In Community season 3’s Halloween episode, “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps,” Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) proclaims that he’s not a sociopath because he always knows what he’s doing is wrong. But, crucially, he does it anyway. So while he may not be a sociopath, he’s an almost textbook psychopath – which might also explain how he became the study group’s de facto leader.
From the start, Jeff is presented as the sitcom’s questionably moral hero, a disgraced former lawyer performing his penance at Greendale Community College. The other students there are drawn to him, even as he makes it clear he doesn’t care about them. His antisocial tendencies and disregard for the emotions of others are portrayed as side effects of his being, quite literally, too cool for school. But there’s actually something much deeper at play.
The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised is the most common way of sussing out clinical psychopathic behavior. Among the twenty points listed are “superficial charm,” a “grandiose sense of self-worth,” and being “manipulative,” which are basically the first three descriptors on Jeff’s character sheet. He’s exhibited almost all the other points as well.
Let’s start with an almost constant lack of remorse, as well as callousness and a general lack of empathy. All of these traits are evident in the pilot episode, in which Jeff lies about being a Spanish tutor, inadvertently creates a study group, and then, in a matter of minutes, turns everyone in the group against one another to further his own goals.
The above doesn’t go unnoticed, and can, in fact, be summarized in a single exchange between Jeff and Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs):
Britta: So this is a game to you? You put human beings into a state of emotional shambles for a shot at getting in my pants?
Jeff: Why can’t you see that for the compliment that it is?
But Jeff’s issues go well beyond self-interest and his self-described “exceptional” narcissism. Throughout the series’ six seasons (and hopefully a movie to come), he exhibits the chronic lack of behavioral controls indicative of psychopathy. Despite knowing full-well that he shouldn’t, he spends significant amounts of time lusting after Annie (Alison Brie), a teenager almost literally half his age. He repeatedly goes out of his way to come up with and then prove conspiracies that don’t exist, whether it’s his belief that Pierce had him removed from a biology class, or that another student is a secret pottery prodigy.
He’s similarly prone to violent outbursts, which, while not strictly one of the diagnostic points on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, is still often associated with the condition. This can be seen in the third season premiere, when Jeff attacks the study room table with an axe, and in the sixth season, when he impulsively throttles Abed (Danny Pudi), one of his closest friends.
Speaking of poor impulse control, Jeff also has a history of promiscuous sexual behavior, often getting involved with women he knows he shouldn’t. (Pierce’s ex-step-daughter being the most obvious example.) His phone contacts, as seen in “Politics of Human Sexuality,” are a showcase of problematically short-term relationships, flings so brief he doesn’t even learn the women’s names. Even his romance with Britta, the longest lasting relationship the audience is privy to, has its foundations in being abjectly noncommittal.
While one could argue that Jeff is simply living in the moment, a lack of realistic, long-term goals is yet another point on the Hare checklist, as well as one more behavioral trait that dogs him throughout the run of Community. Coupled with his failure to accept responsibility for his actions, this pathologically myopic worldview has dire and, ironically, long-lasting effects on Jeff’s life.
Look no further than how he loses his apartment in the first season, seemingly confused that a failure to pay rent would have consequences. Four seasons later, after trying and rapidly failing to reignite his career in law, he stumbles into becoming a teacher, doing absolutely nothing except saying yes when the dean (Jim Rash) offers him the position. This all catches up with Jeff in the last season, as he spins out in an existential crisis, finally realizing that he doesn’t have any kind of life plan.
Other telltale signs of psychopathic tendencies include criminal versatility (Jeff bragging about lying his way into a law career), a need for constant stimulation (the long-running joke of him always being on his phone), and a parasitic lifestyle (among other things, letting the study group do his work for him, a dynamic he himself recognizes as codependent).
But it’s not all bad news. For one thing, only about 1.2% of adults fit the criteria of being psychopaths, meaning that for once Jeff is as special as his mother once told him.
More importantly, though, all of the above traits are precisely the reasons everyone seems to fall in line behind him. Or, as Jeff puts it in “For a Few Paintballs More:” “I don’t step up to being leader, Troy. I reluctantly accept it when it’s thrust upon me.”
A lot of the world’s leaders showcase some kind of psychopathic tendencies. The need for “power and prestige” makes the profession especially appealing, while a psychopath’s “peculiar talents” make them particularly well-suited to the pressures of the job. Add in an oversized ego, a calculating nature, and some of that trademarked Winger charm, and you’ve got yourself someone people just want to follow.
All of which is to say, he’s got a bright career ahead of him as a politician if he ever decides to quit teaching once and for all. Don’t be surprised if the long-gestating Community movie decides to introduce us to a certain Senator Jeff Winger.