A review of tonight’s very special animated holiday episode of “Community” coming up just as soon as you finish on that third button…
“Thanks, ‘Lost.'” – Abed
We’re now 11 episodes into “Community” season two, which would be the halfway point of an standard-length TV season (NBC beefed up this season’s order to 24). And before I get into the many feelings of joy I felt while watching “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” I want to expand on a point I made at the end of my previous review and look briefly at these 11 episodes, for reasons that will be made clear shortly:
“Anthropology 101”: Fairly traditional episode, resolving season one cliffhanger about Annie/Jeff/Britta triangle, establishing the study group’s new class and dealing with overall tensions within the group.
“Accounting for Lawyers”: Jeff Winger origin story, taking the show onto unfamiliar physical turf but still with familiar weirdness (the hole in Drew Carey’s hand, Annie chloroforming the guard, pop-and-lock tournament).
“The Psychology of Letting Go”: Circle of life episode, dealing with birth (an entire Easter egg-style Abed subplot playing out in the background of other scenes), death (Pierce’s mom) and sex appeal.
“Basic Rocket Science”: All-reference, all-the-time, ala the paintball episode from season one, this time with astronaut movies.
“Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples”: A mix of meta (Abed’s movie about making movies), character-based comedy (Pierce and Shirley each feeling left out of the crowd) and cultural/religious parody.
“Epidemiology”: Another 100% pop culture episode, this time with zombies.
“Aerodynamics of Gender”: Mix of an Abed character story (albeit one with references of its own) and the deliberately goofy, random trampoline story.
“Cooperative Calligraphy”: Character-driven bottle show with a bare minimum of meta and/or reference humor.
“Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design”: Another parody-style episode, this time riffing on conspiracy thrillers.
“Mixology Certification”: Dark, kitchen sink-style realistic comedy, ala “Taxi.”
“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”: Stop-motion animated episode that’s at once an homage to TV Christmas specials and a fairly intense, moving Abed character study.
We can argue about how much each of these episodes worked on their own, or even in combination (the “Apollo 13” and zombie episodes probably should have been spaced further apart, for instance), but that’s still a pretty damned impressive show of versatility in only 11 episodes, demonstrating how these characters and this world can be used to tell so many different kinds of stories with so many different kinds of tones.
And though it’s far from this season’s funniest episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” might be my favorite so far. Not only was it just gorgeous to look at, but it managed to use a completely fantastical conceit and visual style in service of a very sincere, emotional story about Abed.
Because entertaining as it was to see Jeff as a jack-in-the-box, Chang as a surly snowman (who enjoys being molested by Abed, apparently) or Britta as a robot, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” never lost sight of the fact that the rest of the study group was really worried about what Abed was doing, that Dean Pelton might expel him, that his pop culture fixation might have turned into a complete break from reality, etc. So even as he’s dancing on the roofs of cars in the Greendale parking lot, he’s on the verge of getting tased by security, and even as characters are suffering “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”-style exits from this magical journey, people keep acknowledging that they’re still in the study room.(*)
(*) I doubt there was time or energy to do this, but how incredible a DVD extra would it be if you had the option to watch the episode in either animated version or a live-action one that shows how the other characters viewed the events of the episode? The parking lot dance number might be tougher to pull off, but the reactions of everyone pretending to be on the Polar Express while they’re still sitting in the study room would be really fascinating, I think.
Because he’s as obsessed with pop culture as the “Community” writers, and because he so often acts like he knows he’s a character on a TV show, Abed is kind of the symbol character of “Community.” That can be a dangerous thing on occasion (I found the meta film story from “Messianic Myths” to be a big misfire) but when the show finds the balance between Abed the fourth wall-breaker and Abed the lonely, misunderstood character, it can be beautiful to behold. We’ve gotten a few of those moments earlier in the season (Abed accusing Jeff of selfishness in the premiere, or Abed listening to Hilary Duff tear into him in the mean girls episode), but despite not having a flesh-and-blood Danny Pudi in this one, I found this story to be perhaps the most emotionally-affecting Abed story the show has done. We know about Abed’s longing for his mother – his few comments about her in season one suggested she was the one person with whom he didn’t feel like an outside observer of humanity – and we know that he can only articulate his emotions through pop culture, and the idea of him crafting this Rankin-Bass world in order to cope with the pain of being abandoned by his mother was really lovely.
And it was extra-lovely that the study group played along, and that Annie and Troy and Pierce (Pierce!) went the extra mile in the closing passages when Professor Duncan was being a selfish git who cared only about publishing and not about his patient.(**) Again, I think it would be kind of cool to see the actual actors standing in the study room and singing or pointing their special magic Christmas weapons at Duncan, but even seeing the animated versions standing by their socially-awkward man was a wonderful, extra Christmas-y moment.
(**) I also thought it was a nice callback to season one’s “Social Psychology” that Abed was again able to turn one of Duncan’s experiments back on him, forcing Duncan to confront his own childhood Christmas pain when Duncan was trying to make Abed do it.
Because “Community” can come in so many flavors, I’m sure it can be frustrating if your particular favorite doesn’t come up that often. Me, I’ve grown to love them all, so even though I only laughed out loud a couple of times (at Jeff-in-the-box’s raised eyebrow, and at Abed describing the “Lost” DVD as “a metaphor for lack of payoff”), I found the narrative and visual ambition, and the seasonally-appropriate heavy dollops of emotion to be as rewarding as a more overtly comic episode like “Conspiracy Theories” or “Epidemiology,” if not moreso.
Some other thoughts:
• Another callback: Duncan’s wizard robes looked very much like the Cookie Crisp-style robes Pierce wore last season for his weird cult.
• Loved the tag, as always: “Troy and Abed in stop-mooootion!” And as I’m sure there’s some Troy/Abed slash-fiction out there on the Internets, I imagine those authors are going to go cuckoo bananas with the idea of the two of them swapping heads.
• Though none of the songs were memorable enough for me to be humming them a few days after I watched the episode, props to several castmembers (Yvette Nicole Brown in particular) for demonstrating fine singing voices. And I’m sure the Jeff/Annie slash authors will have a field day on their getting a duet in the middle of the final song.
What did everybody else think?