeff manipulates the group by ensuring he won’t ever have to get the pizza, he catches the die in mid-air. Jeff is then made to get the pizza.
It’d be one thing if they let it go. But they don’t let it go. There are little relapses into Jeff Winger-land, like Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism, which is really more Jeff than Abed, or Origins of Vampire Mythology. But Abed is essential to Studies in Modern Movement, Documentary Filmmaking: Redux, Regional Holiday Music, the two-parter about the pillow/blanket forts, Virtual Systems Analysis, and most importantly, Introduction to Finality. Truly, this season focused on Abed’s mind and how it works. Jeff is still important, sure. And I may have overspoken when I said that Troy had turned into the first main supporter. But I don’t know that there’s any question that Abed’s taken over.
The point of that article was to discuss the trouble of taking your main character and then replacing him or her with a new protagonist from the supporting cast. As it turns out, my assertion: that an Abed-centric Community, presumably beginning with a Harmon-helmed Season 4, would be much more unpredictable than a Jeff-centric Community. The highs of the Abed Community would be higher, but its lows lower, and in the end the show’s appeal would narrow even further. There’s no way to prove that one way or the other now, but I feel justified in predicting it based on the evidence from Season 3.
The point of this article is something a little different: “Contemporary American Poultry” is the first episode of three major ones in which Abed starts to pull Jeff out of the spotlight. The other two, “Critical Film Studies” (the My Dinner with Andre/Pulp Fiction spoof) and “Remedial Chaos Theory,” take place in seasons 2 and 3, respectively. All three end with a challenge from Abed to Jeff. In “Poultry,” Abed subtly – at least for him – reproaches Jeff for missing out on an opportunity to make everyone happy because of his bruised ego. In “Studies,” Abed confesses to Jeff that he feels they’ve been drifting apart, and he wishes they could spend more of their time together. “Theory” is addressed in a little detail above.
Jeff was always going to be the main character of the show, and his basically vanilla personality (which, at its best, is a clever condemnation of what we prize in American masculinity: white, straight, handsome but not pretty, good body, nice car, well off, egomaniacal) can take on a bunch of really weird flavors; Britta, by the end of Season 3, is like that “Rocky Trout” ice cream that Buster saves a cat with in Arthur. But it’s also easy to get tired of Jeff, and there are serious limits to what even a writing team as good as Community‘s can do with him. The goal, of course, is to make a him a better person and presumably get him back to lawyering; doing either one of those things would total the show. Thus, segues and alternate approaches have to be invested: Shirley’s pregnancy, Troy and Abed, Pierce’s utter lack of self-confidence. By the end of Season 2, Jeff has improved as a human being, slept with Britta, and come no closer to becoming a lawyer again. Jeff has been extolled as far as he can be; time for Abed to take a swing at things. “Contemporary American Poultry,” is – and believe me, I’ll show myself out – either the chicken or the egg for Community‘s third season.