I logged onto Twitter right after “Critical Film Studies” aired last night to see what people thought of the episode. The answer was rather predictable: half the world loved it and half the world wondered where the jokes were — and half of that half was disappointed that it wasn’t a more straightforward parody of Pulp Fiction. Because, instead of a line-by-line recreation of the Quarter Pounder with Cheese conversation (Simpsons did it!), we got, in Abed’s words, an homage to the Tarantino classic, using it, along with Cougar Town and My Dinner with Andre, to discuss how we interact through pop culture.
Because we do. If two people came up to me, and one said that their favorite TV shows are The Simpsons and The Wire and the other said CSI and Mike & Molly, I’d probably shun the CBS loving guy and trot to the Land of Chocolate with the first guy, yelling “Omar’s comin’, yo!” along the way. That’s just the way thing are, and although snobby (self-proclaimed), there’s nothing wrong with it, either. Troy and Abed are friends not because they’re particularly similar people (remember, Troy was a star athlete in high school), but partially because they share so many of the same pop culture obsessions (Kickpuncher, for starters).
Jeff and Abed, on the other hand, have little in common, because Jeff doesn’t embrace pop culture in the way Abed does, and he’s usually the one calling him out on it. They’re friends by circumstance, in the same way Shirley and Britta are. But Jeff cares about him enough to worry about the stability of Abed’s post-seeing everyone in clay episode (I mean that both in the TV sense and the mental stability sense) to throw him an elaborate Pulp Fiction-themed party.
But first, Abed asks Jeff to come alone to a fancy restaurant for dinner, and that’s where we meet Chad, Abed’s new, normal persona that began when he was cast as an extra for a single scene on Cougar Town. Being on camera, Abed’s able to create a different identity, Chad, who cares about the things in life you’re “supposed” to obsess over, not pop culture references. But when the scene’s over, so is Chad, unless Abed becomes him.
Or at least that’s what he tells Jeff. The two begin talking about what’s real and what’s fake and how awful life is (well, that’s mostly Jeff) and how you can lie to yourself by calling a phone sex line and saying you’re a 400-pound man just to see if people will still like you if you’re fat (again, Jeff). All Abed wants for his birthday is a real conversation, and Jeff tells him one: as a child, he dressed up as an Indian princess, and after telling the first two people that he wasn’t a girl, he stopped correcting everyone else. “Once the shame and the fear wore off,” Jeff says, “I’m just glad they thought I was pretty.”
Go back to the episode and you’ll see, to paraphrase Bart Simpson, that’s the exact second when Abed’s new personality breaks in two. As happy as Jeff is to get his princess secret off his chest, Abed’s now terrified that this is what being real is. Then Piece walks in as The Gimp, Chad’s calm voice subtly changes to Abed’s robotic one, and we’re back to normal, or whatever normal when it comes to Abed, and the waiter lets it slip that the dinner’s just an elaborate homage to My Dinner with Andre, Louis Malle’s 1981 film starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory.
Jeff’s initially pissed off at Abed because he spent so much time planning his Pulp Fiction party, and let his real feelings show to Abed, who was indulging in a pop culture fantasy of his own. Later, when things have settled and the two are at the bar, Abed says, “It wasn’t about making me happy. I chose My Dinner with Andre because it’s about a guy who has an unexpectedly enjoyable evening with a weird friend he’s been avoiding lately,” acknowledging that the two haven’t been as close this year (which Troy alluded to in the previous episode with Invisible Jeff), partially because he doesn’t change the way the rest of the group was (with Jeff changing the most).
Abed describes himself as a “fast-blinking, stoic, removed, uncomfortably self-aware type,” listing Snoopy, Johnny 5, Mork, and Spock as his equals, none of whom are human. My natural instinct, and I think the instinct of most everyone, is to feel bad for Abed, who considers himself more robotic than human, but that’s the last thing he wants. Abed tried the socializing the way normal people do, and it’s “not his jam.” He doesn’t care about evolving, or maybe more accurately, he doesn’t care to let his buried feelings show. He’s perfectly content living in his pop culture, alien bubble — but just as Spock needed Kirk and McCoy, so too does Abed need Troy and Jeff.
(I should take the time here to applaud Joel McHale and Danny Pudi for their performances. Pudi, in particular, deserves acknowledgement for playing a character who was playing a character who was playing a character. As funny as it’d be to see Pudi in Cougar Town next season, I’d enjoy seeing him in a Tarantino film even more — clearly, he’s an effective fast talker who can sprinkle his lines with bits of pop culture, a Tarantino specialty.)
I can’t help but wonder what NBC executives thought of the episode. It wasn’t funny in the way that’s “expected” of a sitcom (not a bad thing, mind you, and one of the best lines—“What, I have 3D vision now?” “Yes, you do”—took me a second before I LOL’d) and the promotions for “Critical Film Studies” made it seem like it’d be very Pulp-heavy, but outside of the gang dressing up as the characters (with Troy as “Pumpkin,” Annie as “Honey Bunny,” Britta as Mia, Chang as Butch, Shirley as Jules, and Pierce as The Gimp) and some snippets of the soundtrack, I can’t imagine that it’s the finished product NBC—or really, everyone—expected. Besides, Community had already parodied another famous and equally fantastic film from the 1990s: Goodfellas in “Contemporary American Poultry.”
As much as I love Pulp Fiction, and as perfect as Shirley and Britta looked as Jules and Mia, I’d much rather have an introspective and thought-provoking episode about relationships rather than a simple parody.
Josh Kurp was very happy to see that Richard Ayoade directed the episode, too.