If I were one of the characters following along with Abed’s wacky quest I would probably be eaten up by the humbugs alongside Jeff. Growing up, I had an older brother whose passion for the Christmas season was only made more obnoxious by his need to constantly tell the rest of the family how great Christmas is. From the day after Thanksgiving until sometimes all the way up until New Year’s Day he’d turn radios to the Christmas station, he insisted that we observed every random family tradition he may or may not have just invented, and he scoffed at the notion that anyone could see the day as anything less than amazing. Unsurprisingly, in reaction to his enthusiasm there’s not a single Christmas carol I can listen to without cringing and I’ve spent my entire life avoiding Christmas specials on TV. They’re just not for me.
So while I was excited at the idea of an all-claymation (ok, not technically clay, but close enough) Christmas episode of Community, I was also a bit apprehensive. Generally my favorite episodes of the show have been the more gimmicky ones, and fortunately for me that also happens to be a majority of its episodes period. But while I love zombie flicks, for instance, I haven’t the slightest amount of sentimentality about the Rankin/Bass specials, nor is a spoof of them something I’m particularly interested in seeing. Everyone’s got their own genre blindspots; my largest one is lucky enough to only rear its head once a year.
Of course, I’m still a pop culture-saturated individual which means that I’m familiar with the sort of Christmas specials the show is appropriating, despite never watching them. And while I may have missed some pretty obvious references, that did little to interfere with my enjoyment of the episode. Community has gone to some far-out places before, but leaving live-action behind entirely is a big step, and a very difficult one to pull off. Putting the entire episode inside Abed’s head was brilliant, building on the show’s universe and what we know about it, when the opposite seems far more natural. The mechanism for the claymation in fact ties the entirety of “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” together.
So the episode is a journey through Abed’s imagination to find the true meaning of Christmas while the rest of the cast is tagging along to help him out and John Oliver’s Ian Duncan is observing in order to treat him as a patient. Each of them is gradually dispatched, though, when they’re found lacking in Christmas cheer. Meanwhile Duncan is trying to prod Abed into revealing his real problem with this Christmas. Eventually Abed, and quite surprisingly Pierce, reach the North Pole but find only disappointment until the rest of the gang come to rescue him with the show’s message for the meaning of Christmas: “The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning.”
That semi-tautological statement felt natural to the episode, a happy surprise considering how difficult it is to come up with an answer to something like the meaning of Christmas without resorting to meaningless cliche. Here, though, the message was heartfelt, and not just because of the way it played seamlessly into the episode as a whole. In a way it’s very similar to the moral, such as it exists, to the entire show. It’s the people who imbue traditions with value rather than the other way around, and while most of the characters still don’t necessarily care about the holiday, they do care about the way the holiday feels to their friend. It’s a meaning of Christmas that you can’t easily call bullshit on, and it’s true not just of Christmas but for most other things in our lives.
The episode’s plot being one big A story meant that it really felt well-developed, and it was also nice to see a focus on Abed that’s not just about wacky meta-jokes. The jokes were still there, but since it wasn’t his usual buddy plot, we really saw deeper into his character. Abed using pop culture to shield himself isn’t new, but that doesn’t mean looking at it again here was a bad idea. Much of Community’s second season has been about taking the characters we now know well and making them less generic, but this may have been the most successful attempt yet.
That’s a lot of praise, and it’s because the show tried something risky and new and succeeded. What it didn’t do, though, was be the funniest episode of the season; in fact it was probably one of the less laugh-filled episodes. Some of its jokes, such as the pterodactyl, were amazing, but there were periods that felt surprisingly subdued, especially with the spotlight on Abed. Maybe it was because the tone and setting were goofy enough that non-stop one-liners would’ve made things too goofy.
Still, even a relatively less funny episode of Community these days still means great humor, and coupled with the rest of the episode, I believe the show’s hit another impressive milestone. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” did little to make me go back and watch those specials I skipped out on during my youth, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be re-watching this episode again in the upcoming years in their place.
• Designated holiday zones are kinda great. I wish those were in every campus.
• “As a modern christian I’ve learned to be sensitive to other cultures’ jealousies.”.
• ”You really expect me to tarnish the high five for that?”
• ”How many fingers and I holding up and, more importantly, are they still made of clay?”
• Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopolous co-wrote this one. That does help explain its awesomeness. Stamatopolous has had a long, storied career as a comedy writer I could go into at much greater length, but it’s easiest to just mention that he plays Star Burns.
• The music’s jokes were hitting pretty well for me, but their actual tunes were pretty forgettable
• “I’m not a snowman, I’m Chang.” I can’t wait for him to get back from filming the sequel to The Hangover, as I miss seeing more of him. More Chang is always a good thing.
• ”I’m not just a psych professor, I’m also a …. Christmas wizard”
• ”We’re in outer Christmas space.”
• ”It’s the most Christmas-y planet in the universe. Its atmosphere is 7% cinnamon”
• Teddy bear Pierce is my favorite of the bunch (perhaps because Chevy looks an awful lot like he’s made out of clay anyhow), but who do you folks like?
• Chang peaking out from in the background of Abed’s fantasy is a great detail
• A remote-control Christmas pterodactyl is kind of the best thing ever. Even if the rest of the episode had fallen apart, I may have given it a pass just for that joke.
• ”Damn, it got real up in that memory cave.”
• Pierce leaving because he needs to use the restroom is pretty brilliant.
• ”Whoa whoa, who taught you therapy, Michael Jackson’s dad?”
• ”Christmas can even be a Hanukkah thing” … umm… sure, I guess.
• ”Video games for two straight weeks, that’s what Christmas is for.”
• The live-action reflection of the cast while watching TV is a nice detail.
• How long is Pierce supposed to have his cast on for? I’m glad it’s been kept around, but it seems to limit his roles, and considering how infrequently he’s given a big part in Community that’s unfortunate.