Friday, December 09, 2011

That Glee episode of Community

I love Community. I think this season has been stronger than its gotten credit for. I will miss it during its break, and hope to see it back and renewed as soon as possible. So it's with that love in my heart that I have to say: last night's Community was among the worst of the show's run. Not because it wasn't funny (it was, often) but because it was almost totally soulless.

The key point of the episode seems to be when Abed says "I just like liking stuff." It's a rejection of snark, of mean-spirited jokes and criticism. It's an acceptance that things can be good just for being liked, that the heart wins out. It's a celebration of, well, the idea of Christmas and the television Christmas special.

Here's the problem: the episode undercuts that at every possible point. When Abed says this, he's been brainwashed by the Glee virus that, through him and his weakness, sweeps through the rest of the study group, forcing them to behave in ways they don't want to. The episode doesn't conclude with the group gathering to like things, it concludes with them gathering around to watch the Inspector Spacetime Holiday Special on the grounds that it's so-bad-it's-good.

But more to the point, beyond the interpretations of the characters' actions, the show itself doesn't abide by the idea that it "likes" things, because the entire episode is a vicious attack on its theoretical rival, Glee. As much as I love Community and as much as I might laugh at the jokes initially, they come across as just mean, jealous of Glee's popularity and zeitgeist. I mean, Glee deserves it, don't get me wrong. But Community has built its reputation on loving, character-based satires. "Modern Warfare" wasn't great because it was it a specific parody of an action movie using sitcom characters, but because it used action movie tropes in order to discuss the characters in a different, interesting fashion - notably the Jeff-Britta relationship. "Regional Holiday Music" dispenses with that in order to simply target one particular show, and a show that Community has already attacked multiple times at that.

Critics of Community often describe it as a soulless endeavor, a meta-sitcom that does parodies and pop culture references without understanding the soul beneath what it's making fun of. This description has always struck me as more fitting of post-cancellation Family Guy or worse, The Cleveland Show, which not a compliment, instead of Community. Community, I thought, was closer to The Simpsons, a show which was in love with the forms and history of television, but not so much that it couldn't make fun of them. Last night's episode? Last night's episode was Family Guy - cheap, mean-spirited jokes with a fake, ass-saving swipe at meaning.


sarCCastro said...

I agree, wholeheartedly. While I'm a huge fan of Community, I was not a fan of last night's episode. It was all the things you listed above and, most unfortunately, it did not serve any of the characters well. Nor did it move the plot forward.

A similar episode to this one(the "zombie" episode) actually DID serve the characters well and actually contained important plot points that figured largely into the season's storylines. While I know your not a fan of that episode, it was at least important to the season as a whole, had tons of fun and funny moments, and had much more detail and love for its source material than last night's episode ever did.

I understand that a lot of people feel the need to express their LOVE of Community as much and as forcefully as they can. But I can't bring myself to overlook the faults of an episode that will be the last we see of the show for a long while and one that serves to justify many of the naysayers' most common complaints about the show.

aseroff said...

While I think you have a strong argument, I'll play Devil's advocate. You mention that Community's best quality is using alternative storytelling to explore the characters, and I fully agree. But I think a secondary (not exactly positive) characteristic of the show is its contradictory nature- how it says one thing and does another. Just like Jeff being the leader of the group (a very common theme), yet is the one to bring them down (as we experienced in Chaos Theory), Abed's liking liking things is contradictory to the episode's message.

I don't think it's a good thing, but I don't think it's a bad thing, either. I think it is a very intentional characteristic of the show, and a side-effect of its self-awareness/metaness.

sophomorecritic said...

I don't know. I don't like Community at all. I think it's a show that should be appreciated ironically with distance.

For some reason I watched this episode. It's one of just two or three eps. I've watched this season and I didn't find it that bad.

ToddVDW said...

I read this and was baffled by it for quite a while. It didn't seem like we had different opinions on the effectiveness of execution of elements within the show; it seemed like we'd witnessed completely different things happening entirely. That occasionally happens, but this one didn't seem like it was particularly open to interpretation on the "what happened" level.

I realized why this was, though: I don't think Abed was infected by the glee virus. I view this as a spiritual successor to the stop-motion episode, and yet another episode where Abed does something to help his friends come together and be happy (something he's done many times in the history of the show). His behavior doesn't change substantially after he joins up with Mr. Rad. It's just another thing he's doing to bring everybody together, particularly after they've pointed out how they're not especially going to enjoy the holidays this year and particularly after he's pointed out how dark the semester has been. Community hasn't been particularly a cumulative show in the past, so this turn seems a bit odd, at first, but it colors the rest of my reading of the episode.

Plus, Abed's a pop culture omnivore. Tellingly, Troy's the one who seems really excited by how bad the SpaceTime thing will be (at the end). Abed loves the program, even though it's kind of terrible. He's embracing all of it, the good and bad, because he likes it, just as he likes his friends.

Finally (and this seems to be the main difference point for a lot of people), I never read the Glee parody elements as particularly malicious. As I said in comments on my own review, it seemed to come out of a place of love for the show, even if ridiculous things about that show are present. Again, a place that embraces all of what's there about the show out of a place of ultimate enjoyment. Granted, this is colored by the fact that I know Dan Harmon really enjoys Glee, and granted, this is poorly timed, since Glee's time in the zeitgeist is ending, but nothing here seems particularly vicious, outside of Jeff hating glee club (which he always has) and maybe the portrayal of Mr. Rad.

Is it as good as last year's episode? Of course not. But it's hilarious, and I think there's a lot more soul there than you give it credit for.

Unknown said...

I just don't see the episode as entirely an attack on Glee. There was that element bookending the episode, but the rest were jokes from completely different places: The self-absorption of baby boomers, the silliness of the idea of a Jehovah's Witness infiltrating Christmas to destroy it, the absurdity of sexpot Christmas songs, and the ease with which Pierce manipulates Shirley with "The Reason for the Season."

That's just for starters.

To do a full-scale "Scary Movie" parody of Glee, they'd create a Sue Sylvester character, mock the sudden changes of the characterization, parody the whole slurpee thing, etc. etc.

The Dinner with Andre and Goodfellas homage were both more fully devoted to the grammar of the shows they were parodying. Here -- despite a few digs here and references here and there -- the episode would be entirely intelligible (and humorous) to those who'd never seen a single Glee episode.

For that matter, celebrating something because it's so-bad-it's-good is a central theme of the show. Disdain turns to ironic love turns to genuine celebration. That's the Greendale arc.