Disclaimer: Community is, by far, my favorite comedy on television. There are no episodes of the first season that I even dislike a bit. The good news is, it’s also one of the best comedies on television, so my undying devotion won’t seem that biased or odd amid the sea of glowing reviews across the interwebs.
Last night’s premiere had a lot of work to do, but accomplished all its goals with relative ease while still remembering to be funny and heartfelt. First, “Anthropology 101” had to cover the aftermath of the Britta/Jeff dance massacre and the Annie/Jeff post-massacre kiss without seeming too much like a traditional love triangle. Secondly, the episode had to integrate very special guest star Betty White into the story without letting her override the talents and charms of the terrific cast. And lastly, it had to re-introduce all the characters like all season two premieres do so that new viewers (perhaps those who love Betty White) wouldn’t be lost when watching. With little exception, “Anthropology 101” accomplishes all those goals. It’s not one of the best episodes the series has ever done, but because of the extra work to do, it’s still mighty funny and smart with its plot.
Most importantly, the handling of Jeff’s romantic entanglements his handled beautifully. He’s basically tried to forget that both happened because Britta’s declaration of love was embarrassing and his second kiss with Annie was, well, somewhat inappropriate. But whereas a summer away made that easy, returning to the hell that is Greendale makes it all fire up again. Britta is now something of a cult hero to women because she stood up for her feelings without being afraid and thus is on a self-indulgent ego trip. And Annie, despite what her words say about letting it go, is more lovesick for Jeff than she ever was for Troy, following him around, twirling her hair and staring at him with lust in her eyes.
A lesser series would have dragged these beats out for multiple episodes, but here, the plots all ramp up, intertwine and then explode in the study room. Jeff and Britta try to one-up each other with a faux (and gross) physical relationship that makes Shirley squeal and Annie scream, and because he can’t take this romantic nonsense anymore, Abed expedite the relationship with a wedding. Before long, Shirley lets the cat out of the bag about Jeff and Britta’s sex during paintball, which makes Annie admit the kiss (and also punch him) and all hell breaks loose.
But what makes Community so great is that while the whole fake wedding sequences keeps going further with the comedy, it turns on a dime and switches to a nice, real emotional moment between Abed and Jeff. People might think Community is all about the pop culture references and meta commentary just like Jeff thinks Abed is, but that’s not the case. Abed’s line, “In TV we have likable leading men. In real life, we have you.” is a form of commentary, but it’s also emotionally resonant because we’ve been down this road with Abed. He knows the difference between his meta comments (like earlier in the episode when he asks Shirley if she wants to do a spin-off with him where they open a beauty salon) and real life, but he likes the structure and formula of television, it makes things simpler.
Similarly, the aftermath of that speech, which sees Jeff give a speech of his own about respect, works despite its slight cheesiness because it has already been established that in this world, and with these people, that’s what works. Jeff certainly does believe his words, but without the relationships with his classmates, he wouldn’t have and he wouldn’t have gotten up to say them so earnestly. And when the speech’s emotional impact is undercut by Betty White’s professor character attacking and subduing Jeff with a sweet weapon, there’s not enough time to really dwell on if the speech is too on-the-nose. And by the episode’s end, the series has already cycled through a possible love triangle and created something of a new equilibrium where Jeff realizes he treated both ladies wrong and they’re kind of grossed out by him (though I suspect Annie is lying). It’s a rapid-fire pace, but because there’s a nice combination of humor and emotion, it works.
As for the other two tasks, the episode succeeded fairly well. Betty White’s character was fun because it wasn’t just Betty White saying crazy, sexual things like she’s been doing for a year now and she didn’t really take up much of the episode. And most characters are given fine little moments throughout the episode that can probably help new viewers figure out who these people are, but also make us long-time viewers laugh for a very long time. The most obvious example of this is the “Old Man Says” Twitter account ran by Troy and about Pierce, which is A.) a hilarious bit in its own right and B.) even funnier as a meta commentary on S**t My Dad Says.
Man, I’m just so glad Community is back. And you should be too.