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Community Recap: The Ultimate Britta

COMMUNITY -- "Herstory of Dance" Episode 407 -- Pictured: (l-r) Gillian Jacobs as Britta, Jim Rash as Dean Pelton, Joel McHale as Jeff Winger -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Britta, verb
1. to botch, mar, spoil, ruin, fumble, or screw the pooch
2. to achieve unqualified success against all odds

We’ve passed the halfway point in the fourth season of Community. Week after week, the complaints have been the same. “It feels different.” “It’s lost a step.” “It’s not what it used to be.” Hopefully, this Thursday will mark a turning point. “Herstory of Dance,” this week’s episode, is all about beating a dead horse until it comes back to life. Fortunately, more often than not, the circuitous antics of “Herstory”┬áresult in a miraculous form of equine CPR, palpating the subject’s heart until it can trot once more. The episode succeeds by pummeling us with the familiar and then presenting us with pleasant and unexpected twists in the end.

As you can probably infer from the title, the herstory in question is Britta’s misguided attempt to inject some feminism into Greendale’s routine. Misguided is an understatement. The fact that Britta declares a Sophie B. Hawkins dance when she intends to invoke the name Susan B. Anthony is a colossal sitcom stretch. She may as well have seen a sofa, a bee, and a hawk in succession while groping for words and come up with the name that way. For an avowed feminist who once owned a cat named Susan B. Anthony to make this mistake is a gaffe so coincidental it must have been a reverse deus ex machina enacted by Lucille Ball, queen of the wacky misunderstanding, throwing lightning bolts from a conveyor belt offscreen. It was the most egregious “Britta” on record, and Jeff never lets us forget it.

The name “Britta” comes up so often as a synonym for failure that I found myself sympathizing with its namesake character and hoping for the preposterously named Sophie B. Hawkins dance to succeed. It’s the second time this month that I’ve actively rooted against Jeff. He’s no longer the likable jerk. He’s the jerk we used to like. Which, weirdly, I kind of like. Along with his daddy issues, Winger has, of late, displayed a sense of delight at the potential failures of others. Britta herself might call this feeling “schadenfloyd.” Sorry, cheap shot.

The amount of abuse that Britta takes in “Herstory” outweighs her foolishness in the way an apartment building outweighs a tadpole. Even though her character represents a parody of bandwagon feminism, the ridicule she endures seems legitimately antifeminist. Jeff exploits Britta’s track record of flightiness like the Cobra Kai working over Daniel-san’s injured leg. It’s too much. When Sophie B. Hawkins shows up to save the day, I breathed a sigh of relief comprised of atomized male privilege. When Jeff repurposes “Britta” to mean a rousing success, it’s an even bigger release of tension. Hopefully we’re done using Britta as a punching bag for a little while.

We also get to see Pierce’s bad advice pay off for once, another twist on conventional Community wisdom. (Though, I’m not so sure I buy that Hawthorne Wipes ever sponsored the Lilith Fair. I’m pretty sure Pierce’s father would not have approved of the tour’s stance on homosexuality.)

Abed’s story line also takes the audience to the brink of exasperation before flipping the script (as they say in nineties hip-hop lyrics). Though he vows to expand his horizons beyond capers and high jinks, Abed immediately gets sucked into enacting sitcom tropes. At times, Abed is like that one friend you have who misses your birthday for no good reason, excusing him/herself with an admission of: “I’m the worst.” After a while, though, knowing you’re the worst just makes you some kind of worse worst, because you are fully aware of how worst you’re being, and you do nothing to make yourself less worst. That’s what it felt like to watch Abed go on two simultaneous dates just to fulfill the asexual sitcom fantasy of being on two dates at once. He makes the requisite costume changes and repeated runs to the punch bowl without adding much to the formula. From there, the episode could easily have devolved into a Saved by the Bell rerun with better clothes.

Abed’s relationship with Rachel, the coat check girl, gives new depth to the standard arc of Abed playing out standard arcs. A good Community homage unfolds like a great band performing an unexpected cover song. A bad one is like watching a tribute band; the chords are the same, but they’re coasting on someone else’s laurels. Last episode’s attempt to spite-start a fraternity was a tribute band. This week might not be Aretha Franklin performing “Respect,” but it definitely achieves Cake doing “I Will Survive” status.

With all the little shake-ups, it’s strange that Abed’s new love interest is (so far) a fairly standard Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Her familiarity almost slips by unnoticed because she appears after Kat, the Hula-Hooping, saw-playing Über-pixie, who whispers secrets into balloons. By contrast, Rachel reads as a girl-next-door type, apparently sporting Warby Parker’s She’s All That frames. She’s zany enough to keep up with Abed’s eccentricities, though, which means that Community is asking us to take seriously the exact archetype they’re in the midst of satirizing. I was happy to let it slide, because when Abed left her behind in the coatroom, I grimaced. The show’s least relatable character once again proved to be its most human. The awkward, halting speech Abed gives onstage isn’t grand like in a movie. It’s clumsy, like in life.

“Herstory of Dance” provides several unexpected twists on familiar themes, which is why we watch this show in the first place. Whenever a plotline seems destined for monotony, it transforms into something fresh and entertaining, like people who like techno seem to think techno songs do. Characters take unexpected turns. Words take on alternate meanings. Everything old becomes new again.

But I swear on Chevy Chase’s career: The next time I hear someone say “Changnesia,” I’m going to throw a brick through the window of the nearest community college. This week’s OGFYC moment is brought to you by: Changnesia.

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC