My wife and I have been cleaning out our apartment, trying to turn it from a ramshackle dump into somewhere vaguely livable. Part of that process has been cleaning out boxes that we tossed together when we moved out of our last place, putting things away, just generally being better, more adult people. In the process of this, I found something I had completely forgotten about, a collection of old home movies from when I was a really little kid in the mid-80s, home movies taken at Christmastime, when we'd go down the long dirt road to my grandparents', regardless of how much snow and ice was on the ground, and sit in their straight-outta-the-'60s living room and share an evening together.
Granted, for me at the time, it was mostly about the presents, but when I watch these videos now, when I see how my parents are roughly the same age I am now and see my grandparents, both dead for almost a decade, alive and well and opening gifts, what I long for is some sort of Our Town-esque visit back, to take in all of the things I missed at the time. The warmth of the milk in the oyster stew, the crunch of the snow outside, the quiet sounds of my grandmother playing Christmas carols at the organ, all of our voices joining in off-tune chorus. Memory's supposed to be a time machine, right? It's supposed to be a way to take you back to a place where you were safe and warm and happy, a place where you weren't conflicted and ill at ease. It has a way of smoothing over the bad stuff and making the past a place that's fun to visit, until you start to really think about it and remember all the pain, all the heartache, all the things that went wrong and can't be taken back. Because they, like everything else, are just gone. There's no way back into those videos, no magic doorway to step through.
What "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" gets that very, very few Christmas specials or episodes have gotten in the history of the medium is the fact that, ultimately, this holiday, more than any other, is intensely personal. The general practices at other holidays are fairly standardized, but every family has their own end-of-year holiday traditions that become more sacred than any other meaning the holiday holds. If there'd never been a Jesus, we'd still have invented Christmas (and, technically, early Christians just supplanted other solstice celebrations with their own, as Britta would be glad to remind you) because, to some degree, we need it. You almost never see atheists or agnostics celebrating Easter, for instance, but their purchase of Christmas trees or a few small gifts is fairly common. It's the end of the year. The nights are long and cold, and more than anything, what we need is each other. This is the one time of year when family gatherings become all but mandatory, no matter how little we may want to attend them. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" filters all of this through the generally understood grammar of the famous Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, but its core is nakedly emotional, almost nakedly lonely, when you get right down to it. Nobody wants to be alone at this time of year, but a lot of people are. Including Abed.
The conceit of the episode is going to be a little hard to swallow for some people. Abed comes to lunch one day, and everybody's stop-motion animated. He has no idea why, but he suspects it has something to do with the impending arrival of Christmas. In order to try to understand what's going on better (and, well, publish a few papers on the subject), Professor Duncan begins some intense therapy sessions with Abed, that result in him entering some sort of hypnotic trance where he reimagines everybody as existing within a Christmas-y wonderland. As the episode grows more and more fantastical, sending Abed and the others on a voyage to the North Pole, the emotional core grows more and more painful. We know a bit about Abed, and we know that his parents' separation fairly devastated him, but we haven't really gotten INTO it, not yet. This is the episode, appropriately enough, given all of the emotions we associate with the holiday, where the show begins delving.
If I have a complaint about the episode (and it's a minor one), it's that the nakedly emotional content has to conform to the rest of the episode's aesthetic. So the letter from Abed's mother explaining just why Abed's shut himself into a Christmas wonderland doesn't really sound like something a mother would ever actually write her son, especially if that mother still ostensibly cared about her son. ("I have a new family"? Really?) I suppose one could make the argument that all of this is filtered through Abed's subconscious, so the letter isn't actually what she wrote but how Abed TOOK what she wrote (perhaps from having to see the photo of her new family), but by placing the words of the letter in Duncan's mouth, it feels too much like the "definitive" account of what happened. Again, I don't mind because I can excuse it easily enough and the outsized emotions fit the aesthetic of a Christmas special. But it IS a little over-obvious, all the same.
Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter. The episode's simple joy in its central conceit is so sustained, and its story of a group of friends coming together into their ad hoc family to help out one of their own who's hurting is so moving that I could have forgiven even more slight missteps. Normally, when I get an episode of Community in advance, as I did this week, I try to watch it three or four times, just to be sure of my opinions. The first time, I usually just enjoy the episode. The second time, I try to poke it apart. And the third time, I write down quotes and other funny things for the stray observations section. This time, I was unable to get past the level of that first viewing. When I got to viewing two, I was lost in the episode all over again, unable to be more critical of the show beyond very superficial things. And on viewing three, I didn't write down a single quote because I didn't want to look away.
