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Community: "Critical Film Studies"

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When people become friends, they often do so because of shared cultural experiences. Think of two sports fans commiserating over a particularly terrible loss or two people in the same line of work meeting at a conference and comparing notes about what their home office is like. Theoretically, you could become close, personal friends with just about anyone, but it helps if you start out on the same page. That’s why so many people form such close friendships in high school and college or in the workplace: The fact that you all share the same environment day after day makes it easier to find some sort of common ground to talk about when things fall into a lull. And the Internet has helped with this, too, making it easier to find like-minded individuals in your own neighborhood or build virtual neighborhoods, where everybody likes the Milwaukee Brewers, the films of Jacques Tati, or looking at pictures of half-naked fox girls as much as you do.


But you also can’t really know someone, a lot of the time. Building a friendship is all about careful management of information, about making sure that someone knows exactly the right bits of information to think you someone still worth hanging out with. I know it doesn’t seem like it some of the time, but there’s no way to know EVERYTHING about someone, not even a spouse or a child. There will always be deep, dark secrets we keep from each other, things we were going to say but didn’t, failures we’ve had to overcome, even if those failures only happened in our own heads. You can know another person, but you can’t know what it is to be them, not really. And it’s that push and pull between giving information and receiving it that keeps the best friendships feeling evergreen. You want to talk about the same things, and there’s always something new to reveal or experience. Things don’t ever get stale.

“Critical Film Studies” has been sold as “the Pulp Fiction episode” of Community. Even NBC, which often doesn’t promote the show all that heavily, has run many, many promo slots for the show playing up the crazy costumes and situations involved in the Pulp Fiction-styled B-plot. This makes perfect sense. Pulp Fiction is one of those cultural touchstone movies that almost everybody is familiar with, like Star Wars or It's A Wonderful Life. It’s a movie where someone like my mother—who doesn’t watch a lot of movies made after the ‘70s—will still know the vague signifiers of what it was about, simply because the whole aesthetic of the film has so completely invaded the culture. And I’m almost certain I have a Pulp Fiction crazy friend who’s going to be heavily disappointed in this episode because it’s not about the characters directly ripping off the movie, all of the time.


What’s amazing about this is that “Critical Film Studies” IS actually a pretty direct movie homage, perhaps the most direct one the movie has made. But because it’s a movie not a lot of people have seen and because it’s such a low-concept movie, the show gets away with it. I saw My Dinner With Andre in high school because Roger Ebert raved about it, and it sounded like exactly the kind of pretentious bullshit I would enjoy at the time. (It was, but it’s a good film and well worth seeking out.) Thus, from the opening minutes of the episode, I was sort of keyed into what the show was doing, had a vague idea that there might be more to Abed’s plan than just meeting for a real, human interaction. But that didn’t mean that the show didn’t find a way to make the My Dinner With Andre conceit its own.

My Dinner With Andre is one of those movies that a LOT of shows have done homages to over the years—I’m particularly fond of this Frasier episode—simply because it’s a show with such an irresistible conceit at its center: Two people talk for an hour and a half over dinner, and in the course of the conversation, they discuss some truths of the human condition. When the night is over, neither has had any truly great epiphanies, beyond the sense that they’re connected, that they’re good friends and important to each other. Like the classic Kurosawa film Rashomon—where a single event is seen from multiple points of view—this is catnip to TV producers who need something to build an episode around that’s different from the usual formula. By setting two of their characters down over lunch and having them chat or by having their characters all say variations on, “Well, that’s not how I remember it,” the series can feel vaguely high concept without actually being so. (Sidebar: Is there any way Community resists the allure of the Rashomon episode in season three? It’s an overdone trope in the TV world, but it’s exactly the sort of thing this show would delight in.)


My Dinner With Andre episode is also very hard to do well. With the Rashomon episode, the temptation is to get too silly, to make all of the differing versions of reality too bizarre to ever be how someone would experience the world. The problem with the My Dinner With Andre episode is to forget to write anything entertaining, to instead really take the conceit of a long conversation between two friends to its most logical extension and have them talk about nothing at all. (After all, when you’re with your friends, how often do you have conversations that wrap up in a narratively pleasing fashion?) I won’t be surprised if some people have this complaint about “Critical Film Studies,” as it’s one of the more serious, darker episodes of Community, where the laughs come less from rat-a-tat-tat jokes firing off all over and more from long, long monologues ending in unexpected ways. (I started laughing at Abed’s lengthy speech about visiting the Cougar Town set and becoming a character named Chad simply because I couldn’t believe the show was DOING this, having one character deliver a monologue—completely straight-faced—that was so silly for such a long time.) But to me, this is one of the strengths of the show. It gets its laughs in many different ways, and in this episode, it chooses to go a different route.

Like “Mixology Certification,” “Critical Film Studies” is a slightly more nuanced look at the fact that these people have found something special in each other than some of the other episodes this show has done (where everything will conclude with a heartfelt moment seemingly because it’s in the formula). Granted, to buy into this, you do have to buy that the show’s heart is real and not manufactured, that a series that makes so much of its living telling pop culture gags can also be about people who really, truly care about each other. In a season filled with so many go-for-broke homage episodes, that’s been a problem for many. I don’t blame them, but I think episodes like “Mixology” and “Film Studies” demonstrate that, yes, these are characters who do care about each other and want each other to be well. They’re not just joke machines; they’re people with feelings and passions that go beyond the latest movie homage.


