Out of all the Study Group friendships, Jeff Winger and Shirley Bennett is the most grown-up, mature, stable relationship. They met back when they were kids playing foosball (“Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism”), gossiped about Britta’s hippie boyfriend (“Social Psychology”), and put each other’s needs first (“Introduction to Finality”). Unlike Jeff’s relationship with other women on the show, Shirley isn’t set up as a romantic interest—which she has called him out on, and it’s probably because he’s intimidated sexually—and their friendship is based on the fact that no one else gets them the way they do. Britta is the only other member of the group who is close to both their ages, but her character is often used to contrast either with her loner feminism and buzzkill Britta-ness.
However, Shirley—who’s been severely underused in the past few seasons—has a life outside of the study group. She has a growing family and a new business to run. “App Development and Condiments” opens with Shirley finding out she wasn’t invited to Jeff’s Tuesday dinner party because he knew Shirley went to her son’s karate practice. In Jeff’s eyes, he was saving Shirley the trouble of saying no. But for Shirley, she felt left out and now she was speaking for herself. (Personally, I love that last week’s episode called this out.)
And when Shirley speaks for herself, it’s often through the art of manipulation.
Time and time again, “Community” has used Shirley’s weakness of manipulating other with her sad eyes and guilt-inducing diction as both a character trait and a relationship roadblock. It’s part of who she is but it always comes at a price. Shirley may get what she wants for a little while, but she also loses the respect of her friends. In “App Development,” it’s Jeff in particular.
Of course, you can’t have a true heartfelt episode of “Community” without a concept metaphor driven in between. This week, Greendale is beta testing a new app called “MeowMeowBeenz” that rates people, on a scale of One to Five, on how others perceive them.
Professor Hickey hates it: “I fought for this country. I know you can’t pick and choose what part you fight for…”
As it normally happens in Greendale, this new app is taken very seriously. Starburns carries other students’ books to get raised from a Two to a Three, Britta is only heard if mustard is smeared on her face, and Shirley is the queen of niceness. Shirley rises quickly to a Five, masking her manipulation with a sweet, sing-song voice and a big grin. Jeff sees right through it and downloads the app to take her down.
Like any futuristic dystopia, the elite have all the power and control those below them in the system. Shirley, Abed, Hickey, Chang, and a new character called Koogler control Greendale in their white robes parading around in their white sheet tent. Sensing the unrest of Ones, Twos, and Threes, the Fives hold a talent show to boost morale. Jeff, currently a Four, registers with an act to win the hearts of everyone: stand-up comedy.
If Jeff can see right through Shirley’s mask, then Shirley can see right through Jeff’s. She knows that he’s trying to expose her and tear down the system to take away her power, which only makes her want to take him down, too.
Jeff becomes a Five because the rest of the elite loves him. Once he’s in, both Jeff and Shirley attempt to manipulate the other Fives to take the other one down. Their masks fall apart and their meanness and desire to control quickly drops them to a pair of Ones. Kicked out of the white tent, Jeff and Shirley are stuck outside the Greendale library with nothing but their pride and a broken friendship to mend.
Jeff knew Shirley couldn’t make the dinner, but he didn’t adjust his plans to include her. Shirley, on the other hand, only saw the dinner as a way to keep her out. Her feelings were hurt. Shirley doesn’t mind that the group is doing other activities without her; it just would’ve been nice to be invited. Jeff admits he didn’t change the dinner party date because he likes to control things. It wasn’t personal, what they did, but rather a lack of communication that went overboard.
Meanwhile, Britta Perry took over Greendale and began a “cleanse” of Fives, making them all Ones. With mustard smeared on her cheek, she ruled her makeshift court with all the authority a woman who always wanted to stick it to the Man could possess.
Jeff announces there’s an unregistered Five they’ve all overlooked. The beta testing of “MeowMeowBeenz” was over days ago and now the app was available for purchase at $0.99. It was rated with five stars.
How do you cleanse an unregistered Five? Koogler asks. You delete it, Jeff answers. And just like that, the “MeowMeowBeenz” phenomenon is over. Britta is left alone in her courthouse, smacking mustard all over her face for one last moment of power.
In the end, it wasn’t about Shirley really changing. It was Jeff who provoked her in the first place. With the beta testing over, Jeff and Shirley are good again and think about ways to adjust to spend time together. Tonight, they’re ordering take-out from a new restaurant. Their beautiful, sweet friendship is restored.
Other highlights and observations:
- Abed just wants to belong. He preferred being a lower rating just because he could hang out with other people without the awkwardness of trying to form a bond. It’s sad that this is Abed without Troy Barnes. He’s more vulnerable and eager to fit in somewhere.
- Hickey said it was his birthday for over a week, just to stay in the elite. Man, he knows human psychology.
- Is Koogler coming back? Can he stay forever as our 80s movie star?
- Britta: “You’re punishing me for being alive!” Leonard: “That’s the idea!”
- How quickly is the “MeowMeowBeenz” app going to be a real thing? Come on, “Community” fans! Make it happen!