One of the things that works so well about Community's "gimmick" episodes, episodes like this one, is the fact that the show is really dedicated to telling a straightforward version of whatever genre it's engaging with but also creating an episode of Community that engages with the characters on a personal level. "Modern Warfare" is an action movie, through and through, but it's also a story about the relationships these people have built with each other over the course of the first season, particularly the one between Jeff and Britta. "Epidemiology" is a zombie movie to its core, but it's also a story about how Troy's evolving and changing. And "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" could stand proudly alongside almost all Christmas specials out there, but it's simultaneously a tremendously moving episode of Community, about the ways that these people have created a safe place where they can grow and change and the ways that they look out for each other when they need looking out for.
Still, the episode wouldn't work at all if it didn't nail the Christmas special aesthetic. The idea of all of the characters as something out of the Island of Misfit Toys is clever, and the various songs Abed breaks into (outside of the rewritten theme song) are all catchy enough while being somewhat plausible as songs the characters are just making up off the top of their heads (and the actors' singing voices are nice enough that I hope the show does a musical episode eventually). The Community-esque twists on Christmas specials are also very funny, like the Christmas pterodactyl showing up at the press of a big, red button or Annie's wind-up dial spinning a little faster when Britta calls her tightly wound. This is all well-constructed and very funny and very solid, and I don't think that anyone who primarily watches the show for the pop culture stuff is going to be disappointed in this one. It nails the aesthetic, and it gets plenty of jokes in around the side of what's mostly a fairly somber story, probably more than the show did last week.
But once the characters get to the Cave of Frozen Memories, I'm impressed with how far the episode is willing to push its depressive atmosphere. Abed's shutting out the real world because the real world, as it can be, is just too painful. Christmas is never quite what we want it to be once we reach adulthood and we start to realize all of the things keeping it from being as great as we'd hoped it might be. (Frightened Rabbit, of all bands, has a great song about this.) We like to pretend the world stops for the season, but all of the awful, terrible things that keep the world from being as good as it could be keep going on, regardless of the time of year. And so Abed's mother is still a distant presence, who's cut her son off from the one time of year he can count on seeing her. And so Abed's friends fall by the wayside, for one reason or another, even as some of them seemed fairly happy to help him confront these issues, all but Pierce.
Look. I've seen enough narratives to know that Pierce was still on the train with Abed and was going to help him confront whatever was keeping him from seeing the world the way it really was. That didn't make the moment when he talks about how it gets lonely at home any less affecting. I've seen enough narratives to know that everybody was going to come back at the end to save the day for their friend, to melt the ice that had swallowed him whole. That didn't make their return to sing a song about how Christmas is whatever you want it to be about any less affecting. And the other moments, the fairly raw, emotional moments with no jokes to them whatsoever, like Duncan's reliving of his 10th Christmas or Abed rejecting Britta's help, are all surprisingly dark and despairing. I mentioned the sadness of Christmas last week, and, man, if this episode didn't hit me square in the spot that appreciates that sort of thing. I've found Community moving before, but I've never been quite as devastated by moments on the show as I was in this episode.
And I suppose that raw display of emotion, that naked sentimentality, is going to rub some people the wrong way. And whatever. That's fine. We like the show for different reasons, ultimately, and after two straight episodes steeped in the show's more emotional side, I'm sure we'll be back to something very funny but not as emotionally fulfilling when the show returns in January. I like that side of the show, too, and if every episode was just a long, depressing slog through seeing how alone these people would be without each other, followed by a heartwarming conclusion, I'd probably start making fun of it somewhere along the way. What makes the show work is its sense of variety, the idea that when you start up an episode of Community on any given week, you could get just about anything. If every episode were like this, the show wouldn't work as surely as if every episode were like "Modern Warfare."
But when you come right down to it, if a show that's capable of this level of emotional acuity doesn't do an episode like this at this time of the year, that's probably a kind of a failure. I'd never claim "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" as perfect, and I wonder how it will play at other times of the year, but I'm staggered by how much I care about the characters and want them to be OK, the kind of caring you only feel in the very, very best sitcoms, where the people are, sure, fictional, but feel more real than that somehow. When the gang gets together at the end to watch Rudolph, all nestled together on Abed's couch, well, there's nowhere I'd rather they be, even if they have actual families. They've built a family together, somehow, and that tops all else, at the end of the day.
Because eventually, it'll be back to the world as it is, not as we'd want it to be. No one will be stop-motion animated anymore (though I love the show's choice to have Abed hang on to the illusion just a little longer), and the drudgery of the way things are will start to seep in again. That's the way this works. That's the way this has to work. Until you're older, and the nights aren't as cold as you remembered, and the lights aren't quite as bright. What was is no more; now, it's all fading photographs and ghosts. As it should be. But at the end of the year, it's easier to let the world grow more porous, to let the ghosts slip through, until all that's left is you, trying to get back to a place that doesn't exist anymore, unless you're lucky enough to build it anew. These people have, and the episode's acknowledgment of that is what makes it a classic.