We open this episode with The Dean setting the stage by introducing us to 5 of our 7 major characters. The tropes Troy, Shirley, Annie, Pierce, and Britta occupy explain why they are at Greendale. That leaves Jeff and Abed.
Jeff has a more complex reason for attending, which he explains to John Oliver’s Ian Duncan. Abed is initially introduced through his behavior and it is not until the end of the show that Jeff, in anger, explicitly references Abed’s autism. The explicit statement of this with such malice is rather poignant for the show. It preserves Abed’s dignity. He’s not a handicapped character to be wielded as a source of sympathy.
This episode is grouped into two plots. The A plot follows Jeff’s attempt to manipulate Britta into a date, while the B plot sees Jeff try to manipulate Professor Duncan into giving him an easy ride towards graduating.
The A plot sees Britta break beyond her stated trope from the beginning of the episode so that the audience gets a more complex character for Jeff to have a conflict with. As Jeff and Britta initially banter in the study room, she sets her as a foil to Jeff, who is established at this point as former lawyer and willing to lie to manipulate people for his own ends, by stating that she values honesty in a person. Britta inviting Abed to their Spanish study session with Jeff shows a level of subtle manipulation that she rarely exhibits towards the end of the series.
The B plot is where the most surreality exists with Duncan’s awful attempts at clandestine behavior and the background antics that characterize the school. This is a relative statement, though, as the surreality is more of a grounded comedy than exhibiting anything impossible.
The A plot establishes the central makeup of the show and introduces a few recurring tropes and themes we’ll see through the show’s existence. The lack of complexity given to the remaining cast means Jeff shoulders a lot of the burden for driving the episode. The recurring trope of the group implosion is given first life, but through the manipulations of Jeff rather than Chevy Chase’s Pierce, who primarily drives intra-group conflicts in later episodes. We also get the first Winger Speech trope, where Jeff refocuses the group on themselves through the power of his personality and charisma. The pilot’s speech is the Shark Week speech, attempting to equate man overcoming differences through empathy with the way people empathize with animals through televised drama like an entire week of shows devoted to sharks on Discovery channel.
In both plots Jeff gets the tables turned on him by his targets. As Professor Duncan explains the ruse he perpetrates on Jeff, and he explicitly explains the the show’s arc of Jeff. Jeff has an opportunity to remake himself into an honest person. Jeff growing as an honest person will bring him closer to Britta, thus setting them up as an impending will they/won’t they.
Now for a few stray observations:
1) Throughout the life of the show, the group sits is clearly defined chairs around their table. Jeff claims an entire side of the table for himself, setting himself apart from the group. Troy and Pierce are on one side, as the most insensitive of the group, and definitely most exemplary of toxic masculinity. Annie and Shirley both represent a sort of female caregiver for being the ones that most unconditionally care for others. I don’t really know what commonality Britta and Abed share.
2) Jeff easily asserts himself as leader first through the dishonest means of being a “certified spanish tutor” and once that lie is exposed, the show establishes him as the one character that can make the rest of the group focus on a common goal, first with his Shark Week speech, then explicitly told to him by Britta when she allows him to rejoin the study group because they could not focus without him.
3) While he is the leader, the aloofness as physically shown by Jeff sitting on a table side to himself puts him in conflict with Britta, who acts as the voice for the rest of the group.
4) A trope that appears throughout the show is that the group studies because they all attend a single common class. In the case of the current season, that’s Spanish 101.
Ok, so here’s this blog’s own tropes: The Rankings!
First, How surreal is this show? Right now there’s not another to compare it to, but its obvious it is set well within the framework of polite society. Duncan’s behavior and the antics of the school in background are relatively benign.
Second, Darkness. Again with nothing to compare to we have no clue, but the show has an edge to it with Jeff being fairly close to a villainous character. He may have learned a lesson here, but a lot of his selfishness is still there.
Third, Britta’s competency: Britta’s is given a rather complex character with a middling reason for being at school. her character trope is established in the Dean’s first speech but the episode fills in the layers of her personality in order for her to be a proper foil to Jeff. She acts as the voice of the greater group and gets the better of Jeff in the A plot.
Fourth, the realization of characters: In this episode we see Jeff, Britta, and Abed as the three most established characters while the remaining 4 of the study group play small one note parts to try to get across their characters in as fast a way as possible.
Fifth: The evolution of the Troy and Abed friendship. It is non-existent at the moment, as Troy finds more comraderie with Pierce than Abed.