Community, Glee, and the Reason for the Season

Community, Glee, and the Reason for the Season

Hey, I’m just doing my part to keep the internet buzz about Community high enough that they won’t cancel the show. It’s the season to give, after all.

We’ve been following Glee pretty closely on this website since its debut last fall.  I’ve also been following – but not so much writing about – another fall 2009 premiere, Community.   When they first came out, Community was definitely the weak sister.  Glee came out of the blocks riding a tidal wave of hype to what looked like a surefire touchdown of popularity, critical acclaim, and mixed metaphors.  But Community has actually emerged as the stronger of the two shows. (At least aesthetically.  Its ratings are still not so hot.)

Other than coming out around the same time, the shows would seem to have little if anything to do with each other.  One is a studiously lighthearted sitcom set at – but honestly not very tightly connected to – a community college.  The other is… well, Glee is kind of sui generis, really, and changes from week to week, but it’s never that.  These are not shows that were destined to be mentioned in the same breath, like 30 Rock and Studio 60.  Nevertheless, Community has unilaterally decided that it is Glee’s arch-rival, and sneaks jokes mocking the other show into the background whenever it gets the chance.  And this fall, both series did episodes about turning to religion in a time of crisis which Wrather and I discussed on an episode of These Floral Teenagers a little while back.  And then last week, both series did Christmas episodes, which are really bizarrely similar.   On a surface level, both shows made highly specific references to beloved christmas entertainments of the past (How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for Glee, and the Rankin/Bass holiday specials for Community).  Much more strikingly, both episodes revolved around encouraging a mentally fragile cast member in his or her Christmas-themed delusion.  On Glee, we learn that Brittany still believes in Santa Claus, and Artie enlists the entire glee club in maintaining this illusion for her, Goodbye Lenin style.   Meanwhile —

Well, we’ll get to Community in a bit.  But can we just take a minute to discuss how creepy Artie is being here?  Let’s accept at face value his stated motivation, which is that he wants to preserve her childlike innocence.  Dude, you are sleeping with this girl.  Childlike innocence should not be a selling point.  We can read this straight back into the magic comb incident from the previous episode, by the way.  Yeah, the magic was in her all the time, great.  You still 1) straight up lied to her  2) in an attempt to manipulate her emotions 3) “for her own good.”  I’m not a guy who insists on radical honesty in romantic relationships… there is such a thing as a little white lie.  But this is not that thing.  The big problem, I guess, is that Brittany is so easy to deceive. To what extent is Artie just taking advantage of her stupidity?  And this brings up a much bigger, thornier question:  to what extent is it moral for Artie to get into a relationship with someone he can manipulate that easily?  And that brings up an even thornier question. How are we supposed to parse Brittany’s mental capacity?  She’s a cartoon, an apotheosis of the dumb-blonde-cheerleader archetype.  But then there are two minor characters on the show that are developmentally disabled in a non-cartoonish way.  The “Brittany doesn’t understand how stuff works” jokes that pretty much define her character would be a lot harder to laugh at if you put them in the mouth of Becky (who, for those who don’t watch the show, has Down Syndrome).  Could we laugh at them if Brittany was the butt of the joke, but she was having a conversation with Becky? It all feels very dicey.  Even referring to Brittany as “stupid,” which I did a couple of times earlier in this paragraph, feels a little unpleasant if you really think about it.  (Whether Glee fundamentally wants us to think deeply about these issues, or whether their writing staff itself is a little tone-deaf about this, is in itself a question well worth asking.)

Unlike Glee, Community rarely brings up a troubling issue by accident.  So when in the most recent episode Abed begins to hallucinate that he and the gang are all claymationed (claymated? clamanimated?) Christmas toys, the writers don’t give us the easy way out, or at least not right away.  Yes, eventually the study group eventually needs to decide that because they love Abed, they need to go with him on his magical journey to find the true meaning of Christmas and buy into the logic of his dreamworld.  But before that happens, they make honest attempts to cure him of his delusion — and this too is motivated by love.  Either one of these, honestly, would be a cop out.  Presenting both, even if they inevitably end up picking one, points to something more nuanced.  At what point does accepting Abed cross over into enabling him?  (Protip:  it’s probably when you physically assault his psychologist.  Sadly I no longer have the episode on my DVR, but I think John Oliver shouts something like “Ow! Ow! You’re actually attacking me in real life, you crazy bitch!” as Ballerina Annie tackles him.)

