10 December 2010
By Rachael Nisenkier // TV
To say that I love Christmas is an understatement. To say that I love Christmas-themed popular culture is one of the biggest understatements of all time (see also: last year’s Christmas-episode list, or the My Cinema Blogs ongoing series of Christmas-themed movie analysis).
See, as a young half-jewish girl growing up in an agnostic household, Christmas never meant Jesus or church or choir or even cross-country slogs to relatives houses. Christmas meant, more often than not, setting up the house with the perfect mixture of 92% Christmas decorations and 8% Channukah decorations and then cozying up on the couch with my little brother and parents to watch an onslaught of Christmas movies from December 1st forward. To this day when I get off the plane on the day before Christmas eve, I can count on the fact that the house will be filled with Christmas decorations and the Blu-Ray player will be cued up with the Muppet Christmas Carol, which we will all watch, even though we know every word, and I will always fall asleep at the same part, and my brother will always be annoyed by the same sappy love song.
I suppose the biggest understatement of all would be in saying that I merely understand muslim-Abed’s christmas worldview. So maybe I’m not to be trusted when I say that I think this week’s Community might be the finest thing the (I’m ready to say it) best show on television right now has put out.
Basically, Community has taken its theme-episodes to a logical extreme and turned the whole cast into stop-motion versions of themselves to act out the Christmas episode. IT follows Abed’s Christmas-related mental breakdown, which causes him to indulge in the stop-motion delusion, and leads the gang to try to intervention him back to mental health. Said intervention ends with them all getting sucked up into his psychological christmas wonka-esque fantasy, and ultimately help find the meaning of Christmas.
It was no surprise that this episode was funny or moving or well done. But it was surprising just how dark it let the story get. Abed’s pain is real, and deep, and coming from a place of deep hurt and loneliness. The people around him are there to help him (to differing degrees), but they are also dealing with the ramifications of just how lonely they are.
Where the episode really draws its power is in using the idea of Christmas as a time of shared-delusion (as made physically manifest by the gang ultimately protecting Abed’s stop-motion ersion of the world), where we pretend that the “coldest and darkest” days of the year are filled with (forgive the rhyme) cheer to reinforce the bond between the show’s principal characters and showing just how profound and meaningful their relationships with each other are. This isn’t just a group of friends, or buddies, who we can anticipate moving apart from each other over time. Sometimes, literally, these are the people who stand between each other and teetering over into an all consuming abyss of loneliness.
The thing that makes Community so much more than just a half-hour sitcom (even the greatest of them) and so much more than most things currently in television is its ability to use the pop culture landscape that is so essential to understanding the modern existance to pick out, examine and ultimately find catharsis for difficult truths that exist across the modern landscape, and to use characters diverse enough and real enough that they seem like the flawed and fantastic avatars for our selves.
And so it is with the Christmas, stop-motion version of the show. They took the metaphorical sadness and joy inherent in Christmas (basically, the feeling you get when you listen to Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas song “Christmas Time is Here”) and explained exactly why it is that it matters that we indulge in our rituals, that we try to give ourselves over to the twinkly light glee even though it doesn’t feel exactly the same as it did when we were 6 and ultimately it changes nothing. December 26th comes and we’re left in the same world we were in on December 23. Community argues, however, that it is in the act of believing so hard in the power of our rituals and by giving meaning to popular culture, Christmas trees, family singalongs and family viewing parties, that we really make them the worthwhile and cathartic endeavors that we need them to be. The family that Abed has created at Greendale is not what was necessarily what Abed thought family meant (much like Shirley might argue that the real meaning of Christmas has a lot more to do with the Christ at the front of that word), but it is none the less profoundly meaningful and really moving.
* Community was also very funny and enjoyable, and Teddy Pierce was probably the most adorable thing to ever have Chevy Chase’s head attached to it.