Episode 205: Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples

 

Semi-bored torontonian

Community S2E5: Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples

Hold on to your hats, this is going to get a little personal!

I’m not a religious person. But I always thought I’m missing something. I come from a long line of wives and mothers, and most of them (never the husbands and fathers for reasons too complex to really go into right now) are (or were) religious to varying degrees: my grandmothers were both pretty devout, while my mom and aunts are occasional but unconvinced church goers. The religion in question is Orthodox Christianity, which, unlike Protestantism, and even Catholicism, is very ritual based and quite spectacular. The rituals are often beautiful and quite moving, especially those associated with the remembrance of the dead: at specific intervals and on prescribed days, the priest will read at the end of the sermon a long list of names of people who have died; the families will bring food and special breads which they will then take to the graves of their loved ones, and then share with the poor. It’s all very solemn, but at the same time, the regularity of the ritual, the relative simplicity of the food, the names being read aloud for everyone to hear create a familiar bond with the dead that is incredibly comforting. It’s hard for me to put into words, and I’m getting very sentimental, but it’s almost like a family gathering: it projects a sense of community, a feeling that the dead still have a presence, and that presence will endure for as long as someone calls their names. More than any belief in Heaven or eternal life, I find this to be an incredibly effective way to stave off the oblivion of death.

Ad yet, I can’t call myself religious. I read the Bible and enough theology and philosophy to speak with a certain degree of competence, I frequent slaktivist (and you should too), but faith as a mode of life eludes me. At the root of my skepticism is a problem of authority: I can’t be part of a club that doesn’t consider me a member with full rights. And since Christianity has a – shall we say – ambivalent relationship with women, I will probably continue to observe it from afar, and wonder if I’m being too stubborn, or too proud, or if I do actually hold the moral high ground.

Which is precisely the reason I wanted to review this episode so badly: I find it to be an incredibly nuanced and moving meditation on the intersection of faith and dogma, and on the nature of sacrifice. It offers a portrayal of Christianity which is sometimes critical, but ultimately loving and understanding, and, most importantly, it shies away from the Bill Mahr-esque cheap, arrogant dismissiveness (oh those Christians, they so krazy, amirite?) that is so often the default tone on network television. It also has a YouTube video entitled “Ski-lift ninja crotch rip,” and a C story featuring Pierce not eating his broccoli and falling in with a bunch of no-goodnick 90-year old hipsters, just so you don’t confuse it with a Robert Bresson movie. And I’m only half-joking here: Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples is the Bressonian counterpoint to Louis CK’s Buñuelesque God. Where God looks at religion and sees a cynical, sadistic and oppressive institution with no redeeming morality or compassion, Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples tries to peel off the dogma and look for grace instead. The whole episode is in fact about the conflict between authority and grace, between punishment and forgiveness.

There are four stories in the episode. I’ll just list them one by one, in order of complexity:

 Jeff

Jeff: “How is that my job?”
Annie: “Aren’t you like…the dad?”
Jeff: “Would a dad walk away from this conversation?”
Annie: “No?”
Jeff: /*Turns and leaves*/

Jeff’s authority mode in the episode is primarily paternalistic. This is of course nothing new. But by casting him into an almost Ward Cleaver-esque role the episode highlights the massive contradictions at the heart of his character. Jeff loves the perks of authority, but hates the responsibilities. And yet, of all the members of the study group, he is by far the most qualified to lead: he has the experience, the craft – hell he even has the physicality! – but none of the desire or ambition. Jeff’s leadership asserts itself primarily on an emotional level: as apathetic as he can be most of the time, he will spring into action to defend the bullied – be they Annie, Abed, or Greendale itself. Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples provides him with a different kind of dilemma, because the person in need of help is neither innocent nor bullied. Pierce, who, having descended to the level of a petulant 4-year old in Basic Rocket Science has by now graduated to surly teen, has fallen in with a group of hipsters (they’re called this because they all have hip replacements) led by the formidable Leonard, and has now forgone the eating of broccoli, and taken to stealing cookies, gambling, drinking, staying up all afternoon and joy riding at 10 mph (side question: what is it about Greendale that attracts so many shady senior citizens? It seems like every illegal activity, except for Starburns’ drug-dealing, is the province of the elderly in this place). Pierce is neither victimized, nor grifted (as it happened the last time Jeff came to his aid, in Basic Genealogy). His rebellion is not only outwardly silly, it’s also entirely voluntary, and poses no discernible danger to himself or to others. So the decision Jeff needs to make this time is one based in both rationality and compassion. It’s very telling that Britta, and especially Annie can’t exactly come up with a clear justification for why Jeff should even bother with Pierce; by the end of the episode they have both disappeared leaving Jeff alone to make his choice.

Essentially Jeff has to choose between punishment and forgiveness. Pierce and the hipsters have crashed the Dean’s car after a thrilling joyride during which speeds as high as 10 mph may have been reached. Now busted and locked up in Greendale jail, Pierce calls Jeff to bail him out. In a very touching little aside, we find out that Jeff is Pierce’s emergency contact – a detail that hasn’t really come up ever since, and which provides a subtle insight into Jeff’s more compassionate and altruistic side. Jeff is initially tempted to not only leave Pierce stay in lock-up overnight, but to also abandon him, by removing himself as his emergency contact. But then being told by the rather oddly-breasted woman at the front desk that Leonard acts out because his kids no longer care about him, he changes his mind and bails Pierce out. Pierce, acting perfectly in character as both himself and a scowling teen storms out of Greendale in a huff without as much as a thank you.

