The Wife:

When I saw the opening of this week’s Mad Men, featuring S-C employees discussing how the big wigs are out of town on vacations and business trips, I had hoped to receive an episode on par with my favorite from last season, “The Gold Violin,” which concentrated on minor characters and beautifully explored the themes in Ken Cosgrove’s titular short story as they applied to the lives of Sal and other characters. “The Souvenir” was not quite so astonishing, but it did tell us a lot about the fantasy lives of Pete and Betty.

With Trudy away at her parents (i.e. being on Community), Pete is spending his summer holiday alone. His first act of freedom is to sit alone with his shirt off in the dark, followed by a hazy montage of Pete eating cereal while watching Davy and Goliath on Children’s Catholic Television (side note: I totally watched that show at my Catholic grade school), sleeping for most of the day and then suddenly realizing he should buy other food, only to come home to find Gudrun the German Au Pair sobbing over a stained party dress in the hallway. Save for that last event, it is evident that Pete is just a giant manchild, in one way enjoying the deregulation of married living, but on the other hand, utterly lost without a caretaker. In his Pete Campbell-y way, he convinces Gudrun to let him solve her dress problem, and he does, by storming into a high-end dept. store (which I’m assuming was not Menken’s, but Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s) and lying his way into an exchange of merchandise. This exchanged happened, and it was awesome:

Pete: Let me speak to the manager.

Salesgirl: Of the entire store.

Pete: Of the Republic of Dresses! Whoever can help me!

And when the manager does arrive, it happens to be Joan, ruling over department store girls with the same stately authority with which she once drove the secretarial pool at S-C. But it’s evident there’s something different about Joan. Her hair is free of its official French twist, loosely curled around her face in what I can only assume is a “younger” fashion. And she’s lying just as much as Pete is. “I’m just filling in. They needed some extra help,” she says, when Pete incredulously asks if she’s working in retail now. She takes care of the entire dress exchange for him, free of charge, despite his insistence on paying.

Let me get that for you . . . and youll have sex with me, too, right?

Let me get that for you . . . and you'll have sex with me, too, right?

I think this act is important because it shows Joan’s attempt to present the same face to Pete that she always presented at S-C (notice how she sighs in shame at being “found out” once he leaves her sales floor), but it also contributes to Pete’s further misunderstanding of how the world works. He believes himself to be such an influential man that things just happen for him, but more often than not they don’t. In fact, when he gives Gudrun the new dress to replace the one she’d ruined, he fully expects a reward in kind, but Gudrun shuts him down. I think Pete is always looking for some kind of Madonna-Whore figure. He wants someone to mother him, but, just as much, he needs someone to be submissive to him sexually. (See Trudy for the former, Peggy for the latter.) So when Gudrun turns him down, the only alternative in his mind is to get trashed, force his way into her apartment (as gently as one can invade a home) and take at advantage of her. At the very least, we know he kisses her. But given the way Gudrun’s employer speaks to Pete at the end of the episode, I think we can safely assumed that more was implied. He is told something he should have already known: the first rule of nanny-fucking is that you stay out of your own building.

As for Betty, thanks to Mr. Henry Francis showing up in the nick of time with a letter from the Governor, she and the Junior League manage to successfully stall the Tarrytown reservoir project until further study can be done. Don is impressed by her efforts, and so his Henry Francis, who takes the time to make out with Betty in her car after the meeting. This whole Jr. League business, including the makeout session, imbues Betty with a new sense of control over her own life and she wakes up Don in the middle of the night to ask if she can tag along on his business trip to meet with Conrad Hilton in Rome.

