Happy birthday to “Critical Film Studies,” the most brilliant half-hour of TV to arrive in this century. Community‘s finest moment aired two years ago this week, the highlight of the second season. It kicked off the creative surge that led to Community‘s third season, which remains the best season any sitcom has ever had. This is also the episode that turned me from a huge fan into one of those insufferable Community douches you pray never sits next to you on a plane. It’s a dangerous thing.
These are trying times for Community fans, since it’s under new management, and the fourth season is getting off to a shaky start, just as the first season did. But “Critical Film Studies” (written by Dan Harmon and Sona Panos, directed by Richard Ayoade) was the peak. To find its like, you’d have to reach back to classics like Seinfeld‘s “The Limo” or The Simpsons‘ “Marge vs. the Monorail,” or any of the Sanford and Son episodes where Redd Foxx tries to appreciate a foreign culture. (“This is called sangria – it means ‘blood.'” That man was the Hendrix of the spit take, I swear.)
The plot is simple: two geeks attempt to have a real conversation. The Greendale study group is planning a Pulp Fiction surprise party for Abed. But instead, Abed lures Jeff to a fancy restaurant and demands an unusual birthday gift: “I’m not leaving here until you’ve given me my first real conversation.” So they give it a try, even though neither one knows how. As Jeff says, “You know who has real conversations? Ants. They talk by vomiting chemicals into each other’s mouths! . . . Humans are more evolved. We lie.”
But Jeff and Abed keep lying to each other, even as they argue over what counts as a lie. (“We don’t lie when we’re alone.” “We do most of our lying alone.”) Then the story takes a few surprise twists, which won’t be revealed here. It goofs on Pulp Fiction and My Dinner with Andre, but it works even if you’ve never watched either movie (or Community, for that matter). I love My Dinner With Andre, because I’m just that kind of twit, so at first I kept wondering, “Wait, how is this happening? Who the hell is supposed to get this? Is this kind of thing allowed?” But there were trickier surprises ahead.
I was already a hardcore fan before this episode – I’d written about Community so glowingly that NBC ran an ad quoting an entire paragraph from my column, sentence by sentence. (Maybe that should have been a sign the show was in ratings trouble, since the last time a network built an ad campaign around one of my reviews, it was when I called Taradise “the Citizen Kane of late-night basic-cable party shows.” Taradise got the axe a week later. Sorry, Tara.)
But “Critical Film Studies” is the half-hour I would show to a visiting Martian who wanted to know what TV is. You couldn’t ask for a more succinct statement of how TV works and how TV brings people together, mostly by telling blatant lies to our faces that somehow mutate into real emotions. Even if the moral of the story is, “Take it from someone who just had a meaningless one – sometimes emotional breakthroughs are overrated.”
Some people will always accuse Community of being a pastiche of arcane allusions and soulless in-jokes referring to trash-culture flotsam no sane person gives a crap about. To which I can only retort, “Black jeans? Nice try, Michael Penn!” In fact, these are the most emotionally realistic people I’ve ever seen on TV. They cling together for the same reason real people do: they don’t have it in them to nut up and die alone. They communicate by accident, while learning very, very little. And as we watch, we get emotionally involved, even if we’re just trying to be a fly on the wall. Like Abed says, some flies are too awesome for the wall.
So even though I totally sympathize with fans who think this post-Dan Harmon season is a travesty, I’m still glad it’s happening, for all its highs and lows, just because I’m appallingly over-invested in these characters and I want to keep hanging out with them, however diminishing the returns. I am Britta and these characters are my carny ex-boyfriend. Do not judge me for my weakness. I loved this season’s “German Invasion” episode (“There must be nearly 100 luftballons!”) and I got stomach cramps at the terrible Thanksgiving episode, a “Critical Film Studies” knockoff. But even that one had glimmers of hope. Jeff Winger’s dad lives in a subdivision called “Buck Hill” – if I’m not mistaken, that’s Community‘s first Replacements joke. Color me impressed.
That’s the rub about Community – for all the high-concept cleverness, it really comes down to vulgar humanism, the dumbest kind of sentimental identification. We watch it because we like these people and we miss them when they don’t show up. They become part of the stories we tell ourselves. They spend their time having trivial conversations, sitting in an ugly room around an ugly table. Why do they stay? Because the table is magic. Isn’t that what TV is – the ugly magic table that we keep returning to for the same reasons?
And if these characters turn into lame self-parodies, so what? Lame self-parodies need friends too. Some of your best friends are probably lame self-parodies, at least some of the time, and possibly so are you. In a way, that’s the whole point of “Critical Film Studies” and why I will always cherish it. Nobody knows how much longer Community will last, or where it will go from here. But I doubt I’ll ever forget my Dinner with Andre dinner with Abed.