Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

December 9th, 2010

As if Community weren’t meta enough, my immediate response to “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” was a desire to sit Dan Harmon down in a study room and journey into his mind in search of the meaning of Community.

I say this not because the episode undermined or threatened pre-existing notions of the series, but after the episode I wasn’t sure if what I’d seen was the very embodiment of the series’ general approach to comedy or something completely unique. Because it looked decidedly unique, I first leaned towards the latter category, but then it was put into context with the sense of generic parody that Daniel T. Walters wrote about this week, and even Abed’s general trend of seeing the world through pop culture that friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about on his publicly-available term paper.

The episode was lovingly crafted, comically inspired, and willing to delve into some darker emotional territory, but I ended up feeling that this ended up in a liminal space between what Community wants to be and what I often fear it will become. It was sort of like I was Ebenezer Scrooge, and the episode manifested as ghosts of Community Past, Present and Future all at once.

And I don’t know whether to be extremely excited or mildly concerned.

Note that it’s “extremely” excited but only “mildly” concerned – the parts of the episode I liked I really liked, while the parts which gave me pause are pretty small by comparison. And yet there’s still that tension, which is common across many of the more gimmicky episodes of the series. I hate to use the word gimmick, but one can’t help but feel that the show’s baseline (if such a baseline exists) is not zombies, or space simulators, or stop-motion animation. And yet because of the proliferation of these episodes, that tension has become a sort of macro-level definition for the series, creating its own genre of experimental comedy – it becomes about pushing the envelope, or refusing to accept a particular definition and instead shifting to something entirely new.

I’ll be the first to admit that not all of the gimmick episodes have worked for me: “Basic Rocket Science,” in particular, just failed to connect on any level for me, and lacked the universal appeal of something like “Contemporary American Poultry” or “Modern Warfare.” But I think we’re getting to the point where the show’s play with generic expectation has become meta in and of itself – it’s not just episodes that explicitly play with other genres, but something like last week’s episode that plays with our expectations for the series and its characters. That the show was willing to deliver such a dark and serious episode shows that the generic play we often consider in broad, referential terms is actually something much more subtle than we sometimes give it credit for, and I think why I prefer “Mixology Certification” to “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is that the former does all of that without the use of a very obvious gimmick. While I liked how dark this episode was willing to go with Abed, as things get fairly deep and emotional, there is something about it all happening within this Rankin-Bass inspired world which both threatens to undercut the emotion (as the puppets can only do so much) and threatens to exaggerate certain differences based on the visual component.

This is obviously an oversimplification: I think part of the point was to find a sort of sadness and danger in what could have been an idealistic wonderland, which does some nice work in expanding Abed’s internal worldview to something beyond idealistic. It is not that Abed goes into his own mind to escape his problems, but rather that his problems manifest themselves in different ways on Planet Abed that he can understand better. He is an expert on Planet Abed, a tour guide and horticulturalist, but the imagined world still presents challenges and ways in which he can test those around him. By bringing this to life in the stop motion form, it gives it a sense of the “Cartoon” which eventually becomes very much at odds with the darkness of Abed’s struggle, before eventually the singing brings the two spheres back together to a logical space.

I like all of this: it’s smart, it’s all very well-made, and the amount of work involves shows the dedication of all the people involved. However, in committing so heavily to the format of the episode, certain things were lost: all of the characters but Abed became very much marginalized, and any of their own character motivations became fairly narrow (driven mostly by their costumes, which were clever without perhaps being as insightful as I might have liked). I think it’s a nice note for Pierce to return, to put the two characters’ sadness together, but I think the Rankin-Bass elements actually hindered that more than they helped it. Just like any episode which features an overarching theme or genre that the show is interested in commenting upon, there are times when the jokes just don’t connect the way one might expect; hard work or no, this episode was just like the other episodes on some fundamental level.

This is not a huge problem: while not head over heels in love with the episode, it marks an important stepping stone for the series. The reason I’m so interested in seeing what is going on inside Dan Harmon’s mind right now is that I really have no idea where Community is headed. The dig at Lost, and the notion of being disappointed in the ending, implies that I spent that entire series trying to break into Cuse and Lindelof’s minds in order to figure out what was about to happen. However, with Lost I sort of just trusted it, knowing that the serial narrative would require certain expectations and that the show would get to where it needed to go.