Once there, Betty seizes onto the life she could have had — if only she’d kept up modeling, if only she hadn’t married Don, if only she hadn’t had children. In Italy, men are popping into frame to light her cigarettes all the time, and fashionable women stroll the lobbies of rich hotels. Here, we learn that Betty apparently learned Italian sometime during her few years at Bryn Mawr and speaks it well enough to get around Rome on her own. While Don is still sleeping, she calls a beauty salon and shows up at that evening’s dinner in the Hilton courtyard with Conrad Hilton dressed in a darker, sexier version of the clothing the fashionable Italian girl she’d seen in the lobby earlier: her hair in a complicated updo befitting any Fellini heroine, her black dress bedecked with the first hints of shimmy fringe the 1960s of Mad Men has ever known. She’s a knockout, and she knows it. And so do the ever-so-forward Italian men she takes a table beside in the courtyard. Certainly, Betty is complimented on her beauty enough back in New York, but here she’s a completely different girl. The girl she’s always wanted to be who can trade barbs with suitors in a foreign tongue, playing her aloofness off as mystery and intrigue.

After their dinner with Hilton, Don and Betty have one of the most passionate nights they’ve had in a long time, making love in view of the ruins. It was very Antonioni. But soon they return home to their life as usual, dealing with Sally’s temper and their two month old son and all of the other banal problems of suburban life. She’s returned from abroad a different woman, wearing her brand new Pucci maxi dress and smart headband around the kitchen, showing it off with nowhere else to go. (I note here that I have actually witnessed Italian women doing dishes in their Cavalli gowns, and I still can’t decide if it was sad or amazing.) She’s visually out of place amongst the summery sleeveless tops and Capri pants lining her block, and its no wonder that Betty should so suddenly and strongly announce her hatred for the suburbs and their friends there. Even when Don gives her a Coliseum charm for her charm bracelet, sent all the way from Rome by Connie Hilton, it’s not enough for her. It’s not the promise of a different life, but merely “something to look at when I tell the story of the time we went to Rome.”

Stray thoughts:

  • “They should just do it up in Newberg. It’s already disgusting.” — Betty, telling NYC suburbs what’s what.
  • I really don’t know what to make of the scene where Sally watches Betty blot her lips, followed by the scene of her brutally attacking her brother after playacting Mommy and Daddy in the bathtub with Francine’s kid. She’s trying so hard to be feminine, but she’s just got such a damn mean streak in her.
  • That vintage Pucci Betty brought back from Rome, by the way, was a stunner. I’m not into maxi dresses so much, but I fucking adore that one.
  • Does looking at that stupid fainting couch just make Betty think about kissing Henry Francis now, or what?
  • I actually like Joan’s hair down.
  • Italian suitors! How dare you call Jon Hamm ugly! YOU SPEAK FILTHY LIES!
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The Wife:

So far, I like Community. I’m watching it because I like Joel McHale, and the smarminess of his Soup persona translates nicely to Jeff, the lawyer who returns to community college rather than face disbarment, who is just as much of a lovably smarmy asshole as McHale is on the The Soup.

The setting allows of a typically zany supporting cast, each one of them desperate for some kind of validation in their lives (as that’s kind of what community college is for). There’s the popular high school girl trying to make a fresh start, the jock who can’t let go of his high school pride, the mother trying to reclaim the education she never got, the hipper-than-thou girl who’s trying to do something with her life for a change, the kid who clearly learned more about pop culture over the course of his school life and therefore didn’t meet any expected learning results and the senior citizen trying to reclaim his youth.

This is probably why I never attended study groups.

This is probably why I never attended study groups.

I like all of them, but so far my favorite character is pop-culture obsessed Abed, who spent the entirety of the first episode misunderstanding subtlety and comparing Jeff’s plight to Michael Douglas roles.

“I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films, but now you’re more like Michael Douglas in any of his films.”

or

“I’m sorry I called you Michael Douglas and I see your value now.”

Another highlight of the pilot was John Oliver’s role as an anthropology professor trying to blackmail Jeff into getting his BMW in exchange for a year’s worth of answers to every test Jeff will ever take. Oliver plays the role with a Maxwell Smart-esque edge: the smart guy who makes too many idiot mistakes for you to actually think he’s smart. Case in point: “Con-4-s-8-tion” is his version of an abbreviated text.

With Jeff’s plans to cheat his way through community college falling apart before his eyes, he actually has to socialize with these losers from his Spanish class in the form of a study group and form some sort of community if they are all to survive and graduate, which sort of works out in his favor as, at the very least, it means he gets to spend time with love interest Britta.

