“The Art Of Discourse” originally aired on NBC Thursday night, April 29, 2010
It’s not as if i don’t understand why “The Art Of Discourse”1 has such a negative reputation among Community fans. Its placement in the episode order makes no goddamned sense, for one — sandwiched between two absolute classic episodes that clearly point toward the direction of this show’s future, away from more standalone, non-conceptual episodes like these. It also feels like an episode with a bit of a chip on its shoulder, almost as if the whole reason it exists is to justify Pierce, and to a lesser extent, Shirley, continuing to remain in the study group. Generally, everyone in the group spends the episode succumbing to their worst flaws to a pretty unwelcome degree, for a show that mostly wants you to like and enjoy its characters.
Oh, and then there are those fucking insufferable kids. What a choice. Mark and the other two2 are written, cast, and performed for maximum punchability, and every grating moment they infest the screen is an actively painful, punishing experience. It feels like the show is daring you to stop watching. BUT — this is Community, so it all serves a specific story purpose. The pain of watching characters behave so obnoxiously is the pain of recognition. We may have even acted like this ourselves at some point in our lives, or known people who did, and it’s liable to induce that feeling of despairing futility that all true bullying brings on, knowing that there are people who act this way, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by this episode.
When we first see Jeff and Britta in the cold open, they’re both assured in their identities, bantering without a care in the world. But they’re also both being pretty smug and superior, and it’s easy to see how listening to them could wear on one’s nerves3. The point that’s easy to miss in this episode is that kids like this are often acting out because of their own worries and insecurities. The exchange even starts with Mark confiding, in his own trolling shitlord way, that his life might not work out how he wants it to, and it scares him. It would be trite to simply point out that age fears youth, but this episode remembers that youth also fears age. Pit these fears against each other and you get an endless, vicious cycle of generations bouncing around shouting “DUH”.
Seen in this light, these kids’ actions seem at least a little less inexplicable, if no less inexcusable. One way that young people might try to fight off the fear of aging is by acting as immaturely as possible, effectively taking it out on the adults around them. You can’t afford to look this stupid past a certain point, not without turning yourself into a complete social pariah, so you might as well take advantage while you can. In NO way am i suggesting the show is asking us to sympathize with their perspective — they are far too one-note and caricatured to feel even the slightest bit human — but i do think this episode directly confronts our willingness to excuse a certain level of youthful indiscretion. The benefit of low expectations is the freedom of people assuming you don’t know any better. As long as you eventually grow out of things, there’s not a whole lot you can do during your formative years that’s going to count against you in the long run. Britta and Jeff have carefully cultivated their personalities to appear as self-impressed and above-it-all as possible, so seeing a group of kids flagrantly breaking every rule of etiquette and basic decorum without suffering any kind of repercussion for it is an experience that is guaranteed to inflict traumatic damage to the most vulnerable parts of their egos. There is no question in my mind that they were exactly like these kids when they were younger, and the realization that their former position has been usurped by a younger generation is what hurts the most.
You can tell that Britta and Jeff used to spend a lot of time dunking on the olds, because their immediate reaction to the disrespect they encounter is to revert back to those childish games of retaliatory humiliation, going so far as to spy on their adolescent nemeses with binoculars, looking for openings to attack. This juvenile regression on their part strikes at the very heart of Community’s premise. Those kids didn’t just spew random taunts and gibberish, they actually wounded them deeply. This comes at a critical point in their journey, where Jeff has finally stopped fighting his current position as a Greendale student and study group member, and has learned to take comfort in life’s small victories, and the real, meaningful connections he’s made with his new friends. Then in comes Mark to rub Jeff’s ex-lawyer status in his face at the earliest opportunity while clowning on him for hanging out with Pierce, just as Pierce has finally committed an offense too egregious to accept. They picked exactly the worst moment to start messing with him.
Meanwhile, Britta’s affectations seem innocuous and even a little charming within the study group dynamic, where each member is one kind of outcast or another, but no amount of cats, Discmen, or casual revelations that Winona Ryder knits can insulate you from the mockery of a demographic that is determined not to take you seriously. “Contemporary American Poultry” had revealed that her cat’s health was failing, and this episode confirms that it has since passed on. While Britta’s love for her pets is unfortunately never treated with any dignity by anyone, it’s understandable that she’d still be in the anger stage of grieving at this point. Without quite realizing it, Jeff and Britta both begin this episode at low ebbs, and that’s before the incident in the B-plot that threatens to divide the group. They’re not getting taken down a peg, they’re getting kicked when they’re down. One key to understanding this episode might be viewing it as a companion piece to “Physical Education”, where Britta can’t handle getting laughed at for repeatedly saying “baggle”, and Jeff’s aura of perceived coolness hinges entirely on pants length. What it seems to boil down to is an inability to recover from mistakes. Not even mistakes in some cases, just slight lapses in judgment. What’s most infuriating about these kids is they’re not wrong — everyone is at Greendale because of some kind of failure or folly.
