very special episodes

Community’s Ghosts of Christmas

Teach us how to understand Christmas, Community. Photo: Courtesy of NBC/YouTube

A Christian, Jew, pseudo-Scientologist, agnostic, atheist, Jehovah’s Witness, and Muslim all enroll at a dysfunctional community college. How do they celebrate the holidays? No, this isn’t the setup to a particularly long-winded joke about religion or a public school Board of Education’s call to arms. Rather, this is an honest to goodness question posed implicitly by the cult sitcom Community, given its diverse ensemble and penchant for subverting high-concept television premises.

In its original, Dan Harmon-led first three seasons, Community treated its cornerstone Christmas episodes with the attention to detail of any other show’s special event parodies. These episodes signaled the overall direction of the show, embracing all the idiosyncrasies of its participants while never sacrificing the earned, tender heart it wore on its sleeve. Moreover, over the course of this three-year progression, Community’s postmodern sendups of beloved source material can be traced increasingly further down the rabbit hole.

As we enter the holiday season, with the show concluded, the sequence of episodes takes on additional meaning for interpreting the show, and for the sitcom overall. Much like Jacob Marley did for Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, watching these episodes in succession takes you through a history of Community’s past, present, and future and teaches of the sitcom’s quickly evolving trajectory.

The Ghost of Sitcom Past: “Comparative Religion” (Season 1, Episode 12)

About halfway through “Comparative Religion,” in a particularly inconsequential scene, the gang retreats to a never-before-seen utility closet to evade one of its members. The setting is playful, in a kids’ clubhouse kind of way, and the blocking loose. Britta and Abed sit on makeshift furniture in the background doling out commentary as Troy and Pierce teach Jeff how to fight in the foreground. Despite the change in scenery—or perhaps because of it—the scene progresses with palpable fluidity.

What makes this scene so important is what could be overlooked because of the ease with which it passes by. A sitcom’s normal wheelhouse and its creative peaks might not ever align, yet with Community, they not only often overlapped – they influenced each other to be better than either’s highs on their own. In the first season, this meant the completed transition from smarmy and unlikable Joel McHale ex-lawyer vehicle to lovable ensemble of misfit community college students hanging out in a surprisingly traditional sitcom. And the show’s take on the Very Special Christmas Episode allowed for a full integration of such concept. For the first time, everyone in the gang’s simply hanging out informally, as opposed to solely existing as obstacles to Jeff’s attempts at exploiting the school for personal gain.

As Community’s first Christmas episode and our heroic study group’s first holiday season together, “Comparative Religion” is steeped in the tradition of the historical television sitcom – the kind that promises wholesome family lessons, twenty-minute resolutions, and an even-keeled status quo. Wherein Lucy ‘splains and Ricky forgives, Mrs. Cleaver smiles through her kids’ misadventures and Beaver gets a tousle of the hair by episode’s end, Malcolm misbehaves and Lois punishes, and the Pritchett-Dunphys find themselves in yet another low-stakes misunderstanding that nevertheless resolves to no fault at just the darned last possible second.

It’s no happy accident that Community’s first season provides a vision to the sitcom’s past. For the savant mind of show creator Dan Harmon, the traditional sitcom format was a code to crack, to hold domain over, and then have submit to his mastery. So much so, he developed a “story circle” diagram—a sort of Rosetta Stone for translating the traditional sitcom story structure—for his writers’ room, to which every episode of his show had to adhere. The circle, broken into eight stages, represents the progress of the episode’s central character, experiencing eight steps of influence along its path. Yet its shape alone, always finishing where it started, reveals the strict maintenance of the sitcom status quo.

“Comparative Religion” is a special benchmark in this study because it features Shirley, the show’s least developed character up to that point, in its central role. Teasing out her Christianity, introducing a guest antagonist—in the form of Anthony Michael Hall as a wonderfully contrived version of what a jock could conceivably be at a community college—and allowing for the natural conflict of a group of spiritually diverse friends to manifest itself, Harmon and his crew proved that his story circle could work regardless of who’s at the wheel.

In turn, the show rounded out an already deep ensemble of characters and pushed them from identifying as friends to family. Navigating the holidays through foundational differences in perspectives and coming out the other side intact is not the symbolism of the postmodern media of Community’s present and future; it’s a sendup of the motifs from the past.

