The American religious right is always going on about “family values” for a lot of reasons. It allows the fundamentalists to control the political debate about certain social issues while sounding above it all. (“Family values” sounds a lot better than “we think gay people should pretend to be straight.”) But it’s also because religion and family are based around one central idea that’s becoming more and more obsolete in the modern age: the idea of the physical community you’re bound to by ties stronger than simple choice. The rise of the mass media – and especially the rise of the Internet – has allowed every single one of us to make just about anything we want be the center of the community we’re a part of. The A.V. Club, if you will, is one of these virtual communities, united around the idea of people wanting to obsessively pick apart pop culture. Though slumping church attendance rates in the U.S. have to do with a lot of things, they’ve also got something to do with the fact that the need for a place where people come together is less important in an age when people can come together anywhere. Put another way, nine people might attend a church service, but 17 million will watch “God of Farts” on YouTube. And for someone who’s found tremendous meaning in going to church, that can be incredibly isolating and condescending.
The new, hyper-specialized world allows us to meet up with people who share our specific interests and can almost exclusively hang out with them. It’s created a world where experts and specialists can mingle with the commoners and spread some knowledge, where one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias on Earth is written as an exercise by a bunch of amateurs who are just obsessive about things. But it’s also limited the number of real-world interactions we have to have with people who aren’t in our immediate sphere. One of the things about Community that I like most is that it’s figured out a fairly believable scenario for forcing a bunch of people from all different walks of life to come together, in a way where they’re forced to confront their differences and grow together. “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples” is my favorite episode of the season so far (and one of my favorite episodes of the show, period) because, among other things, it’s about this, about the fact that the physical space of Greendale has put these people together in a way that very resembles a religious congregation or a family.
The two characters who were probably the most ill-served by storylines in the show’s first season were Shirley and Pierce, perhaps because the show often didn’t know how to write from the perspective of a black single mother or an older man who’s past retirement age or perhaps because it’s easier to get jokes out of any of the other characters. Shirley’s a woman who hasn’t spent a lot of time examining herself and now finds herself with a lot of time to do it. Pierce is a man who lashes out with cruel humor because he’s old and lonely. Neither character is inherently comedic, not like a guy who can quote movies and TV shows chapter and verse or a cynical lawyer with a deeply hidden heart of gold. Compounding this episode’s degree of difficulty is the fact that at its center are three pretty troublesome elements, insofar as telling jokes – Shirley’s Christianity, Abed making a movie filled with meta-commentary, and Pierce acting younger than his age.
The episode by and large nails all three of these elements. It nails the first because it’s willing to take Shirley’s belief system seriously (Shirley is rapidly becoming just about the only Christian on a major network sitcom to not be the butt of constant jokes). It nails the second because it’s willing to push it to greater and greater heights of strangeness. And it nails the third because it’s willing to set up a storyline out of an old Leave It to Beaver episode and then play the ending for poignancy, not snarky laughs. Don’t get me wrong. The laughs are there (particularly in Abed’s film, though I suppose you have to be a fan of TV show self-mockery to really enjoy it). But the episode has as its major goal something bigger than just “Make me laugh a lot.”
Shirley’s quest is spurred by her realization that a good deal of popular viral videos aren’t appropriate for the children and that some are driven by what someone like her might see as blasphemy. She asks Abed if he’ll help her make a Christian-themed viral video, but he takes the idea in a much weirder direction. He’s going to make a movie about a filmmaker who realizes that he’s Jesus because he’s a character in a film and that the camera is God (or something). Abed’s film essentially turns into an endless series of mirrors reflecting themselves, the film becoming the film becoming the film, on into infinity, in a way that the episode dismisses as more clever than immediately engaging. (There’s a lot of ribbing of Charlie Kaufman, and though I love his films, it’s also easy to side with Shirley’s dismissal of them as difficult for working people, who just want some damn entertainment, to enjoy.) As Abed’s film becomes a sensation on campus and people seem to turn him into an actual Christ figure, Shirley’s rage grows, until the two’s storylines intertwine again, when Abed’s prayer to God to stop the film because it has grown out of control and isn’t as good as he thought it was is answered by Shirley with a baseball bat.