What these kids don’t know yet, and what’s impossible to know without experience, is that sometimes in life things just don’t work out, for no real reason. You can do everything right on paper and still end up closer to your worst-case scenario than your actual goal. This doesn’t quite apply to Britta and Jeff, both of whom spent a lot of time avoiding responsibilty in their own ways, but i’m positive they at least think of themselves as victims of circumstance to some extent. What’s really sad about the whole thing is that their experiences actually have brought them wisdom, especially during their time at Greendale, which would be valuable to share with the younger folks, if they’d be willing to listen. The whole situation gets out of hand mainly because at the end of the day, Britta and Jeff just want to be admired — for their resilience, their approach to life, and above all, their ability to make the best of where they are currently. From a more youthful perspective, though, this looks more like a desperate coping mechanism or pathetic complacency. That’s the very perspective of their own younger selves, reflected back to them by these three random little shits. The ultimate irony of the episode is that a lack of recognition for their maturity leads to them devolving into the most immature version of themselves.
i’m aware that i’m most likely overthinking all this, considering the simplistic, sitcommy nature of the “getting the bullies their comeuppance” plot and the fact that the whole conflict resolves with a goddamned cafeteria food fight. But engagement with art involves bringing your own personal concerns and baggage to it, and this episode speaks to mine like it’s a direct echo of things i’m generally thinking about 24/7, and i absolutely get what it’s going for and how that fits into the larger ideas of the show. Community was always at its best when it was able to combine thematically rich character work with pop culture specificity and lowbrow, even straight-up stupid humor. Not everything in this episode works, but by skipping or dismissing it, i think you miss a crucial piece of what the show’s about. Despite so much of it being out of step with what the show’s been doing up to this point4, it manages to summarize most of what this show has to say about life and human nature, at least as manifested by individuals. If there’s any hope for us to move past this, it’s going to require help from something larger than ourselves. Concepts such as growth, development, and even improvement are just fancy words for the friends we made along the way.
⁃ End tag: Troy and Abed discuss their porn names (name of grade school + favorite soft drink) until the arrival of a pizza delivery man and Leonard’s dead funky bass-playing makes it awkward. Also, it took longer than 30 minutes, so Leonard’s not playing. *bass lick*
⁃ i didn’t discuss the B- and C-plots in the main essay because i just had way too much to say about the A-plot and probably spent way more time on it than i needed to and now i have finally lost the last few readers i still have. What i’ll say about each is that the B-plot would have made much more sense as a season finale, and that a smarter version of the C-plot would have Abed coming to a realization that the tropes of College Cut-Up movies tend to be ragingly misogynistic. There are parts of both that i enjoy, but neither ends up amounting to much, though it does seem notable that this is Pierce’s first formal ousting from the group
⁃ i think i deserve some kind of award for going on and on for so long about this episode without using the word “cringe”. Part of what makes this episode so difficult to watch is that the cringiest parts aren’t really even trying to be funny. They are just there to motivate the actions of the characters. Thinking of the kids more as pro wrestling heels than as any kind of comedic characters is the best way to make sense of their function here
⁃ Emily VanDerWerff’s review of this episode posits that the kids are portrayed this way because this is supposed to be the show’s view of “typical TV high schoolers”. i’ve thought about that a lot and i don’t really see it. i do think this is how typical high schoolers might treat TV characters if they interacted with them in the real world. Media has a way of glamorizing even the most unremarkable people
⁃ i guess there is a chance that i’m overstating how reviled this episode is in the eyes of fans. Maybe it’s more just ignored or overlooked compared to the episodes surrounding it. Let me know what you think
⁃ My biggest laugh of the episode is the onscreen caption: “12 MINUTES LATER”. Just a beautifully specific interval of time that still barely manages to remain plausible
BRITTA: Fresh kitten? i go to a shelter, and rescue an animal that genuinely needs my help, okay? Why do you think i am knitting a tiny little eyepatch?
PIERCE: Context is everything. i call the other women “Flat Butt” and “The One A-Bed Wants To Nail”
BRITTA: Such a child. Oh, here comes Stinky Turd Face
TROY: My uncle was struck by lightning. You think it’d give you superpowers, but now he just masturbates in theaters
ABED: We’ve lost our Cliff Clavin. Our George Costanza. Our Turtle. Or Johnny Drama. Or E. Man, that show is sloppy
ANNIE: When you found out i was Jewish, you invited me to a “pool party” that turned out to be a baptism
TROY: Yeah, they’re making us walk around with pretzels in our butts. i put mustard on mine like an idiot
BRITTA: You need to bang that kid’s mom! Um, after we fix everything with Shirley
SHIRLEY: They just think of me as some sort of mom. They both need to learn some manners. And you know what, Annie needs to stop dating Vaughn. He’s cute, but he’s not the kind of boy i envisioned her ending up with
PIERCE: Why are Jeff and Britta making fun of those handicapped kids?
BRITTA: We win! You’re the schmittys!