In the next episode, Jeff switches assignment cards with Abed so that he can work with Britta on a Spanish project, but she has switched cards with Chevy Chase’s aging hipster Pierce simply so she won’t have to work with him. Rather than take the necessary 10-20 minutes to complete the simple assignment of creating a conversation using five stock phrases the class has learned from Senor Chung, Pierce goes balls-out and creates an epic, multi-page conversation that means very little and contains several anti-Israeli diatribes and a bunch of other vaguely racist shit.

Jeff tells Pierce off about the project and refuses to work with him, but Pierce wants to do the presentation as he wrote it. When Britta tells Jeff that she switched cards with Pierce because he paid her $100 just so he could work with Jeff, his Grinchian heart melts a little bit and he volunteers to do the project with Pierce as written. What follows is a hilarious, silent montage of each segment of the performance, which involves puppets, near minstrelsy, flag waving and silly-string wars. As triumphant as the finish is, Jeff and Pierce both earn Fs from Senor Chang. Jeff actually earns an F-minus.

But Jeff learns to be selfless, and that’s a more worthwhile lesson than anything in the B-plot, which sees Shirley and Annie hearing about one horrible global atrocity from Britta and deciding to become globally aware by setting up a protest rally about the death of a Guatemalan journalist. It tastelessly includes a piñata effigy of the dead man . . . who was beaten to death, as Britta points out, which Annie feels is part of why the piñata is poignant.

My problem with the B-plot isn’t its purpose, which is to mock collegiate organizations that rally around every cause without really understanding what that cause is and to demonstrate that “raising awareness” isn’t really doing anything, but its lack of growth for Shirley and Annie. Yes, through their actions Britta realizes that she is also one of those people who is all talk and no action and that she should actually do something other than being cool and bitchy, but Shirley and Annie don’t grow by this. I hope they do. Britta, Jeff and Pierce are all people. I’d like to see the rest of the ensemble become more than a source for jokes.

Stray thoughts and funny things:

  • Abed’s text misunderstanding in the first episode was funny.
  • I, too, question the validity of the library PA system.
  • Did anyone else notice that all of the flag cards in Mr. Chang’s Spanish class were Italian flags?
  • “In Spanish, my nickname is El Tigre Chino, because my knowledge will bite her face off!” — Senor Chang
  • Pierce: To the empowerage of words!
    Jeff: To the irony of that sentence.
  • “And this isn’t a school newspaper, it’s a real paper! There’s a Marmaduke in there.” — Shirley
  • Joel McHale is pretty well-built in the chest and arm area, is he not, ladies? I think Abed for coveting his dress shirt.
  • I would like to see Joel McHale and Lou wear those mini sombreros on The Soup one week.

The Husband:

So far I very much dig the wry humor and laid-back energy (oxymoronic, I know) of Community, but it’s still stuck in a Bill-Murray-in-the-70s type humor which results in smirks and knowing nods instead of outright laughs. There have, of course, been big laughs (Abed’s Breakfast Club outburst, for one), but I feel like I’m forcing myself to laugh at certain points. And I don’t want to force myself to do anything.

McHale is a great personality, and the second episode showed that it won’t be long before I can actually relate to Jeff as a character, but the snark might be, in my opinion, laid on a little too thick. It distances us viewers from the other characters, because he distances himself from them. I mean, even buffoonish Michael Scott has a heart. True, it took him a couple seasons to really find it, but as Community doesn’t have a big pedigree to its name, I’m not sure if viewers will wait that long.

Basically, there is a way to have your snark and eat it, too.

I do very much like the study room in the library, though. Every good sitcom needs its main room for the characters to congregate, like Sunshine Cab Company on Taxi, the newsroom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the hallway on Saved by the Bell (and yes, these are three of the shows I recently watched in my chronological journey through American sitcoms thanks to my workplace, Hulu and Netflix), as well as every single family sitcom that revolves entirely around the living room. It gives a nice air of familiarity.