Community: Make a Glee-ful Noise

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So here we are. This was the last new episode of Community we'll get for a while. There's no telling when the show will be back, but one thing's certain: This was probably not the way to go out.

Community has always existed halfway between our world and its own. It doesn't just incorporate cultural references as intellectual shorthand; it consciously acknowledges the presence of those references, turning the whole thing into a metafictional exercise in modern intertextuality. You know, it talks about itself and stuff. It knows you're watching a show, and it plays to those expectations in its attempt to defy them. (At times, Abed seems to be aware that he's just a character on said show. Heavy.) One of the ways it does this is by referencing other shows that actually exist right now and how they might be perceived by Community viewers or experienced by the cast and crew. Witness Abed's Cougar Town story from "Critical Film Studies," for example.

Another major touchstone for the show has been, weirdly, Glee. It popped up when Jeff was crying on Pierce's shoulder at the dance (remember that one?), and again in "Modern Warfare" when the study group complained about Greendale's glee club needing to get original songs. There have probably been other references that I'm sure the Internet will tell me about. Yet nothing to this point has matched the depth of this week's Glee-centric storytelling or show-bashing. The episode was an endless assault on a show that has nothing to do with the Greendale universe, and that meant less focus on the characters we tuned in to see. A lot of the jokes in "Regional Holiday Music" worked, but only once. Pierce's "What the hell is regionals?" line was great the first time around, but it became just one more weapon in the episode's assault on Glee. Instead of taking a passing shot at the show, Community tried to define itself as being "not Glee," as if anyone watching Community really cared about that argument or needed it to be made.

I don't like Glee. It's a ridiculous cartoon that has zero emotional continuity and uses its characters as paper dolls upon which the writers hang whatever emotional state they need a character to have that week. It's not good. But more importantly, I like Community more than I dislike Glee. I don't need 22 minutes of doot-doot music cues and jabs at a cheesy Fox teen melodrama. I need Greendale to feel like its own place, proud and secure, not pissy or scared or too bored to do anything but lash out at another show as a way to establish its own personality. That's not Community. That's an SNL sketch run wild. Nights like this, the show becomes an academic exercise, not a comedy.

The Glee riff also undermined Abed's arc and the point of the whole episode, which was about how it's OK to like things and want to feel good with friends and family at the holidays. (It's basically the same theme the show explored last year in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas.") If Abed had forced everyone into glee club only for them all to learn something about each other, that would have worked just as fine and felt a whole lot more like Community. Instead, we got an episode that seemed to be about the upside of positivity that was too afraid to just worry about itself and let other shows be themselves.

Because when you strip that stuff away, you still have a solid musical episode with plenty of wonderful jokes, stories, and cultural deconstruction as only Community can do. The "Jehovah's Secret Witness" rap was fantastic, as was Annie's wonderfully over-the-top "Teach Me How to Understand Christmas," which finally put a bullet in the head of every kinky and disturbing holiday song that uses creepy sexuality to somehow celebrate the season. Similarly, it made total sense that Abed would not only be the first person to fall under the spell of a charismatic glee club leader, but that he'd be the only one to not actually get brainwashed in the process. When he realized that Mr. Rad had nefarious plans for the study group as a permanent glee club replacement, he just walked away. Abed's always been able to compartmentalize like that, and having Britta sing her tone-deaf song to bring the whole concert down was a hilarious touch.

Despite some major execution problems, there were good moments and the seeds of many more scattered throughout the episode. I also liked the ending, disjointed though it may have seemed. This year has been all about the gang's strengthening bond, and it was totally believable that they'd all show up at Abed's door (technically Troy and Annie's, too) to sing a carol and cheer him up. They're a family now.

As I mentioned, there's no return date set for Community yet. Maybe late spring, maybe early summer. We don't know. But I eagerly await its return. I know, I know; I spent several hundred words pointing out was really wrong with this episode, so it might sound weird that I already miss the show. But as I've said before, Community takes risks. It's a challenging comedy that doesn't always hit its mark, but even when it doesn't nail the landing it's still among the smartest and most entertaining shows on TV. And when it's on fire, it's unstoppable. That's why I'll come back, and why I suspect you all will, too. The show's got something special, and it's always worth watching. Here's hoping to a speedy return.

Scattered thoughts:

• Shirley seems to have the same grasp on public education and religious tolerance that Rick Perry has. I sure wish the writers would give her some dimension.

• No one says "country-western." This isn't 1965.

• Jeff's "Is this a bit?" during Annie's song was great, and a nice callback to his jab at the German foosball players from the week before.

• Taran Killam was the perfect choice for Mr. Rad. He's on SNL now, but to me, he'll always be Jimmy the Overly Touchy Orderly.

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