NBC sometimes seems like a network so beleaguered that if it were wearing a "KICK ME" sign, you'd half expect to see another sign hanging off it that said, "HARDER."
But there is no arguing with the strength of the Thursday-night comedy lineup, and while last night's most satisfying and affecting episode involved preparations for The Office to send Michael Scott (Steve Carell) on his way, and while its most reliably funny was a fabulous episode about camping from Parks And Recreation, and while 30 Rock actually managed to make an Aaron Sorkin cameo appealing, the most thoughtful entry was from Community. (Plot discussion ahead.)
The character of Abed (Danny Pudi) is not just a classic TV nerd, though he is one. He, like the character of Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, is certainly written as if he's somewhere on the autism spectrum without being given an official diagnosis to which the show would then have to be medically faithful. In Abed's case, his way of dealing with the world is to relate to it solely through references to movies and TV shows he's seen.
Naturally, this helps a show like Community that loves a goofy homage episode (to, for instance, Goodfellas or Die Hard). But the flip side is that in a real person, where it actually represented an inability to connect with other people without doing it through the filter of TV and movies, this could feel ... really sad.
There have been episodes in the past in which this normally very funny show has paused to note, with some real melancholy, what Abed loses in all this. In the first-season episode "Contemporary American Poultry," Abed had a sort of semi-heart-to-heart with Jeff (Joel McHale) about the fact that he has limited ways of connecting to other people, and Jeff agreed to try to help him in exchange for the opportunity to have Abed's fundamental kindness rub off on him a little.
But in last night's episode, "Critical Film Studies," there was a new note that significantly enriched that particular character beat, which was to acknowledge that it's not only Abed who misses out because he struggles to connect.
In the episode, Jeff has tried to arrange a Pulp Fiction-themed birthday party for Abed, only to find that Abed has arranged what seems to be ... well, a completely neurotypical restaurant dinner where the two can talk.
[Side note: The acting from Danny Pudi here, in which the character he's playing is so unlike Abed that it's utterly unnerving, is a great example of how bad the Emmy submission system is. Actors submit and are judged on individual episodes out of context, and without having seen Pudi's week-in, week-out creation of Abed, you can't possibly appreciate how everything down to the shape of his face seemed to be different when he was at this dinner.]
Jeff is suspicious of Abed's transformation at first, but Abed reveals, through a long and funny story about appearing as an extra on the sitcom Cougar Town, how he shattered his need to live through TV and movies, and Jeff, despite his grave cynicism, begins to believe it. He relaxes; he reveals more about himself.
And then he learns that Abed has arranged the dinner as an homage to My Dinner With Andre. (Abed's button-down sweater should have been a clue.) The living-in-a-movie hasn't changed; it's just a different movie. Jeff has been put through an artificial salute to dropping your guard.
Jeff doesn't respond with pity. He responds with anger at first, partly because he really prided himself on knowing what kind of a party would please Abed and Abed rejected it in favor of this other set-up. He's also annoyed, of course, because he opened up to someone who wasn't really participating in the way Jeff thought he was. But really, Jeff is frustrated because he genuinely likes this guy, and he can't help wishing everything were a little bit different.
By episode's end, the two have made up, but Abed is still Abed, and he still processes life through the movies, and it's fairly clear that he always will.
While the show has played part of this story before by acknowledging that Abed's situation is a little sad for him, this is the first time it was this sad for Jeff. The things about his friend that Jeff likes, he really likes — like Abed's sweetness, his oddball and generally unconscious humor, his bluntness, and his genuine flashes of insight. But that all comes in this package, and that package comes with a giant, distracting filter, which is that everything comes out as a pop-culture reference.
This was a very sweet and often funny episode of a half-hour comedy, but it also wound up being a nice little meditation on the fact that you do not generally get to dictate to people the ways in which they express affection for you. You take friendship as it's presented, and in Abed's case, that means you get used to being compared to a lot of movie characters.
Community can be a very vexing show. Some weeks, it is literally the silliest thing on television. It's never met a gimmick it wouldn't at least consider, from Claymation to zombies, and its level of realism can land anywhere from zero to ... well, to this episode, which is really very, very smart about friendship. Not every experiment they do works, and if you want the show to be unendingly hilarious, this outing didn't have the maximum number of jokes. But Community swings a big bat, and it swings hard, and while there have been some spectacular whiffs, there have also been some enormously impressive half-hours, of which this was one.