"Glendale is an all-inclusive school. Why don’t we let Britta sing her awkward song?”
Glee and Community are polar opposites. Glee seems revel in how lazy it can be. It’s a show built on routine that seems more intent on maintaining its franchise than taking risks. Risk taking is what Community feeds on. It’s a carefully crafted show that thrives on being as different as possible, constantly walking a tightrope where one false move could send it into failure – but it’s the risk itself that makes each of the more daring episodes work so well. Perhaps in a universe where Community appealed to a larger audience than Glee it would have become as co-opted by franchise mentality, and would never would have become the go-for-broke work of genius that it is. But if it had, no one would be begging for its return. Inventiveness is so rare in media these days that people will take to the streets for it. Consider this, NBC: the fans fought for Conan, the lawyers fought for Leno.
Community has taken many swipes at Glee before, beginning with the classic paintball war episode “Modern Warfare”, where the Greendale glee club attacks the study group from the trees, causing Jeff to shout in disgust “write some original songs!” Last season, during the clip show that wasn’t we learned that the group had once been forced to fill in for the glee club after its members had been killed in a bus crash.
With all those little jabs building it’s no surprise that Harmon and crew decided to go all-out Glee parody for this season’s Christmas episode. Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam plays the “dreamy and boyish” Mr. Rad, and perfectly captures the misplaced enthusiasm of Glee’s lead character, Will Schuester. Labelled equal parts “Hanson and Manson” by Jeff, Mr. Rad seethes with hidden malice as he recruits the study group members to replace the glee club after it suffers a “collective nervous breakdown”. As I watch Glee this season I’ve become convinced that the show may be charting Will’s descent into serial killing, and was thrilled to see someone back me up on that.
The episode plays out as a sort of horror movie, with each individual group member becoming infected with “glee”, to the tune of brilliantly written songs. The music is bouncy and the lyrics are razor sharp, featuring some of the funniest, smartest lines in the show’s history. Abed is the first to fall, chiefly because he wants to understand the appeal of the glee club, and that he “likes liking things”, but also of course because of Abed’s fascination with the truly terrible – like his Inspector Spacetime Christmas Special that’s so terrible it caused the show’s creator to have his knighthood revoked.
Where Abed goes Troy is sure to follow, which allows Donald Glover to go full Childish Gambino, performing an awesome Christmas rap, with a video that nails the goofy hip-hop video aesthetic of Ludacris and Eminem. With Troy on board, they move on to Pierce, who they lure using the greatest tool that anyone can employ against a Baby Boomer – their own inflated sense of accomplishment (after all, their generation “invented music”). “Baby Boomer Santa” might be the best musical number of the episode, as Glover and Danny Pudi give brilliant physical performances, moving seamlessly from air guitar to disco to the robot, while singing “when the Commies gave the polio to Doris Day/Santa helped the Beatles chase McCarthy away”. What else can Pierce do but proclaim, with a tear in his eye, “you’re welcome.”
Annie falls next, and in turn seduces Jeff with a (sexy?) number that plays to the weirdly sexual nature of creepy, infantilized Christmas torch songs like “Santa Baby”. But Annie’s also playing to Jeff’s misogynistic side. As much as he may praise Annie for her intelligence, when it comes right down to it, his patting her on the head for her pluck is merely patronizing, while his lust for her is fully developed. Alison Brie certainly gives it her all in her trashy Mrs. Claus outfit and Betty Boop voice (“boop-opp-ee-doop-SEX”). Brie is nothing if not aware of her charms, having already tweeted tonight “enjoy the gifs”. I assure my wife that I watched this episode several times over for the review only. Yes. For the review.
Shirley and Britta are the last to fall, with Shirley being won over by a children’s choir who yearn desperately for someone to teach them the true meaning of Christmas, which Shirley just can’t resist. “The Constitution says the states can’t tell us,” the kids sing, “was anyone important born today?”
The dark side of Mr. Rad is quickly revealed once the show begins, as he relegates the tone-deaf Britta to a non-singing role as a tree. Abed, realizing that excluding Britta goes against the spirit of the holiday and the group, tells Britta to go out and sing whatever is in her heart. Britta’s Christmas dance, wretched as it may be, is also a true expression of who Britta is. Throughout the series, and especially this season, Britta has tried and failed to fit in so many different places. Only in the confines of Greendale can she truly be her stupid, goofy self. In that way Britta, even more than Abed, is exactly what Community is about.
This, again, is what sets Community apart from Glee. When Harmon (through Jeff) shouts “write some original songs!” he’s not just knocking Glee for taking the easy route, but chiding them for using lyrics written by other artists to convey emotions sometimes very different than what the characters are experiencing. That only serves to cheapen the emotion of those moments, and as a result they play false. Community uses sentimentality just as often as Glee, but because we’re certain that the characters are expressing their true selves its earnest moments feel more genuine than Glee’s.
I suspect this is why Community draws a different type of fan, and maybe why it remains a fringe show. Community is a show that is best appreciated by people with a love of the inner working of both pop culture and human nature. There’s a famous quote about the Velvet Undergound’s debut album, which says, “the album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” I think this is similar to what Community’s legacy will be. Its influence is immeasurable right now, but its loyal base of creatively restless fans will carry it with them in whatever media they work in. It may be of little help to Dan Harmon, the brilliant cast, and the rest of the creative team right now, as the show hangs on a razor’s edge, but it is worth noting.
In all likelihood the show will be back at some point, and even stands a decent shot at getting a fourth season. But if the worst should happen, and this episode ends up being the last to air, I can’t think of any more perfect encapsulation of what makes this show so special. This was one of the funniest episodes they’ve ever done, and a spot-on parody of a deserving target. And how can you not want more of a show that ends with something as brilliantly bizarre as the Dean-Chang-Magnitude chorus during the capper?
Hurry back, guys.
Community, Episode 3:10 “Regional Holiday Music”: A+