The Ghost of Sitcom Present: “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” (Season 2, Episode 11)

One of the fundamental characteristics of the postmodern is depthlessness – or, in other words, the positioning of stylization over substance. Think of the importance of the neon color palette and the synth score over dialog in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, or the gritty production value and noir set pieces in Pulp Fiction superseding character development. Throughout Community, this characteristic often takes the form of genre pastiche; the genre work is specific enough to recall the inspiration, while the story is non-referential enough not to alienate unfamiliarized audiences. With postmodern media, the intention or perception of this pursuit shifts from commenting on some source material to merely replicating said source. Critics argue that this shift is due to a loss of personal style, while postmodernists might claim the pastiche comes from a place of celebration.

In “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” the dichotomy becomes hard to untangle. Is the brunt of the emotional force coming out of the distinct story being told here and now, or is there some tricky emotional gymnastics being done by the show’s accuracy in portraying the sentimental Rankin/Bass aesthetic from viewers’ childhoods? Recollections of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without a Santa Claus get inextricably tied up in the claymation, holiday-themed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory trip through Planet Abed, folding the emotional resonations of the episode’s own story in with that of its sources.

It makes sense that this confusion in depth and emotional manipulation occurs in the “Ghost of Sitcom Present” chapter of our Christmas Carol. In Dickens’s tale, the Ghost of Christmas Present removes the tenuous grasp on time maintained by the other two ghosts. With Christmas Past and Future, it’s unclear whether Scrooge is sent back or forward in time, respectively, or if his companions bring the past and future to him without leaving the present. In the present section, however, the ghost merely transports Scrooge to other locations in real time. Ostensibly, the Scrooge that exists in this moment is the only Scrooge in that moment—there is no other alternate timeline Scrooge. Everything in reference to Scrooge, both good and bad, exists together. In this moment, the symptoms of the past, present, and future flatten on each other, like the recursiveness of postmodernism.

The Ghost of Sitcom Future: “Regional Holiday Music” (Season 3, Episode 10)

Over the course of its six seasons, Community did its fair share of groundbreaking work. Nevertheless, one of the more significant (but subtler) influences was its position as a work of New Sincerity, or the post-postmodern. Much like the claymation Christmas episode before it, season 3’s “Regional Holiday Music,” a Glee sendup, treats its source material with as much adoration as contempt. While it may be tough to reconcile this episode’s mockery of the musical sitcom with any reverence, it is difficult to satirize something without a working knowledge of and empathy with it. After all, when Community put a fan shipper-type montage in its clip show episode it was included because the writers were fans of the YouTube fan videos by which the scene was directly inspired – so much so that they could cite the exact video from which they borrowed the montage’s Sara Bareilles musical cue.

However, where “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” parodies an entire genre, “Regional Holiday Music” satirizes a single television show. As a result, the artist requires a more extensive, but more acute, understanding of their source, and the audience must understand the touchstone in order for the satire to fully succeed. Pushing past the generalities of a genre pastiche into the hyper-specificity of cherry-picking a singular source, in this moment the show signifies the sitcom’s genesis into post-postmodernism, or whatever qualifies as the next cultural defining movement.

In giving the whole treatment to a source as specific as Glee, and as holistically as the episode does—from the spot-on overdubbed a cappella vocal recording transitions to the ever-so-over-churned positive attitudes—Community ushered in a new kind of parody, a one-to-one remake with the begrudging respect of a longtime competitor. Whether admitted to or not, the care with which Glee is treated as a source bounds mockery or mimicry, and lands somewhere among sincerity and softness.

In full, Community’s Christmas-themed episodes trace the show’s germination from quaint, backwards-looking relic to equally quaint, forward-thinking beacon. Perhaps a better question than that raised in the opening is, “What can we learn from how they celebrate the holidays?” Realizing that human connections run deeper than the dissimilarities of any religion or non-religion. That, in actuality, they are founded on the same absolute truths and preach the same acts of decency and goodness. That optimistic view that compassion and perspective can do more good than violence (except when violence is absolutely necessary to defend yourself). That “the meaning of [the holiday season] is that you can find any meaning in it.”

Those themes are more valuable and prescient than any study on the postmodern, or post-postmodern, or post-post-postmodern. And the reminder of such sincerely appreciated knowledge, being a hidden virtue of the interpretation of Community’s unique kind, creeping underneath the layers of parody, metatextuality, and self-reference, provides its richest, most surprising present.

Matt McMahon is a champion of short-lived sitcoms and pop culture writer who can also be found at CutPrintFilm and McSweeney’s. For a bunch of condensed versions of what you just read, you can find him at the Twitter handle @MC_Mayne, which he came up with when he was much younger.

Community’s Ghosts of Christmas