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TV Review: Community – “Critical Film Studies”

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Someone over at NBC’s Community must love ABC’s Cougar Town. Or more likely, lots of someones. I was looking forward to the Pulp Fiction homage in last night’s episode celebrating Abed’s (Danny Pudi) birthday, but what I didn’t expect was a love fest for the sometimes-struggling, though already-renewed, Cougar Town. As Cougar Town is also one of my favorite sitcoms, and the cast and writers have the best Twitter feeds of anyone (follow @VDOOZER @ChristaBMiller @CougarTownRoom @kbiegel @BusyPhillips25 and @MrJoshHopkins), I was excited for the support. I already love Community, but it earned even deeper admiration and respect this week.

The premise seems simple enough. Abed asks Jeff (Joel McHale) to attend a private birthday dinner, just the two of them. Knowing Abed’s love of the film Pulp Fiction, and how pop culture-obsessed Abed is, Jeff organizes a surprise themed birthday party at the retro diner where Britta (Gillian Jacobs) works. But Abed resists leaving the fancy, not-his-style restaurant, and tells Jeff a life-changing tale about a visit to the set of his beloved series Cougar Town. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) Jeff becomes taken up in the story, and tells some embarrassing moments of his own, only to later find out that Abed is actually reliving the film My Dinner With Andre, and isn’t sincere. This should be no surprise, as Abed is never sincere, and lives in a fantasy land. Yet, it is because of Abed’s efforts to connect, despite his inability, that the whole thing seems so moving.

Jeff is angry, and I can see why. He is not a man who opens up easily, though he’s great at pretending to, and he feels he has been tricked. The thing is, Abed is trying to trick him, in a way, but only with the best of intentions. Abed feels their friendship has grown apart and wants to renew it. Can you blame him? (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) While most people may just open up about those feelings, Abed is only able to relate through television and movies. He is trying what he knows best. Abed has a good point when he admits to Jeff that he doesn’t grow and change, as others do, which makes it hard to maintain relationships. Everyone keeps moving forward, except Abed. It’s a blunt, heart breaking insight that pushes this episode up to the top tiers of the series.

If you are not familiar with My Dinner With Andre and how this connects, as I was not, here’s the scoop. It’s a 1981 movie starring and written by Andre Gregory, a theater lover and experimenter, and the great Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride, Clueless, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Toy Story, WATCH COUGAR TOWN!, etc.). In it, Andre tells of his travels, which led to reshaping his life and worldview, as Abed does when he decides to give up pop culture. The character played by Shawn counters with pieces of his own that demonstrate most people cannot do what Andre has done, as Jeff does. It’s a movie built on a debate between two men that is never resolved. I have not seen it, but would very much like to now, and based on the synopsis, I believe Community likely did it justice.

While Jeff and Abed engage in their battle of words, the rest of the study group grows impatient waiting in the diner, fully dressed as Pulp Fiction characters. Chang (Ken Jeong) plays on Troy’s (Donald Glover) insecurities, implying that Troy has been replaced as Abed’s best friend by Jeff. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) At the taunting, Troy opens up Jeff’s gift to Abed, a suitcase supposedly used in the actual movie Pulp Fiction. But the suitcase catches on fire, and Troy and Chang fight, destroying parts of the diner, and getting Britta fired. Pierce (Chevy Chase) goes and finds the missing pair, and Abed ends up turning the surprise party around on Jeff, bringing it to the fancy place.

This episode defied expectations. Those wanting Tarantino, action, and profanity instead get a deep probing of who we are as human beings, as well as demonstrations of the real bonds several characters share. The PF costumes were elaborate and spectacular, but they were overshadowed by the plot, something I didn’t think possible. It goes to show you just how good the series’s writers are that they managed to accomplish such a feat. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) While not every character gets focus, singling out Jeff, Abed, and Troy allowed more expansive exploration than often accomplished in an episode. This is definitely going down in my book as one of the best episodes of the series.

I freely admit now, I was not a fan of Community when it first premiered. In articles talking about sitcoms that I wrote last year, I would sometimes single it out as being the show not worthy of airtime. Yet, a friend of mine convinced me to watch the entire first season DVD as soon as it came out, and I have become a convert. The series is witty, smart, layered, and has zany situations that are just plain fun. While often actions become over the top, it is done tongue in cheek. The characters know they are crazy characters, and Abed is often the window to that realization. As such, the show has a sense of humor about itself, pushing its quality higher than expected at first glance. Let in on the joke, I now argue that Community is one of the best things airing right now (along with Cougar Town).

Community also stars Yvette Nicole Brown and Alison Brie. Watch it Thursday nights at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

And now, a note about subliminal messages. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) It is not cool to hide secret phrases within other things, such as a paragraphs or TV shows. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) Even with the best of intentions, it comes across as annoying and self serving. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) Unless, said promotion is in support of a fantastic television series that is not getting the attention or viewers that it deserves. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) Maybe a show with a terrible title that started as a not-so-good premise, but evolved into one of the best friends-as-family entries in the TV landscape. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) Amazingly funny writing, a talented cast, and the willingness to poke fun at itself in the title cards, Cougar Town is that show. (WATCH COUGAR TOWN!) So please watch Cougar Town. The writers of Community and myself cannot both be wrong.  :)

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com