Pierce

Richard the hipster: “Who were those people that ran away? My friends?”
Pierce: “That’s a good question.”

Pierce’s story is a little different, because he doesn’t have to wield authority, but rather evaluate it. He has fallen for the siren’s lure of stolen cookies, broccoli-free lunches clandestine gambling sessions deep in the bowels of Greendale, and general waywardness. All in all, it’s a charmed life until Richard (who flew Zeros during the war, because Greendale also attracts a sizable contingent of retired enemy combatants, apparently) has some kind of episode and crashes the Dean’s car very slowly into a light pole, and the Hipsters promptly evaporate. Well, not as much “promptly,” as “eventually, and with great difficulty” and not as much “evaporate” as “shuffle out of frame,” but you get my drift.

It’s interesting how much the Hipsters superficially resemble Pierce’s Laser Lotus cult: they both provide the promise of a perpetually arrested, idealized state – not transcendence as much as more of the same. The Laser Lotus promises Pierce’s mom a return to the kitchen and sandwich making for him and Troy, while the Hipsters present the possibility of irresponsible, perpetual adolescence. But Pierce’s rejection of the Hipster ideals actually serves to strengthen his belief in energon pods and the Temple of Renewal. For all its mercenary tiered structure and shoddy pod craftsmanship, the Laser Lotus’ most important promise is not even that of a return to your earthly body, but rather the shimmering, Hawaiian-punch tasting ocean of knowledge that everyone will become a part of once Buddha returns. It‘s the promise of  meaningful togetherness that proves the most enduring, and it’s precisely what the Hipsters are lacking. In fact, once captured, the group quickly degenerates into bickering and cackling.

Pierce’s refusal to acknowledge Jeff’s friendship and compassion serves as the entry point into the extraordinarily complex and moving arc he will undergo in Season 2. At a rational level, Pierce understands the difference between the selfishness of the Hipsters and the empathy of the Laser Lotus (it’s irrelevant if the Laser Lotus is a crass scam or not; Pierce can more than afford to pay for the energon cubes, and while the overall concept is clearly a dig at Scientology, the actual ideology resembles more a kind of harmless New Age pastiche; besides, what’s important is not the religious legitimacy of the cult, as much as how Pierce integrates their “teachings” into a personal ethics – it’s here where the authority of the Hipsters loses to Reformed Neo-Buddhism). But what is clear to him at a rational level, proves insurmountable at an emotional level – Pierce’s empathy, wounded by years of dismissive parenting and constant fears of rejection at the hands of Cornelius Hawthorne, actually seems to atrophy with each caring gesture it receives. It will quite literally take a mirror-Pierce: Gilbert – a man damaged in similar ways and by the same monster – for this empathy to finally assert itself.

Pierce’s lack of gratitude actually elevates Jeff’s gesture, by, paradoxically, keeping it hidden. Jeff’s “sacrifice” (the term is obviously relative, but, hey, I promised a theologically themed review, and besides, considering Jeff’s general apathy, doing this for Pierce really is quite a big deal) is meaningful, precisely because it’s silent and entirely altruistic: it expects no thanks and requires no recognition. It accepts and bears Pierce’s selfishness without trying to punish or even correct it.

Abed

Abed: “No. I want to tell the story of Jesus from the perspective of a filmmaker exploring the life of Jesus.”
Shirley: “That sounds… very appealing to filmmakers.”
Abed: “See, in the filmmaker's film, Jesus is a filmmaker trying to find God with his camera. But then the filmmaker realizes that he's actually Jesus and he's being filmed by God's camera. And it goes like that forever in both directions like a mirror in a mirror because all of the filmmakers are Jesus and all of their cameras are God. And the movie's called ABED – all-caps. Filmmaking beyond film. A meta-film. My masterpiece.”
Shirley: “I… don't like it…”
Abed: “You're reacting the way the world did to Jesus.

There’s no way to put this delicately: Abed’s story is one of arrogance and misplaced artistic authority. Like most stories where he gets creative, Abed functions as both a surrogate for Harmon’s aggressive perfectionism, and a parody of auteurism gone amok. What he takes from the New Testament and from the many movies he identifies as being in some way inspired by Jesus, is not the theme of the sacrifice (seriously, Abed? You watchSuperman Returns and you somehow miss that?), but rather that of specialness.

I’m not entirely sure how to interpret all this. The story is certainly related to Abed’s established difficulty to empathize (the ABED posters are nicely referenced in Virtual Systems Analysis which explores this theme to great detail). It’s likely connected to the fear of loneliness and abandonment that would become central in Season 3: in a sense Abed losing himself in the role of ABED/Jesus is a rehearsal of his complicated relation with Inspector Spacetime, and it certainly anticipates his interest in exceptional but distant heroes.

What is certain though, is that Abed learns a lesson in empathy here that he somehow seems to forget by the time Virtual Systems Analysis rolls around. I’m very reluctant to criticize VSA, which is an episode I liked very much, so I’ll do a little mental pretzeling and say that perhaps Abed needs to have this types of emotional lessons reinforced and spelled out (“Because they’ll say what they mean/ Instead of making a face”), or that, as his bonds with the group streghten and his emotions awaken, he needs more reassurance. Maybe like Pierce, he closed himself up when the group got too close. Or maybe the bond he creates with Shirley is a fluke, something unquantifiable and irrepeatable because he and Shirley are so fundamentally different, that it will take a soul more similar to his to really drive the point home. Annie shares with Abed insecurities that Shirley doesn’t possess – where Shirley does have a life, a family and a certain sense of fulfillment, Annie and Abed bond over their shared fears of inadequacy and loneliness.

