‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“Everything sold separately. Everyone dies eventually. Nobody gets out alive.”
Community is a show that never stopped experimenting. It’s truly lightning in a bottle television that would push the sitcom structure to its limit in numerous ways. Not only would it blaze through genres with manic disregard, but it would also see itself turning into a piece of Claymation, or a video game, or the cast becoming puppets. “G.I. Jeff” sees the show turning to the comforting ‘80s animated series G.I. Joe as its filter. Community is very aware of just how much of a chameleon it has become with these sorts of episodes. The beginning of the episode’s title sequence tongue-in-cheekly reminds us that this is “a show set in a community college” highlighting just how far from the series’ original mark they’ve shifted. In spite of how G.I. Joe might have nothing to do with the show’s original conceit, that doesn’t mean that they can’t pull off an operation like this with supreme efficiency.
In spite of the shiny, animated veneer covering everything, this episode acts very much as the spiritual successor to the claymation “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, but managing to go to even darker places. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” sees Abed undergoing a mental breakdown that is connected to the holidays, with Jeff undergoing the same sort of mental break here. Community never executes these concept episodes just to be indulgent; they’re always heavily rooted in the story. To see all of this anchoring itself in Jeff’s heavy existential breakdown about turning 40 only helps this pitch-perfect parody become even more poignant. Of course Community would use a cartoon that sensationalized and desensitized violence and death in order to make a point on this topic. We all wish that our lives could resemble our favorite Saturday morning cartoon when things begin to get too heavy and real for us. In that sense, “G.I. Jeff” is one of the most elaborate coping devices ever conceived.
From the opening frames it’s clear how far they’re going to take this conceit. There is no reprieve or introduction for what you’re getting thrown into. In fact, the episode begins with a perfect reproduction of the G.I. Joe intro theme, even going as far as having the title, “Government Issue Jeff” slowly appear on the screen and help usher in the episode. This is the presentation of how a G.I. Joe episode begins, not a Community episode. This spectacle of the one show continually wearing the clothes of the other continues for the entire runtime.
It’s so bonkers that Hasbro okayed everything here and this isn’t some imitation where we know they’re talking about G.I. Joe but they can’t go there for legal reasons. This is G.I. Joe, and it’s sort of unbelievable to see characters from that world interacting with Greendale personalities. A full transplant takes place here, with incredible attention to detail. G.I. Joe voice actors Michael Bell and Bill Ratner reprise their roles from the original series of Duke and Flint here respectively, with fellow original voice actor Mary McDonald also getting to shine.
The cast undergoes the metamorphosis into G.I. Joe approximates; Jeff becomes Wingman, Annie is Tight Ship, Abed becomes Fourth Wall, Chang is Overkill, with Shirley and Britta becoming Three Kids and Buzzkill, respectively, and all of them in the perfect wardrobe. Even the series’ extended family of John Oliver and Jonathan Banks get to undergo the treatment. There are also some beautiful jokes that are only possible by making fun of certain tropes of ‘80s animation, like bad lip synching, or the gang’s constant re-using of the “clubbing with a rock” animation to solve all of their problems.
The episode takes Jeff’s crisis of dying and aging and couples it with the first time a casualty is felt in the G.I. Joe universe (Destro bites it), with his character being court martialed for it. Mortality and the inevitable end are shoved in everyone’s faces in this animated world as Jeff simultaneously grapples with the concept in reality. A lot of fun is had with this paradigm shift, such as the idea of Cobra Commander being terrible at eulogies because he’s never had to give any in this seemingly invulnerable world before, or the constant poking fun at the usual G.I. Joe-esque soldier names, offering up their own delightful alternatives, such as Hat Muffs, Spit Take, Deep Dish, Shark Arms, and Placeholder being some of the new soldiers on the payroll. The episode also doesn’t hinge upon this nostalgia porn or your familiarity with G.I. Joe’s tropes either. There’s a very human story going on underneath all of this – in fact, a pivotal one for the show’s main character – and to dress it all up in such structural ambition makes it all the more disarming when the truth exposes itself.
This becomes an even more solid premise when the episode’s ‘80s animation lapses into ‘80s toy commercials whenever Jeff loses consciousness, adding further layers to this as an Inception-type structuring is adopted. Several levels of ‘80s nostalgia must be pulled through until Jeff is able to return to reality, and frankly that’s a lot more impressive and difficult to achieve than simply doing an animated homage. Further depth is gained when you think about how Stamatopoulos, Harmon, and Schrab, the creatives behind this episode, are likely going through a situation similar to what Jeff is experiencing. Their collective love for G.I. Joe is more than clear, which perhaps only highlights the ticking of their biological clocks that they’re feeling as well. Not only does “G.I. Jeff” lampshade Jeff’s heavy scenario on its concept, but it simultaneously uses that concept to give you a look into the mentality of those that created it. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” achieves much of this, while confirming that Stamatopoulos and Harmon will churn out the most depressing Christmas special ever if you give them a chance, but this manages to go even further. This isn’t just their feelings on the saccharine holidays, but rather life – specifically, the second half of it.
Part of the fun here is seeing the realities break down as the episode continues. Subtle touches like small stutters and picture shifts slowly evolve into more encompassing problems that eventually commandeer control of the narrative. It’s going an extra mile that probably isn’t necessary, but with that being Community’s unofficial mission statement (the animation for this episode was completely finished a mere days before its airdate, FYI), it’s not surprising to see them stack so much upon this deviation in the norm. It’s truly a powerful moment of television when the animated version of Wingman seamlessly segues into the toy version of Wingman in a commercial, to it then shifting into a cognizant Jeff taking control of his destiny and knocking sense into his younger self. That might sound like insane ramblings, but it’s part of the magic that this episode pulls off once everything is said and done.
This thought continues with the great gag of aping G.I. Joe’s infamous PSAs (on the dangers of over preachy PSAs, no less) to close out the episode, completing the parody, and truly pushing all of this as far as it can likely be taken. “G.I. Jeff” remains a stand out in the later half of the ambitious series’ run, and a reminder that the show would never stop re-inventing the wheel and using the fantastical to comment on the mundane.
And now you know. And knowing is half the battle.