"My name is Fourth Wall, and I believe that what we perceive as life is actually a syndicated children's cartoon."
In which it is proved that Abed isn't the only person at Greendale capable of experiencing an extended animated hallucination, though in Jeff's case his foray into two dimensions is partly the result of a lot of Scotch and some dubious pills.
For the first few minutes, this episode is cool but a bit confusing. Long-term fans of the show know that an explanation of some kind is coming (goodness knows what casual fans, if such a thing exists for Community, thought) and there are enough Life on Mars-style interjections of voices from the real world breaking through to give us some indication of the situation before it's fully explained. Once we realised what's happening, though, everything falls into place rather beautifully.
Jeff's fear of ageing has been one of his defining characteristics, so it's perhaps not surprising that he doesn't react too well to turning 40 (Jeff's age was established as 38 in either season one or season three - unfortunately hours of research has not helped me to remember which one!). The series is still unable to say the word 'suicide', but it does establish firmly that, while Jeff was very depressed, he hadn't gone quite that far, but had rather stupidly taken some pills that were supposed to have some kind of fountain of youth effect (he does get pretty close to giving up and dying part-way through though).
It makes a strange sort of sense, then, that while unconscious in the hospital Jeff dreams himself into a children's cartoon. You'll be unsurprised to hear that we don't have G.I. Joe or the 1980s cartoon about him in the UK so I'm sure a lot of references went over my head, but I do (vaguely) remember this sort of cartoon from the 1980s - my favourite was probably Thundercats. The stilted movements, repeated actions (to save money on animation) and especially the dramatic, over-played script and acting are all beautifully, lovingly recreated as, in a desperate bit to avoid growing up, Jeff literally regresses to childhood, to a world where no one dies.
The discussion of whether or not G.I. Joe (supposedly a soldier) should kill anyone at the beginning almost threatens to overwhelm the episode because it's such an interesting issue in children's fiction. We want to educate children that killing people is bad, but is it realistic for a soldier never to kill anyone? (For an interesting counterpoint, in Narnia novel Prince Caspian Peter actually chops off a guy's head, a detail that rarely makes it into screen adaptations. But I digress). It is related to Jeff's essential issue, though, as in the cartoon world not only does no one ever die, no one ever changes either. Everything stays in a permanent state of absolute stasis, which is how Jeff would like to maintain his body and to a degree his lifestyle as well. Luckily, Jeff loves sex and Scotch almost as much as youth, as is eventually persuaded to snap out of it and rejoin reality.
The other major touchstone for the episode was a reference I did get, as Abed channels Morpheus from The Matrix, leading to a multiple-Changs incident and finally an actual shout-out, all of which were fun. I also enjoyed the Shawshank Redemption reference, which was a nice comment on how easily cartoon characters are able to accomplish apparently impossible feats, in contrast to more realistic fiction. Also it was funny.
I'm not sure this was quite as successful as 'Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas' and as it is perhaps symptomatic of the series' tendency to re-use old ideas, which as ChrisB pointed out in the comments last week they've been doing rather a lot lately (I must admit it's been bugging me since the unnecessary extension of the brilliant pillow fort idea in season three, though hypocritically I do like the second paintball story from season two). It was good fun, though, and with a solid character base to it, which is what Harmon's Community has often been so good at and where the gas leak year had a tendency to fall down.
Bits 'n' pieces
- Annie's outfit in the cartoon is much more sexualised than Britta's - though given how strongly Britta would disapprove of such an outfit, that may simply reflect how well Jeff knows both women.
- It's nice that Jeff's hallucination re-claimed Britta's 'buzzkill' status as something sort of cool, if ultimately impractical.
- Because this episode wasn't meta enough already, there's a barrage of meta jokes in the final scene, playing on, among other things, Ken Jeong's Korean heritage and the fact that many people are unaware that Danny Pudi is well into his thirties.
- Nice to see an impressively recognisable Dan Harmon making an animated cameo as well, as Sleep Apnea.
- I'm not sure how well the commercials fitted in to either the concept or the episode, but it does mean action figures of the Community cast actually exist, so that's cool.
- I loved the note from Pierce ('Welcome to the club') on Jeff's hallucinatory desk.
- If you enjoyed this episode, check out Farscape's 'Revenging Angel'. It is unspeakably awesome (and you don't need to know too much about the show to follow it, at least the broad strokes).
Cobra Commander: Avenge my totally platonic friend!
Wingman: I know this place! It's filling me with a sense of endless hours for unfair wages and printers that never have toner. This may have resonated with me more than any other line of TV dialogue ever. Also, it's quite possibly the first reference to Jeff's actual job as a teacher since 'Introduction to Teaching'.
Vice-President Something-or-Other (I missed it! The Dean): Please don't forget next Saturday is the Cobra fun-run! If you miss it, you're letting the anti-terrorists win.
Definitely not the place to start for new viewers, but good fun. Three out of four inappropriately sexualised action figures.
Juliette Harrisson is a part-time lecturer at a former-college-but-now-we're-a-university-huzzah! and full-time Trekkie. She blogs about Greeks and Romans appearing in Stuff at Pop Classics.