What do you think? Help me out? I’m really at a loss here.

Shirley

You humble me too.

And with this, we finally get to the point of my review. And it only took 2500 high-on-their own drama words! I said I’ll prove the episode is all about trying to understand grace, and I’ll do it, damn it (PHRASING!), if it takes me three more days and LloydBraun reaches out through my laptop and punches me!

Throughout Season 1 and most of Season 2 Shirley has been a particularly difficult character to pin down. She was defined by her domesticity and her faith – both rather traditional values which have been particularly hard to express intelligently on network TV. It would have been easy to make her the butt of the joke, but the writers felt clearly uncomfortable with that approach too, and instead let her linger at the margins of the group, occasionally throwing her a conversion story (Comparative Religion) or hitting on just the right combination of happy-threatening (The Science of Illusion). And yet, as Loki100 (I think) amply proved some time ago, Shirley is actually one of the most interesting members of the group: her domesticity is not a passive acceptance of an antiquated gender role, but rather a combative stance: her life is such that she has to constantly fight to maintain her status as a wife and a good mother – fight not just external obstacles (like Andre’s infidelity), but also her own darkest impulses. To the show’s immense credit, the writers have chosen to play Shirley’s central conflict (her “real bad anger” barely staved off by her “mother hen” cloyness) mostly straight. It doesn’t mean that Shirley isn’t funny or that her rage can’t be the source of great comedic moments (just look at her when she awakens something in Jeff by calling him a “turkey” or when she out bad cops Annie), but the conflict itself remains very raw and very real. Shirley “Big Cheddar” Bennett is, to borrow a phrase from a mostly unknown movie called The Avengers, “always angry.” She’s a better Hulk than Jeff could ever hope to be, because her anger is a fundamental part of herself, not a temporary product of chemically enhanced narcissism.

Shirley’s relation to religion is therefore extremely complex. On one hand her Christianity is obviously a core component of her personality, one that informs her choices and her ethics. It’s what has allowed her to overcome her alcoholism, hold on to Andre and raise her kids right. On the other hand, her Christianity acts as an outlet for her anger, and in the process legitimizes this anger, by couching it in the guise of righteousness and moral authority. This side of Shirley reflects the classic defects of Christianity at large and of Evangelism in particular: strict dogmatism, constant judgementalism, and a tendency to regard morality as simple tribalism: you’re either one of ours or you’re bad.

And yet Shirley’s dilemma in this episode is hardly a hypocritical one. Why indeed do people flock more to “Car crash camel toe” than to the teachings of Jesus Christ? Her initial answer however misses the point just as much as Abed does.

Like a lot of Christian (and by Christian I mean mostly Evangelical and proselytizing) entertainment, Shirley assumes it’s only a question of an inadequacy of narrative. Side note: I find the phenomenon of Christian rock almost comically deluded; I hope I’m not offending anyone here when I say that – and I’m talking only of the Faith + 1 kind of bands – is there any other type, anyway? Deluded, because it’s largely based on a cheap trick: it appears to assume that if the message is wrapped in the – poorly approximated – trappings of a subculture, it would become somehow more attractive; it assumes that the communication breaks down because the medium isn’t adequate, when in fact the message is what’s lacking, because an exaggerated concern with form has completely pushed it to the side 

Instead of focusing on what the story means, Shirley focuses on how the story looks and concludes the problem is easily solvable with a change of scenery, by casting Jesus as a rapper. Medieval religious interpretation (look at me getting all professorial…) presupposed that there were four levels to the Biblical text: literal (what the text was about at its most basic level – say, a profligate son returns home full of shame and contrition); allegorical (a story about how God’s grace can redeem the soul); moral (a lesson in the necessity of forgiveness) and anagogical (pointing to the spiritual reality of redemption). Shirley stops at the literal level, assuming that repetition of the story is all that’s needed to create the message. Her attitude is thus no different than Abed’s, who similarly, after listing any number of movies (from Back to the Future to The Matrix) with a Christic theme (why Back to the Future, though?) concludes in the most tautological way that Jesus was special because he was special, and casts himself in the role.

What both Abed and Shirley miss is that the New Testament is not a story of entitlement, but the story of a sacrifice. It’s not about not being recognized and celebrated, but about doing good with no expectation of a reward. It’s about being humble. Shirley’s gift to Abed is one of incredible generosity. She already knows his film is awful, so she has not only nothing to fear from it, but can even hope that she will be vindicated, since Abed will be exposed as, essentially, a false prophet. And yet she willingly casts herself as the villain because she realizes her friend’s suffering is more important than her self-satisfaction, more important than even her well-being, since, by destroying the movie, she is making herself hated by the entire school. She becomes a Judas to everyone else so she can play Jesus for Abed, and in the process redeems both him and herself, by finally tapping into the allegorical and moral levels of the story that she had forgotten about.

In a very sly way the episode even manages to have its Charlie Kaufman cake and eat it too. While Abed’s hilariously convoluted ABED is an obvious dig at both the meta-ness of Community and to movies like Adaptation and Synecdoche, NY, the story of Abed and Shirley realizes precisely the permanent inversion of roles ABED was predicated upon. Shirley and Abed are both hero and traitor at the same time; they’re simultaneously Jesus and Judas to the point of becoming indistinguishable. Abed betrays Shirley and Shirley betrays Abed, and in the process they both find grace.