Another way that Community refuses to pull its punches is in the “true meaning of Christmas” that it comes up with at the end.  Again, comparisons with Glee are useful (and a little damning).  By having Brittany ask Santa to fix Artie’s legs, Glee is revisiting the moment earlier in the season where Kurt’s father is in a coma, and everyone starts praying for him to wake up.  As in that episode, we get the happy ending, at least sort of:  at the end of the episode we see Artie up on a crazy prosthetic walking device which I’m told really does exist.  The main characters accept this as a Christmas miracle (without the slightest hesitation, I might add), while the audience is informed that it’s the work of one Coach Beiste.  So far so good.  But what’s the message here?  There’s no such thing as a Christmas miracle?  There is such a thing as a Christmas miracle?  Christmas miracles are only real in that the Christmas spirit might move a football coach at a budget-starved high school to spend approximately $100,000 of her own money on your medical equipment?

The last is probably closest to what they were going for.  But it’s not really coherent.  The odds of Coach Beiste being able to pay for that thing are higher than the odds of Artie spontaneously regaining full use of his limbs, but not by a hell of a lot.  So the secular humanist miracle they’re going for turns out to be a magical miracle after all:  they have their cake and eat it too.

Community, on the other hand, eventually puts a box in Abed’s hands labeled “The True Meaning of Christmas.”  He opens it to find another box marked “Not yet!” And then another marked “Nope!” and so on, until he finally gets to the last box, which contains a copy of Lost Season 1 on DVD.

“What’s that stand for?” asks Teddy Bear Pierce.

“Lack of pay-off,” says Abed, dejectedly.

Since this is all Abed’s vision quest, we’re meant to assume that his imagination was incapable of inventing the true meaning of Christmas.  The idea of Christmas is literally hollow for him, in the sense that there’s nothing at the center.  But later, Abed realizes that “the true meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has a meaning.”  By telling ourselves that this one day matters, we cause it to matter.  Because when you get down to it, there’s not very much to life beyond what we tell ourselves.  It’s a very postmodern message, in that it divorces the sign from the signified, and although it’s presented as uplifting I imagine some will find it bleak. (It also completely divorces Christmas from Christianity, something almost all Christmas episodes do anyway without the justification.) I admire Community for embracing that bleakness.  If you’re going to say that Christmas is important only as an idea, then you’d better be willing to make peace with the fact that the idea is all you get to have. No miracles.  No ReWalks.  No clap-if-you-believe-in-fairies.  And the idea is all they do have, on Community.  They sit down and drink hot cocoa and watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, because that’s what people do on Christmas.  And this is enough.  It turns them from claymation back into human beings.

23 Comments on “Community, Glee, and the Reason for the Season”

  1. milk #

    Stokes! What are you doing writing this, when you should be writing the next Cowboy Bebop piece? I’m waiting!


  2. vee #

    yes yes, more cowboy bebop! the really depressing ones are coming up just in time for the holidays!


  3. Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

    This is all fantastic. I confess I hadn’t thought through the implications of Brittany’s mental “handicap” in the context of a show which represents people with physical and mental handicaps, but the implications are troubling. In a show which has purportedly been at pains to stick to its guns about Becky’s cognitive deficits and Artie’s confinement to a wheelchair, the idea that Brittany is a “safe” object of ridicule is a little uncomfortable.

    The big reveal of Artie in the Re-Walk gear reminded me of a softer version of the fantasy dance number in the mall during the episode when Tina was trying to convince him he needed to have faith that he could walk again (without resorting to machines). (Also the episode where she reveals that she doesn’t actually stutter… probably a practical move by the writers who decided that, contra Malcom in the Middle, beefing up the part of a character with a speech impediment would get real annoying real fast… but in this context more germaine to your discussion of honesty within relationships and the status of certain handicaps as “mockable” and others not.)

    In a way I thought it was cruel to Artie for the show to revisit this territory with him—having Artie walk is an unfair thing of Brittany to ask, even if she doesn’t know it—especially since the last time the area was explored the conclusion seemed final. In perpetuating the lie about Christmas, Artie was forced to confront again the traumatic loss of hope. Which certainly doesn’t make a person feel like singing.


  4. cat #

    I think “clamanimated” would be pronounced “clam-animated”.

    Thank you for bringing up Glee’s magical solution of Coach Bieste buying Artie that equipment. I thought I was the only one bothered by that. The only thing that made that a little better was that they didn’t have Sue do a complete reversal. She was sort of nice to Will but she didn’t come along to fix everything and she got the members of the glee club to do most of the work.

