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Network Jews: Annie Edison from NBC’s ‘Community’

Studious, serious, and literally buttoned-up—even Glee’s Emma Pillsbury must envy her cardigan collection—Community’s Annie Edison is a lot like a less loathsome Tracy Flick. Or, at least, she was when the NBC comedy first began airing in 2009. Community creator Dan Harmon readily admits that Reese Witherspoon’s iconic character from the film Election was Annie’s inspiration; originally, though, he wanted the role to be played by a Latina or Asian actress. But eventually, Harmon and his cohorts settled instead on Alison Brie—a pale, half-Jewish performer who also happens to be eight years older than the student she plays.

And as Community itself has gotten both progressively weirder and less easily classifiable, Annie, in turn, has begun to shed her Flickian skin. Season 1’s Annie was an academically focused but emotionally fragile innocent who proudly proclaimed that she was “totally comfortable being uncomfortable with [her] sexuality.” (Her only sexual encounter hadn’t exactly been worth writing home about: “I had relations with my high school boyfriend,” she told fellow Community members Shirley and Britta. “We did it to Madonna’s Erotica on the floor of his walk-in closet … He’s gay now.” Incidentally, this incident recalls one from Brie’s own past.)

Two years later, Annie hasn’t exactly learned to cut loose—but she has morphed into an infinitely more complicated character. The Annie we know today is still an ambitious, rule-abiding gunner who records all her classes to facilitate easier note taking. She’s also still more comfortable playing yenta with the members of her study group than taking charge of her own romantic destiny. But at the same time, Annie’s proven she has a wild streak that enables her to transform into, say, a badass, paintball gun-toting action heroine if need be. Season 1 Annie would have confessed immediately if she had broken her roommate’s priceless Dark Knight DVD; Season 3 Annie elects instead to stage an elaborate fake robbery, claiming that a mysterious stranger nabbed the DVD in question.

And though Annie still retains an aura of erotic inexperience, she’s somehow become Community’s most overtly sexualized character as well. See, for example, “Teach Me How to Understand Christmas,” an absurd and dirty number Annie performs in Season 3’s musical holiday episode. The thin premise is that Annie doesn’t get how to celebrate the season because she’s a Member of the Tribe. Though the song is obviously meant as a send-up of bawdy carols like “Santa Baby,” parodic suggestiveness is still suggestiveness; Annie performs the tune in a barely-there Santa costume that puts the “ho” in “ho ho ho.” By its conclusion, she’s straddling arrogant ex-lawyer Jeff and cooing, “Boopie doopie doop boop, sex!” (That’s literally the last line in “Teach Me.”)

Annie’s evolution is likely the result of the show’s scripts mining the discrepancies between Brie herself—the sexually liberated, worldly actress in her late 20s—and the character she plays. But there’s also an in-universe explanation for her development. It all comes back to Annie’s own fractured childhood: While she identifies as Jewish throughout Community’s run, in Season 2 she reveals that her dad—like Brie’s own—is actually a Christian. Before her parents got divorced, she explains, the holidays at her house were always “a minefield of overlapping rituals.” Annie reacted to the chaos of her broken home by prizing order above all other virtues—a choice that eventually led to an Adderall addiction, which is what landed her in community college in the first place.

But prolonged exposure to the nuttiness exuded by the rest of Community’s cast has thwarted Annie’s best efforts to stay disciplined. Now, with every episode that passes, she’s becoming more like them: unhinged and unpredictable. And as Annie moves away from personifying the archetypal brittle overachiever, she just gets more interesting. This shift means that as the show moves forward—hopefully all the way to a fourth season—we may be less likely to, say, see Annie bristle when her friends call her a Jew rather than Jewish (“Say the whole word!” she urges in Season 1’s “Comparative Religion”). Ultimately, though, it’s a positive sign of growth—even if in this case, growing up means growing progressively more unglued.

Last week on Network Jews: Schmidt from New Girl

Hillary Busis writes for and tweets here

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