Community, “Critical Film Studies”

When I knew that “Critical Film Studies” was reportedly going to include a lot of Pulp Fiction references I was a bit worried that my general ambivalence (and thus lack of real knowledge) towards that film would mean I wouldn’t enjoy this episode as much as I could have. I wasn’t necessarily concerned about not understanding the narrative, but perhaps I’d miss a few moments that would really make it. Or something. Of course, those fears were really, really stupid. First of all, I should have known that Community always figures out a way to hit my sweet spot and no matter my knowledge, I’d enjoy the episode. Secondly, it wouldn’t matter if Pulp Fiction was my most favorite movie of all-time because “Critical Film Studies” isn’t actually a parody or riff on that film at all. Instead, somehow this episode figures out how to produce perhaps it’s most overt and complete parody of one text even though that text is a moderately known film from 1981 that I’d imagine at least 79 percent of the series’ audience has never, ever seen. And you know what? It might just be the best episode of the season.

Even though Community is most well-known for its pop culture references and zany concept episodes, I and a lot of other people have been arguing that all those things work so well because the characters have such an interesting and wonderful connection. My favorite episodes are “Contemporary American Poultry” and “Mixology Certification” because they emphasize those connections, especially when it comes to Abed and his issues. This is a guy who might only relate to people on a popular culture reference level, but sometimes, that’s actually better than what he might think a “real” connection is. Not all connections are as real as they seem and sometimes, your best friends might be the people who share the most “basic” of connections with: The people you work with, people in a class, etc. So even if Jeff and Abed and Troy only get along because of their pop culture interests, that doesn’t make those connections any less “real.”

“Critical Film Studies” explores these ideas in substantial detail while keeping very close to the riffing of My Dinner with Andre and building an entire portion of that plot around a character’s love for another comedy currently on the air. In a lot of ways, this feels like a sequel to “Contemporary American Poultry.” That episode saw Jeff and Abed make a really great connection and pact to make sure to help one another become better versions of themselves, and really, better “normal” people. Because even though Abed is the most noticeably weird and “out there” character in the group, Jeff has his fair share of issues as well, ones that keep him from being a totally well-functioning human being. But even though that episode was so fantastically written, directed and acted, Jeff and Abed haven’t really hung out that much in season two, or at least haven’t done so on-screen. Abed’s been enjoying his time with Troy and Jeff is usually wasting his time arguing with Britta or flirting with Annie. This is absolutely fine, but I’ve kind of missed the Jeff-Abed relationship and I’m very happy that this episode made it a point to suggest the writers and the characters feel exactly the same way. Jeff’s initial voice-over discusses the events of “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” but it also subtly hints at the fact that Jeff hasn’t really lived up to his word from the end of “Poultry.” He promised that he’d help Abed through not only the big issues like losing touch with his mother, but the smaller day-to-day stuff that makes living manageable. Abed is one of the best people on the planet and I think Jeff recognizes that he’s let him down. And so, he tries to throw him a sizable and cool Pulp Fiction-themed birthday party.

Unfortunately for Jeff, Abed has other plans. He shows up in a Mr. Roger’s sweater, refuses to talk in pop culture references and then explains that after a glorious, yet traumatic experience on the set of one of his favorite series Cougar Town, Abed realizes that he can’t build his life around popular culture anymore. He needs real life, he needs real conversation. Shocked by this turn of events, Jeff tries to manage Abed’s expectations of real life with a pathetically honest story about how he calls sex hot lines and tells the women he’s fat just so they’ll make him feel good anyway and also divulges a terrible story about his mother dressing him up as a girl for Halloween when he was young.

For a few minutes there I thought Jeff was making all of this up as to show Abed that real life conversations aren’t fun, they aren’t honest and they aren’t really, well, real. It seemed like a somewhat mean, but effective Winger thing to do. But instead, the episode pulled the rug out from under my feet by having Abed be the one putting on a role the whole time. It turns out that he just really wanted to act out an homage to the somewhat obscure, but respected film My Dinner With Andre and also spend some quality time with Jeff while he was at it. As he mentions, Abed’s never going to take Jeff hanging out with other people personally. Abed knows who he is and understands that people will probably grow tired of him and ultimately (read:sadly) leave him. But that doesn’t mean he can’t come with super-elaborate riffs on random movies so that he spend one good night with someone he considers a really great friend. It’s weird and twisted and confusing, but that’s life and people come with all sorts of weird rationalizations for why or how they should hang out with their friends. Abed’s just happens to involve acting out pieces of his favorite films.

