58. "Critical Film Studies," Community (2011)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Before compiling this Top 100 list, I thought about excluding episodes that are less than five years old or are from shows still in production. There were several good reasons to do so: a.) It's not clear how well these shows will stand the test of time; b.) many of the candidates for the list have changed the nature of the sitcom format so much that they're closer to experimental film than to I Love Lucy; and c.) there are a lot of smart TV critics who have already made the case for these shows, and they don't need me joining the chorus.
In the end, I decided that leaving them out would mean an incomplete picture of the sitcom as art form. Whether or not they have the staying power of Lucy, the sitcoms of the past few years have changed the genre in ways that will ripple across every episode of every TV comedy in the future.
For me, "Critical Film Studies" is about the expectations and limitations of friendship. But it's better known as the episode that promises a Pulp Fiction parody before veering off into a... parody? homage? update? improvement? ... of the 1981 talking-heads film My Dinner with Andre. Here is how Matt Zoller Seitz described it on Salon.com:
You knew “Community” was zigging instead of zagging when Jeff (Joel McHale) walked into a fancy restaurant to meet Abed (Danny Pudi) for a pre-surprise-party dinner. Instead of Dick Dale or Kool and the Gang or some other bone-crushingly obvious Tarantino cue, the soundtrack offered naturalistic voice-over backed by solo piano: the opening of Malle’s “Andre” reimagined via “Community.” After briefly cutting away to the “Pulp Fiction” party guests, the episode returned to Jeff and Abed in the restaurant … and stayed there … and stayed there. Abed’s monologue about his epiphany (ultimately non-epiphany) on the set of “Cougar Town” was a riff on one of Andre Gregory’s monologues from “Andre.”
Abed's funny and disturbing monologue is about being an extra on the real sitcom Cougar Town, an experience that leads this fictional character to confront the differences between reality and artifice -- and causes him to create more layers of artifice, culminating in the Andre re-creation that ensnares the unwitting Jeff. Only last week (a year after the episode first ran), Slant Magazine's Calum Marsh wrote about the nagging questions posed by "Critical Film Studies":
I sometimes worry about consuming too much pop culture, as I imagine many of us do. Nobody wants to feel shallow, and there’s a constant feeling of obligation to read or watch things that are more serious, or that have more depth. We worry about being the passive spectator, and about coming to be defined by that passivity. For me, “Critical Film Studies” deals with exactly that kind of anxiety, and with how the need to live and connect sometimes seems impossible to take on. There’s no such thing as a totally unmediated dinner, and there can never be a culture-free conversation; even talking openly and honestly with a close friend over dinner becomes a reference to something. Abed tries to reject his dependence on tropes and quotes, hoping instead to have depth, but doing so ultimately proves shallow.
Abed's immersion into pop culture, apparently a coping mechanism for him, is at the heart of "Critical Film Studies" (and all Abed-centric episodes), but I was most affected by what happens to Jeff in this episode. Normally sarcastic and aloof, he reacts to Abed's surprising transformation by pouring his heart out to his friend, revealing childhood trauma (being forced to dress as an Indian princess for Halloween) and the bitterly funny way he tries to reassure himself that he'll be loved even after his good looks fade. The A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff touched on this aspect of the episode in his night-of review:
These are clearly things that are deeply scarring for him, things that he tries to keep from people because they would threaten his cool façade. But he tells them to Abed under the guise of the two men opening up to each other, under the guise of Abed finally trying to experience what it might be like to be a grown-up, to have normal conversations that aren’t about movies and TV shows. [...] And here’s where the episode makes its turn. Abed doesn’t really want to have an actual conversation. He’s just doing another homage to what he thinks a real conversation should be like.
And that's really why "Critical Film Studies" is on my list. As I've written in previous Top 100 posts, one of the enduring themes of sitcoms is the way we deal with high expectations and the disappointments that usually follow. For a few minutes in "Critical Film Studies," Jeff believes that Abed can become the confidant he desparately needs, someone with whom he can drop all of his artifice. To use the term from the Mary Tyler Moore Show finale, Jeff seems to glimpse a future in which members of his "family" (i.e., the characters assembled for the regular cast of Community) might fill all of his emotional needs. Instead, at the end of the episode he must once again come to terms with the limitations, but also the peculiar value, of Abed's friendship. And for all the meta trappings of "Critical Film Studies," this is a theme that's been running through sitcoms since Ralph and Ed kept hashing out the meaning of their friendship on The Honeymooners in the 1950s.
• No free streaming video of this episode. You'll need to pay for it on Amazon, iTunes, etc., but it's a good cause, as the low-rated show needs to prove its value to NBC.
• This was supposed to be an unusually short post, but this turned out to be a tough episode to explain, and I'm not sure I was successful. I'm kind of relieved that there are still plenty of episodes like "Lucy and the Loving Cup" left on the list.