The community of Community is born when one college student tries to get into the pants of another. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is a lying, cheating, manipulative, and sneakily big-hearted ex-lawyer. Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) is a big eyed, pouty-lipped, self-righteous, wannabe activist. In the pilot episode, Jeff creates a fake study group in an attempt to score with Britta. She, in turn, invites a friend who invites more friends and that’s how we get the cast of characters that make up the show, which returns for the second half of its third season tonight.
In an earlier episode from this season, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” Abed gives a quick breakdown of his cohorts: “Annie will always be driven, Shirley will always be giving, Pierce will never apologize, Britta’s sort of a wild card for me…” Which is true. Her character has become noticeably rudderless as of late, and it’s not clear just why that is.
Initially, Britta’s character could be distilled into one word: buzzkill. Thankfully, the show’s writers have found, in episode after episode, ever more creative and elaborate ways for characters to tell Britta just how much they hate her: It’s the show’s most consistent running joke, and the writers have not done her any favors in the way of making her empathetic, sympathetic, or even likeable. Instead, they have established her as the least funny, most divisive character in the show’s cast of delinquents.
And yet, as Community’s leading female, the pseudo-mother to the study group, and counterpart to Jeff’s protagonist, she is consistently at the fore of nearly every episode, even when barely involved in the group’s activities. (Take Season 3’s “Geography of Global Conflict,” for example, wherein Britta tries to live out her activist dreams while the rest of the group participates in a model U.N.) Even as a potential love interest for Jeff, she’s been pushed aside by the more palatable and no less attractive Annie.
So what’s wrong with Britta?
She dropped out of high school because she thought it would impress Radiohead, joined the Peace Corps, dated a couple anarchists, was tear-gassed at the World Trade Center, and took an extended vacation in Africa before she realized she was almost 30 and enrolled at Greendale Community College. She has a superiority complex and a moral rigidity that she uses as both a shield and a weapon in order to mask her treasure-trove of insecurities and personal failings, making her at once a blowhard and a hypocrite. She is, in short, the embodiment of every negative liberal stereotype, what some Tea Partiers no doubt think of when they think of Democrats. Though often the sole voice of reason in a study group of miscreants led by a charlatan, that voice is often smug and almost always unwelcome (pretty typical for “voices of reason,” now that I think about it).
Given the show’s liberal audience demographic, perhaps these stereotypes hit a little too close to home for all involved. At least that would help explain some of the inconsistencies in her character—as well as the sour taste left in the mouths of many Community fans at the end of every Britta-centered storyline.
Early in the show’s run, the study group was inclined to at least recognize Britta’s value. In one particularly pithy declaration of her worth during the first season, Jeff consoles her by saying, “You’re like the dark cloud that unites us, or the anti-Winger. You’re the heart of this group. I don’t have a real handle on all this mushy stuff. If I did, then we wouldn’t need you.” But now, two and a half seasons in, it’s getting harder and harder to discern just why the group needs her at all. And the show’s writers seem equally confused.
Take for example “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which is, as widely noted, one of Community’s finest and most creative episodes. Its fractured, multi-layered structure brilliantly coheres around the identities of each character in the study group—except when it comes to Britta, who deviates not just from the character we’ve come to expect, but from any pattern the episode itself has. She tells Abed how “super sexy cool” his Indiana Jones model is, does what I can only describe as some kind of monkey pizza dance, mollifies Troy with uncharacteristically insightful advice, and actually manages to be the life of the party—a far cry from her days as a “fun vampire” who, as Troy once explained, didn’t suck blood, but just sucked. In fact, what’s implied in that episode is that it’s Jeff’s presence, not Britta’s, that consistently kills everyone’s buzz. The minute he’s removed from the equation, Britta is allowed to rock out to the Police’s “Roxeanne” and a karaoke/dance party erupts.
Like Abed said, Britta has become a nebulous “wild card,” capable of getting the party started while simultaneously being told that she’s ruining everything. What’s going on?
While the other characters can be viewed and mocked from a distance, Britta’s failings feel like our own. Her struggles between right and wrong, selflessness and selfishness, aloof detachment and petty jealousy are all too familiar—and the contempt she engenders can, for the viewer, feel almost personal. I can’t blame the writers for wanting to reestablish that Jeff, the selfish liar, is actually “the worst,” as opposed to Britta, whose biggest problem at Greendale Community College seems to be her humanity in a school of caricatures. It wouldn’t hurt, though, to make us feel something other than disdain for the one character most of us might actually relate to. That whole “dark cloud that unites us, heart of the group” stuff was sweet. Let’s get more of that.
Further reading: Catch Up with Community, Coming Back March 15
Previous Character Studies:
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