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Community: My Dinner With Abed

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"Critical Film Studies" crushed it on just about every level last night. Community has always endeavored to stay one step ahead of the viewer in terms of expectations, specifically when it comes to the homages, metafiction, and general attempts to blur the line between realities. Last season, that led to surprising game-changers like the oft-cited "Modern Warfare" and "Contemporary American Poultry," but this year, the show has gone up a notch by subverting those expectations. This episode was probably pitched to the network as a Pulp Fiction takeoff, but like Abed's own intentions in the story, that's just a feint to get you looking the other way while the show sneaks up with a powerful, genuinely moving take on My Dinner With Andre. Instead of high drama leading to small moments of revelation, we got low-key talky scenes that built to serious emotional carnage. It was a total reversal, but it was still true to the characters and the little arcs they go through each week of exploration and self-expression. The episode just plain worked.

The episode -- credited to writer Sona Panos and directed by The Mighty Boosh's Richard Ayoade -- could also pull off the My Dinner With Andre nod a lot longer without tipping its hand simply because that film, while quite good, isn't nearly the pop cultural touchstone of Die Hard, Aliens, or any of the other films that have served as fuel for the stories of Greendale Community College. Even with Jeff's narration and Abed's sweater (styled after the one Andre Gregory wore in the film, though I always think of the ones Judd Hirsch seemed to wear on every episode of Taxi), the episode gets away with it by spring-boarding off Abed's earlier mental issues from the Christmas episode. His straight-laced appearance doesn't play like an homage, merely the latest in a series of breakdowns he could be having. And that's also part of the episode's genius: We get worried about Abed and drawn into his story of loneliness (eventually proven to be manufactured) and then get blindsided by Jeff's legitimate confession of body issues and childhood trauma. That's tight, nimble storytelling, and it doesn't even occupy a fraction of the episode's 22 minutes.

The supporting story of the gang waiting for Abed's surprise party was also strong, especially for the interplay between Troy and Chang. Chang's a gleeful deviant, and Troy's earnest and gullible, so it's pretty easy to put them together and watch things go haywire. It was also interesting to see Britta trying and failing to make it in the real world outside of school, and it hurt to see her getting kicked around by the manager of the diner. Jeff opened the episode by saying that everybody loved Abed, but Annie noticed that everybody seems to hate Britta. There's no way that's not going to come back into play.

The closing montage with Andre's piano music was one of the series' most direct copies so far, but also one of its most successful. Their evening wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible, either; it was just good, and they were happy to be with each other. Abed just wanted to hang out with Jeff again, and they both realized that, for all the changes the group goes through, there's something to be said for the constant comfort of family, even -- especially -- if it's the one we make with those around us.

Scattered thoughts:

• Loved all the Cougar Town shout-outs. That's another comedy earning critical love but struggling with audiences, and it was nice for Community to tip their hat. It also served to make Community that much more real. Every TV series or movie set in what looks like our world has to be careful not to bump against the wall of other works starring the cast; in other words, Community can't reference The Soup without ripping open the space-time continuum. But referencing current sitcoms is as close as they can get, and it works.

• "Abed was being weird. And by that I mean he wasn't being weird."

• "Why are you dressed like Mister Rogers and talking like Frasier?"

• "He seduced me with his dark Chinese powers!" A perfect Troy line: heartfelt and kind of insane.

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