With a comedy like Community, though, our expectations shift: instead of demanding satisfaction down the right, we want immediate gratification. We want constant reconsideration of the series’ generic constructs, consistent engagement with character, and a whole host of other things that we have decided need to be present. It is almost as if Community is becoming its own genre rather than settling comfortably into notions of comedy, as each set of comments at The A.V. Club or reactions on Twitter reopens the book on what it is genre represents to the series’ viewers.

“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” doesn’t become a holiday classic for me: the liminality of the stop-motion when compared with the live-action just didn’t connect with me the same was as other episodes of the series, and definitely doesn’t connect with holiday classics of the past. However, it isn’t as if there was something that was executed poorly, or even anything that I’d point to for improvement. It is simply a series that in its critical ubiquity has made a huge critical footprint, a footprint that is growing larger with each week thanks to episodes like this one. I would love to see various elements from this episode lingering into the more popular discourses, just as I would hate to see some others become a part of common trends. If we have truly reached the point where safe episodes are going to seem risky in their lack of risks, then we are at the point when the show is everything and nothing at the same time.

And while it may mean that I’m less in love with “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” than I am in love with its impact on audience expectations for the remainder of its second season, I think this episode will play a key role in the show moving onto better, if not necessarily “bigger” things, in the future.

Cultural Observations

  • A lot of highlights here: the Pterodactyl, the Humbugs, etc. were all a lot of fun, and the costumes did offer up some nice perspectives (although Shirley as a baby seemed slightly more reductive than the other characterizations).
  • There were some complaints about the Lost punchline of sorts – Damon Lindelof seemed to think it in good fun, and to be honest I saw the joke less as an attack on Lost and more a comment on its scapegoating within conversations of popular narrative failures. But that’s, you know, nerdy old me.
  • Admittedly, none of the songs are stuck in my head, but Thursdays are pretty hectic and they probably just got written over – I plan on rewatching in the days ahead.
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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

  1. Digifreak642

    Great review. How can this show not be nominated for Best Comedy at the Emmys after these last 11 episodes?

  2. IanG

    I thought the episode was genius, insightful, moving and funny all wrapped up in an innovative package.

  3. Adam Czyrek

    Amazing! The insight into the twisted psyche of Abed in this episode is truly inspiring. Abed and Orel, from Moral Orel, have the same kind of hyper-rationality and I think that maybe that is the common thread may be what has drawn me to both shows. The animation was spot on! From just general timing to arm motion to eyes, amazing! This episode was that rare nexus of multi-discipline genius. I truly thank you guys for executing this so well in every way.

  4. belinda

    I would disagree that this episode was a gimmick or gimmick’s sake – at least not entirely. Because the story itself – Abed detaching himself from reality – is actually a pretty damn serious and depressing story for a comedy OR a drama (thinking about it, Abed was actually catatonic for a moment there at the end. That’s pretty serious) I thought it was critical that this episode was shot as a stop motion and NOT as a regular episode, otherwise it would have been depressing as hell. And on the flipside it never verges into anything being too cutesy or too distracting when I’m still reminded that they’re all just in the study room, trying to help their friend – and I can imagine in my head what was really happening inside that study room while watching the show in the stopmotion figurines. So, for me, it worked and I loved it. Maybe I’m too easy? :D

    I understand your fascination with Glee (if not entirely support it :) ), and I love reading your Office and Buffy/Angel posts, but it’s always nice to read your thoughts on another TV show that I think deserves to be reviewed, if not weekly, as least from time to time!

  5. BobT

    I loved it. I kinda admire how Community can balance the insane comedy with earnest character moments.
    I fully expected this to be mainly a gag episode, but they managed to tell a sweet story that gave insight into Abed while the charactes were made out of sillicone. Quite an accomplishment.

    The only show I can compare it with is Scrubs. And that show had it easier having a clear divide between the reality and the surreal moments.

    Community doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes the episodes are too gimmicky (the apollo 13 episode wasn’t my favorite either). But so far they’ve done a better job switching between gimmicky theme episodes and regular narrative, than Glee has done, for example.

    I’ve never felt that the meta references became more important than the characters. Whereas with Glee I can’t say that the characters aren’t taking a back seat in favor of selling more music.

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