Photo: Starburns Industries/NBC
Despite being in the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero target demo when I was growing up, I never watched that mid-’80s animated series, and the line of action figures that inspired the cartoon also didn’t mean much to me. The commercials hawking them seemed to have such an unflinchingly rigid set of rules guiding how the toys should be played with that the action figures just didn’t seem fun. (It didn’t help that the kids my age who played with them were kind of dicks.) I did like the show He-Man, maybe because its characters, and by extension, its associated toys, weren’t thinly veiled, ’80s-style Cold War propaganda; they were just absurdly muscle-bound fantasy characters with a merchandise line that allowed fans to embrace the silliness inherent in names like Ram Man and Stinkor; G.I. Joe fans always seemed a little too cool for that kind of playroom action, like they’d rather be jumping out of exploding helicopters, or something of equally well-established manliness or heroism.
Of course, it’s been 25 years since I’ve seen He-Man in his natural habitat (i.e., not part of a YouTube Cher mash-up video), and they were clearly trying to sell those toys just as hard as G.I. Joe. The important thing is that G.I. Joe just didn’t blow my hair back.
This is relevant, of course, because it was hard to miss the news that last night’s Community episode, “G.I. Jeff,” was going to be not just a quick-hit homage, but a full-fledged G.I. Joe love-fest, with Hasbro’s blessing (after a licensing fee, no doubt; good thing they didn’t go for the Ninja Turtles, or the budgetary restraints would have forced every remaining episode to be of the bottled variety). I really didn’t want my non-love of G.I. Joe in my younger years to color my experience, but “G.I. Jeff” didn’t need the assist, because much like the original, it just didn’t blow my hair back.
I was unsure of when it had premiered, but the “10,419 days since last casualty” gag made me jump for the Wikipedia machine, only to find that G.I. Joe had actually premiered on September 16, 1985, seven days earlier than the date that would make the joke pay off. Geeky diligence? Yes. Important? Also yes. “G.I. Jeff” was supposed to air last week, but it didn’t (I don’t remember why). In an episode rife with parody of the ’80s kid’s cartoon genre, it’s hard to believe that being a week off with that particular joke was an intentional misstep, shortly after a joke about how often the character’s voice sync was wrong. The production team had an extra week to remember the sight gag and correct it. Of course, this presupposes that this style of cartoon animation has become easier in the past 28.5 years (it has), and that the production team wasn’t so eager to be authentic that they either hired retired professionals or taught themselves to cut cartoons using actual, real-life cells (there’s just no way they were; given Harmon’s writing style, that would be a tremendous strain on the animator’s hands, more than a new covert knockout technique for the gang). Worst case, Dan Harmon and the production team knew last Friday that the show did not air, had ample time to make an easy correction, render it, and get it to standards and practices with six days to spare. They either chose not to, or couldn’t be bothered, and either way, that’s lazy television, and not what we’ve come to expect from and love about Community. It’s also not the kind of mistake a show can make if it ever plans to return to a convention that may or may not have to do with comics.
The biggest hurdle “G.I. Jeff” had to jump was the idea of revisiting and reinventing a previously existing cartoon while simultaneously sending it up, an idea that worked quite well for Sealab 2021, the show that ostensibly created Adult Swim and led to other Adam Reed–helmed cartoon comedies like Frisky Dingo and Archer. Okay, that comparison may not be apt; Sealab 2020 was hardly ever watched (and was ar property, not Sunbow Productions; thanks again, Wikipedia!), but the animation styles and production values are quite similar. “G.I. Jeff” could have used a little bit of Reed’s trademark style of humor, because Harmon & Co.’s voices did not translate, and it wasn’t just the G.I. Joe medium that was the problem. The group’s observations about the cartoon they were starring in (Britta: “Yeah, what’s anyone’s rank? We’re all just dressed like serial killers and strippers”), while clever at times, were generally low-hanging fruit. Yeah, people don’t die violently in kid’s cartoons, let’s take ‘em down a peg!
“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is the most similar episode to “G.I. Jeff,” both in terms of the ambitious style and the “plot” (read: hallucinations) mainly being driven by one of the protagonists suffering a mental break. But “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” succeeded because the show had already laid the groundwork for Abed not having the most stable situation, mental and otherwise. Jeff has always been vain, but we’ve never been given any indication that he would have a proclivity for self-harm or Korean everlasting-youth drugs, so the whole idea of him chasing the latter with a full bottle of Highland Scotch came solidly out of left field, and rang hollow as a result. It was drama for drama’s sake, and everything being shrugged off after a couple of minutes of group yucks and an “old boy” mug just confirmed that the idea had no emotional heft. It felt cheap, and, after 18 minutes of mocking a kid’s cartoon for being formulaic and not making sense, a bit like a slap in the face. It’s not like those 18 minutes were nearly funny enough to let that slide.
But again, there were some decent gags:
• The announcer’s “Look, I think I’m over-explaining it: the bad guys are snakes and the good guys are Army people” really got me.
• The mustachioed gent with the cowboy hats for earmuffs was hysterical. He didn’t have a single line, but he just looked hilarious. Great sight gag.
• The reuse of the knockout technique was clever to begin with, but one of the few times I laughed out loud was when the gang used it to open the hatch door.
• The Dean explaining the rising health insurance costs was pretty funny (“You people can actually die now … ”), but also a bit of a missed opportunity; I mean, he worked for Cobra. C’mon. Or would that have been dated? Either way.
• “My twin brother is … Ah, it’s pointless to explain.”
• “I swear I feel Korean.”
• The animation was spot-on, but given how much piss they were taking out of the original series, it pretty much had to be.
• I still praise the show for trying. You can’t win ‘em all …