Community – “Critical Film Studies”

“Critical Film Studies”

March 24th, 2011

As Jeff Winger finds himself reenacting My Dinner with Andre with his friend Abed, who it seems has transformed himself overnight in a bid to relate better with society, he has a fairly violent reaction during the moment of realization. Jeff is responding to the idea that he feels as though he has been subjected to an experiment, that what he thought was an honest conversation was in fact an elaborate roleplaying exercise.

I have to presume that I’m not the only Community viewer who sometimes feels like Jeff Winger. This is not to say that Community has ever outright pissed me off with its obsession with pop culture, but there are moments when I feel that I’m witnessing an elaborate experiment more than I’m watching a television show.

“Critical Film Studies,” however, is much more philosophical in its experimentation: rather than mucking around with reality or narrative form, or testing how far they can take a pop cultural framework, the episode forces us to question the very nature of Abed as a character. While the episode is unquestionably positioned as an homage in the beginning, it puts at least those who haven’t seen My Dinner with Andre in Jeff’s shoes and forces us to question whether or not the person sitting across the table is really who we think it is.

And while the episode has its moments of overindulgence, and the B-Story never quite reached a point of cohesion, the end result of the experiment was resonant enough to make feeling like a guinea pig worthwhile.

The voiceover narration which opens “Critical Film Studies” immediately marks this as some sort of an homage: even those of us who have not seen My Dinner with Andre could sense that something was different, and so we are immediately placed on alert. Thus, we are as skeptical of Abed’s transformation as Jeff is, especially if (like me) you didn’t get to watch the episode until Friday afternoon as a result of Thursday commitments and a busy start to Friday. I knew that this was a pop culture-heavy episode of the show with an extended homage to My Dinner with Andre before I actually sat down to watch it, so my experience would have been different than someone who came into it without any real expectation (unless they read into the title, which is very possible).

And yet I need to give immense credit to Danny Pudi, who so absolutely sold the transformation that the episode is capable of functioning in ways other than “yet another pop culture homage from Community.” This was a completely different character, even if it is eventually revealed to be Abed playing a completely different character, and the complexity that creates very much rests of Pudi’s shoulders. That monologue he gives about Cougar Town starts off as something very much in the show’s wheelhouse, calling attention to the show’s consistent pimping of the (great) ABC comedy series through Abed, but then it becomes something very different. The longer the story goes on, the more interesting it becomes, and I thought the broad element of Abed pooping his pants was employed to test just how we were approaching the scene. It’s one of those moments where out of context it sounds like a silly and juvenile joke, but in context it challenged our engagement with the story, and the way Abed picks right back up and keeps telling the story is just a really beautiful piece of work.

I wasn’t quite as enamored with Jeff’s emotional outbursts, not quite as subtle and becoming a bit too pathetic, and as noted I thought the B-Story just never really went anywhere. Admittedly, this might be because I’ve never seen the entirety of Pulp Fiction and thus could only somewhat follow who each character (outside of the obvious) was dressing up as, but I also think that it suffered because it was pulling us away from the more interesting part of the episode. I’m sure this was at least somewhat intentional, a way to show us where Abed and the show normally operates so as to emphasize just how different the atmosphere in that restaurant was. It was, in some ways, yet another pop culture homage from Community: it was all there on the surface, as even the mystery of “What’s in the briefcase?” simply reveals more information about the briefcase rather than something entirely new. None of the supporting characters get an actual storyline (unless we count the somewhat sudden anxiety that Chang fosters in Troy over Abed’s relationship with Jeff), and it doesn’t feel like it connects to any ongoing stories (like Chang and Shirley’s situation), so heading there feels like we’re being taken away from what really matters.

Of course, eventually we have the moment where the two sides converge, shattering the divide and also shattering the illusion that the dinner might have offered. What we’re left with, however, is a nice little Jeff/Abed moment not unlike the Jeff/Abed moment which closed the similar “Contemporary American Poultry.” We’re also left with a question, one that the show doesn’t outright ask: was this charade necessary to reach that character moment? If we go back to Eliza Coupe’s character a while ago, who needed the guise of surveillance to spend time “with” Abed, is this the only way Abed can achieve any kind of emotional character beat? Whereas Troy can have his character moments after simple nights out on the town (as we saw in “Mixology Certification”), these are simple the terms in which Abed operates.