I’m not sure where this leaves Jeff and Abed exactly. Abed has accidentally called Jeff out on breaking his promise from the end of “Contemporary American Poultry,” but he’s not necessarily upset about it. I’d have to imagine that Jeff’s own guilt about the situation beforehand will only be exacerbated now, which means he might spend a lot more time trying to be the friend that Abed deserves. And really, Jeff deserves someone like Abed as well. He might not be able to share his own personal experiences in a normal way, but Abed’s proven time and time again that he’s a great listener. For whatever reason, he brings out the honesty in Jeff that really no one else does and Mr. Winger probably needs that if he’s going to continue to grow and change and maybe even mature — even if he thinks it’s overrated.

I’ll be interested to see how people respond to this episode. The fans were mixed on “Mixology” and this one feels similar in tone and subject matter. They might be especially angry because of how the episode subverts expectations in relation to the much discuss Pulp Fiction side of the story. In any event, I love how “Contemporary American Poultry” kind of opened the door for all the really fantastically sad and compelling episodes of season two. That one was more overtly appealing with the Goodfellas homages and even though “Critical Film Studies” is perhaps even more overt in its homage-ness, it’s less showy and probably interesting. I just love this series.

Other thoughts:

  • Even though it wasn’t as integral as the promos and fluffy news stories suggested, the Pulp Fiction stuff was really great. Troy and Chang were required to carry a lot of the comedic weight and Donald Glover and Ken Jeong handled it well. The costumes were fitting and well put-together and the suitcase gag was about as well-executed as you could imagine. There were probably some little nods and moments that I did miss since I don’t really care for the film, but I liked it nonetheless.
  • After a big plot last week, Britta has less to do and is almost as effective in this one. It’s always nice to find out little non-Greendale related things about the characters and I am unbelievably unsurprised that Britta works at a retro dinner. Also fantastic? Her 3-D vision comment and Annie’s realization that just about everyone hates Britta.
  • Another light week for Chevy Chase and Pierce, but his dialogue in the teaser and the Gimp outfit were probably enough. He doesn’t really belong in an episode like this.
  • I didn’t mention it up-top, but I have to point out how fantastic Danny Pudi was in this episode. His transformation to the “normal” Abed was very, very well done in such a way that it felt both 100 percent believable and completely and utterly weird. Great stuff.
  • Thanks Community, I now just miss Cougar Town more.

One response to “Community, “Critical Film Studies””

  1. That episode of Community was BRILLIANT. I knew about it being a Pulp Fiction episode as well, and Jeff’s Tarantino style narration clued me into thinking it was going to be exactly that, and that ‘s the reason that although I noticed some similarities to My Dinner With Andre before the big reveal, I was still totally floored by it.

    Here is a show that managed to display some amazingly complex character development, then essentially bring us back to the status quo, and THEN build off that again into a level of character growth that feels natural and fits the arc of the characters. To me, Abed’s whole Cougar Town story seemed like something truly genuine that Abed COULD actually go through. He’s the only character that could, and somehow this far-fetched story of his fit in perfectly. Danny Pudi was completely convincing in this episode, truly showing his range as an actor.

    And the way in which it mixes this drama and comedy is spot-on. I practically crapped my pants when Abed said he crapped his after that long diatribe of his. I laughed every time Pierce was on screen in the gimp costume, and I smiled at all the little cinematic nods to Pulp Fiction.

    As for My Dinner With Andre, Community is the ONLY show, possibly EVER that could get away with a reference as obscure as that. If you’ve seen “Waiting for Guffman,” in the end Christopher Guest is running a shop and selling My Dinner With Andre action figures. That is the extent to which that movie has been parodied and Community just went all out.

    Absolutely fucking brilliant.


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