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As Scene on TV: "Community"

Community: “Basic Story” – Jeff and Britta Get Engaged

When is a joke not a joke?  When it’s played straight, so that only fans, who are familiar with character back stories, get it.

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In Community’s penultimate episode of the fifth season, the gang is faced with the prospect of their beloved Greendale Community College being sold to a corporate sponsor.  As Abed, Annie, and Dean Pelton desperately search for a way to save the school, Jeff and Britta face the prospect of re-entering the adult world.

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Fans of Community know that Jeff and Britta’s romantic tension has not been played straight since season 2.  Although they’ve been sleeping together off-and-on, Jeff and Britta have not been portrayed as viable romantic partners prior to this scene.

So, their impulsive engagement must be played as parody, right?  Community is known for, if nothing else, its many parodies, sometimes of specific movies or videogames, and sometimes of whole genres.  So, in this scene, is the series mocking dramatic third-act romantic couplings?  Perhaps, but this scene is surprisingly lacking in humor.  Sure, it’s unexpected that Jeff and Britta immediately aim for public sex to celebrate their coupling, but their passionate kiss and excitement give the beat a more sweet, loving feel.  Until Abed, Annie, and the Dean enter with their ecstatic plan to save Greendale, the scene doesn’t feel like it belongs in a comedy.

So, if this scene is not meant to be comedic, perhaps it is, in fact, meant to be romantic.  However, this scene is lacking one key element of a love story: the love.  Not only do the characters not declare their feelings for one another, but their lead up to the proposal smacks of desperation – Jeff’s statement: “This is what keeps this all from being pointless.  Let’s do what people do,” demonstrates that  his proposal is borne more of a desire for symbolism than of any romanticism.  This isn’t a happy ending: it’s sort of pathetic.

So, why is this scene here?  Abed, the pop-culture obsessed trope-savvy 4th-wall breaker, spends the entire first act focused on story structure and seeking to create a plotline when his friends experience a rare absence of conflict.  This plotline draws attention to the constructed-ness of Community episodes, and begs the later scenes to be deconstructed.  

Throughout the scene, Jeff and Britta are focused on the future: life after Greendale, and by implication, life after the series ends.  Even as their future plans change, the pair is still focused definitively on what’s coming next, in contrast with the arcs of Abed, Annie, and the Dean, who try to save Greendale and preserve the status quo.

On a structural level, Jeff and Britta’s engagement scene functions like a mini-movie, complete with a beginning, middle, and end.  First, Jeff and Britta sit at the study room table, discussing their future plans.  The second act starts as Britta’s about to leave – Jeff impulsively proposes.  The third act is the consummation of these dreams – in this episode suggested through literal consummation.  However, here Jeff and Britta are interrupted pre-coitus, as the remainder of the cast enters with their manic pronouncement that they’ve discovered a map to buried treasure.  

If Jeff and Britta’s scene is a story about endings, which itself lacks an ending, then this scene is sub-textually undermining the idea that anything ends.  Philosophically, this exploration is just one of the many ways Community reveals itself to be deeper than the standard sitcom.  Story-wise, it’s only appropriate that our characters’ happy ending be deferred, as this isn’t even the last episode of the season, and the show stands the chance for renewal.   In an episode where Greendale’s salvation is discovered when Abed literally peeks behind the fourth wall, we get a scene that defies the notion of ending by enticing the audience with a depiction of what Jeff and Britta’s happy ending could be, but isn’t.

Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She’s currently producing a documentary called The Longest Straw [www.thelongeststraw.wordpress.com].