Community 4x01: “History 101”
Troy and Abed enter with a modified catchphrase, and they are greeted by a laugh track. The laugh track continues to regurgitate over every other word that is said as the rest of the group enters, wearing the same hipster glasses as Troy. Jeff is the only one not wearing the glasses besides Abed. Pierce enters, played by Fred Willard instead of Chevy Chase; he is wearing the same glasses as everyone else, not because they are cool, but because they are his old backup pair. We hear Britta’s voice over the incessant laugh track and a Big Bang Theory-like transition pulls us out of Abed’s head and into a laugh track free environment. This episode is the first episode without Dan Harmon. The show had quite a public dysfunction last season, and this opening voices what many fans may have feared: that the show may be infused with popular sitcom trappings and become indistinguishable from the wasteland of broadcast television sitcoms, and Chevy would be replaced or removed for being part of the public dysfunction. The audience will hopefully breathe a sigh of relief when it is revealed that the scene was all manufactured in Abed’s head and everyone is pulled back into the reality that has come to be expected of the show. This episode uses the film Inception as its framework. In that film, people travel through multilayered dreams within dreams to plant the seed of an idea into the mark’s mind, so that when the dreams are all ended, the idea germinates and the mark feels that they have conceived of the idea on their own without any outside influence. A popular reading of the film is that each person is a personification of a particular role in the filmmaking process, and that the film itself is a commentary on how films work on the viewer. The ending is somewhat ambiguous so that the viewer may read into it what they will, and feel like they have come up with the meaning themselves from whichever clues they decide to use from the rest of the film. This episode of Community casts its characters in the roles of the Television production process. The idea that the viewer is being incepted with is that the show is still the show they love even though Harmon is gone and it may grow outside of the school. The title of this episode is History 101, and as with previous seasons, the first episode introduces the concept the episodes will be exploring for the rest of the semester. Here we will study the viewer’s personal history with the show and adherence to traditions.
In the real world, we learn that Britta (still wearing the hipster glasses from the laugh track world) has used her amateur psychology to instruct Abed that whenever he feels stressed, he should retreat into a happy place that he has constructed inside his head. She gave him the instruction to start with a babbling brook, and Abed says “I started out with a babbling brook, but then I layered in elements from our world. I’m sure fans of the babbling brook will complain, but I felt it was limiting.” The babbling brook is the typical laugh-track-a-second sitcom, into which Abed layered in elements from what he calls the real world. The real world is the show we are used to and the elements layered in are the characters therein. Britta asks Abed if he is ready for the “last first day of school” we see that this is the stress trigger that prompts Abed to retreat into his fantasy world. This is our stress trigger as well: the fear that the show will be canceled now that Harmon is gone and it may be homogenizing into bland background noise. Abed retreats into his head and we see the opening credits with new lyrics sung by Abed. The new lyrics open with “this is my show, it’s about me, and all my friends”, describing the personal connection a devoted viewer has with the characters of any show with which they connect. Fred Willard is listed as Pierce in these credits, and we see Chang here even though he does not appear anywhere else in the laugh track world.
In the real world, we find the study group reuniting (now including Chevy as Pierce), excited to begin a class called The History of Ice Cream. Annie says that she is going to do senioritis which she defines as “hangin’ out, blowin’ off classes, pullin’ pranks, not sayin’ my G’s.” Shirley lights up at this idea, and says that she will pull some pranks with Annie. Annie nonchalantly says she would rather pull them with Jeff, but will do so with whomever. Troy confirms his date with Abed to make wishes in the fountain, as is their first of the year tradition. Pierce tells them that “wishes aren’t real. If you want something bad, you have to work for it or use a spell.” The group sees a long line outside the ice cream class, as Jeff sticks his head outside the classroom to beckon them forward. We see world bleed as Jeff is wearing the hipster glasses from the laugh track world. He notices Britta is wearing the glasses too, and he takes his off, shoving them at Neil. We learn that Jeff showed up to the ice cream class early to save the rest of the group seats. Britta and Annie comment on Jeff’s behavior, calling him “a whole new Jeff Winger.” As the group sits down, Leonard complains that he has been “pissing in jars for an hour trying to keep this seat” while the group got in right away because of Jeff’s antics. During commentaries for season 1, we learned that Leonard’s original purpose was to act as an embodiment for the heard but not seen studio audience reactions in classic sitcoms. Leonard here is the audience, angry that a new production team waltzes into the show to pick up the history with a simplified view towards pleasing everyone, and turning the show into ice cream, while he has put in so much work with the last three seasons of the show. (The pissing in jars is a reference to DiCaprio’s character in the Aviator which will also come up later). The group yells at Leonard to stifle his cries and the dean comes in to quiet everyone down. The dean announces that the admission slips to the ice cream class have been counterfeited and the student pool has been flooded, negating the old way of accepting people into the ice cream class.
