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Review: ‘Community’ – ‘Critical Film Studies’: My dinner with Abed

A review of tonight’s “Community” coming up just as soon as I stop saying “Cougar Town”…

“Chad had lived, Jeff. Chad had lived more than Abed.” -Abed

I follow a number of “Community” actors and writers on Twitter, and throughout Thursday afternoon, I kept seeing messages from each of them that made two things very clear: 1)Everyone who works on the show is terribly proud of this episode, and 2)Everyone was terribly afraid that people wouldn’t get it.

And I can see why they would be feeling both pride and fear. What was billed by some as a “Pulp Fiction” episode instead turned out to be an elaborate stealth homage to the far more obscure(*) “My Dinner with Andre.” It was yet another one of this season’s dark, laugh-light, experimental episodes that completely switched up the series’ verbal and visual rhythms, and that let Danny Pudi spend a large chunk of the episode esentially playing a character other than Abed. And then just as the episode seemed like it was really committing to the darkness and to fundamentally altering Abed’s character and worldview, it undercut every emotion we’d been given so far, revealing it all to be an elaborate fantasy on Abed’s part that played like a selfish practical joke to Jeff. And then it undercut that idea by having Abed and Jeff have an actual honest conversation, instead of Abed’s approximation of one earlier, in which the artifice of the “My Dinner with Andre” bit was presented as the closest Abed can usually come to authenticity, given the way he chooses to live in the world.

(*) If you’re like me (and you’re probably not) and were obsessed with Siskel & Ebert in the 1980s, then “Andre” isn’t particularly obscure at all, as it felt like those guys discussed their love of that movie every other episode for about four years straight. The strange thing is, even though I respected the hell out of those two and wound up choosing this profession in large part because of them, I have somehow still never seen “My Dinner with Andre.” But I’d seen enough clips on “At the Movies” to recognize, for instance, that Abed was wearing a similar sweater to the one Andre Gregory had.  

Doing an episode with that many layers, and with such a small number of overt jokes, that tries to have its cake and eat it too with the emotional life of a character who can only sort of be said to have an emotional life? That takes onions, boys and girls. That takes some major-league huevos, and I applaud Pudi, Joel McHale, writer Sona Panos, special guest director Richard Ayode (from “The IT Crowd”) and everyone else involved for both trying it and pulling it off.

At the same time, I get exactly why all those afternoon tweets seemed so nervous. There are many people who, understandably, go into their favorite comedies with the primary goal of laughing, and this is at least the third episode of the season (after Troy’s birthday and the stop-motion Christmas episode) that wasn’t in any particular hurry to help its viewers achieve that goal. Sure, I cackled at Pierce in the Gimp suit, chuckled at Troy calling wine “no-no juice” and thought (as I have ever since the episode’s photos started making the rounds) that Yvette Nicole Brown made a shockingly great Samuel L. Jackson. And Jeff’s Halloween story was at least one-third comedy to two-thirds tragedy. Mostly, though, this was another episode that was willing to sacrifice yuks for the sake of both the homage and the character story, and I can see a point – if we’re not already there – where some people just lose their patience with this show’s experimental vibe and declare that they’d rather sacrifice the references for the sake of an episode that’s just crazy-funny.

And beyond that, I was myself kind of troubled during that portion in between the waiter spilling the beans to Jeff – I knew the show was doing a “My Dinner with Andre” bit, but hadn’t decided for sure that Abed himself was deliberately doing it – and Jeff and Abed’s conversation at the diner. I loved the Troy’s birthday episode because it was taking everyone’s emotions seriously, and particularly because it gave so much growth to Troy. But Abed, as he notes to Jeff here, is a character who, by design, can’t grow, and whose emotions will always be either muddled or buried deep under layer after layer of pop culture ephemera. So it seemed both a cheat at first that the show seemed to be giving him some major growth, only to do a complete about-face. And it seemed an odd decision to build such a sedate, jokeless episode around a character whose emotions were so remote, particularly since we had already gotten an episode like that at Christmas-time. (And there I felt they pulled it off because of the animation; though at the time I requested an alternate live-action version of things, I don’t know that it’s a satisfying character story for Abed that way.)

But that final Jeff/Abed scene turned me around, I think. First, it was a nice echo of their conversation at the end of the chicken fingers episode without simply feeling like a rehash. Second, there was some genuine vulnerability from Abed there, as opposed to the practiced (and kinda mesmerizing) Abed-as-Chad-as-Abed monologue about being a background extra on “Cougar Town”(**). Abed’s emotions are buried, but he has them, just like Data and Spock and so many other characters he listed did. He can access them, but it’s complicated, and can take an extraordinary effort on the part of both his friends and the creative team that controls his adventures, and I think both groups reached the gooey center of Abed this week.

(**) “Cougar Town” has, like “Community,” already wrapped production for this season, and I don’t believe the “Cougar Town” writers were aware of this episode in advance. But I think the only way for this whole mutual admiration society to be complete would be for them to actually sneak Pudi into the background of a scene with Courteney Cox early next season.

What did everybody else think? Were you pleased with the finished product, or would you have preferred a simpler half hour with more Gimp jokes?

By Alan Sepinwall – Abed has a memorable, ‘Pulp Fiction’-flavored birthday

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