Community: Introduction to Teaching

“Will there be a syllabus?”

After the relatively bleak opening episode, most of “Introduction to Teaching” was a welcome reminder that we were, in fact, watching a sitcom. There were gags and hijinks and pop culture references and in-jokes, but the specific thing I enjoyed most was Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad) as Professor Buzz Hickey, duck-drawing criminologist.

I say “the specific thing,” because what I enjoyed most overall was the return of the Community I used to love. The fourth season of Community was just wrong. I can point to a few things that were done incorrectly: a pause after most jokes for a non-existent laugh track, an overdose of deansanity, beating the “darkest timeline” to death. But what was really missing? Hard to say.

Whatever it was, it’s back.

It’s back to such a degree that we no longer have to parse whether Community qualifies as “odd-good” or “odd-bad” according to Abed’s quality spectrum, which, in true Community fashion, is a fun meta-joke: like Nicholas Cage, this little sitcom may have had a Guarding Tess year, but it has the potential to reach Face/Off levels yet again.

That Abed plot—a great callback to “Competitive Wine Tasting”—was classic pop-culture insanity. But Abed’s quest to qualify Nicholas Cage also showed that Abed does have some more work to do, just like everyone else in the plucky study group. They’re staying in college (or going back for advanced degrees, or something) because they have not yet reached their full potential. They need a bit more something.

Will Greendale offer them that something? I’m not sure. The season premiere ended on an ostensibly positive note, but there’s a dark undertone to the idea that these grown-ups aren’t done growing up yet. Of course, no one ever is, but we gradually learn to put away the childish crutches of, for instance, making dioramas for a grade. If we don’t, we become what Jeff, Abed, Britta, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Chang are: failures. They have not achieved their dreams, and they’re not sure what to do about it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not judging them. (I’m hardly a success story.) (Billie pays me in cats.) (And I am grateful.) But this season of Community seems to be more aware of the darkness—even, dare I say, the tragedy—that lurks behind comedy. I think tragedy is the point of the last scene, in which Troy and Abed dress up like a chair and a plant to surprise Professor Jeff in his new office. Instead of getting the chance to perform a cute prank, they accidentally eavesdrop on an older man who can’t afford brand-name medicine or a proper burial for his father. They get a real glimpse, in other words, of this modern American grown-up life.

Jeff pointed out that teachers at Greendale are there because they did something wrong, just like the students. And most of the time, Community is about a group of wildly different people coming together and loving one another despite all the things they’ve done wrong. They occasionally even learn things about themselves, as Annie pushed Jeff to realize he could love teaching (so long as he was teaching Lying and Argument-Winning 101).

But as Community moves into its last act (whether that means this season or one more), the sad reality of failure, of Jeff thinking he’ll be able to stop settling for a teaching gig like Hickey used to believe—these facts start to have meaning beyond the laugh they create. They start to foreshadow a real “dark timeline,” one that parallels the situations many people find themselves in after college and throughout their lives.

Will Community go to the real darkest timeline—the one the audience lives in? Will Harmon take the risk of making a truly cynical TV show? Will it waver, bringing laughs as it brings frowns? Will we ever understand Nicholas Cage? These are questions that I look forward to answering as this season continues. Welcome back, Dan Harmon. And welcome back, Community.

Cool Cool Cool:

• Professor Sean Garrity, aka Professor Professorson, aka Sam Weiss from Fringe: welcome back to you, too!

• Chang: “Here’s all you need to know: break into groups, grade each other’s papers, and here’s a seven-disc edition of Planet Earth.”

• Abed: “But is [Nicholas Cage] good, or is he bad? Robert Downey Jr.: good. Jim Belushi: bad. Van Damme: the good kind of bad. Johnny Depp: the bad kind of good.”

• Professor Hickey: “I say minus her…Teachers don’t have to explain minuses. Why do you think we invented them?”

• Jeff: “Anyone that tries to argue has already lost, because they pick an argument to lose.”

• Britta: “I think our opinions about pop culture are fed to us by machines designed to criminalized human autonomy.”

• Professor Hickey: “I have seen human heads used for things other than human heads.”

• Jeff: “I may not love teaching, but I did fool around with it today, and I may hook up with it again a few more times, even if I do dump it right before Christmas.”

• Abed: “So Nicholas Cage is Jesus?”
Shirley: “Um, no. But clearly he works in mysterious ways.”