The dean leads everyone to the gym where he has set up an obstacle course which he calls The Hunger Deans. He expects the students to perform antics and jump through hoops in the post apocalyptic wasteland of sitcom television so that they may make it into the easy history class. Upon seeing the obstacle course, Shirley says “Oh, Lord, no.” and the rest of the group shares her sentiment as they reject the idea of competing in favor of taking history class next semester. Jeff reveals that ice cream is the only history class offered this semester and that it is the last class he needs to graduate. Jeff had hidden from the group that he took classes all summer and history is all he needs to graduate one semester early. The group feels betrayed that Jeff planned to leave them early, and Annie calls him selfish. Jeff is the spirit of the show here, fluctuating between old and new Jeff/old and new showrunner. Harmon is leaving early, and the restrictions placed on him by the producers (embodied by the dean) are turning him into a different Jeff, a new showrunner. The group represents different aspects of the writers, viewers, and the show itself, and they all feel betrayed and uncertain about their future after learning the truth about Jeff. Jeff says that he has been working on a speech to tie everything together and give closure to what he was planning. He offers a little bit of the speech, but not all of it. One of the show’s rules has been that Jeff will deliver a speech to tell us the lesson of the episode at the end. Abed tells Troy to fulfill the wish tradition without him so that he may stay in the gym to watch Jeff. As Annie leaves, she says “see you around, old Jeff.”, and Jeff protests that he is new Jeff and will win 7 red balls to enter the ice cream class because he is “not going to take that class unless you guys are with me.” As everyone has turned away, Jeff delivers part of his planned speech: “we’re gonna have to leave this place sometime. Like an ice cream cone melting in the sun, our time here can’t last forever.” This triggers Abed’s anxiety which pushes him back into the laugh track world.
Inside Abed’s head, we see the group reading generic pamphlets labeled JOBS as Jeff tells Abed they are making plans for the future because they “can’t stay at Greendale forever.” Now we have world bleed in the other direction, as Jeff’s words from the gym have corrupted Abed’s happy place. The dean comes in dressed as Leonardo DiCaprio from The Aviator and announces: “just as his character lost his mind, so have I lost your student records.” Shirley comments on how Amelia Earhart would have been a more straightforward demonstration of the dean’s news. The dean mentions DiCaprio, however, to ground us further in the referencing of Inception. The dean says that the group will have to repeat the last 3 years and Troy says dejectedly “we’re gonna be here forever.” This idea echoes in Abed’s head, making him happy, as we are pulled back to the real world.
In the gym, the dean starts the competition and Jeff tells Leonard to give up his pursuit of the first red ball. He assaults Leonard and climbs over him to capture the ball. Chevy sits with an unresponsive Abed, struggling to come up with a joke about Jeff acquiring balls. Jeff brings him the first ball, and we are pushed back into Abed’s head. In the laugh track world, Annie says that she would like to begin a major in forensics if she must start over. Troy mentions that you can major in antics, and Abed spouts off a lot of information about it as if he has researched it seriously. Jeff protests the idea that they have to start over as freshmen, but a group of girls comes in and invites the study group to a freshman mixer and Jeff accepts the role of freshman to chase after the girls. This is the opposite of new Jeff who sent girls away in order to take the final history class needed in the real world. Abed smiles and shakes his head seemingly thinking “classic Jeff” as we are pulled into the real world.
Annie and Shirley are breaking into the dean’s office to pull their senior prank. Annie keeps thinking small, and Shirley has to prod her to think bigger and actually pull off a prank. Annie gets excited about Shirley’s ideas and decides to move everything around the stapler, calling it a prank on a prank and mentions that “there are so many levels to this” —again referencing Inception. Shirley comes up with the idea of filling the dean’s car with popcorn instead. Annie misunderstands the reasoning at first, but grows to accept it. Annie begins to pretend she is the dean to figure out where his keys are. She does an impression of him and has the insight that the character wears heels, so the keys would be in a higher drawer than she first thought. Annie is the old writer, having been left by Jeff, the old show runner, she is treading water and coming up with trite ideas, but Shirley is a new writing partner who can use Annie’s expertise about the characters to prod her into new directions and come up with their own show to create a new history. Jeff comes in to show Annie that he has acquired a red ball for her. Shirley asks if that is blood on Jeff’s shirt, and he says that it is cool because the blood is Leonard’s.
