Friday, December 24, 2010

Guiltless Review: Community: Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas

Fair warning, guys. A journey through winter wonderland tends to test your commitment to Christmas. So when I say test, I mean Wonka-style. I'm talking dark. My advice: Stay honest, stay alert, and for the love of God, stay between the gumdrops. - Abed

The best Christmas specials always strike a balance between predictable sentimentality and pointed cynicism. They are all basically the same story: the protagonist doubts there is meaning or sincerity to be found in the season, and eventually comes to find just that after having an epiphany. This epiphany is usually the result of some horrific or thrilling ordeal that happens during the course of the story. How strongly the story registers with me depends on how much I can identify with the protagonist.

The recent episode of Community, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is a brilliant example of the genre, that registers so strongly with me because the characters are so identifiable and so contemporary. These characters all completely understand the claymation winter wonderland dream world the episode takes place in. And are thus able to interact with it as a shared dream space (a fun and loving parody of "Inception"). Of course, any adult who grew up watching the classic Rankin & Bass Christmas specials every year could do the same thing, which is what makes this very stylized and complex episode so accessible.

Community is a show for us geeks who watched a ton of movies and TV growing up. Pop culture references in entertainment is a given these days, but this show somehow manages to make them count for more than a cheap chuckle. The references are often presented as playful homage, they come up because the characters (Abed in particular) think they are a fitting metaphor for the situation at hand. This episode is a journey through TV-obsessed Abed's mind. As we'll see in the guiltless review, the journey takes some twisted and revealing turns.

Dread: 4

Yes, its a Christmas episodes with clay characters, but at its heart this episode deals with abandonment. Abed has locked himself away in a claymation winter wonderland because he doesn't know how to handle the fact he won't be seeing his mother for the first time this Christmas. Without her, he really is searching for meaning in the season. His friends try to help, but he is in pain, and is ruthless in how he administers who survives in his personal dream space. It's a fun homage to Willy Wonka how he dismisses his friends, each with a descriptive song. Just the allusion to Willy Wonka is enough to inspire dread for me (that movie terrified me as a kid, and I saw "The Thing", "An American Werewolf in London", & a few "Friday the 13th" movies in the theater between the ages of 8-11).

Tears: 4

It's particularly heartbreaking how Abed deals with his friend Brita, who's gets expelled simply because she lies to him to get him to attend an intervention. She clearly had the best intentions at heart but gets cut out of the dream anyway.

Laughs: 6

Surprisingly low for an episode of "Community" (hands-down the funniest show currently on TV imo). But the few laughs are heartfelt, and are a welcome relief from the bleak storyline.

Investment: 10

This is my first Christmas without my mom. I'm very lucky to have family and friends who care about me and share Christmas with. Abed's misery is palpable even behind a wall of TV references and cutesy Christmas cliches. I don't think I've ever identified as strongly with a Christmas show protagonist.

Twists: 8

In the end this a very predictable Christmas episode in the best possible way. The many twists (including a very funny shot at "Lost") inevitably lead us to the epiphany that lets Abed find new meaning in Christmas. And the conclusion couldn't be more right. Christmas is what we make of it. For me its the time I'm able to spend with loved ones, the traditions that evoke memories of childhood, friends, and family, and as Troy so accurately puts it, it's about being able to "play video games for 2 weeks straight!"

"Abed's Uncontollable Christmas" is an instant classic. It goes places that are refreshingly honest and sad for a TV sitcom, only to emerge with a well-earned invigoration of the spirit. Its a modern day Christmas Carol by way of "Rudolph", "Willy Wonka" and "Inception".

Merry Christmas everyone!

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