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The Community Stop-Motion Holiday Special Hits Different in 2020

Abed (Danny Pudi) in stop-motion.
Abed (Danny Pudi) in stop-motion. Photo: Netflix

What is the meaning of Christmas? That’s a trick question, of course. But what if it’s not? These are the existential quandaries explored in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” the stop-motion holiday episode of Community. Written by Dino Stamatopoulos and series creator Dan Harmon, it offers a poignant look at seasonal melancholy — as well as the importance of found family — and is as much a masterpiece as the classics it draws upon. Although it first aired ten years ago today, the episode tackles loneliness and isolation in ways that make it an ideal rewatch for your pandemic holiday.

Much like the season itself, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is nostalgic, sweet, salty, and disorienting. With the typically live-action heroes now appearing in classic Claymation — sorry, as silicone dolls with foam bodies over ball-and-socket armatures — we’re primed for this one to be a Very Special Episode from the beginning. And if the visuals alone weren’t enough of an indication, Abed (Danny Pudi) himself lays it out for us by announcing, “This Christmas is the most important Christmas in the history of the universe!” before realizing he’s the only one who can see that they’re all in stop-motion. The study group’s confusion makes the day’s significance an even bigger mystery. It’s also the first indication that something is wrong.

Instead of the cozy cheer associated with stop-motion specials, we watch a beloved character break with reality. Abed sings and dances as the medium requires, but in place of rallying a ragtag group into action, he’s Tasered and threatened with expulsion from Greendale. He dismisses his friends’ concerns for his well-being and passes up therapy; he’s convinced that the purpose of his delusion is to find the meaning of Christmas. To aid in this endeavor, he allows psychology professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver), who has declared himself a Christmas Wizard, to lead the Isle of Misfit Students in group hypnosis (“Christmas-nosis”) to unlock this holiday mystery. (Hoping to publish, Duncan tries to steer Abed into therapy territory and suggests a visit to “the Cave of Frozen Memories” first.) So the group takes off for Abed’s Winter Wonderland.

Accessible via Outer Christmas Space, the landscape of Abed’s Winter Wonderland is rife with clever details — like buzzing “humbugs” and a Polar Express — that immerse us further in his psyche. He also warns that anyone acting against the theme will be removed with a “Wonka-style” song-lesson. (For three members of the group, this proves true.) But what’s really going on here? It all goes back to that old therapy chestnut: Mom. Although raised Muslim by his father, Abed inherited his Polish mother’s love of Christmas. It’s a tradition that she visits him every year on December 9, and the two watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer together. As it turns out, she isn’t coming this time, choosing instead to stay with her new family. This abandonment and the unexpected loss of tradition are what triggered his whimsical hallucinations.

Eventually forced to confront the unwelcome changes, Abed slips into a state of catatonia. And just when it seems as though things are grim to the point of no return — and we’re starting to wonder, “This is a sitcom, right?” — the complete study group, including those Abed had dispatched earlier, reappears to support him. It dawns on him that even if Professor Duncan is more than a little bit right and we do put too much meaning into the holidays (thereby almost always setting them up to be a letdown), the true meaning of Christmas is … the idea that it has meaning. The group steals the Christmas tree and menorah from Greendale’s library and watches Rudolph together in Abed’s dorm room. Hey, look, it’s still a weird but heartwarming episode of Community.

What “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” makes clear is that, for all its emphasis on togetherness and shared tradition, this season is intensely personal. Loss, grief, and bittersweet memories are just as integral as the holly-jolly parts, and that’s true even in years that aren’t defined by a pandemic, social upheaval, and a government that has really been phoning it in. From A Christmas Story marathons to seasonal Candy Crush loading screens, “the holidays” can already feel inescapable. Throw in the unlicensed carnival ride that is the 2020 experience, and the external pressure to “act normal” is enough to drive anyone to see in stop-motion. Making the yuletide gay? In this climate?

The thing is, what Abed comes to accept is true for us all: Holidays don’t just disappear in the absence of tradition. They may look different than they used to, but that’s okay. Embracing change doesn’t mean erasing history, and inventing new traditions doesn’t invalidate our old ones. It can still be the Dean Pelton–approved nondenominational season if we want it to be. Even if adjusting our perception hurts, we’ll get through it if we’re there for one another. Maybe that messy, painful, beautiful truth is the one meaning that matters.

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