Britta goes to the fountain with Troy to make wishes using the jar of pennies. Troy says that he and Abed always make the first wish together, so they each grab a penny and throw it into the fountain. Britta wishes for a great school year, while Troy wishes for a thousand wishes. He tells Britta that she is not following the rules, because the first wish is always a thousand wishes. Britta acquiesces as Troy wishes that she have half of his remaining wishes. With her next wish, Britta wishes to end all wars, which breaks Abed’s rule about wishes containing the word all because they yield guaranteed ironic consequences. Britta gets into the fountain to take the penny and the wish back, but Troy tells her that this is also against the rules of how the fountain works and that the pennies are not the wishes. They get into a fight and end up spilling the remaining pennies and breaking the jar. Troy is an old fan of the show and Britta is a new fan of the show. In Inception, a character would use a totem to test whether or not the possessor was in their own dream or someone else’s. The show is our dream and our totem as the viewer, and it must conform to the rules we have defined for it or else it is not our show, but someone else’s. Britta is accepting of anything at first, but Troy’s insistence on following the rules to maintain the old status quo is draining all of her pleasure.
Annie and Shirley have lined the inside of the dean’s car with tin foil and are filling it with popcorn which they will pop with magnifying glasses. Annie is complaining to Shirley about Jeff leaving early and what will become of everyone else. She is running future scenarios of everyone outside of school, seeing no fun in any of it. She calls the imagined future a “sad, slow march towards death.” Shirley tries to make her see the bright side, but Annie ignores her. Harmon has said in the past that the Community of the title is not the college, but the study group and that the show could extend outside of the school easily, as long as the group is together. The viewer is also part of that Community. Annie cannot see any of this, however, she only sees that the old, comfortable formula she was writing in is disappearing.
Jeff is still competing for and winning red balls. He wins each one, bringing his total to 5. The sixth competition is revealed to be a tango contest, which the dean says “requires complete emotional commitment.” Jeff surprises everyone by saying he chooses the dean as his partner. The dean gasps and whispers “the fountain works.” They begin to dance as Chevy still struggles for a joke about balls and we are sucked inside Abed’s head. The freshman mixer from the previous laugh track scene has turned into a food fight. Abed looks happy amidst the chaos, but Annie comes in and says that after only one forensics class she has found a way to retrieve the missing student records. She holds up a giant red ball safe and says that all their student records are backed up inside.
The dean made an undisclosed wish in the fountain, but we know that it was answered when he requested complete emotional commitment from the dancers and Jeff chose the dean to be his partner. Jeff accuses the dean of not wanting him to graduate, and the dean says “I want success for all Greendale students.” The wish seems to have the ironic consequences involving “all” which Troy warned about earlier, because Jeff has identified with the dean enough to know that he is the only one who could have counterfeited the admission slips for the ice cream class. The dean finally admits that he did erase the second history class, and he had hoped Jeff would walk away from the challenges like the rest of the group. If the wish of the producers is that the show will find success with all Greendale viewers so that it may make money, the consequence of this happening is that the viewer will begin to become emotionally invested in the characters and will recognize when the showrunner’s voice behind them changes and that old history between character and viewer is negated. Jeff delivers the sixth ball to Abed and Pierce, and we are pulled into Abed’s head again.
Annie is getting close to cracking the red ball safe, but Abed grabs it from her and holds it close, saying that he does not want her to open it, but that he wishes to stay in the laugh track world forever. Britta coaxes the safe from him, handing it back to Annie as she tells him about going to his happy place. We are now going another layer deeper. In the film Inception, the mark would construct a safe where the idea they most wanted to guard was kept, and the team of extractors would have to crack the safe to find the information they needed. For Fischer, they planted the notion of the safe and then planted the idea with which they wanted to incept him inside the safe. Fischer then journeyed with the team to open the safe, believing what was inside was true. Here, the idea of the red balls being what will release the group from the confines of the school has been planted in Abed’s mind, and he has turned it into a safe which houses the realization about the group which he does not want to face. His subconscious is breaking that idea outward though, thanks to the rules of his totem. The idea of the importance of the red balls and the red safe has also been implanted in the viewer’s mind, and whatever comes out of the safe will be considered more important. However, the safe has not been cracked yet, so Abed retreats further away from it before it can be opened.
