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Community: "Comparative Religion"

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Christmas episodes are one of my TV critic Kryptonites. There's something about seeing the cast of even one of my least favorite shows cavorting near a tree and exchanging gifts that hits me right square in the heart. Christmas was a big deal in the VanDerWerff family back in the day, most of our extended families lived within a two hour drive, and the festive break in the long winter months of South Dakota made for something that got just a little overhyped in my young mind. And that overhype remains. For whatever reason, I remain ridiculously fond of the Christmas season, of the music and twinkling lights and Salvation Army bell ringers and such. So when Community wedded what was a very funny script to the season at hand, it created one of my favorite episodes of the show so far.


The best thing about this episode was the way it tackled the cultural differences that make this time of the year a minefield if you know anyone who subscribes to the whole "War on Christmas" theory. The more the U.S. opens up to the fact that not everyone's a white, Christian male, the more threatening some find the new world order. At the same time, the more others attempt to create a completely safe environment for everyone to feel good, the less interesting the world can seem. We're a big planet, full of people who believe a lot of crazy things, and trying to push too hard for crushing sameness in either direction makes everything too bland.

The Dean on Community has always served the function of a buffoon attempting to make the world a place that won't offend anyone and creating something that becomes ridiculous in its non-specificity. Look, for example, at his attempts with Pierce to create the perfect, non-threatening "Human Being" as a mascot (still one of the show's best sight gags). Now, his non-denominational spin on year-end celebrations - which mostly just ended up being Christmas stuff given new names - was a great send-up of ambiguously named things like "Winter Festivals" and the like.

Yet at the same time, the gang at the center of the show had to deal with the fact that they, too, had different religious traditions and didn't all necessarily celebrate Christmas. Shirley was a Christian, sure, but the group also had a Jew (Annie, and say the whole word), a Muslim (Abed), a Jehovah's Witness (Troy), an atheist (Britta), a member of a weird cult that called itself Buddhism (Pierce) and an agnostic (Jeff, and BOOOOOOO!). Religion is one of those things that is so rarely talked about on TV that I relish pretty much any attempt to deal with one of the most important chosen cultural differences out there. Granted, most of the time, when a show tries to deal with religious differences, it ends up concluding that we all believe some pretty stupid stuff, but Community executed this old idea with panache.

Think of how many laughs there were in these segments, from Pierce talking about how he'd been born again in a hot tub to Annie bringing "hashbrowns and applesauce" to the Christmas party Shirley threw. Perhaps my favorite moment out of all of this (outside of Jeff continually getting booed for saying he was an agnostic) was when Annie took the baby Jesus from Shirley, who asked her to put it in the manger. She then touched the little guy on the nose, told him that Jewish people know he was one of them and then placed the baby Jesus in the boughs of the Christmas tree. I don't know if this was her having her revenge on Shirley for sticking the menorah in there or if she just didn't know what to do with the baby Jesus, but either way, it was very funny.

Meanwhile, over in what was mostly the A plot, Jeff stood up for Abed when some guys threatened him after he took all of the "Winterdoodles" at the school winter party. Jeff, who ended up agreeing to a fight with the mustachioed leader (played by a livewire Anthony Michael Hall), revealed to Troy and Pierce that he'd never been in a fight, the better to protect his face. It's another pretty old plot - streetwise guys get the wisecracker ready for his big fight - but another that the show executed almost perfectly. I think what made it all work was that Britta, a character the show sometimes seems afraid to allow to be funny, was hanging around in the background, letting everyone know that she thought fighting was just how men sublimate their homosexual impulses. (When the rest of Hall's gang stripped off their shirts to begin cartwheeling into battle at episode's end, Britta's reaction was one of my favorite things the show has done.)

I talked last week about how I'm not so sure that I want the show to rush Jeff's transition from asshole to nice guy too quickly, but I liked when he talked about how he believes in friendship in this episode. It's entirely possible that just stems from my seasonal willingness to offer up a little leeway in regards to storylines that promote peace on Earth and goodwill toward men. But I think it worked better here because it didn't occur in a vacuum. It was the story of how a bunch of people came together to defend one of their weaker members and then their de facto leader. And it involved a shot of Allison Brie using a fake snow blowing machine on some dude, as well as one of Shirley taking out a guy with a plastic candy cane. Hurrah for Christmas!

That, of course, is what Community is going for. It's all right there in the title, after all. But there have been few episodes where the show managed to hit this note as often or as well as it did tonight. This series works best when it has a healthy level of snarky humor but also a big, kinda stupid heart. Christmas episodes lend themselves particularly well to having a big, stupid heart, so maybe it was inevitable that a Community Christmas episode would be as good as this one was. But I like to think that, instead, it was just one of those great moments when everything clicked and even learning Senor Chang was a snowboarder wasn't too irritating. Well played, Community. And a happy new semester to you too.

Stray observations:

  • This is probably not the place, but Zooey Deschanel as some sort of Benjamin Franklin fetishist on Bones this evening is leaning on the "Spending Christmas with family is crazy!" button a lot of other Christmas episodes play very well. And I haven't been too crazy about Bones in quite some time.
  • "Rumor has it that non-denominational Mister Winter is on his way to the student lounge!"
  • "Knock knock. My fist up your balls."
  • "Ha ha ha! Merry happy!"
  • "That guy wasn't gay! He had a mustache!"
  • "I'm now a level five laser lotus in my Buddhist community."
  • "Do you know how foolish you sound right now? What else do you believe in? Blood transfusions?"
  • "As an agnostic, I'm gonna bring my winning smile."
  • "Why'd she have to be black?"
  • "He meant we were figh … … ting. It IS hard to think of another word!"
  • "You are not a Buddhist. You are in a cult." "Suck it, Nietzche."
  • "C'mon. I'm being punked, right?"