It’s here in fact that Shirley and Abed’s story intersects with Jeff and Pierce’s. Jeff’s gift to Pierce is similarly humble and understated. It’s a more minor sacrifice, since it only costs Jeff some gas and an outing in a less than colossally flattering outfit (excellent wardrobe choice from the costume department, by the way!), but it’s made meaningful by the fact that Pierce obviously has no idea what’s happening, and that Jeff doesn’t in any way attempt to explain it to him.

Grace depends on the permanent realization and acceptance of the imperfect nature of human beings. It’s not judgement, but forgiveness – recognizing your own flaws in the flaws of others and loving them unconditionally. It’s the creation of bonds and connections. It’s the realization that humility is beautiful.

Abed: You humble me.
Shirley: You humble me too.

Community has created many emotional and heart-wrenching moments, but for me none is more touching than this, because it’s an expression of faith I wish I could be capable of.
 
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Geez, how unfunny and preachy was this episode then?

Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples gets a rather bad rap sometimes, with some people absolutely loathing the Shirley/Abed plot for its preachiness and meta-ness. I’m not entirely sure it’s a warranted criticism. I’m loath to attribute the backlash to the fact that this is an episode that deals very overtly with Christianity but is in no way dismissive or very critical of it, so I’ll leave the debate to you. Todd gave it a A though, and I completely agree with him (or maybe I’m just brainwashed because I like hugging and learning so much…).

It is however a very, very funny episode, with a special mention going to the Hipsters and their love of stolen cookies and hard liquor. It’s a great showcase for a lot of physical humor (again, the Hipsters, and Troy and Britta’s hilariously despondent shuffle in Shirley’s video).

“Mice love cats there/ Cats love mice/ The mice have little hats/ And the hats look nice.” If that’s not a heartwarming vision of community, I don’t know what is.

“Fresh and stolen!”

“Every minute of our lives is a world premiere, and my Father’s already bought the popcorn.”

“Jesus, did you really die for our sins? That’s dope!”

“You think that’s dope? Check out these… beat-itudes.” Donald has very little to do in the episode, but the way he delivers this line is fantastic.

The music – obviously inspired by Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ is excellent. The Abed/Shirley ululations are very funny, and, in the case of Shirley destroying the video camera, also oddly mythic.

Other than YNB and Danny Pudi, special props go to Chevy, who, as always, manages to inject an air of quiet dignity into deeply ridiculous situations, and to Joel who absolutely aces the scene where he goes to pick up Pierce.

Danny as Jesus is really doing it for me.

 

06/20/2012 01:36 AM  31 LIKES

On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-562542297 (page 127)

 

Discussion:

  • SpongyandBruised

    http://www.fishsticktheatre.co…
    (oddly-breasted)

    It seems to me, that in Christian Rock, the problem is a matter of priorities. That they are so focused on the message the medium is an afterthought. The audience isn't looking for Handel (or Dylan, even) anymore, they want Jesus with garnish.

    Edit: That opening paragraph is wondrous.

  •  True, but in that case they're preaching to the converted – namely to people who already know the message, which makes the use of rock especially ridiculous, since it's unlikely that an already convinced audience will need that garnish in the first place.

  • SpongyandBruised

    The trappings of rock are from the musicians youth, which is why the band at my mom's church sounds like Steely Dan after half a bottle of whiskey.

  • You guys have a lot of good points about the Christian versions of pop culture losing the essence of both Christianity and the culture it's emulating. Of course, it's so pointed ("Look, I'm enjoying music and T-shirts without sex and drugs!") and in my experience appeals mostly to teenagers who feel both attracted to and angry at the culture around them, which is designed and advertised to hit fundamental buttons in them they're not built to be able to ignore.

    The result, besides being very awkward, is a huge counter-market of Youth Group kids. This very commercial element of it hit me when the Narnia movies were made, and there was a minor outcry of "They're smuggling a religious message!" But I realized it was more the other way around. The movies might've bombed if not for a huge Christian Youth market who was getting their Harry Potter, and had an approved movie to go see with their friends.

  • As a Christian, my views on Christian rock are summarized by the great American theologian Hank Hill: "You're not making Christianity better, you're just making rock 'n roll worse."

  • I blame Christian Rock for seducing me into attending that weird non-denominational youth group for 2 months when I was 14. Then I realised they thought gay people had a disease and evolution was a lie, and we went to a session on how you should try and resist as much of sex before marriage as possible? So like the ideal would be like not even kissing before you got married? And they talked about how girls shouldn't wear revealing clothes because it makes it hard for guys to control themselves, and told us that we "shouldn't go to McDonalds with guys" whatever the hell that means. So I stopped going. Now I am just remembering the weirdness of this church. Please ignore me. Most churches are fine though, my priest or whatever at my Anglican school was really great. (It is bad that I went there for five years and don't know what priests are called in the Anglican church.)

  • Loki100

    Can I recommend the book Rapture Ready? It discusses at length the questions of medium and message, and you get to hear from multiple people about what quality actually means in Christian entertainment.

    In particular there's a great chapter on Christian stand-up comedy. The stand-up pretty much bemoan the fact that they have to sanitize their acts (which, often, were never actually unsanitized to begin with). They also bemoan the fact that they have to be ideologically correct, rather than simply funny. These sound the same, but they are actually quite different.

