Community, over the last several months, has been operating on that higher plane of comedy existence that is typically reserved for the likes of The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development. Although there have perhaps been one or two missteps along the way (sometimes, the show gets a tad overambitious - see the Abed-as-Jesus episode from several weeks back), for the most part, it's been swinging for the fences and hitting it out of the park. This past week's holiday episode was a perfect example of that. So often, even the most out-there and subversive shows do themselves harm by succumbing to a sentimental streak - especially during the holidays. Last year, the great 30 ROCK took a turn towards increasingly sitcomish character arcs, and it really hurt the show's old, laugh-a-minute sensibility. It felt like, in an attempt to draw in bigger audiences, 30 Rock was at times compromising its sense of humor in order to be less live-action Simpsons and more modern-day Mary Tyler Moore. But, what Community has managed to do is pretty remarkable, and it's something that really, only The Simpsons could claim up 'til now - and that's to create a show that's jam-packed with dense humor and blink-an-you'll miss 'em gags, yet also populated by genuinely endearing characters who are capable of eliciting real emotion from us, the viewers. The Simpsons in its heyday could be unabashedly sentimental, but it always felt earned, and the jokes and humor and intelligence factor never took a backseat. Community has managed to pull off something similar, where even the show's wackiest episodes (Paintball, Zombie attack, and now the Christmas episode) somehow manage to get us invested in the characters even in the face of outlandish plotlines and pop-culture parody.
In any case, the Community Christmas episode was a thing of beauty. Literally. The brightly-colored stop-motion animation was awesome-looking, and the show really was a visual marvel. Huge kudos to everyone involved in what was surely a painstaking, time-consuming process. Now, how was the retro-style animation used? Pretty brilliantly, actually. The plot device involved Abed losing his grip on reality (even more so than usual) and slipping into a mental space in which he viewed everything as part of a stop-motion fantasy world. Abed takes the group (who in theory are playing along with his hallucination) on a wild ride through his pop-culture-infused psyche, and in doing so, we not only get some great satire, but we also get a sad and surprisingly moving look into the ghosts of Abed's Christmas past. Abed has historically worked best as a supporting character, and episodes that have really tried to psychoanalyze him have often been among the series' weakest. But ... this one really nailed the character, and it did a great job of expanding Abed's weirdness into an episode's worth of gags, and also making us care about him without going overboard.
As always, though, Community works best as an ensemble show. And perhaps the best reason that the show's approached that next level of quality is that its embraced its cast and found the perfect dynamic for great comedy. Community realized early on that it didn't need to be a show about Joel McHale's search for love and maturity. It didn't need to be a standard sitcom or adhere to standard sitcom tropes. It's similar to when The Simpsons realized it didn't just need to be about Bart the troublemaker, but could expand into this whole universe of characters. Community is now one of those shows that can be about ... anything. The throughline is the characters and their relationships, their makeshift community, so to speak -- but the show has now become so wide open, so "big", that an episode can be an action or horror movie parody, or even a stop-motion tribute to old-timey Christmas specials. That sense that "anything can happen" is something that not many live-action sitcoms possess right now. 30 Rock is getting back to that a bit, but sometimes it seems slightly ashamed of its randomness, and tries to temper that with more traditionalist tendencies. Community, meanwhile, is ashamed of nothing. It will go just about anywhere for a joke, and yet still has some of the most real-feeling characters on TV. Malcolm in the Middle was another good example of that rare mixture of the real and surreal, now that I think about it. But it's still something that's very rare in a sitcom. It still impresses me, for example, how in the midst of Community's totally crazy zombie Halloween episode ("zombie attaaaaaack!") we got some of the biggest moments in the Jeff-Britta relationship to date.
Zombies AND character development? Now that's impressive.