Three out of four Voice-Activated Tables

11 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Whatever was missing (I know, Dan Harmon) is clearly back, because this is the strange and funny Community I fell in love with.

Josie, the cat's in the mail.

Juliette said...

So happy Community's back in all sense of the word :)

I do have a tiny problem with the move into college-teaching-related jokes, which I seem to have less of a sense of humour about! I teach in the rough equivalent of a community college (though we became a university last February, yay!) and I prefer to think it's because I enjoy the job, not because I'm a failure. And I spend hours agonising over students' grades, not to mention the usual sitcom issue about needing no experience or qualifications (but then this is Greendale, they've hired Chang 3 times, twice for teaching!). Clearly I'm suffering a serious work-related sense of humour failure!

Juliette said...

Come to think of it, I've worked out why the teaching-jokes bothered me a bit where the student ones didn't - the student jokes all felt like they were drawn from real experience, whereas the jokes that bothered me were based on utterly incorrect perceptions of teaching. But still - lighten up, Juls!

Billie Doux said...

Don't fret, Juls. Negative jokes about librarians make me nuts. Buns, glasses, shushing, it never ends.

Mark Greig said...

I don't know if the perception of teaching is incorrect. I worked at a training centre for a few months and most of the teachers there didn't want to be there. Some, including myself, were only there because it was the only work we could get at the time.

Juliette said...

Mark my issue is that I work somewhere very like Greendale (we actually had an e-mail asking us to wear green for an environmental awareness day once which made me feel like I was in an episode of Sommunity! and we have the world's smallest hall of residence, though I haven't seen a pillow fort yet) and I'm there because I love my job (otherwise no way would I do it since it's not full time and I could make more money for doing less work somewhere else) and I spend days agonising about my students' marks. This sort of perception doesn't really help when I'm trying to explain for the umpteenth time why I can't come out at a weekend or an evening because I have marking to do...

Juliette said...

(I think I'd better emphasise here, in case of any misunderstanding, that where I work is, of course, much *better* than Greendale! And we're a university now, not a college any more. We are, all around, a much better and higher quality institution than Greendale. But we're a small institution with mainly though not exclusively local students, so there are similarities.)

sunbunny said...

I went to a school not unlike Greendale for a couple of years (unfortunately without any classes on Ladder) and there were definitely teachers who hated it, who didn't want to be there, who'd had other plans for their lives. I think that's mostly what they were showing here. Hickey wants to be a cartoonist/illustrator/duck draw-er. Jeff wants to be a lawyer. Chang is…well, he's Chang. I don't think it's fair to say they all hate teaching, I think it wasn't their Plan A and they've grown resentful of it, not because it's teaching, but because they had envisioned their lives differently.

I also had quite a few teachers at that school who were really passionate about teaching, even at a less prestigious institution, and loved it. Greendale has these professors too. I think Garrity really enjoys his job, the Carpe Diem guy from season 1 certainly did, as did Professor Stephen Toblowsky (pre-nervous breakdown). Dean Pelton genuinely loves his school and wants to make it a better place.

I think we saw mostly the 'slacker' professors here because that's who Jeff would naturally gravitate towards: the people who have figured out how to do the bare minimum with the least effort possible. That's been Jeff's MO since episode 1.

Juliette - I've never understood the exact distinction between college and university, but I understand it's a big deal to get 'upgraded' so congrats to you and your school! :)

Ben P. Duck said...

This all raises the question what does reviewing on Doux Reviews and College teaching have in common?

Both pay you in cats...if you're lucky ... last place I taught tried to pass off an anorexic marmot as a cat and then claimed it was "budget cuts" that were responsible, but I digress.

ChrisB said...

I had a complete sense of humor failure throughout the episode, so I watched it again. Still didn't love it, although I can't seem to figure out exactly why. Maybe, like you say, Josie, the tragedy is brimming too near the surface. The sadness of all the characters seemed too prominent for me to laugh at.

sunbunny -- the difference between a college and a university is (or at least used to be) that a university offered graduate degrees and a college did not. Universities were deemed more prestigious, therefore, because they turned out higher educated students.

Juliette said...

Thanks :) We're working on postgrad degrees but don't have them yet, but we award our own undergrad degrees now, whereas before they were officially awarded by another university.