  •  My confusion has to do with the difference between Christian entertainment (what Rapture Ready seems to be about) and entertainment with a Christian theme. I find the latter much more Christian than the former.

  • That's weird, right? Like the church will make something like Fireproofit's official approved movie, but get disgusted by the idea of Last Temptation, Saved!, or Dogma. Whereas some people of faith will be the perfect audience for those movies, if not a very loud one. Meanwhile, non-believers will turn on the movies for not condemning religion thoroughly.

  • SpongyandBruised

    A used copy is four dollars including the 3.99 shipping.

  • After reading this review, I feel really bad for having this episode ranked so low (at #61 with a B). I always thought that all of the Shirley/Abed interaction was somewhat meaningful, but not particularly engaging, and I just never liked Pierce's plot at all. I just found the episode, as you said, preachy (which is saying something, because I'm actually somewhat religious) and overall unfunny.

    I'll go rewatch it soon and keep your review in mind, particularly your observation about the importance of grace in the episode's conclusion. I'm not sure if I'll end up liking it as much as you or Todd, but I'll keep an open mind.

  •  I'm pretty sure I was promised a lot of criticism about Israel here.  What gives?

  • Loki100

    Fascinating review.

    One thing that I think gets overlooked is that Shirley says something along the lines that "there is no light on youtube." Subtextually, I think it is obvious that what she's really looking for is something that she can show her kids. Something that mommy made, that her children will get excited with, and she can have a bonding moment.

    I think this plays into the fact that in the early part of the episode her complaints weren't that the movie was "blasphemous," but rather that it wouldn't play in Poughkeepsie. Initially she wasn't being dogmatic, she was being practical. Abed's film pitch was overly complex and wouldn't provide the kind of light that she could show her kids.

  • This is a really nice detail.

  • Points for length. That's what she said.

  • Awesome stuff.  Thank you.

    The reason for my initial and ongoing strong positive reaction to this episode has a lot to do with the rhythm of the dialogue. The exchanges between Abed and Shirley, in particular, make me "happy".

    I like that Richard flew Zeros (apparently for the Japanese, then) during the war, and during Pillows and Blankets it is floated (perhaps jokingly?) that Leonard was a Korean War veteran (on the North Korean side).

    "… we find out that Jeff is Pierce’s emergency contact – a detail that hasn’t really come up ever since …" It hasn't been a major plot point, but Jeff's role as emergency contact is mentioned at the beginning of Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (10 episodes later) when he and Britta show up at the hospital first to check on Pierce.

    This was a remarkable review. I'm going to read it again; I think there's a pretty good chance I'll learn something.

  • "… we find out that Jeff is Pierce’s emergency contact – a detail that
    hasn’t really come up ever since …" It hasn't been a major plot
    point, but Jeff's role as emergency contact is mentioned at the
    beginning of Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking (10 episodes later)
    when he and Britta show up at the hospital first to check on Pierce.

    I wanted to bring that up too, but then again, Abed's documentary crew is already there filming. That may just be a stretch on the format, though.

  • Great review, very clear and precise (especially for handling so many different aspects of the episode). I think when Lloyd reads it he'll understand.

    I especially like the insight into Jeff, like Jeff loves the perks of authority, but hates the responsibilities. So much emphasis in the show is on Jeff's reluctance to be the hero, but it's not, like, a lot of reluctance. It's one of the show's complexities that's easy to understand intuitively but gets tangled when I try to think about it in specific terms, and you summed it up very nicely there.

    I can't really speak to the religious issues, though I agree with you about the heart of Abed's misunderstanding, and Shirley's choice. On a simpler level, I saw it as being about possessiveness.

    It's a unique, strange episode for sure. The kind that stands out in it's own way on rewatches (and it's helped to see how people here respond to Abed and Shirley connecting at the end so strongly). The first time I saw it, I didn't dislike it exactly, I just felt confused that the episode built up Abed's movie as the event at it's center, and then there was no event and nothing to replace it. I guess I was missing some of the theme, and certainly the emotional resonance that I picked up on later. I do think it's a funny ep. Both Pierce's gang and the video Troy and Britta made (in both the aborted and completed versions) are hilarious. Just the kind of great jokes that missed their impact because I felt disconnected from the plot. Also, it was one of the first episodes to demonstrate S2 not centering on Jeff all the time, which I think lost me a little, too. I kept waiting for him to do something big, or for Abed's movie to become a more literal core of the story. I appreciate it a lot more now, though I still think it's the weirdest non-S3 episode, except for maybe "Critical Film Studies." I wasn't ready yet for an episode that danced around the edges of something, with the borders and not the thing itself being the point.

    As far as Abed forgetting the lesson he learns, I think people accepting and trying to move beyond a major personal flaw is probably something that has to happen over and over again.

  • In regards to your last sentence-

    The fact that learning and change takes time is something that Community has never shied away from. The main thrust of Jeff's character relates directly to that, even as it has led to some criticism for repetitive Winger speeches or forgetting lessons that have been learned. The same could be said for every study grouper on some level-making yourself into a better person is a constant struggle and does not just happen overnight.

    If someone was to change on a dime, after the events of one episode, it would threaten the show's (admittedly tenuous) grasp on reality.* Particularly in the case of someone like Abed, who likes life the way he likes it and is unabashedly the person that he is, such change should have to be reinforced over time. Yes, lack of change can be used to drive plot (Abed in the Pillows and Blankets saga, for example), but it comes across as more honest and realistic than the alternative.

