“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.
- 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.”