Friday, December 10, 2010

TV Episode Review: Community “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

Tonight’s episode of Community is going to be a divisive episode for rabid and casual fans alike (I’m foaming at the mouth, in case you were wondering).  I talked a friend into giving the show another shot with this episode (he walked away early in season 1), and while he didn’t dislike it, he felt the need to email me at the 12 minute mark and point out that he hadn’t cracked a smile since the five minute mark.  While I question his sense of humor given that statistic, I understand where this episode wouldn’t work for everyone.  For one thing, the more familiar you are with the stop-motion work of Rankin and Bass and all of the odd trappings (stiff motion, taffy mouths, surprisingly charming results) the more you would appreciate how well the team working on this episode nailed the ever-loving yuletide cheer out of this thing.  With the exception of the counselor wizard (who has never worked for me in the real world either—do people really find this guy to be funny?), all of the characters in Abed’s Wonderland were fun little creations: Jeff in the Box, Troy Soldier (who sadly gets a drum instead of guns—at first), Teddy Pierce, Ballerannie, Babydoll Shirley and Brita-bot all fit into the Rankin/Bass style universe and allowed for funny little character riffs on top of it. 

The episode’s only weakness derived from an issue that hadn’t occurred to me but now seems obvious.  So much humor is drawn from the actual physical and facial interaction of the acting talent on this show that some of the dialogue tonight was diminished by the absence of their physical selves (by comparison, consider last week’s exchanges in the car on the way to the bar—reactions shots of Brita, Jeff and Abed were funnier than some of the lines themselves).  It also seemed like the energy which usually crackles in the dialogue was just a touch flatter for being the voice over to animation—especially early in the episode it seemed like some of the deliveries were falling flat.  Maybe this was my imagination, but there are a lot of great acting talents who don’t do well with animation (Tina Fey disappointed me with her work in Ponyo, to name one example), and that seemed to dampen the spirit here just a touch. 

But with so much going right throughout the episode, even such a potential snag ends up being nothing but a minor glitch.  The world here (complete with Pterodactyls!) was wonderfully imagined (by Abed apparently) and brought to life in pretty convincing ways (which is to say, convincing as an entry in the stop-motion-animationverse).  The scene atop the train as it raced along the mountainside was particularly well rendered—it had a sense of motion and suspense and looked exactly like the fun action scenes from Rudolph and the other work Rankin/Bass vomited out that no one remembers the name of.  Same goes for the final, um, shootout where all of the characters sing Abed free from the ice and pummel the evil wizard with awesome stop-motion guns. 

While not all of the singing or lyrics really stuck out as great moments or particularly memorable lines, there was just enough of the musical stuff to lend the episode a heightened sense of the cartoonish.  Given what a risk they were taking with such an odd episode to begin with, it seems like they deserve some slack for mediocre Willy Wonka knockoff songs and heartfelt numbers explaining Abed’s emotional states.  At least they’re conceptually funny, and I think that counts for something, especially considering this was a high-concept episode.

Ultimately the episode was hardly “Christmas-y” at all, which is not a complaint.  They even had some fun taking some warm-hearted jabs at the traditional meaning(s) of Christmas in the end, while coming to a conclusion about its true meaning that certainly wouldn’t offend anyone but certainly wouldn’t mesh with most of the meanings any practitioner of the holiday would traditionally give.  A less gutsy show would’ve found all of the characters exchanging gifts under a tree, or worse, eschewing gifts after the revelation that Christmas isn’t about giving or getting.  Like everything else Community takes a run at, their take on Christmas came to a close that felt genuine while falling squarely outside the margins of traditional holiday fare.  Which makes it the best Christmas gift television is likely to give you this year.

Overall:  8.8/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

  •  “I never understand anything you guys are saying.”  What a great line from Pierce, a season and a half in the making.
  • “How many fingers am I holding up, and are they still made of clay?”
  • Abed’s Christmas planet has an atmosphere made from 7% cinnamon.
  • Two great lines from Chang in his brief snowman cameo:
    • “Yeah,you made me need to cry in the shower tonight.” And
    • “How about 10 more seconds on that bottom button?”  Nothing like a snowman shouting inappropriate sexual remarks to get you in the Christmas spirit.
  •  “…and for the love of God stay between the gumdrops!”
  • The Humbugs were clever, Jeff remarking that “Somewhere out there Tim Burton just got a boner” was a master stroke.  On a related note, Jeff being reduced to that funny J-in-the-B skeleton was clever.
  • Loved Troy’s quiet reflection on the train:  “Damn it got real up in that memory cave.”
  • “Who taught you therapy?  Michael Jackson’s dad?”
  • As an incredibly frustrated Lost viewer this season, I much appreciated the “lack of payoff” dig. 
  • Great touch that their reflections in the TV were the real characters at the end. 

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