What I love about “Critical Film Studies” is that it portrays that moment in a friendship where two friends essentially go for broke and start really revealing themselves to each other. Jeff tells Abed his most embarrassing stories, including an admission that he worries people wouldn’t like him if he weighed 400 pounds and a recollection of when he went out for Halloween dressed as an Indian princess as a little kid. These are clearly things that are deeply scarring for him, things that he tries to keep from people because they would threaten his cool façade. But he tells them to Abed under the guise of the two men opening up to each other, under the guise of Abed finally trying to experience what it might be like to be a grown-up, to have normal conversations that aren’t about movies and TV shows. It’s a direct Dinner With Andre homage (as you can see here and here), sure, but it more or less works because Abed is constructing it to be that way.

And here’s where the episode makes its turn. Abed doesn’t really want to have an actual conversation. He’s just doing another homage to what he thinks a real conversation should be like. As he points out in the diner at the end, he and Jeff don’t really hang out anymore. He’s cool with that—he’s not as good with people growing and changing as most folks are—but he does miss his friend. So he’s come up with a frame under which he thinks he can approach Jeff, perhaps not the frame under which his friend actually operates but the man he believes him to be becoming, the guy who just needs a little encouragement and a nice night of talk. So he constructs an artifice to rebuild that connection because that’s all he knows how to do.


But, really, as Jeff points out, a lot of this is just artifice anyway. Abed and his friends have built a relationship that’s pitched on pop culture because that’s what they know, just like those sports fans or those co-workers. We build relationships based around commonalities, rarely around differences. What makes “Critical Film Studies” such a bittersweet, moving episode in the end is that it’s about two people who may be headed in completely different directions but realize that, at some level, there’s something good about taking time to pause just long enough for each other. “Critical Film Studies” is an elaborate film homage, yes, but it’s also one of the most humane things the show has ever done, a half hour of TV about what it means to be a good friend.

Stray observations:

  • The Pulp Fiction stuff is a sidenote to the rest of the episode, but it’s not like there aren’t a lot of good gags back at the diner. I like that Britta works there (it’s another nice touch of the show letting us into the characters’ lives outside of Greendale), and I like who all of the characters are dressed as, all of which seems fitting. This side of the episode is tasked almost entirely with keeping up the usual quotient of Community laughs, and it does a very good job of that task.
  • Also, as always, everything Donald Glover says in the episode is absolutely hilarious. How is he not the lead of 50 movies?
  • If you want to watch My Dinner With Andre, it’s all on YouTube!
  • So Chang still gets invited to Abed’s birthday party, though none of the other Greendale recurrings do. Is this just a function of the episode not wanting to employ a great deal of guest stars, or a function of Chang’s new position within the group? (I don’t mind, since Chang trying to make Troy crazy is one of the episode’s funnier running gags.)
  • Abed said Cougar Town so many times in this episode that I almost wanted to start hating the show, based on its title alone. But you know what? I appreciate this series calling attention to one of TV’s other best comedies, even if it often seems to be doing so because two of Community’s producers, Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, worked closely with Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel back on Scrubs. Still, if Cougar Town somehow outlasts Community—or if Danny Pudi has a break in his schedule next season—it’d be great to have him show up on the show as a character named Chad. WORLDS COLLIDING.
  • Speaking of movies every show rips off at least once, how long before this show does the inevitable It's A Wonderful Life episode?
  • Best Pulp Fiction get-up: Pierce as The Gimp.
  • "He watched Cougar Town. It was as if he didn't want people to like him."
  • "I like your sweater. Did it come with a golden retriever?"
  • "I'm hot, and my balls are touching a zipper!"
  • "I'm not jealous!"
  • "What? I have 3-D vision now?"
  • "Am I the hero or the love interest?"
  • "It's a 30-minute film where the heroes like dancing, cheeseburgers, and the Bible."
  • "If you want me to take it seriously, stop saying its name."
  • "Why are you dressed like Mr. Rogers and talking like Frasier?"
  • "Chad had lived, Jeff. Chad had lived more than Abed."
  • "They were already moving on. Courteney had nailed it."
  • "After they get frightened by the evening news, many people seek the foods and soothing music of a pre-racial America."
  • "Nah. Everybody poops their pants."
  • "I'm not leaving here until you've given me my first real conversation." "Yay."
  • "Pulp Fiction. Milkshakes. Bean cans."
  • “You know who has real conversations? Ants. They talk by vomiting chemicals in each other’s mouths. They get right down to brass tacks.”
  • "Why would you pay a woman on the phone to think you're fat?"
  • "He seduced me with his dark Chinese powers."
  • "Once the shame and the fear wore off, I was just glad they thought I was pretty."
  • "Pretty gay, man. Pretty gay."
  • "Ooh, no-no juice!"
  • "I prefer the term homage."
  • "I doubt I'll ever forget my Dinner With Andre dinner with Abed."