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You Humble Me: Christ Figures and Meta Films on Community

I've been upfront about my love for NBC's Community, one of the rare gems on the Peacock's lineup at the moment. In a season of such middling programming, it's rewarding to see such an experimental series such as this one continue to mine its format for such riches.

This week's episode of Community ("Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples") dealt head-on with a hot-button issue: religion. Naturally, it was handled in true Greendale fashion, with the central issue emanating from an Anthropology lesson and some YouTube videos, including what appeared to be a send-up of "Bed Intruder" and a shout-out to creator Dan Harmon's Channel 101 web series Laser Fart about a superhero who could, well, you can figure out the rest.

While the series hasn't shied away from shining a spotlight on some sensitive issues and with the characters' belief systems, this week's installment pitted the faith of single mom Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) against a viral video created by Abed (Danny Pudi), in which he, Charlie Kaufman-style, enacted a metatheatrical vicious circle about the story of Jesus Christ, whom Abed described as a cross between "Edward Scissorhands and Marty McFly."

Much to Shirley's upset, the story of Jesus became that of filmmaker and audience, circling inwards until everyone was both God and the filmmaker, Jesus and the audience, a parable for our "post-post-modern world." ABED was a far cry from the sort of beatific beats that Shirley herself had imagined and the clash between her and Abed--who donned a long wig and became something of a self-styled spiritual leader while Shirley was cast in the role of a Pharisee--threatened to derail their friendship completely.

But in true Community fashion, this theological dispute became an opportunity to mend fences and, well, turn the other cheek. In destroying Abed's film, Shirley honors his prayer that the film be taken away from him, risking the fury of the student body in order to save her friend. For his part, Abed honors Shirley's original intent and creates a rap-style video with Troy.

But it was their final scene together, the holding of one another's hands and Shirley's simple but poetic line ("You humble me") and its reflection, that put the emphasis on the selflessness of both individuals and the bond between them.

"Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples" wasn't played as a "special" episode or as anything mawkish or saccharine; rather, the moment felt truly earned and emotionally resonant. I cannot heap enough praise on Brown and Pudi for pulling off this delicate and difficult storyline. The internal struggles of both Shirley and Abed were brought to life with such tenderness and grace that it left me speechless. And it proved that the series need not focus on the entire group--or the nominal leads--in order to work on all cylinders. (It was about time, really, that Shirley and Abed got their time in the spotlight together.)

This week's B-story focused on Pierce (Chevy Chase) being drawn into the orbit of the older Greendale students, the so-called "hipsters" (because most of them have had hip replacement surgery) led by the irascible Leonard (Richard Erdman). I've always been amused by the fact that within the study group, Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs) have pushed themselves into the role of father and mother of this collective, especially given that the role of parents wasn't forced upon them but instead they chose to step up to provide that self-styled guidance for the group.

We saw a Britta who attempted to remind Pierce to take his pills and yelled at him when he wasn't eating enough vegetables and a Jeff who was willing to bail Pierce out but wanted nothing more to do with his antics. But like any rebellious adolescent, Pierce's behavior was a cry for help, an effort to act out in order to grab some attention. As much as he might chafe against their overbearing nature, Pierce relishes the fact that someone still cares about him and is looking out for him. Something that Leonard and the others likely don't have anymore. (Leonard in particular.)

The episode then took on the larger dimensions of forgiveness, understanding, and compromise, of family and friendship, of the group dynamic rather than the individual. And of a Last Supper scene where the feast was that of slices of white sandwich bread. Where the story wasn't just about viral videos and old people jokes but about the characters' internal struggles. Which, one could argue, means that the story of the story is the story itself.

All in all, a fantastic installment of Community that was both challenging and hysterical, as well as touching and honest. Well done, Greendale.

Next week on Community ("Epidemiology"), a campus Halloween party takes an unusual turn after Pierce and some students ingest a hazardous substance, which produces zombie-like symptoms in the student body; the gang must save themselves and the school when they are locked in with the infected students. NOTE: next week's episode will air at 8:30 pm ET/PT on NBC.

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