Episode 219: Critical Film Studies
Episode 19 – Critical Film Studies
I’ve decided to split my review into two parts; the first focuses on the B-Plot because I feel that it would have been anticlimactic to have it after the A-Plot review.
Part One: Pulp Fiction
Obviously we’ve all seen Pulp Fiction, but you know what I’ve never seen before this episode? Pulp Fiction as a sitcom. Because that’s exactly what the B-Plot of this episode was; a summary of the themes and tone of Pulp Fiction in a small segment of this episode. Pulp Fiction’s biggest theme is one of American nihilism, and by also making this subplot entirely nihilistic and meaningless, Community has paid homage to the film on more levels than one. Essentially, it’s an episode of Seinfeld with a distinct Community twist. The rest of the group are waiting for Jeff and Abed. Troy and Chang accidentally burn up Abed’s present. That’s it – no bad soap-opera-y stuff, no convoluted subplot. And it works, too – I find it highly more entertaining than a lot of the B-Plots in the first or second season.
Its entire pointlessness is the entire point (aha!) of the subplot; one might simply see it as filler, to fill the gaps in between the main A plot. But for me, it conveys one point which I have stated before – the more people involved in a situation, the less resonance the situation has. The fact is that while Troy and Chang are fighting over a stupid birthday present (one that’s not even real, a theme in the episode that I’ll get onto later), Jeff’s exposing his inner fears and sadness to the one person who has always avoided those things. I can’t really say more than that; just as one cannot critically study an episode of Seinfeld, I can’t critically study this.
(The subplot’s also very funny.)
Part Two: My Dinner With Andre
After watching My Dinner with Andre for the third time (If you haven’t seen it, I hate you,here you go), I realised something – My Dinner With Andre has probably the best script I’ve ever heard. It’s utterly phenomenal that something so small in scale as a conversation with friends can encapsulate every single topic in the known universe, and My Dinner with Andre flourishes in its exploration of its protagonist’s two completely opposing views on life and the universe – Andre has a spiritual, exploratory view, rejecting what he sees as mainstream, and embracing all that is weird and new. Wallace, on the other hand, has a very humanist view on modern life, seeing the hustle and bustle of New York City as the same thing as Mount Everest, and each person’s views limit them from seeing the other's. The film ends with neither protagonist being convinced of one thing or the other; but Wallace gains a new perspective, a perspective of spirituality, a perspective that he may not agree with, but recognises and realises and respects, in a way.
“Critical Film Studies”, the 19th episode of the series’ second season, takes the format presented in My Dinner with Andre, but twists it just enough to make it an astonishing meta experience. In this scenario, we replace Andre with Abed and Wallace With Jeff. In both, there are two sides arguing opposing views; in the first, we have Andre arguing for spirituality, and Wallace arguing for humanism. In “CFS”, however, we’re given Abed, who argues for a normal, real conversation, and Jeff, who argues that real is a lie.
The A-Plot in this episode is utterly phenomenal. It’s probably the most philosophical, and the most meta, that the show’s ever gone, and it was the episode that made me fall in love with Community for the very first time. It presents the two characters who are arguably the most opposite when just reading from the outset (e.g. Snarky, Sarcastic Lawyer vs. Pop-Culture fuelled Autistic lad), and completely switches their archetypes around – while usually Abed would be arguing for the existence of fantasy worlds and Jeff might be making sarcastic quips about this, it reverses them entirely, and gives us a look-see into Jeff Winger’s fragile mind, his relationship with the world, and ultimately, his place in the universe.
Back to the “My Dinner with Andre” comparisons, do you see it yet? Abed, the Andre character, is now arguing for the real, while Jeff, the Wallace character, is arguing that real conversation is a dream world (a running theme in Dinner).
So Abed’s brought Jeff to this restaurant to have a conversation with him, a real one, a conversation that Abed’s never had before. He tells us of his “enlightenment” that brought him into the real world, in the biggest laugh of the episode, and the hardest I’ve ever laughed at Community.
“I’ve probably mentioned in the past my fondness for a TV programme called Cougar Town. I even started a Cougar Town fan club on Facebook and, uh, not to accomplish anything, mind you, simply to express my love for the show. Well, it ended up being quite large, this fan club, and uh, one morning, I think it was, maybe early march, I got this Facebook message, a very nice message – from the people who make Cougar Town. Thanking me, Jeff. For all the support I generated for the show, and in the last paragraph they said “If you’d like, you could come visit the set”. Just like that. So I sold a few of my action figures and bought a roundtrip ticket to Los Angeles. What could I do? Two days after I got that invitation, I was on the set of Cougar Town, Jeff. You laugh, Jeff, but… the people were wonderful. You know, not just the actors, but the crew, everyone. There must have been two hundred people, each with a specific function – but all dedicated to a single purpose. It was like a village, or like, a living thing. You know, I’m talking to the director, and he says “Why don’t you jump into the background?” I say, “Now, wait a minute, jump into the background of what exactly?” and he says “Jump into the background of the scene! Walk through it! Walk through Cougar Town!” Well, before I can react this girl takes me by the hand and she stands me behind this paddy where Courtney Cox and the actors are doing their scene, and the girl says “When you hear ‘Action!’ I want you to walk from here to there.”
