Episode 219: Critical Film Studies

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 Evil Jeff

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.
I did.
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)

Discussion:

  • Intense. http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr…

    Love this episode and love your take. I also love Abed's cardigan.

  • I'm at work and on my phone, so I can't post much, but I just wanted to tell you how much I loved your review.

    I'll be back with more later.

  • Affrosponge88

    "I'm at work and on my phone…"

    What a rebel!

  • An Alexander Graham reBell, even.

  • I was posting this as I was lecturing my students on the importance of not using their phones in class, too!

     (actually I was having an early lunch)

  • you have to put http:// in the links, or it doesn't work.

    while i appreciate the consequences of your epiphany, i just want to say that while the world is a tough place and bad things happen and it can be pretty awful and people do awful things, i don't think they are necessarily disgusting. they just act that way sometimes. "sick" i won't object to, but in the sense of an illness, not a perversion.

    i would also add a tip of the cap to mchale and pudi for their amazing acting in this episode. pudi flawlessly flips between andre and abed, and you see it in his face before he even speaks. 

    and seriously, tight heavy lid on that little indian girl story, all right guys?

    (congrats on your NEWTs, sir.)

  • I agree, Glaz. The world seems like a giant Girls comment section sometimes, but let's not forget it can also be this place. And sometimes it's even weirder than that never-ending conversation between Claudia Kishi and Binky. Why, the world is like an infinite number of AV Club comment boards, and not one alone can define it.

  • it's "like" an infinite number of av club comment boards? are you suggesting that the world is larger than the av club?

  • The universe (which others call the AV Club) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of comment sections.

    – Jorge Luis Borges

  • I hope this is the last time we have to have this pronounce-your-Rs conversation. Forking paths. It's *forking* paths.

  • It's pretty obvious she's suggesting that the infinite possibility of interpretations and opinions combined with free will necessitates the existence of the multiverse, where every possibility in every permutation is fully realized, including a universe with the Girls comment section churning out the complete works of Shakespeare, Keanu Reeves being the mayor of Detroit and he wears this little red plastic hat he throws at his enemies, and a world where all hands are replaced with penises, except everything else is exactly the same.

  •  Stephen77  and tabernacle : you are pushing so many of my buttons with this Borges malarkey…

  • This is nice and all, but:

    BE MORE FUNNY AND HAVE BIG BOOBS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Bravo, EJ. I still remember being mesmerized by Abed's monologue when it aired on TV. You can even pick out the precise moment when Abed "comes back". Pudi and McHale not even getting nominated for this by any organization is one of the biggest crimes against our show.

    I don't know if I've mentioned this here but when I first watched Mad Men last year I noticed a striking similarity between this episode and Mad Men's "The Suitcase": There's a birthday dinner set up for someone (Peggy) elsewhere, but instead the show's two core characters (Don and Peggy for Mad Men) share an intimate meeting. The two pairs rarely have stories together and, indeed, have been drifting apart, but they share a deep bond and understand each other like no one else. Don and Peggy spent the episode catching up, settling old grudges and confiding in each other their deepest secrets as they brainstorm for Samsonite. Jeff and Abed did the same with a "real" conversation that gets messy. Both pairs are better friends for it after their day together. Both episodes have luggage. If it wasn't explicitly mentioned in the writer's room, I bet it was at least floating around in Harmon's head since The Suitcase had aired only a few months prior to him writing CFS.

  • I know this isn't a great response to something so well thought-out and written but…Wow, this is fantastic. 

  • Holy crap.

    That was outstanding. I'd love to add more, but I really don't see the purpose or need.

  • Very thought-provoking review; great job. 

    If there's one thing that frustrates me about many of the show's detractors, it's their interpretation of Community's pop culture reliance as an end in itself, as shallow pageantry. That's a misrepresentation on par with NBC's shitty publicity for this episode. But CFS should be the gold standard of the show using pop culture as a lens into its own world and creating something beautiful of its own.

    (I liked season three a lot, but man, I missed the Abed-Jeff pairing so much. Its richness and depth, and the way these two maximize something in each other [phrasings times a jillion]. When it's just the two of them they are, as a great poet once said, suffering from realness.)