While I don’t want this to become the only mode Community is capable of entering, that hasn’t been a concern this season. Sure, I thought that this wasn’t an entirely tight half-hour, but the experimentation felt purposeful and meaningful. The show has done a nice job of balancing things in its second season, experimenting more than in the previous year but with a certain amount of restraint relative to the worst case scenario in regards to indulgent storytelling. They always seem to experiment in different ways, but there’s also a consistent drive behind that experimentation, a dialogue with the audience which makes us feel less like guinea pigs and more like willing (and active) participants in the making of the show’s meaning.

Whereas Abed was asking Jeff to bare his soul, all episodes like “Critical Film Studies” ask is that we consider the show’s world more carefully than we might otherwise do so. And even if that results in considering this a more fascinating than outright enjoyable episode, I still admire the heck out of it.

Cultural Observations

  • I am aware that I need to watch Pulp Fiction – I tweeted about whether or not not having seen it would be an issue between my two classes on Friday morning, and returned to Twitter after class was over and had like 23 people admonishing me for it (and reassuring me, correctly, that it would not irreparably harm my impression of the episode).
  • I know that Todd VanDerWerff tweeted that Abed’s monologue would make a great drama class performance, and I just want to clarify that he’s totally right. The “Pooped My Pants” twist would be a glorious turn.
  • I hope to one day find someone who watches Community without reading any of the pre-air hype, and without reading each episode’s title. The idea of being “surprised” by this show is impossible if you’re plugged into the critical community, so I wonder how different it is to watch from a position of “ignorance.”
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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Community – “Critical Film Studies”

  1. Tausif Khan

    “What we’re left with, however, is a nice little Jeff/Abed moment not unlike the Jeff/Abed moment which closed the similar “Contemporary American Poultry.” We’re also left with a question, one that the show doesn’t outright ask: was this charade necessary to reach that character moment? ”

    I have only recently started watching Community. However, this characterization leads me to believe that the show treats Abed as mainly a single dimensional character. It does not seem that different The Big Bang Theory in which Raj is only allowed to open up in front of women when he is drinking. Of course in The Big Bang Theory Raj’s condition is never cured. It is interesting that both of South Asian descent. I have not seen enough of Rules of Engagement to know fully how South Asian character is treated on that show but he does seem like merely an advisee to the group rather than fully integrated. In this then by the rule of three we have a trend: A presence of a South Asian character does not necessitate inclusion equal to all other members of their friend group.

    • Nina

      I’m replying too late for you to probably see this but Abed isn’t South Asian, he’s a Palestinian/Polish-American.

  2. Tausif Khan

    Jeff also says during the course of the episode “Why are you dressed like Mr. Rodgers and talking like Frasier?”

    The talking like Frasier reference reminded me of my favorite half an hour of television. Frasier in its first season finale also referenced My Dinner with Andre. They did an episode of the show called “My Coffee with Niles” the show was shot in real time (read 22 minutes of screen time read 22 minutes real life moments). The episode starts with Frasier reflecting on how it has been a year since he has moved to Seattle. Niles then asks Frasier whether he is happy and the rest of the episode shows Frasier’s daily life and his struggle to answer the question. I can not say how much I love this episode.

    I wonder if that line was also a reference to Frasier’s “homage” to the movie as well.

  3. Bobo

    I think the character on Rules of Engagement is South African.

  4. belinda

    The scope at which the show explores Abed as a character (and not just as a South Asian(?) character, but just as a character with his own set of personality traits just like everyone else, whatever the ethnicity ) is vastly wider and in depth than TBBT had in exploring Raj (who basically is boiled down to two types of jokes – being Indian and not being able to talk to girls, which really sort of sucks for the character)…and TBBT is already at its 4th season, had twice the amount of time Community had at expanding Raj. (I don’t watch Rules of Engagement, so dunno.) So, I’m not sure if I see the correlation all that much.

