Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Community" and the Joys of Meta

I know, I know. I'm so late. The "Critical Film Studies" episode of "Community" aired nearly two weeks ago, but it's taken me a couple of viewings to process my thoughts about it, and I'm going to get into heavy spoilers here, so I figured that it was safer to hold off until everyone who wanted to see it got a chance to.

So to quickly summarize, this was the episode of "Community" widely billed to be a "Pulp Fiction" spoof, with all the commercials and press material getting lots of mileage out of the cast dressed up as Jules and Vincent, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, Butch, Mia, and the Gimp. Jeff (Joel McHale) had the bright idea to throw a surprise "Pulp Fiction" themed birthday party for Abed (Danny Pudi), you see, Abed being the study group's resident media obsessive who prefers to communicate through pop culture references. Except that when Jeff comes to collect Abed for the party, Abed appears to be a changed man, suddenly wanting nothing more to have a nice meal in a fancy restaurant and have a "real conversation" for his birthday. Jeff takes him at his word, not realizing until after several courses and some serious oversharing that Abed and the entire episode have been spoofing another movie, the obscure 1980 art film "My Dinner With Andre," the whole time.

Usually I dislike misleading marketing tactics, but this was such a great example of a show using typical overhyping to its advantage. I was spoiled for the "My Dinner With Andre" references in advance, but I didn't expect it to keep going beyond the first scene. And going. And going. By the time Jeff (along with much of the audience) had the rug pulled out from under him, I had to marvel at how well we'd been tricked. There were some fun moments with the "Pulp Fiction" props, and the ending saw some quick reenactments that would make any Tarantino fan happy, but the bulk of the episode was taken up by "My Dinner With Andre." What's more, the writers used the scenario for some good character development. In the original film, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn simply sit down to dinner for two hours and have a long, rambling conversation about life and art and other weighty subjects. Here, Jeff and Abed get to talk about their friendship and personal fears. Even without the layers of meta, the material is surprisingly funny and affecting.

There has been some grumbling that the "Andre" reference was too obscure for a general audience, but that was the point - Jeff didn't realize he was in the middle of another movie spoof and we weren't meant to either. I suspect the episode probably works better if you haven't seen "My Dinner With Andre." I have, because I happen to be that pretentious, and it was neat to see Danny Pudi's Andre Gregory impression and all the little in-jokes, but I didn't get to enjoy the confusion and the disbelief at Abed's sudden changes in behavior. I didn't get to have the big epiphany with Jeff and the rest of the audience when the jig was up. It's much more enjoyable to fall for an act that it is to spot one from the start. Ironically I gathered that viewers probably were supposed to get the multiple references to "Cougartown" Abed incorporated into his monologues, a show that I have no familiarity with whatsoever.

Despite its reputation for them, "Community" doesn't do these full blown parody episodes all that often, and rarely anything that hews as closely to its source material as "Critical Film Studies." I get the sense that the show has reached a point where it's poking fun at itself, and at the very act of making pop culture references. This may be getting too meta for some, but the reason I appreciate "Community" is because it's so ambitious and not scared of being smart. A full "Pulp Fiction" spoof would have been a lot of fun, (Would Abed have been Marsellus Wallace? Captain Koons? The Wolf?) but it almost would have been too easy. I've found that the better installments this year haven't been the splashier ones like the zombie episode or the astronaut episode or the Christmas special, but rather the ones that have adopted and critiqued various different narrative techniques, like the documentary episode, the bottle episode, and now the bait-and-switch parody episode.

Then again, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't gleefully anticipating the upcoming sequel to last year's "Modern Warfare" paintball episode. It's going to be a two-parter. And the season finale. And Josh Holloway will guest star.

Damn, I love this show.

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