Yesterday I talked about Big Bang Theory, a hugely popular sitcom with a largely toxic depiction of geek culture. To counter that I thought I’d talk about Community, a smaller, wonderful sitcom with a massively geeky streak. And because we’re close enough to the holidays, I thought I’d talk about the first two Community Christmas specials.
If you’ve never seen Community, the Christmas specials really aren’t a great place to start. If the clips and links in this article tickle your fancy (and they should — with the exception of the fourth season, Community is one of the strongest comedies on TV), the show really is worth watching from the beginning. Give it around four episodes, though; it takes a while to grow on you. It’s a hilariously weird and wonderfully written show.
Community has the best holiday specials. From a Halloween episode with actual zombies (scored entirely with Abba songs) to the third season’s Christmas special, a musical that sees the main characters slowly being brainwashed into participating in Glee Club. The first two Christmas specials are extra special, though. The first one mainly because it was the first time Community‘s wonderful treatment of Holidays started to surface, and the second one because it’s one of the best-ever episodes of the show.
The first Christmas special, episode 12, Comparative Religion, revolves around Shirley. Shirley (played by Yvette Nicole Brown) is a Christian House-wife who recently went through a divorce. So on the last day semester, she decides that the study group should help her relive the Christmas she wishes she could have. Of course it turns out she’s the only Christian member of the group. This show is pretty tactful when it comes to things like this; instead of Big Bang Theory‘s style of humour, the jokes in Community come from, well, actual jokes. Instead of the punchlines in this episode being “ha ha religion”, the humour comes from the interaction of these people and legitimate punchlines. For instance, when Jeff (Joel McHale) says he’s agnostic, that’s not the joke; the joke is that of course he’s agnostic. It’s wonderfully accurate to the character and such a smug answer that the group instantly boos and throws paper balls at him. Of course this is all set-up for later when the group is asked to bring “some trinket or do-dad” from their religions, and Jeff says he’ll bring his winning smile — cue the second barrage of paper and boos.
The second plotline in the episode comes when a school bully (Anthony Michael Hall) picks on Abed (Danny Pudi), the group’s resident nerd. Abed’s role on the show is a little more complex than that. He provides fantastic meta-commentary (“This is a bottle episode”), nerdy jokes, and occasionally crazy dark or weird moments. Part of this is because Abed has Aspergers. This is never explicitly said in the show, but when it became the consistent fan-diagnosis, the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, looked it up. He found that it not only matched Abed’s symptoms but his own. Prior to this, Harmon had no idea he had Aspergers, but he had been writing himself so heavily into Abed, it helped him discover it. So when this bully — a hilarious combination of goofy idiot and threatening presence — starts picking on Abed, Jeff decides to defend him. The bully then shows up during a Spanish essay Jeff is taking and insults him and corrects his Spanish. The two decide to fight.
This horrifies Shirley. She sees it as an affront to her special day. Jeff goes but has a turn of heart. He tells the bully that his friend Shirley wouldn’t fight on this special day. Then he gets punched in the stomach. Twice. Shirley shows up at that point, sees this, and shouts “Jeffery, kick his ass!” The the entire study group gets into a massive brawl.
If Comparative Religion is both slightly off kilter for a Christmas special while simultaneously clearly loving the holidays, then Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas is both those things cranked to ten. The episode is entirely shot in stop-motion, not because it’s a Christmas special, but because Abed wakes up that morning and sees the world as stop-motion. The group wants to help Abed, but Ian Duncan (John Oliver), the school psychiatrist, just wants to use Abed’s story to publish a book. They work together however, talking Abed through a journey in a fantasy land of his own creation. Abed wants to find the meaning of Christmas, while Duncan wants to find the trauma that led Abed to think the world is stop-motion.
Surprisingly, Shirley is the first to go. She accidentally reveals to Abed that they’re undertaking therapy. Duncan freezes Shirley then ejects her with a remote controlled Christmas pterodactyl. Jeff’s sarcasm means he’s the second to go. He’s not willing to believe in the power of Christmas and gets eaten by tiny, sarcasm-seeking bugs. Next to go is Britta (Gillian Jacobs) when Abed realizes she has no interest in the meaning of Christmas, only the therapy. Duncan takes Abed to the cave of Frozen Memories, where he accidentally relives his own traumatizing Christmas experience and leaves the study room. Pierce (Chevy Chase) leaves when the cookies run out. Duncan returns, claiming to have discovered the source of Abed’s trauma in his dorm. Duncan’s increasingly desperate behaviour causes Troy (Donald Glover) and Annie (Alison Brie) to leap to Abed’s defence. (“Whoa whoa whoa, who taught you therapy, Michael Jackson’s Dad?”)
Troy and Annie eject Duncan from the room, leaving Abed to complete his journey alone. At least until Pierce, in a surprisingly kind moment, returns. They break into Santa’s empty workshop to find the true meaning of Christmas. Abed discovers a present labeled, well, “Meaning of Christmas.” Inside is… the first season of Lost. “It’s a metaphor, it represents lack of pay-off,” Abed says. Duncan returns and reveals that Abed’s mom, who visits him every year to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, has a new family and won’t be coming this year. Abed freezes over, becoming catatonic in the real world. The study group suddenly returns to protect Abed. They attack Duncan with Christmas weapons — gum-drop guns, candy cane nun-chucks, and snowball guns. They sing, thawing Abed from the ice.
But first they ruminate on the meaning of Christmas:
I get it. The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And it can be whatever we want. For me, it used to mean being with my mom. Now it means being with you guys. Thanks, Lost.
Then they explode Duncan with a pterodactyl. Standard Christmas stuff.