    I do want to believe that Glee has a purpose. I keep thinking back to how great those first few episodes were and darker moments along the way like the old maid’s club. I don’t think they’ll ever go as far as Community does but I’d like to think that they’re going somewhere. The most favorable way I could read this is that they’re trying to make you question the easy answers and the apparent inconsistencies and the treatment of Brittany. But that’s unlikely.

    Oh, and on the topic of how the writers treat some of the characters, what’s with the writing and treatment of Rachel lately? She’s becoming hugely unpopular because of the way they’ve written her. She’s much meaner and more petty and selfish instead of just being ambitious and annoyingly single-minded. Why did they have to cushion Finn’s betrayal with Rachel’s? And for some reason all the characters are free to bully Rachel (including the teachers) and it’s fine? Why? Because she has the outward veneer of being a strong character?


    • Zach #

      I only watched a few moments of the first episode before Rachel drove me off, but what’s more petty and selfish and mean than getting a teacher fired with false accusations of sleeping with a student in order to get the part you want? That seems to be the original idea of the character, actually.


  5. Andy #

    Well actually, I just revisited the (excellent) Community Christmas special on Hulu, and it is Troy who restrains John Oliver’s character. The line is “Hey! You’re actually grabbing me in real life delinquent!” Oliver sounds more surprised and pissed than hurt, there’s no real “ow” to it.

    Sorry, I always wanted to “well actually” someone.


  6. Brian #

    When realizing “the idea is all you get to have” one reaction is “making peace with it” like Community, and the violent tantrum reaction of Family Guy.
    Community’s episode really took the cynical piss and vinegar out of me that’s been building up since entering the wonderful world of adulthood Christmas. The line about Christmas being a defense against the darkest and most dead part of the year is what neutralized my Christmas cynicism inspired by all those shows with trite messages, it helped view all that trite from a more empathetic place, unlike Family Guys reaction to Christmas cynicism, a rabid anti-x-mas celebration of cynicism which I think is this episode of Community’s true arch rival.

    Community points out the bad points and bleakness, like how the church moved the date of Christmas to steal thunder from a pagan holiday, but it’s reaction is so much more humane and constructive then Family Guy’s “Christmas is killing us” musical numbers-which felt like how The Dark Knight’s Joker would write a Christmas special. So “the meaning of Christmas is the idea Christmas has meaning” wasn’t a cop out to me, it genuinely re-framed my approach to holiday trite so it all doesn’t feel SO oppressively lame, and I see that trite as someone trying to bring light in a time of darkness and death.

    Now you can argue the main cause of Christmas cynicism is the trite backfiring and ruining something genuine with its triteness, which is why the idea that it was trying to bring light and meaning is such an important one. Without it you end up with Family Guy’s wanton destruction which brings death in a time of death and celebrates that.

    Maybe I’m misreading Family Guy, Santa does come back to life after everyone claps their hands basically, but 99% of the show is a violent destruction of Christmas icons and really that’s the shows purpose, it has a frustration of realizing the idea is all you have and wants to burn it all down but doesn’t have any genuine humanity the way Community did. Even though they both admit to the corruption of the holiday and play with its narrative conventions only one respects and proves that it really does have something worth having at its core… and that one is Community it case that was unclear.


    • lee OTI Staff #

      Brian, I haven’t seen this “Family Guy” Christmas episode you’re referring to, but it does seem to contrast starkly with the Christmas episode from the show’s original (vastly superior) run, Season 3, Episode 16: “A Very Special Family Guy Freaking Christmas.”

      Although Lois goes into a Christmas-induced rage and kills Frosty the Snowman, the rest of the episode engages in very little of the “wanton destruction” of Christmas symbols and in the end affirms them: Stewie as Baby Jesus brings a message of Christmas hope and peace, KISS saves Santa, Santa brings Stewie the plutonium he wants, etc.

      Unless I’m totally misreading the episode or my old-Famil Guy nostalgia is biasing my memory of it. Has anyone seen these 2 episodes and can comment on their similarities/differences?


      • Brian #

        I know you guys don’t like to get political, or at least I don’t, and maybe that’s why you didn’t pick the Family Guy special because its such a hornets nest so here’s a warning that’s its about to get political, which is very non Christmas like.