And that’s when I really started to panic, Jeff, because If I’m a person that watches Cougar Town, how can I be in Cougar Town? And, you know, the more I started thinking about it, the less any of it makes any sense at all. And I just want to turn and run, but it’s too late, because the Director’s calling Action. So, before I take my first step, I realise that I have to stop being someone who’s never seen the show… and become a character on the show. Become a man, from Cougar Town. You know, someone born there, someone who’s name I decide is Chad. And I take my first step, as a child, learning to walk, as Chad. And with each step it becomes easier, and with each step I start remembering things from Chad’s life, like; his first kiss under the big tree in Cougar Town field. Playing soccer at Cougar town Junior High. Finding my first chest hair in the shower, first apartment, my first true love falling for my best friend… birthdays, weddings, car crashes, taxes, playing charades at thanksgiving… Chad had lived, Jeff. Chad had lived more than Abed.
And then they called Cut. And the scene was over. But I wasn’t ready to stop being Chad, so I said to the director, “can we have one more take?”, but they were already moving on. Courtney had nailed it.
My lips started trembling. My… my hands and my feet went numb, my, my knees buckled, and I fell to the floor and…
I pooped my pants.
Because the truth is, Jeff, I had been Chad and Chad was dead. But as Abed, I was still alive, so… someone helped me up. And the wardrobe lady came over, she gave me new pants… I thanked everyone, I apologized, and then I just got on a bus and went straight to the airport.”
The concept here is that Abed becomes Chad, a person who has done so much more than Abed ever has (who has been living in a hypothetical dream world, as it was). Abed wants to be Chad, in the same way that we’ve all dreamed of being a different character at some point – but Abed is the character for a little while, and once he’s entered the dream world of being Chad, he’s unable to comprehend leaving it.
With this, Abed’s life has seemingly changed. He no longer wants to live in the dream world of TV and Film – instead, he wants to live in his perception of the real world. Jeff provides the ultimate counter to this – Abed, and everyone else’s perception of the real world, is in fact, just like Andre insisted, a dream world, a world where everybody lies, a world where the truth is concealed behind conversation; the ironic thing here is that the entire A-Plot of Critical Film Studies is a conversation.
So as Jeff tries to convince Abed that Abed’s living in a dream world, he himself becomes sucked up into “real” conversation, admitting to all of his embarrassments in life; he lies about being morbidly obese to phone sex operators, admitting himself that he lives in a dream world; he tells us about the time his mother dressed him up as a Native American, and the fact that people repeatedly mistook him for a girl must play a part in Jeff’s fracturing ego. While all this is happening, Abed’s finally realising; “real” conversation is scary.
But then, the twist comes. Jeff realises Abed’s been playing an act, and the entirety of the episode is seen in a different light. Now, Abed is consciously in his dream world; he’s always been. But in his dream state, he’s pulled Jeff out of Jeff’s dream world – a state in which Jeff is God and cynicism is key.
But, let’s look at the entire thing realistically; what are we actually, literally seeing on screen? We’re seeing two Actors, Joel McHale and Danny Pudi, playing characters, Jeff Winger and Abed Nadir, playing characters, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, played by actors, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. We’re seeing so many levels of dreamscapes that it’s literally impossible to tell the “truth” from the “dream” (ironic since there is no truth in what we’re witnessing, it’s all lies written by writers); we’re seeing the dream world of the show, Community, inside of which is the dream worlds of two characters, inside of which is the dream world of the movie, My Dinner With Andre, which also exists in the real world as the movie, My Dinner with Andre. It’s an honestly amazing feat the writers of Community have achieved here; layers of dream world, similar to the many layers of Jeffrey Winger, which we have to penetrate to get to any sort of emotional catharsis (an emotional catharsis that the character himself completely shrugs off and forgets, indicating his own dream world is too dense for him to be able to reach out into the real world; when he does, he quickly seals himself off). The layers represent both the layers of dream world we’re seeing, and the layers of dream world we ourselves live in.
I once lived in a dream world. In my dream world, I was miserable; I was a TV obsessed weirdo, who felt outside of my generation, outside of anything resembling society. I wouldn’t say I was outcast, but I never really felt alive when I was around people I knew; they had no interest in what I had to say, and I had no interest in what they had to say. I became reclusive. I always felt as though my society looked down on me, as some freak who was never truly there. I was bullied quite a lot.
Then, on the 10th June, 2011, I watched “Critical Film Studies”, the 19th episode of Community’s second season. At ten minutes in, this scene, this scene of only two minutes long, made me turn off all outside sources and truly ponder my life. It made me realise what I was doing – living in a dream world where the world hates me. And I realised, with one simple sentence (“The world is a sick place, full of sick, sick people”) that… I shouldn’t care. I shouldn’t care what my generation thinks of me, I shouldn’t care what anyonethinks of me. I should just do what makes me happy – and you know what makes me happy? Watching TV. So that’s what I’ve done, ever since. I don’t go out much, but I’ve stopped caring what anyone thinks of me. If I want to change, I will, and I won’t do it because of them – I’ll do it because of me. Because, the world is sick. It is a horrid, vile place, full of disgusting people (go check out the “Girls” comments). But, as long as I don’t care, and as long as I tackle everything with a mix of logic and creativity, I can handle anything random chance decides to throw my way, whether that be verbal, physical or mental. Community changed my life. My Dinner with Andre changed my life. “Critical Film Studies” changed my life. Thank you.
UPDATE: Since writing this I have achieved a good few high-level GCSEs, have a girlfriend who I love very much, and am planning to do a degree in English Literature and take a screenwriting course at the National film and television school.
On the AV Club – http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-767432309 (page 723)