    *Although, despite the insanity that is Greendale, the characters themselves have never seemed unreal. They are relatable people experiencing ridiculous circumstances, but they don't become caricatures themselves. Greendale itself may not exist in any identifiable reality, but the characters definitely do.

  •  What SG Standard  says below. I like the idea that these characters, much like real people, have to have their lessons repeated to them. It makes sense for Abed to have forgotten about this episode, or perhaps to doubt the lesson he learned from it when the emotional stakes got higher in S3.

    I also find Messianic Myths a very odd episode – and the comparison to Critical Film Studies is very apt. It's very funny, but it's also meditative and weighty and very profound in ways in which network TV sitcoms rarely are.

    I remember being sort of miffed too by Jeff's absence, and then being really damn impressed with the scene where he picks up Pierce. I liked how Jeff became for a while a secondary player in his own story – it was a nice bit of experimentation that I don't think was properly acknowledged.

    It's good that we don't see Abed's crazy movie, just like we don't see the Dean's crazytown bananapants commercial in Redux. I think in fact that Redux and Messianic Myths have a lot in common, particularly their insistence that "The story of the story IS the story."

  • Was VSA and Messianic Myths about the same subject?  I thought VSA was more about Abed's personal feelings of abandonment while Messianic Myths was more about Abed's trouble relating to others.  People cite Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas more as a comparison to Virtual Systems Analysis, although I still don't believe VSA really retreads old ground.

  • "Abed betrays Shirley and Shirley betrays Abed, and in the process they both find grace."I love that line a lot, I think you saw right through the Abed/Shirley plot of this episode, which is not easy to do! I would have go so lost in all that meta stuff and missed the point. And your own religious experience and your appreciation for it brings so much to this review, and to my own feelings on Shirley's character (being raised in the catholic church and then attending an anglican school for 5 years has made me rather unappreciative of religion, so you opened my eyes about her a lot.) Thank you for this! It is great.

  • Very insightful review!

    Shirley and Abed are both hero and traitor at the same time; they’re
    simultaneously Jesus and Judas to the point of becoming
    indistinguishable. Abed betrays Shirley and Shirley betrays Abed, and in
    the process they both find grace.

    I liked this a lot.

  • I'm Latvian Orthodox. Mostly for the hats.

  •  Do you also play the tradijniks?

  • Former Greek Orthodox here.

    Excellent review, Semi-bored torontonian.

  • Sensational review! /cheer

    Great call on Pierce's adolescence springing from his petulant toddler period in Basic Rocket Science, all a part of his attempt at rebirth following such a significant loss.

    And agreed on the Abed motivation– his version of empathy here is more immediate reciprocity than full conversion for one, and for another indeed once he gets too close to Troy in Season 3 and his fear of losing everyone overruns him he backslides.  So he eventually needs the full-on empathy lesson in VSA from Annie to come full circle on things.  Where he mirrored Shirley's superficial faith preaching ad ABED nauseum before, he now mirrors her sacrifice.  Or rather, it's one thing to know the path, it's another thing to walk it.  In Messianic Myths he records the empathy in his mind to be studied, while in VSA he embraces it naturally.

    One thing in particular I love about this episode is the simple yet effective arc it sets up for Shirley from start to finish.  She wants to have Christianity inspire others the way it touched her and use it to connect with others, Abed becomes a manifestation/mockery of those beliefs, and she DOES reach him at least by embracing the core of those beliefs rather than the shell.  A lot of episodes in the show are funnier, punchier, and more dynamic, but I think this is one of the ones that narratively and thematically works best.  That last exchange really kills me every time.

    Beyond Shirley's inherent loving and caring nature, I find her Persona of Righteousness something that comes up a lot in society.  People who treat religion as a course on perfection and texts therein as tests– memorize the answers and you're set for life.  But there's no Cliff Notes to inner peace or harmony.  Shirley came from a place of anger and loneliness, Christianity and her family allows her to develop a safe zone– she doesn't have to worry about projecting guilt or anger at someone if she's trying to save their SOULS as politely as possible.  She's not being mean or insecure, she's trying to help people!

    As with everyone else in the group, being around people who accept her for who she is and ALSO won't tolerate her overextending her persona on them allows her to recalibrate herself internally.  Jeff can't use moral relativism, Britta can't protest the group away, Pierce can only be SO dickish, and Shirley can't sermonize them to feel safely more secure about herself. She can't politely put others down to feel better (Tiny Nipples, Hillary Duff's group), she has to BE better (Physical Education, Messianic Myths). 

    As seen in Comparative Religion, these people are her closest friends and yet they don't fit in with her vision of perfection that brought her initial inner peace.  She reunites with Andre, but still wants to build something for herself and the group supports her in that effort.  She begins to see she uses guilt as a weapon– that giving the Hulk a bible just makes him smash psalms instead of fists.  And in Season 3, she supports Jeff without judging him, and is a large part of his transformation to truly BEING a better person rather than just pretending to be one (from the end of Asian Population Studies to the end of Introduction to Finality).

    Shirley's sacrifice to walk the walk in comparison to her earlier talks with Abed and the others about her faith really hits it all home.  Much like Britta, if she learns to simply love helping others MORE than being seen as THE helper of others, she'll be happier with who she is inside.  But I think deep down she gets that.  Go Shirley! 

  • giving the Hulk a bible just makes him smash psalms instead of fists

    Best.Comment.Ever.

