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My Dinner with Abed: Emotional Truths and the Lies We Tell Ourselves on Community

It's safe to say that Community will never give you exactly what you think you're getting.

In this case, this week's brilliant and moving episode of Community ("Critical Film Studies"), written by Sona Panos and directed by Richard Ayoade (of The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh), seemed to be a spoof of Pulp Fiction. It looked and sounded--from the promos and the information being sent out by the publicity and marketing teams--like Pulp Fiction, so it had to be a spoof of Quentin Tarantino's landmark film, right?


While there were elements from Pulp Fiction in play for Abed's PF-themed surprise party at the diner where Britta works, the episode itself was an astute yet emotional homage to Louis Malle's 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, which is essentially a conversation between two men (Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory) about the nature of reality, of fabricated theatre, and of true and honest experiences as opposed to robotic reactions to popular culture.

This is not what one might expect to find in an American broadcast network comedy series. But that's precisely, as I've argued so many times in the past, what makes Community the smartest and most astute comedy on television today: its innate ability, built into its very DNA, to be infinitely flexible with its format, its tone, and its reference points.

"Critical Film Studies" did that on several levels, giving us a surprise party for Abed that celebrated his love for pop culture and what he deems "cool," which in this case is a Pulp Fiction-themed fete in which the members of the study group dress up as characters from Tarantino's film, attempting to recreate a moment from one of Abed's favorite films.

Abed, however, has a different reference in mind, looking to put himself inside Malle's film by arranging a dinner with Jeff at a restaurant that Abed wouldn't normally pick in a hundred years. While Jeff is initially thrown by Abed's choice of eatery, he goes along with the decision, even though the surprise party he's arranged is getting delayed. But while Abed claims to want to have an honest, real conversation with Jeff, the entire scenario is in fact completely manufactured, itself an homage to a film, even if Jeff doesn't realize what's going on.

(Yes, it's time to cue up Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie No. 1," used here as it is in My Dinner with Andre to full effect, along with the use of voiceover, typically not used on Community.)

Over the course of their dinner, Abed once again plays a character--in this case, it's the erudite "Andre" of Malle's film, waxing philosophical in his chunky cardigan sweater. He's making eye contact, smiling, and engaging with Jeff in a way that he hasn't before. But the conversation that they have isn't one of Abed's normal topics; rather, they plunge into something straight out of My Dinner with Andre, discussing both the nature of truth and lies and debate the artificiality of theatrical constructs (i.e., Chad).

A story about visiting the set of ABC's Cougar Town (mentioned no less than a dozen times throughout the installment) becomes less of an anecdote and more a discussion of the way in which we construct our identities, as Abed shares his experience of being a background extra in a scene with Courteney Cox and the character of Chad that he creates for this split-second of screen time. But there's also a kernel of truth to the discussion here, the belief that Chad has lived more than Abed has, that the experiences he's described of growing up in Cougar Town are in fact more real, more nuanced, more realized than his own.

The lies we tell ourselves are the deadliest, which is something that both Jeff and Abed dance around in their dinner. The scenario constructed here--a man has dinner with a friend he's avoiding, only to be forced to confront some uncomfortable emotional truths--rings true. While Abed may be playing a character, he does manage to get Jeff to reveal his own inner truths as well, admitting that he often calls sex lines and pretends to be fat and recounting a story in which he dressed as a little Indian girl for Halloween and stopped correcting people about his gender after the third house. He just wanted to feel pretty, after all.

Jeff's story reveals both his superficiality but also the insecurity that lurks beneath his polished surface. He's both terrified at the thought of being unattractive, yet fears that he's only loved for his looks. If that's not the definition of real emotional truth, I don't know what is. That it arrives within an episode that's constructed around a high-brow indie film from more than 30 years ago and a framework that involves Pulp Fiction is a testament to the genius of Community's writing staff.

When Abed's Cougar Town scene ends, Chad ceases to exist and Abed "poops" his pants and falls over, according to his Andre-esque story, an example of a spiritual experience that trumps both Jeff's seemingly shallow existence and the "robotic" interplay between Abed and pop culture. It's a moment of both divinity and humanity, of immortality and death itself. The death of the character within is the death of the self.

While the entire sequence sends up My Dinner with Andre, it also serves a larger purpose within the framework of Community itself, where nothing is ever done haphazardly or without purpose. Here, Abed, defined by his limitations, can't bring himself to ask why Jeff doesn't hang out with him anymore in the way that he did the previous year. Instead, Abed is Abed, true to himself and his core motivations and lack of ability to express himself: he creates a scenario out of Malle's film that allows him to play someone else in an effort to get Jeff to connect with him, to open up to him, and to confront the elephant in the room: that their relationship has changed.

Jeff may have gone through the trouble of arranging a surprise party for Abed and tracking down the "authentic" briefcase from Pulp Fiction (complete with light bulb and certificate of authenticity), but what Abed wants is something that neither of them can really give each other: an honest conversation. Yet the artificiality of the set-up does enable just that, as Jeff opens up to Abed to share dark, personal secrets.

So, can something real and genuine emerge from something artificial? Is there truth to be had in fabricated reality? Can a dream of a life be more real than your own? Can a sitcom make you feel and think and see the world in another way? With this and a multitude of other episodes, Community does just that, delivering a world that's both real and fake, genuine and artificial, tragic and uplifting.

The surprise party ruined and the evening seemingly all but destroyed by in-fighting, jealousies, anger, and curiosity, the gang remains at the restaurant to throw Abed a party at the luxe eatery rather than at the diner. It's a triumphant realization of the fact that you can fuse together disparate elements--My Dinner with Andre and Pulp Fiction, these unlikely friends--into a single entity. The joy and spirit of, well, community is seen throughout the closing scenes as Abed receives his gifts and the gang brings the pop culture into the high brow aesthetic of the restaurant. Beautiful, sweet, and funny, it's emblematic of what Community does best, reminding us that being clever and having heart are not mutually exclusive.

Next week on Community, it's a repeat of "Early 21st Century Romanticism," in which Abed and Troy vie for the attention of the college librarian; Britta befriends a student she thinks is gay; Jeff winds up hosting an impromptu party at his apartment.


snapthejap said…
There were so many great elements to last night's ep of Community. You touched on all of them. I love that this show can weave the absurd [Chang slithering like a snake into scene, when he manipulates Troy's insecurity-- a la Adam & Eve//a leather-bound Pierce dressed as the "gimp" from Pulp Fiction walking into a fine dining restaurant (**also one of the smarter moments from last night- as the dinner convo was about insecurity, Pierce clearly had NONE doing what he did)] with the smart (see Pierce above-- and the constant self-realization through pop culture references).
I also like the mention of Abed's set visit to Cougar Town as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society had auctioned off a set visit to Community (at the time, pending a 3rd season pick up).
30 Rock is my favorite comedy, currently on TV, but in it's 2nd season, Community is doing something so daring and fresh, that it's climbing the ranks... quickly.
Ally said…
Definitely one of my favorite episodes of the series, so far.
Bella Spruce said…
A truly incredible episode... I love how flexible this show is and the fearlessness they bring to the 1/2 comedy.

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