Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Community (Season 3) Part 1: The Bookends

As “Community” enters its fifth season, in my usual lagging pace I am preparing to watch the fourth. That led to revisiting highlight episodes from previous seasons this week and I realized that season 3 is an even more cohesive, thematic effort than the first two seasons. It did continue the nods to various film and television genres, but there is a lot of connection and continuation between episodes and most of the characters have a developmental arc throughout the season. This is especially evident when viewing the entire season in quick succession, especially in the bookending episodes that kick-off and end the season:

Episodes 1 & 22: (Bookends) "Biology 101"/"Introduction to Finality"

The theme of the season, according to the main writer/show-runner, was all about the cost of loving others. More than that, there is a theme of unselfish, sacrificial love trumping the cult of self. Especially in the story-arch for character Jeff Winger, the lesson presented is that the self-centered, narcissistic, “looking out for number one” attitude of today’s culture is an empty, unfulfilling lie. In the first episode, we have our familiar Jeff from the first two seasons, more determined than ever to get out of school and back to his “good life.” He is more willing than ever to use others. Even the community of the study group is a means to an end. At first he is willing to throw it away, and only seeks to regain a place in the group when he sees his need for it. It is not the friendships so much as the benefit that draws him to community.

By the end of the season, through all the lessons learned, Jeff reaches an epiphany. In defending Shirley’s ownership of a sandwich shop idea she developed with Pierce earlier in the season (Episode 11: "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts"), he runs the risk of ruining his future. Her response to his dilemma is to tell him to stop. Her rights are not worth him risking his future. Jeff learns that the key to life is to “stop thinking about what is good for you and start thinking about what is good for someone else.”

This epiphany has been coming for some time, and the relationship that solidifies this shift in Jeff is his friendship with Shirley. The moment where this is really seen to start is Episode 9: “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism.” In it Shirley and Jeff bond over foosball, an activity that they both used to love and no longer participate in. Unbeknownst to them, they share the moment that ruined foosball and dramatically changed their lives. For Shirley it meant turning away from being a bully and eventually to her faith in Jesus; for Jeff it was made him determined to be cool and, essentially, a narcissistic pig of a man.

Shirley is the Christian in the study group. What that means comically—and also in the constant examination of the failings of people that the show examines—is that she is prone to be religious and judge everyone around her. But what it also consistently means is that she is the most selfless of the group. She genuinely wants to do good, be good and help others. It is her self-sacrificial example that leads Jeff to learn what real love is all about. At the same time Jeff is learning this lesson, Troy is experiencing a parallel revelation in the Air Conditioning School and the evil Abed from the darkest of timelines (more on that in a later post) is coming to see the good in this, our reality.

That final speech has been posted online.  For some reason it is only on in four 30 second clips:

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