    I like your description of Shirley a lot. While her desire to "save" people is probably very sincere, she makes the mistake of assuming that her religious certainties are automatically convincing to others. But conversion (be it religious, or simply convincing someone to seek psychological help) is always a very personal process; you have to be able to place yourself in someone else's shoes in order to drive the point home.

    Excellent observation about Shirley and Britta too! I always suspected that these two were snipping at each other so much because they are so much alike, and therefore they see their own defects in the other person.

  • Semi, your review was fantastic. As someone who is religious, I appreciate your willingness to take on this episode about faith, even if you have your own doubts and questions about it. Being Protestant, I can definitely identify with your love and appreciation of the communal and ritualistic aspects of religion, even if the ones I partake in are different from those you experience. I can also identify with your struggles. Even though I am religious, I still struggle with the various problems endemic with Christian authority is all types and sects of Christianity.

    As for the episode, and for the series as whole, I appreciate how Shirley's faith is an important part feature of her character, but does not wholly define it. Unlike many religious character on television, she has feelings and motivations that are not directly or heavily influenced by her faith. I also liked "the Hipsters" plot. I can;t get enough of Leonard and his gang, plus it gave an emotionally vulnerable Pierce, which is nice balance for his dickishness later in the season.Overall, this episode isn't one of my top favorites, not because I hated, but because I find so many more episodes funnier and better on rewatch.

  • Great review.

    I love that Shirley's sacrifice at the end entails her doing the exact same thing that she was going to do. She was going to shut down production to hurt Abed, and now she has to do the same thing to help Abed.

    In a way, this ties into your discussion of medium and Christian Rock. As you pointed out, Shirley's initial concern was with medium. She thought that by changing the medium she was solving the problem of inaccessibility. When she finally decides to make a sacrifice and help Abed, she has to do so by using the exact same "medium" that she would have before; the only thing that has changed is her motivation for doing what she did.

    When Abed actually finishes Shirley's video, the video itself is secondary. Shirley no longer cared about the mass appeal of rap, which is a good thing, because the class's reaction only cements what you were saying about message vs. medium. Originally, Shirley is trying to package Christianity for the masses by using style, but she learns that religion is a very personal thing, and that intention, rather than execution, is what matters when it comes to upholding religion.

  • Semi, you did an outstanding job of covering this episode, particularly the religious aspects. So much so, I don't even want to touch on them because there is pretty much nothing left to cover. I do enjoy the episodes that account for the religious differences in the study group, and I think that the show has handled them in a very deft and thought provoking way across the board. 

    This was another episode that left me cold at first. Not because of the religious aspects, but because it wasn't as funny as I had come to expect from Community. When I watched it after the season, with a more clear idea of what the show was doing in terms of comedy vs. pathos, it really improved. I see where the ABED stuff could be alienating from a laughs perspective, not just because of subject matter-the show was undeniably crawling so far up it's own ass, people were going to be put off by it. 

    However, two things stood out to make the laughs successful. First, Pierce's subplot is very funny. The study room scene is very strong, and this subplot on it's own could have been a successful A plot in another episode. It once again plays up the dynamics of the study group in a way that goes against typical sitcom style while managing to embrace it at the same time. 

    Second, the Abed plot went so far up the show's ass that it once again became funny. Stopping short would have made it weird, but going gloriously over the top made it funny again. In a way, it succeeded where The Art of Discourse failed. While the high schoolers were supposed to be annoying, they never went beyond that to the point where they became funny themselves. Abed, on the other hand, went so far and so meta that it became ridiculous. Abed was a successful rake joke, the kids were a rake joke that went so far as to be tedious and annoying but no further. 

    I'm also interested to see why people did or didn't find this episode funny. I know it was a divisive episode, and I'm sure the subject matter had a lot to do with that. However, I think I remember a lot of people having my "it wasn't funny enough" response. So, what about this episode did or didn't do it for you?

  •  Abed grows with his storyline; we learn something about him. The schmitties exist only as a prop that triggers some character development for Jeff and Britta. But I agree with you that ABED is an outrageously meta joke that works precisely because it goes all the way out.

  • Ok, so I rewatched the episode. I learned some things I liked about it, and some things I didn't like.

    Pierce's storyline is a mixed bag for me. I understand now that it's a crucial turning point that sets in motion Pierce's (yet to be topped) arc for season 2, something I've failed to realize the 4 or 5 times I've watched the series. My problems with it come from the fact that, for the most part, it's so tonally jarring with the rest of the episode. Contrasting something as meaningful as Abed and Shirley's storyline with something that, on the surface, offers nothing more than "Haha, old people are rebellious and dumb!" never really jived with me. Some parts of it are funny in their own right (any scene with the Dean in it is amazing), and it certainly picks up in the meaningfulness department after the car "crash", but I wish they hadn't dressed up such an important story arc catalyst as a seemingly silly subplot.

    I liked the Abed/Shirley plot MUCH better this time around. The arc that both of those characters go through to put themselves in each others' shoes and back is brilliant and understated. I also never really put together how Abed and Shirley's film projects mirror complete their own arc that mirrors and enhances the arcs of the characters. Abed's film is anticipated by the entire school and then shut down by Shirley, an act that will vindicate Abed and condemn her. In return, Abed revives Shirley's movie from its death, much to no one's anticipation, which on a much smaller scale condemns Abed in the eyes of the school ("Abed has broken the internet."), much like Shirley. They both made their own sacrifices to help each other out, and the exchange of "You humble me" has never been more meaningful to me.

