Tag Archives: stop-motion animation

Festive Rewind: Community “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

17 Dec

It’s TV Ate My Wardrobe’s first festive season and to mark this occasion we are hosting a very special rewind series. What this means is that we will be featuring a whole host of guest posts and in the spirit of the holidays we have asked a variety of writers to discuss a festive episode of their choice. These will be appear on the site over the next couple of weeks and there’s an eclectic mix including teen dramas, science fiction, animation, comedy, drama and more to get you in the celebratory mood. Or to at least give you plenty of suggestions of TV to watch over the break.

Today we have Les Chappell talking about the ambitious Community festive outing “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”

Abeds_Uncontrollable_Christmas_1In 2011, Community established itself as something unlike anything else on television. What started out as a show about a group of dysfunctional individuals coming together in a third-rate community college turned into an omnibus of pop culture references, homages and stylistic variations, held together by a sharp understanding of just how much these people had come to depend on and mean to each other. This remarkable year was capped off with “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” an episode that’s the show’s most ambitious undertaking from an emotional and aesthetic standpoint. And, fittingly enough, it’s also one of the show’s very best efforts.

From the first minute of the episode, it’s clear that Dan Harmon and the rest of the show’s creative team are prepared to do something special even by their standards. The familiar environments of Greendale Community College have been converted into stop-motion animation, emulating such classic Rankin-Bass Christmas specials as Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without A Santa Claus. There’s a remarkable attention to detail, the puppet versions of the actors pairing seamlessly with the voice-overs, and all the little details of the study room and campus—right down to the Luis Guzman statue—are captured perfectly by the artists at 23D Films. It’s fantastical while at the same time being familiar, a sign of the holiday spirit permeating this world.

Abeds_Uncontrollable_Christmas_6But while the episode could have gotten away with simply being a standard episode of Community done in a unique visual style, Community (at least at its best) never creates these homages without a reason. It turns out this new perspective of the world is one only shared by Abed, the show’s walking pop culture lexicon, who’s convinced that seeing the world as a Christmas special means it’s going to be the best Christmas ever. Unfortunately for him, his friends view it as Abed finally breaking his tenuous grip on reality, his insistence on breaking into song and trying to spur everyone else to follow suit the last straw that may well get him kicked out of school. Professor Duncan, smelling an academic goldmine, offers to guide Abed through a group therapy session to get to the bottom of this issue.

And once Duncan—or rather, the “Christmas Wizard”—gives Abed free reign in his alternate reality, things enter a true world of Christmas spirit, going through time and space to a winter wonderland with such locations as Gumdrop Road and Carol Canyon. Abed’s mind recreates his friends as their own selection of misfit toys—Jeff-in-a-Box, Britta-Bot, Troy Soldier, Teddy Pierce, Baller-Annie and Baby Doll Shirley—and invites them on his journey. If the renditions of Greendale were remarkable for their accuracy, these are terrific for what they say about how the characters see each other and how Abed perceives them. (And some of them are forced out of the fantasy by those character traits: Shirley’s frozen out by being too possessive of her Christian interpretation of the holiday, while Jeff’s devoured by a pack of hum-bugs for his incurable cynicism.)

Abeds_Uncontrollable_Christmas_2However, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” isn’t about only showing off the joviality of Christmas, as Abed points out right before the saga begins: “A journey through winter wonderland tends to test your commitment to Christmas. So when I say test, I mean Wonka-style. I’m talking dark.” This episode understands that for a lot of people, Christmas cheer can be overwhelming—especially for those who don’t have much reason to have any—and the longer Abed’s fantasy world carries out the more cracks start to show. Abed once again practices his skill of destroying people without even realizing it, first manipulating Duncan into memories of his own miserable childhood Christmases and then ousting Britta for lying to him about group therapy. And the closer he gets to finding the meaning of Christmas, the more cracks seem to show in his holiday enthusiasm, repeating to himself that the date can’t be right since his mother hasn’t shown up for their annual screening of Rudolph.

His quest for the meaning of Christmas leads him to Santa’s workshop—accompanied only by Pierce at the end, the best moment the character’s had all year—where the meaning of Christmas turns out to be the first season of Lost. (“It’s a metaphor. It represents lack of payoff.”) Disappointment turns to devastation as Duncan crashes back into the fantasy with his revelation that Abed received a Christmas card from his mother that she wouldn’t be there this year, and had in fact started a new family. While this part strains credulity a bit—it’s almost too cold of a way to tell their son they’d remarried and had a second child—it’s certainly the most devastating news anyone could get around this time of year. It’s not so much a devotion to Christmas that’s caused Abed to create this world around him; it’s the gaping absence of what was the most important part of the holiday.

Abeds_Uncontrollable_Christmas_4However, while Community doesn’t shy away from representing the darker side of Christmas—any more than it does the way its characters are damaged people—it turns around and recaptures the holiday spirit. In this case, the absence of something important in Abed’s life means there’s room for something new to come into it. That replacement comes in the form of the rest of the study group, willingly returning to the fantasy to save their friend from his loneliness as they’ve come to their own realization about the importance of the holiday:

Jeff: The delusion you’re trying to cure is called Christmas, Duncan.

Annie: It’s the crazy notion that the longest, coldest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest.

Britta: Yeah! And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens…

Annie: It becomes true.

Troy: It happens every year. Like clockwork.

It’s a feeling that they’re willing to fight for—literally—and join in the singing Abed was trying to get them to do all day.

Once the Christmas warlock is dispatched by means of remote-controlled pterodactyl (as you do), Abed’s mind is finally shaken from its catatonic state, the sense of togetherness and completion finally restored to his life: “I get it. The meaning of Christmas… is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And it can mean whatever we want.” The group leaves its holiday world, but stops just short of returning to the real world as Britta—of all people—suggests that they share this stop-motion perspective for the rest of the holidays, convening back in Abed’s dorm room to watch Rudolph together.

It leads to a terrifically beautiful ending to the episode, everyone united around an old holiday ritual turned into something new, this makeshift family brought together around the glow of the television, the tree and the menorah. (A menorah brought by Shirley, in the sweetest subtle moment of the episode.) In its own unique way, Community takes the tropes of the Christmas special and creates its own entry in the genre, something that reminds us there’s no limit to how we can interpret this time of the year. Thanks, Lost.

Les Chappell is a contributor to The A.V. Club’s TV Club and one of the founders of the classic TV website This Was Television. You can follow him on Twitter at @lesismore9o9 where he spends most of his time talking about whiskey, hats and obscure media.

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