In the third world, we see the group as a parody of the Muppet Babies cartoon series. The idea the viewer is being incepted with first was that though the show may be different, at least it has the characters you know and love and not some typical sitcom laugh track fodder. This new idea is that it could be even worse than laugh track fodder though and be an inane cartoon abstraction of all the beloved characters from the original show. In the real world, Pierce finally finds his joke about the balls, but it is weak and anti-climactic. Britta reveals to the rest of the group that she told Abed to go to his happy place in his mind, and the group deliberates about what to do as Jeff pulls himself away to win the last red ball. Troy has everyone else join hands, as he tries to bring them into Abed’s head. Troy says that it is not working though, and no progress is made into waking Abed up from his fantasies. In Inception, a person outside of the dream would deliver what was called “the kick” to the dreamer, as a signal that it was time for them to wake up. This kick could cause the world they were in to crumble, and as seen in the final action sequence, a sequence of kicks can pull the dreamer from one dream to another all the way up until they are back in the real world.
In the cartoon world, baby Jeff announces that he has something to say and the rest of the group cheers “Yay, like always!” As mentioned before, one of the rules of the show is that Jeff delivers a wrap up speech at the end, to tell us the lesson we were supposed to have learned during the episode. This speech serves as Abed’s kick, and the opening of his safe. As cartoon Jeff unlocks the realization Abed had been storing in the safe, Abed is brought out of the cartoon world, back to the laugh track world, where Jeff continues the speech. Jeff’s speech elaborates on the idea that the Community of the title is not the type of college the group is attending, but the group itself and our relationship with the group. Throughout our experiences in the laugh track world, fake show banners have been appearing in the lower third, advertising spin off series featuring the characters from the group in various roles. These were all created by Abed as viable alternatives to experiencing the group. They are a litmus test for the viewer as well: were they funny? would you have liked to see one of those shows? if so, was it because it still had the characters you know and love, not just the actors?
In the real world, Abed tells Jeff that he delivered a killer speech. Jeff dismisses the praise, saying that he “literally just walked up”, and Abed says “I know, I made the speech for you. It hit all the right notes.” Abed then delivers the real wrap up speech. He states that he was afraid of letting go of the status quo of the show in the school because he was so afraid of the future, but then he realized “all of this was once the future, and it was completely different from what I’d known before… but in the end —or in the now, I guess— it turned out great.” Jeff tries to deliver his speech that he mentioned earlier about ice cream, but Abed cuts him off. In the end of Inception, Cobb spins the top which many see as his totem. He watches it for a second to see if it conforms to his rules or not, but whether or not it falls (or even if it is or is not his totem) is an unimportant question, because ultimately he ignores it and walks away, accepting the world he is currently in. Abed has rejected one of the rules of the show by ignoring Jeff’s wrap up and has accepted the current reality of the show. However, whether or not the viewer can ignore the changes and will accept this new reality is unknown. Leonard absconds with all of the balls while the group was listening to Abed, so they have all lost their chance to be in the ice cream class. Annie talks about what she will take instead of history, suggesting advanced claims denial, but Abed suggests that she take forensics, as she had wanted to in the laugh track world. If Annie is an old writer, Abed is saying that she should delve into the past and see how it works and how its current state can be deciphered, offering her an alternative road to history. Abed is also building the current world to make people happier. Just as in Inception, there is no real world aside from that of the viewer who is watching the show. Many viewers will decry a piece of entertainment in which everything turns out to be a dream, because “what is the point?”, but none of this scripted fiction is real anyway, so the posited question can be applied to any episode of the show past, present, or future.
The dean greets Jeff outside of his condo, and reveals that he has reinstated the original history class for the group to take. This history class will require more work from the group, because, as Abed implied, the group’s present will one day be a new history for the viewer. The producer dean has given the show a season in which to make their own new history. The dean reveals that he is also now living next door to Jeff.
In the final scene before the credits, we hear what sounds like rushing water, and a drenched, naked Chang approaching a postman with a note that says his name is Kevin and he has Changnesia. The sound of waves and the wet presentation of Chang are both indicators found in Inception that someone has washed up on the shore of limbo, a shared space of raw subconscious which anyone can change and build within. It is the lowest level of the dream rungs. On one level, this is implying what was stated before: that there was never a real world. On another level, this is stating that in its relationship to the viewer, the show is still in a state of limbo. Will the changes the new people have made to the world everyone shares be accepted by the viewer or rejected? Will the show retain and/or grow its viewer base?
The final tag returns us to the laugh track world, and shows Troy and Abed dressed in drag to obtain entrance to the antics class. After they are accepted, Britta is refused entrance by the dean, and Shirley sticks her head out to say the same thing she said earlier in the real world, now with the inflection of a catch phrase “Oh lord, no.” This is another clue that the real world was never a real world.