        In A Special Freaking Christmas it’s a micro view of frustrations, everyone’s personal hang ups are tolerable and contained to the city of Quahog. Lois goes into a primal rage caused by her under appreciated contribution to holiday cheer and Stewie as baby Jesus gives an ironic speech about how Christmas goes against our primal nature of selfishness but the only reason we even pretend to not be selfish is we believe an omnipotent being is watching and judging our every decision. This speech sedates Lois’s primal rage before she’s literally sedated by a tranquilizer dart shot by a policemen. It seems to take the stance that Christmas sedates or sublimates primal urges, ironic because it shows it’s not very effective in doing so being enforced by omnipotent surveillance that’s necessary or else no one would be nice, it ends with an over sedated Lois drooling in a recliner.

        Road to the North Pole is a macro view of world wide repercussions of this sedation, people die reaching the North Pole due to Stewie’s obsessive drive to find it, when he does it’s a dystopic nightmare worked over by America’s wanting ever increasing quality and quantity of toys and electronic gadgets. It takes the forcing of the Christmas spirit from the personal level of Lois to the international level of the North Pole- which is alluded to Iraq several times.

        In both episodes Santa’s real and there’s actually magic (even though Lois says in the first special there isn’t and it all comes from her jolly butt), but in Road to the North Pole it shows the tragic hubris when men try to become as gods when Stewie and Brian try to take over Santa’s delivery as he’s too overworked and now hospitalized saying on his assumed deathbed “I’ll be with Allah soon.” Stewie and Brian’s first and only delivery ends up with them beating a man to near death with a baseball bat meant as a gift in front of his wife and child who they then tie up to try and cover up their mistakes.

        Now maybe the first Family Guy special didn’t view this hypocritical moral sedation as dangerous globally because it was pre-Iraq war, but I think really it just didn’t have the time to widen it’s scope. If it was an hour long episode like the second special it probably would have, it’s dystpoic North Pole would have been analogous to South America or some other place that’s exploited for cheap consumer goods. In the first one Santa takes the form of Darth Vader in Stewie’s dream, which is as close as it gets.

        I don’t think Family Guy’s bringing up consumer guilt in a grotesque way because it wants to defuse the idea of guilt tripping as motivator for Christmas, it seems its stance is that other shows guilt tripping isn’t going far enough. I think it genuinely feels Christmas is a time of ultimate hypocrisy, it wants us to be aware that as a nation we’ve been naughty and we’re deluding ourselves that we’ve been nice, and now that delusion and hypocrisy has become dangerous and having very real and tragic consequences. It puts forth as a solution that we should want less, and that only asking for one present from now on will relieve the pressure on the North Pole. It works in the show and everything gets restored as it was. I totally didn’t buy this solution or the presentation of the Dark Side of Christmas, which I would be total for, or maybe I guess maybe I wasn’t.


  7. Howard #

    YES, more Community, please.

    Community has been hitting some dark territory in the past couple of episodes, with this Christmas episode and the previous one (where the gang goes drinking). I’m hoping for an extra on the DVD where they show this episode with the cast sitting in the room pretending to be traversing Abed’s winter wonderland.

    A lot of the episodes center around trusting the group of people they have gathered, and ultimately, the group only has value if the members give it.

    Also, on a shipping level, I find the Jeff/Annie thing fascinating.


  8. tag #

    Community is cynical in such a light-hearted way. There is always something worth thinking about on a show that has so much meta discourse with the audience. I would love to see an overthinking article looking into Community’s theme episodes.

    Possibly better yet would be an analysis of the Trampoline plotline earlier this season.


  9. Brian #

    On a side note, did anyone else think the claymation characters were creepy looking? I don’t think it was intentional but it sort of played into the unsettling quality of going full into someones delusional fantasy world.


  10. Pasteur #

    Remote-Control X-mas Pterodactyl is the new Holiday Armadillo.