    I'm still not entirely sure where I'd rank this episode. I certainly don't dislike it, but when viewing the episode as a whole, both plots included, there still might be many other episodes that I enjoy more overall. I'm certainly still going to reevaluate its grade and ranking, though. I still have some unresolved issues with the hipster plot, even though I don't dislike it as much as I used to, but I can now see the main plot for the nuanced masterpiece that it is.

  •  It's still mindblowing to me that NBC ran a primetime show which reenacted the Passion with Jesus as an agnostic Muslim and Judas as a Christian woman. Sometimes being low rated and underseen pays off.

    Good point about "breaking the internet" – I wasn't sure if I was supposed to take it as a compliment or an insult, but it makes sense. In the eyes of the school, Abed sold out by going with Shirley's lame Christian rap idea.

    I can see how some may not like the Hipsters. But I think that the point of the whole bit was that all the hipsters were like Pierce: they were rebelling out of abandonment and loneliness. And I liked the fact that they were somewhat unlikeable (Leonard calling the Dean a "fruit" was very harsh) – it drove home the value of Jeff's gesture so much more. Pierce's an asshole too (maybe less than the hipsters, but still…), but he has someone who actually cares about him.

  • The hipsters plot… like I said, that plot's not all bad. My main issue is really just how much it clashes tonally with the rest of the episode. I just really wish that this component of the Pierce arc had been put in a plot that better balanced the poignancy and silliness, which Community has shown that it is capable of doing many times over. I guess that's more of a problem with my standards than with the show, so what can you do. As a standalone plot, it's decent on its own merits, but I just don't really like it in this particular episode.

    As for the other part, I always interpreted Duncan's "broke the internet" line as "Abed, the master of internet videos, has recommended a shitty video. We may as well start actually learning Anthropology because by that logic the
    internet is worthless now," which makes sense since he does indeed tell them to open their books. It's key to the episode that in the end, Shirley and Abed have each sacrificed something for the other, and it gives their final exchange all the more meaning. In that sense, it gets even more meta – both of them each represent both Jesus and humanity simultaneously in their sacrifices for each other. The fact that that realization comes only after Abed's film and the meta stuff is supposedly done with is another genius touch. It's possible that I'm reading way too much into this, but hey, it's what we do.

  •  You're very right – reading "broke the internet" as a negative thing fulfills the symmetrical structure of the plot perfectly. I always assumed Abed's supposed "villain status" came from selling out to Shirley's vision. But it's a much more meaningful sacrifice if he actually shuts off the internet and causes the class to /*gasp!*/ learn!

  • I can't listen to that right now but I'm pretty sure " good Christian Rock" is an oxymoron.

  • it's psychedelic folk rock from the early 70s, and it's mind bogglingly good.

  • (I'm late to the party, as ever, but:)

    This is a beautiful review, SBT. I'm not religious either, but have a very similar view of religion to you (though with no real theological knowledge — my high school didn't even bother with religious education. And RE in primary school was basically a puppy party every week.)

    Probably because of that, I've never fully understood this episode. I like it fine, and get it on a basic level, but not much more than that. And you've just made it properly click, so thank you. :)

  • Puppy party? That must have been an AWESOME school!

    But seriously: thanks! I'm so glad people liked this review. It took me forever to write it, and I was worried it came out too weepy and self-involved.

  • Yeah, those classes were pretty great. At Easter they brought in baby chickens. And what's better than a baby chicken?
    … Ducklings. Ducklings are way better. But it was only a public school, so you can't have everything.

    I learnt things about the episode and also you helped me realise what exactly I think of religion, which'll be useful next time my friend invites me to an atheist convention and doesn't understand my argument (I'm pretty crap at being an atheist. Might have to go back to agnosticism). Clearly I was reading the whole review and relating it to me, so it certainly didn't come across as you being self-involved.

  •  Great! Now I can't think of ducklings without thinking of Louie….

    I don't really like atheists (or maybe I have yet to meet a nice one). They project a sense of superiority and disdain for anyone who doesn't think like them that makes them just as grating as fundamentalist Christians.

    I'd describe myself as an agnostic, if only because I have a background in Western humanities, and being dismissive and critical of Christianity would mean giving up on 90% of my object of study.

  • Absolutely: that's exactly why I hate calling myself one; it's like there has to be that militant, angry, streak to go along with the term. Though there must be rational atheists out there somewhere — like feminists. We get a bad rap, but we're not all nuts.

  • I've probably stated this before but I have the same view on atheists as you do. In some ways, I dislike them even more because there's this arrogance to them that's not present with fundamentalist Christians, who come across as more deluded than arrogant.

    Fantastic review by the way. I expect nothing less from you at this point. It caused me to immediately bump this episode up a grade – and maybe even another grade after I re-watch the episode.

  •  Thank you. This episode is very special to me, and I'm really happy if my review makes people give it another chance.

    I have a real problem with organized religion, but atheists piss me off so much sometimes. Somehow it came as no surprise when I found out Ricky Gervais was one.

  • I'll speak out as a fellow Christian and say that, for the record, I'm not so big on CCM either.

    This is not only an absolutely wonderful review (and I finally fully understand this episode) but also an affirmation of why, despite all my doubts, fears, and misgivings, I continue to be a part of this religion. Thank you.

  •  Thank you! I'm really glad everyone liked it.