  • Tonight on NBC: Louis (Malle) meets Luigi (Pirandello)! Watch as Jeff Winger's sad, insecure soul is laid bare for everyone to see! Marvel as Abed obfuscates the border between reality and fiction to a degree not seen since "Last Year at Marienbad!" Also, there's cake!

    To be fair to NBC, this was a virtually unpromotable episode. They seized on the only vaguely marketable angle they could find, and of course they missed the whole point, but you have to at least give them a little credit for trying.

    I love the Jeff/Abed pairing, more than any other one on the show (the next up would be Jeff/Shirley – the man really does have chemistry with everybody), but I'm happy with the show only using it very rarely. What makes it so great is how much the two both understand and misread each other – each thinks the other has the key to happiness: Jeff covets Abed's Zen detachment from the accidents of life; and Abed desires Jeff's effortless appeal. What makes the relationship interesting however is just how WRONG these assumptions are. This makes the pairing both endlessly intriguing, and fundamentally unstable. The only way it can be effective is to be used very sparingly.

  • The NBC promotion conundrum is a fact that is true. 

    Re the sparing use of Jeff/Abed, can't we just get one ep per season? QUOTAS. That's definitely a good and organic way to approach art. Organic, just like the time I

  • I'm glad you had that review. It was great. Sometimes you plunge head-first into pop culture, and you're so far in you've lost any sense of direction. But beneath all the layers of movie quotes, funny quips and sitcom scenarios, there's a real person. It's just that sometimes the language people speak is different. 
     
    Hooray more reviews! Are you all on board with this schedule? Let's make sure the Tuna knows when he's posting his. And I hope you've already worked on your reviews, glaz and Dave.
     
    jmunney
    Competitive Wine Tasting
    1/18/2013 
     
    glazomaniac: 
    Paradigms of Human Memory 
    1/21/2013 
      
    davethedouchebag: 
    Applied Anthropology and Culinary Arts
    1/25/2013
     
    TheTuna:
    A Fistful of Paintballs
    1/28/2013 
     
    Eric the Unregistered: 
    For a Few Paintballs More
    2/1/2013

  • that is the date i told him. i will remind him again. i had a review i wrote waaay back in like, june, but i rereard it and hated it, so i am starting over. but i can write a review in three hours with my eyes closed, if i have to, so 1/21 is fine by me.

  • Please keep your eyes open for this review. It would make it a bit more readable.

  • you doubt my ability to type with my eyes closed? i not only typed this with my eyes closed, i caught four typos.

  • Ah, well that answers my question.

    My review is ready to go, so I can post it before Friday, unless people want me to wait.  I'm fine either way.

  • reuelb5427

    My god, this is unbelievably fantastic. I have nothing substantial to add other than this is amazing. 

  • sll03

    EJ, this is an absolutely magnificent review. I'm on board with what countless others have already stated; there is literally nothing more I can add because you have flawlessly described what makes this episode (and Community as a series) so very special. Kudos, dude. Kudos to the highest degree.

  •  After careful consideration, I realized I have nothing to add to this, that's how good your review is.

    This is one of the most captivating episodes of television I have ever seen, and certainly the most captivating sitcom episode I know. It reaches an almost philosophical depth that comedy is rarely capable of. It's somehow both heartbreaking and incredibly funny. It has Joel McHale doing an impression of vomiting ants and Danny Pudi silently breaking character. But what I love most about it, is what you describe so well – the way it obscures the distinction between reality and fiction to such a degree that it becomes virtually impossible to tell what in Abed's Cougar Town story is real and what is invented.

    Side note: I would so love to one day find out just who is responsible for writing this thing. It's Sona Panos' sole writing credit on the show so far (she's credited as a writing assistant on several other episodes) and, with all due respect to her talents, I find it hard to believe that she just popped in to write this incredibly sophisticated piece of television, and then went on some J.D. Salinger-style retirement.

  • No offense to everyone else, but this is one of the best reviews I've seen posted here.  The personal connection really sold out.  Rock on.