Rewind: ‘Stella’ – ‘Pilot’

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot – June 29, 2005

The pilot episode starts off with roommates Michael Showalter and David Wain bickering about their pre-bedtime ritual of listening to “Funk” music as they drive to “The Athletic Club.” The third roommate and driver, Michael Ian Black, threatens the other two. He says, “So help me god, if you both don’t shut up, I will run this car into a telephone pole,” as if he were a mother emptily threatening her misbehaving children (as seen on shows like Desperate Housewives (2004- )). Only here, the threat is not empty and the passengers dare him: “Do it Michael, do it! Do it, Michael.” Ian Black rams their Volvo station wagon into the pole, totaling the car, and the boys come out of the car carrying their gym bags, undeterred in their bickering, as Ian Black’s head is covered with blood, and make their way into the athletic club for a game of racquetball. By following through with his promise, Ian Black confirms our annoyance with vapid sitcom parents who threaten their children for cheap laughs (despite the severity of their children’s actions: these families only exist so that working-class families have a network of commiseration, for which misery they will never seek improvement).

The trio remains in full-on two piece suits as they play racquetball and hit the sauna, all the while continuing their debate on which genre of music they will listen to before hitting the hay. The compromise is that they will listen not to “Funk” or “Funk Rock” but instead, “Funk Rock.” As Showalter explains to Wain, “The difference between “Funk” and “Funk Rock” is night and day. Before the opening credits roll, the Michaels and David groove in their three-man bachelor pad to “Funk Rock,” and the absurdity never lets up in the show’s ten-episode season. It’s obvious from these first frames of Stella is that the troop’s deep-seeded disregard for traditional television formatting and monotony; as one critic described Stella, it’s “The Marx Brothers on acid.”

The main conflict of the episode results from the guys making too much noise in their apartment. Their downstairs’ neighbors (conveniently, three single girls) complain to the landlord about the loud music and stomping each night. The landlord, Mr. Mueller (played with fantastic comedic restraint by Peter McRobbie, who played Jack Twist’s disapproving father in Brokeback Mountain (2005)), calls to let the boys know about the complaint. The funniest dialogue of the episode follows, in which Ian Black and Showalter’s banter mocks the stupidity and ignorance of all -isms: Ian Black claims, “[Mueller] is such a Nazi.” Showalter is quick to point out, “Michael, not all Germans are Nazis.” Ian Black shoots back, “That’s not my understanding.” Being an American show and a show commenting on American society, the dialogue is more a euphemism for the white-black dynamic than it is for the world-German commentary. However, the commentary works on both levels; racists, elitists, ethnocentrics, and all inclusive social politicians are all sufficiently lacking in common sense and humanity.

Upon finding out that Mr. Mueller is coming over to talk about the complaint, the trio nervously hurries to clean their spotless apartment by fluffing pillows (Showalter even pulls one out of a kitchen cabinet to fluff and neatly replaces it in its right place), then form a tableau to greet the landlord. This bit mocks the neatness and perfection of sitcom sets, which never seem to be disturbed by the sitcom family that inhabits the space. (Does it ever bother you that despite containing a bachelor, a single father, and a teenage boy, the Two and a Half Men (2003- ) household looks as placidly clean as a hospital room?)

However, the door is locked, and they refuse to move from their perfectly formed tableau, so they tell Mueller to let himself in with the key underneath the doormat. There is no doormat (of course, the boys forgot to pick it up from the drycleaners), and they send off Mueller to pick up their doormat. Showalter remembers: “You know what… I took the rug to the cleaners. It was filthy.” Upon returning and placing the mat on the ground, Mueller pulls the magically accessible key out from beneath the mat and opens the door.

When Mueller enters the apartment, the trio brown noses Mueller by telling him how good he looks, setting up mood lighting and offering him a deep tissue massage with tea tree oil. The overly-welcoming display ironically suggests that social propriety and kindness are really forms of Stockholm syndrome. Mueller proceeds to evict the trio despite their attempts to win him over.

While homeless, the trio ridicules stereotypes ascribed to the homeless. They split one bean three ways, garnishing it with a brand new bottle of Worcestshire sauce, and sleep in cardboard boxes while wearing ragged and ripped-up hobo uniforms. They shower and shave in a fire-hydrant and attempt to rent out a one-million dollar apartment before Showalter tells the (as he so poignantly realizes) “all-black” apartment board, “We don’t have this money.”

Again homeless, they see an ad for their old apartment. They employ a fake-mustache dealer (who, spotless here, is played by Sam Rockwell in later episodes), who sells mustaches of many shades and styles out of his bedroom dresser, and head back to their old stomping grounds where Mr. Mueller is having an open-house.

The trio poses as “business tycoons,” and Mr. Mueller likes what he sees in these business-men. That is, until Ian Black’s mustache falls off, and Mueller sees that they are really the trio he so recently evicted. This surprise gives Mueller a heart-attack. But not to worry, the Stella boys know how to handle this: they take Mueller into a backroom and open up his chest with a butter-knife.

With dramatic-hospital-show-suspense music hanging in the backdrop, a macabre accessory of operating tools comes into play – a ladel, a baster,  a yarn (to stitch the chest back together), tongs, etc. – while Ian Black solemnly ruminates about Mueller’s lack of family: “It’s a shame when you have nobody to share your life with.” It’s that type of blathering drivel as heard in shows like ER (1994-2009), Grey’s Anatomy (2005- ), etc. that Stella seeks to discredit. Showalter walks into the living room to tell the other tenants of the apartment building that “It was real touch-and-go there for a while, but we think [Mueller’s] gonna make it.” Gasps of relief come from the other tenants until Ian Black chimes in over Showalter’s shoulder, “You guys, you guys, he’s dead. We lost him.”

The contrived feelings felt by everyone involved in reaction to Ian Black’s blunt statement make the contrived feelings in all the hackneyed dramas and sitcoms seem that much more false. Stella, in fact, highlights the sickness of cable television programming and posits: Why do we need actors and actresses on uninspired programming to feel for us? Do we not feel emotions in reaction to mundane and everyday occurrences? Do we need Grey’s Anatomy to exacerbate the expectations of how we should feel in reaction to normal tragedy?

I think not. (But who am I to judge. Honestly.)

The final joke of the episode comes in the form of vindication for the guys and Ian Black in particular. Elliot Morgenthal (Zak Orth) from the Leimanthal Foundation tells them the truth about Mueller: “That man was no landlord. The man who you knew as Don Mueller was known to the world as Dr. Joseph Mengalla, the famous Nazi war criminal who escaped into hiding after the war. Your botched open-heart surgery was a just and ironic end to his monstrous life.” The Leimanthal Foundation rewards the guys with three-months rent payment, fleece pullovers, a wicker basket, and a toaster. “That is too funny,” they all say in unison as Morgenthal leaves. Ian Black’s suspicion and confirmation that Mueller is German, of course, is the grand joke and absurdism at its finest and most poignant. Sometimes, it seems, all Germans ARE Nazis.

Other notes:

Edward Norton guest stars.

Rashida Jones (featured in The Office (2005- ) and Parks and Recreation (2009- )) appears as one of downstairs neighbors, but she does not reprise her role in the second episode.


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