There’s plenty to say here about how the Internet has essentially allowed us to turn whatever we want into our own, private religion, even if we don’t actually worship Teddy Ruxpin (or whatever fan art forum YOU happen to belong to), but there’s been enough shoddy philosophizing already. The important thing here is that the show takes an inherently crazy idea – Abed becomes a meta-Jesus for the Greendale campus – and somehow sees it through. The Abed-as-Jesus storyline is an actual riff on the story of Jesus, complete with Last Supper and Garden of Gethsemene scenes. It’s as faithful a reproduction of the story’s basic beats as last week’s episode was a reproduction of Apollo 13. And the show grounds that crazy idea in real emotion, but not the emotion you’d expect. The story is mostly told from Shirley’s point of view, and the episode takes her anger and hurt at what strikes her as blasphemy seriously. A lot of shows wouldn’t extend Shirley that courtesy. A lot of shows also wouldn’t go for the absolutely fantastic moment where the two tell each other how humbled they are by the other, then squeeze hands. It’s outright sentimentality, but it’s earned, and it fits.
There’s plenty of sentimentality to go around in the other storyline, too, and while I’m less certain it worked, I still loved it. Community’s strengths often come from mixing together two things that shouldn’t go together and then making them somehow fit, and in this case, it takes a hoary old sight gag – old people acting like teenagers – and a plotline from a ‘50s family sitcom – the teenager of the family starts hanging out with a bad crowd! – and makes them fit together. I was uncertain on this for much of the episode, since it had laughs but was also a pretty straightforward adaptation of both ideas (and both ideas are pretty clichéd at this point). But I think the episode’s devotion to playing all of this straight paid off in the end, with that scene where Jeff goes to pick up Pierce. If Pierce had actually been a teenager, this scene wouldn’t have had as much impact as it does, seeing him and Leonard as the lonely old men they are. Again, the show earns its sentiment by playing everything straight, and it was maybe the best storyline Chevy Chase has had in the history of the show.
I fully accept that “Messianic Myths” isn’t going to be for everyone. There’s a vocal group that wants the show to mostly be rapid-fire gags and pop-culture riffs, and the episode wasn’t that. What it was, however, was deeply felt and even moving at times, a story about how there’s still worth in old concepts, even when most people would rather be watching a man’s farts turn into lasers. Even the subpar episodes of Community are tremendously funny. But the best episodes of Community are both tremendously funny and actually about something. This was one of those.
- That said, the episode featured both Leonard and Professor Duncan prominently, so I was going to like it no matter what happened. We can always use more Leonard!
- I’ve had a number of people ask me (no, seriously!) whether or not I think the “Dean Pelton is gay” jokes go too far or not. Not being gay and all, I genuinely don’t know. I can see why some are offended by them (particularly since the show appears to have no other characters of non-heterosexual sexualities). Last season, the Dean was just a character who engaged in all manner of sexual kinks, the weirder the better. That was fine. This season, it more and more seems like the writers are taking him in a direction where he’s gay with an added level of kink here and there. This is harder to defend, but it hasn’t pushed the limit – to me, granted – just yet. The Dean is the show’s authority figure, but he’s also a fairly childlike figure. Naturally, a college comedy is going to have plenty of “rebel against authority!” moments, so the Dean will be the butt of a lot of jokes. But, also, I wonder if maybe his journey toward acceptance of who he is isn’t supposed to parallel the main characters, and thus, his denial of his own sexuality is supposed to be an arc or something. I genuinely don’t know, and if someone’s heartily offended by his character this season, I can see why. I’m just not there, yet.
- Also, don’t freak out, but the show is on at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central next week, so the network can air Scared Shrekless at 8 p.m. It’s going to be OK!
- This show can always use more Troy. His rap was terrific.
- This show can always use more Gillian Jacobs dancing. Her awkward steps were one of the best background jokes in the whole thing.
- "This subject's lack of definition cuts both ways."
- "The Bible has been called the greatest story ever told." "Ben Lyons said the same thing about I Am Legend."
- "He was like E.T., Edward Scissorhands, and Marty McFly combined."
- "That sounds very appealing to filmmakers."
- "C'mon, Charlie Kaufman. Some of us have work in the morning!"
- "I don't even believe in God, but I love me some Abed."
- "I'm here to be removed as his emergency contact."
- "Dogs love cats there. Cats love mice."
- "Ice cream is everywhere, but never on your thighs."