    I wasn’t following twitter too much this past week, so I had no idea that this episode would be a My Dinner with Andre or a sorta Pulp Fiction homage. But I have watched MDwA, so I almost immediately picked up what they were doing because they recreated the ambiance so closely – but it only added to my enjoyment. Probably helps that I love the movie, and it’s a device I love when done well (like that Frasier episode as mentioned, which I LOVE too, and liked that the show winked at that. Thinking about it, I really miss David Hyde Pierce. He’s lovely. But, anyway) and I think Community executed it greatly, and added a nice Commiunity-esque spin to it – it wasn’t just a straight up homage, but really felt like it mattered to the characters (I did enjoy Jeff’s stuff more than you did). It’s not as laugh heavy, but I liked the jokes that were in it, and it’s the sort of episode that makes me look at Community and think, this show can do anything and everything, which is kind of a really fantastic feeling to have about a tv show.

    • Tausif Khan

      Community is a vastly superior show to The Big Bang Theory in terms of quality. Among those in the critical community of television viewers no one would dispute this. To try to make my point clearer, I am not comparing character development on The Big Bang Theory (which has next to none) and character development on Community. My point is to demonstrate that shows with South Asian characters (The Rules of Engagement character looks phenotypically Indian but nothing is said about his characters origins. The actor is from South Africa but is of Indian descent. However, none of this matters in making my larger point.) My point is to show that foreign looking and/or sounding people are maintained in the periphery even in their growth. South Asian people are allowed to comment on the main character’s plight but never really be equal to a main character even in an ensemble cast.

      Even in Outsourced a show ostensibly set in India the Indian characters who work at the call center float around the main plot of their American boss life. Only one character truly has his own hopes, dreams and desires that are displayed in the show but he is constantly dependent on the help of his American boss. Only the American/white (in the case of Pippa Black) are self-sufficient characters.

  5. Myles,

    I don’t think the diner scene with the other six characters was really MEANT to go anywhere. I think it was the way for the show to balance the two types of references. By giving all of the obvious PF references in that diner scene, it made sure that it could get away with the much more subtle Dinner with Andre scenes without the audience crying fowl. Think of it this way: I, like many people have never scene Dinner with Andre, given it came out before I was born, and I have for some reason never heard of it before. So I imagine that if this had been’s the episode’s ONLY reference, it might have failed spectacularly, at least to the people who had never seen the film.

    Also, maybe this is just me, I got this distinct impression that the Jeff/Abed scene were also meant to evoke the feel of Tarantino’s films, what with all of the extended dialogue and rambling stories, though that might just be a coincidence/similarity between his films and MDWA.

    As to your point about people who don’t read the pre-air hype/check out the episode titles: Community’s fanbase is pretty hardcore. The fans – at least the one that I think could give an honest assessment of an episode, tend to be those that are plugged into the internet side of things. I’m not sure that the people who aren’t plugged really care about being surprised, because they watch the show in a much more casual fashion (or at least that’s my experience among my friends who watch the show).

  6. Derek Donvin

    Do you think Abed’s appearing on a show he adored and finding that the experience had an unexpected fallout was meant to echo Alan Sepinwall’s appearance on Community, and the resulting “What is a critic?” debate?

    • Tausif Khan

      Abed’s appearance on Cougar Town resulted in a revelation that changed his perspective on his own life (I don’t believe it was entirely a performance. I think he was revealing to the audience a certain emptiness in his life buried in an pop culture reference. A show like Community will not only do an homage without getting something of the reference that will push the characters forward.) While Alan made the decision first and then tried to justify it later. The what is a critic debate which went viral started with a Slate piece specific concerning Alan’s foundational place among internet television criticism.

  7. Mel

    I don’t read the pre-show hype or ep titles, but if someone in my twitter feed mentions something I don’t freak out and refuse to read it, and I watch the “next week on”s, so I knew about the Pulp Fiction bit but not the MDwA bit (which I haven’t seen, so until the waiter’s reveal I had no idea what was up)

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