It’s the most wonderful time of the year! I don’t know about you, but my psyche is a sucker for holiday decorations, chestnuts roasting and marshmallows toasting. ‘Tis the season of sharing tasty comestibles, joyous movies, TV specials and ritualistic traditions with kith and kin. The Community classic, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” is a festive holiday fantasy. It bravely places the “minefield of overlapping rituals” on full display, within a magical Christmas adventure.
This brilliant fable is a psychological “Wonka-style” adventure that isn’t easy, safe or fun. We’re talking dark. Why would they do that? What’s wrong with a traditional, jolly old Christmas yarn? For example, my daughter Gracie and I watch A Christmas Story together every year. It’s pure festive bliss.
But this year is a wee bit different, now that father/daughter movie viewing is a happy, virtual “Watch Party.” Whether we like it or not, that’s everyone’s reality. No contact, no sharing and no typical holiday traditions. At least for those of us who are intelligent and sensitive enough to mask up and stay put. The holiday season pandemic is hanging over us like mistletoe (but we can’t even kiss under it)—and it could literally kill us. Crap on a Christmas cracker, this year is one sad, cloyed figgy pudding. What does it all mean?!?
The universe has gifted us a test. And when you think about it, almost every holiday season is a cleverly wrapped psychological test. We do our best to survive until January 2 with our spirits intact. But this year is a doozy. Will we reach a breaking point? Should we cancel? We need to drastically lighten the mood. Putting up decorations before Thanksgiving helped a little.
Maybe the Emmy-winning, Season 2 holiday episode of Community has the real answers we seek. The good news is that this episode’s atmosphere is 7 percent cinnamon! So gird your merry loins and as the crew reminds us, “be alert, be honest and stay between the gumdrops.” What Community gets so right in this installment is that the holidays are a uniquely personal experience. We all have our own special traditions and depend on each other to deliver them. The rub is, our expectations of those experiences throw a monkey wrench into everything. What happens when things don’t go as planned?
On this particular episodic day, December 9, Greendale Community College is not what it seems—although that’s not saying much. Our trusty, emotionally-challenged savant, Abed Nadir (the magnificent Danny Pudi), has a twinkling delusion. Everything looks like Rankin-Bass style claymation. Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) announces there’s “no special-ness to this special time of year.” But at least there are politically correct holiday “zones” displayed for one to celebrate in.
Community loved to make sardonic, genre-bending episodes a regular occurrence. It would satirize Spaghetti Westerns (“A Fistful of Paintballs”), Glee (“Regional Holiday Music”) and Law & Order (“Basic Lupine Urology”) with ironic abandon. But why is this particular day a whimsical figment of Abed’s imagination? Should his friends worry for his sanity? It’s almost par-for-the-course, but Abed leans into the realization that he’s the only one who sees it. So he begins with a playful, opening credits musical number.
You see, every year he celebrates his Polish-Christian ancestry by watching Rankin-Bass’ “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” with his mother on December 9. He lives with his Muslim father, and Mom can’t make it this year. She’s with her new family. The bad news is Abed’s breaking point. He’s not emotionally equipped to deal with it.
Abed needs everyone to join his delusion in order for him to cope. He needs to make his issues a study group effort. Sound familiar? People are cooped up and sharing their Tik-Toks, Instagrams and quarantine-friendly YouTube videos. A break from reality is certainly welcome. The problem in Community’s scenario is that the group can’t agree whether to stage an intervention or not. Should they bring Abed back from his troubling psychotic break? If they leave him alone, he may go off to sing a sad, quick Christmas song while fondling Ben Chang (Ken Jeong). I mean, build a sad Christmas snowman. At least Abed didn’t spend 10 more seconds working on the third button. Paging Dr. Freud.
Or rather, enter psychology professor Ian Duncan (John Oliver) who immediately sees publishable dollar signs. He attempts to lure Abed into “The Cave of Frozen Memories.” Abed does require assistance, but not this kind. He plays along, but still needs to take them on a trip to the fantastical, plasticine “Planet Abed.” They must travel to Santa’s Workshop and find “the meaning of Christmas.” Duncan turns himself into a Christmas Wizard to assist. Abed then transforms the gang into a symbolically representative “Island of Misfit Toys.”
