Community: Abed In Wonderland

"This isn't going to be fun, easy, or safe." -- Abed

There's an extent to which Community is the new Arrested Development, trafficking in hypertextuality and inside jokes that only grow more rewarding with repeat viewings. But episodes like last night's "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" also owe a debt to Scrubs, which tended to use a patient's ailment as a springboard for recreating their battle in a fantasy world. One of the most notable was the musical episode in which a woman suffering a psychological problem thought everyone around her was singing. The gimmick was lighthearted on the surface (some of the songs were about poop and bromance) but rooted in emotional tragedy that ended on a typically bittersweet note. That was the template for Community this week: cute hook, heartbreaking story. And while the script, credited to creator Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos, managed to create a moving story about Abed's ongoing loneliness, the episode itself was one of the least funny the show has ever produced. The series has always had a meta bent, but even the more gimmick-heavy installments ("Contemporary American Poultry," "Modern Warfare," "Epidemiology") were able to remain funny and entertaining while playing with form. This week's episode was easier to admire than enjoy, and while it was a technical achievement to see the story rendered in stop-motion animation, that sense of stiffness in the art had a way of bleeding into the story. A good episode, and still more inventive than just about anything else on TV, but short on the actual comedy.

Abed has always been the go-to guy for royally messing with sitcom convention (see his bored rants against bottle episodes a few weeks back), and the episode was animated in stop-motion styled after Rankin-Bass Christmas specials to illustrate what Abed was seeing. He'd had an emotional break earlier in the day and proudly announced to everyone that they were animated, and the awkward silence with which the group met his declaration was telling. He's always been a little off, and many of the episodes tend to circle back to his various personality issues, but he really had some tough stuff to work through this time around. After trying to lure him into group therapy with Professor Duncan, the gang agreed to play along with Abed's increasingly detailed imaginings in which he led them on a trek to his own planet where they could search for the true meaning of Christmas.

The show's wall-breaking nods were still there -- Abed's statement that the Christmas carols heard on his world were OK because they were public domain, or his lyrics to a sad Christmas song that simply ran "sad, quick Christmas song" -- but the core of the story followed Abed and the gang's journey to the North Pole. He turned them into various toys that were slowly killed or abandoned as he made the final part of journey alone (except for a pretty adorable Teddy Pierce), leading to the eventual revelation that he'd had a total split from reality when he got a card from his mother that she wouldn't be able to visit him this year because, after years of being divorced from Abed's father, she'd finally met someone new and started a new family. The shock basically kicked his brain back to childhood, since he and mom always watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer together. It was a sad and moving moment, but one that became sweet when the rest of the gang reappeared to show Abed they supported him by bursting into an uplifting song about the meaning of friendship. Yet the lessened emphasis on character comedy meant that the dramatic ending pushed the episode just a bit too far into maudlin territory. It's a tough act to pull off, to be sure, but Community's done it so often before that it was a bit of a surprise to see some weaknesses in what was otherwise a strong episode. The story was well done and bravely dark, but it felt like it came at the expense of some of the character comedy that always gives the show its spark, like it did last week. Ah well. At least I know what I want for Christmas now: a remote-controlled pterodactyl.

On a programming note: Community's in repeats until January 20 (!), when NBC's new comedy block debuts and we finally, finally welcome back Parks and Recreation.

Scattered thoughts:

• Using the first season of Lost as "a metaphor for lack of payoff?" Brilliant.

• The real-live cast can be glimpsed in the final moments of the episode, reflected in the TV screen.

• Chang as the snowman was easily the funniest part of the entire episode. "How about 10 more seconds on that third button, huh?"

• "Damn, it got real up in that memory cave."

• Can't tell if the duet moment with Jeff and Annie harmonizing on "I love you" in the finale was a joke for fans or a hint at what's to come.

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