  11. tgwnal #

    “Why did they have to cushion Finn’s betrayal with Rachel’s?”
    As the show pointed out, Finn never really ‘betrayed’ Rachel. He didn’t cheat, as they weren’t dating at the time. All he did was lie to her, which she herself did to him about the same thing. She, however, was dating him at the time that she went to his best friend.
    That was the 10th ‘Last episode of Glee I will watch this season-for real this time’. I keep meaning to stop watching, but I keep finding some little thing that makes me hope it will get better; the addition of Darren Criss, the fact that they’ve been hating on Rachel lately, and now the Christmas episode have kept me coming back no matter how much I hate myself for it.
    Community is great this season, I liked how they handled the plot with Troy turning 21. Giving him ways he could screw with all of the other characters, but having him pass the opportunities up was a great way to say ‘You’re a man now’


    • cat #

      Granted, I shouldn’t have oversimplified in that way. But I still have a problem with the writers insisting on making Rachel such an unlikable character and having her behave that way. It was almost as though they didn’t want to diminish any of the goodwill towards Finn that they had been building up so they had Rachel do what she did so all the ire could fall on her again. I really don’t understand why they’ve transitioned her from slightly annoying to the outright target of all negative feelings.

      “the fact that they’ve been hating on Rachel lately”
      What is it about this character, similarly to the Brittany character, that makes piling abuse on her so acceptable?


      • Sylvia #

        The way I’ve been interpretting Rachel so far, is that she is in actuality an incredibly insecure person. Last season, dating Finn was an unatainable dream for a variety of reasons. She often talks a big game, but rarely gets an opportunity to be number 1 aside from a solo. This season, she has Finn as a boyfriend, and she’s still top singer in Glee. She has everything that she wants. So, she’s pulling a pretty classic insecurity move which is to test the stability of what she has. She can’t quite reconcile with and just be happy about having Finn, so she destroys it.


      • tgwnal #

        ‘Acceptable’ or not, I just personally can’t stand Rachel’s character. I think she just reminds me too much of actual people I knew and couldn’t stand in choirs during high school.
        And I’d completely forgotten about the fact that Finn cheated on Quinn during their relationship in the first season. I think that just goes to the idea that many TV shows seem to have that regardless of which characters happen to be together at the time, there are COUPLES that are MEANT to be together. Even though Finn and Quinn were dating at the beginning, we as an audience kind of knew that Finn and Rachel BELONGED together, so in a way, the Quinn and Finn relationship was almost the one that felt like cheating.


    • Heather #

      What bothers me about the Finn/Rachel betrayal situation is that, yes, Rachel did make out with Puck and we are led to believe that Rachel would have gone all the way had Puck not put a stop to it. Compounding this of course is that Puck got Finn’s last girlfriend (who also wouldn’t sleep with him) pregnant. So understandably Finn really is upset here and Rachel was an idiot, my thought process here is that she was so upset with Finn that when Puck offered to talk with her, she decided to hook up with him because Puck was familiar and willing and she wasn’t thinking about how Puck knocked up Finn’s last girlfriend.

      BUT Finn cheated on Quinn with Rachel several times during the first half of the first season, yet this has never been brought up and as far as we know, Quinn does not know that Finn cheated. It bothers me that Finn is made out to be this nice guy who is getting shafted in his relationships, while in reality he’s not so innocent himself.


  12. Andy #

    I’m loving Community this season too, especially the last two episodes, which have been nicely heartfelt if not as gag oriented. I do wonder if they’re shooting themselves in the foot by running these two episodes back to back right before the midseason break. Judging by the comments at the AV Club a lot of Community fans felt alienated by the lack of jokes and easy solutions. For a show existing on the razor’s edge of cancellation it’s a gutsy but potentially ill advised move.


  13. Gab #

    The word that kept going through my head when trying to describe the Artie-Brittnay pairing has been “pedophilic.”


  14. Claire #

    The Community episode really helped me out. I celebrate HumanLight, which is the humanist hey-it’s-winter-let’s-have-food-and-presents thing, and I frequently don’t know what to do when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas. (I generally go with “You too!”) But with the lyric Annie sings at the end that ‘Christmas can even be a Hanukkah thing’, I worked out that it really isn’t that Christian of a holiday for most people, even if it is for the Shirleys of the world.

    And yeah, Jeff’s head was really creepy. I think Troy’s the only one that really came through the transformation nicely.


  15. Crystal #

    I seem to be in the minority here, but I can’t stand community lately. The only episode I’ve enjoyed all season is the 21st birthday episode. Community has gone from trying a little to hard to be clever to trying way too hard to be clever and it’s now full of self-aware winks.

    Glee has been on a similar downward spiral ever since the first 13 episodes. I think they really lost it when Sue married herself. Sue started out as an amazing arch-villain but has become a confused character who the writers try to make both evil and compassionate.


  16. dewfish #

    Excellent review of Community. I didn’t think much of that Christmas episode at first, but now I actually want to watch it again. cool.


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