As they adventure along, those who exhibit futility are disposed of with a clever, Oompa-Loompa-esque exit song. With the holiday baggage each of us carries in our collective brains, who are we to judge what’s sane and rational? Sadly, that doesn’t stop a few of Abed’s friends from being Judgey-McScroogypants. And each of them have to pay for their baggage.
Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is the first to go as a Jesus-like “baby doll Shirley.” Her fanatical devotion to this being only a Christian holiday imbues her with the belief that anyone not like her is an ignorant heathen. Duncan’s Wizard freezes her mid-sermon and summons a beautiful, remote control Christmas pterodactyl to eject her post-haste. One of the greatest deus ex machina devices EVER!
Jeff (Joel McHale), always the reluctant leader, is a “Jeff-in-the-box” grotesquely consumed by “humbugs” who are attracted to his sarcasm and disdain for the holidays. “Britta-bot” has a penchant for pseudo-psychology and has no faith in herself or others. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) was the one who called Professor Duncan in the first place and then lied about it. She’s the last of the unhelpful “toys” to be excised as they reach the similarly unhelpful “Cave of Frozen Memories.”
Abed uses this location to goad Professor Duncan into his own holiday issues to get some space. Duncan is lured into his own sad, British holiday journey as a young boy in Islington. The plan works and he petulantly exits to America with Grandma. Abed then initiates the cave’s self-destruct sequence and admits he never needed their help in the first place. Escaping with the remaining members, he knows they’ll listen, support him and try not to fix or judge.
There’s sweet “Ballerannie,” the wind-up ballerina. Abed believes Annie (Alison Brie) to be delicate and tightly wound. As opposed to thin and graceful like she thinks. “Troy-soldier” has his cool rum-pa-pum drum and not a gun like he hoped. But you can always count on Troy (Donald Glover) to be Abed’s fierce, loyal companion. Finally there’s “Teddy-Pierce,” the crotchety, growling Christmas racist. Abed feels bad for him, because Pierce (Chevy Chase) is always depressed this time of year. But at least he’s honest about his innumerable faults. He’s only there for the cookies anyway. Dick.
The final chase scene has a determined Christmas Wizard magically returning. It’s a battle against Abed and his psychosis on a runaway Polar Express. Ballerannie and Troy-soldier trap Duncan and sacrifice themselves by uncoupling the lead train. Abed can now make his escape. But to his surprise, Teddy-Pierce stayed behind to take a leak. Rather than eject him, Abed is just happy to have some company.
Upon arriving at Santa’s workshop, Abed finds a gift-wrapped box labeled “Meaning of Christmas.” As Abed opens a Russian-nesting-doll-like series of boxes, the last one reveals his answer. It’s a copy of the first season of Lost on DVD. He unwrapped a metaphor whose meaning is “lack of payoff.” This whole adventure could not have possibly measured up to the expectations everyone placed on it.
Duncan reappears, shows Abed the card from his mom and Abed’s extreme sensitivity leads him to freeze into a catatonic state. He may not recover without some kind of Christmas miracle. Everyone always mentions Abed’s cold lack of emotion. But in reality, he’s the most emotionally accessible of the bunch.
Symbolically, Abed’s place in the study group is the observer. As observer, he acknowledges the circumstances, but needs his friends’ help in order to process them. The conventions and predictability of TV and entertainment create such a secure place. It’s a place where you can frolic, escape and even work things out.
While in the meditative safe space of “Planet Abed,” he finally understands that the meaning of Christmas is…that Christmas has meaning. It’s whatever we want it to be. What happens when those tried and true traditions fail us? We need coping mechanisms. Community understands our needs. It gives us a stop-motion, psycho-fuzzy stroll down transcendental lane. Abed and the study group realize supporting each other’s flaws and impediments is what true family is.
Abed’s search for meaning began by including his new family of friends in his delusion. He adapts to his biological family disappointing him and immediately uses escapism as his go-to. That’s precisely what most people did in 2020. Life and art can kick you in the gut when you have certain expectations and they’re not met. Eventually, we all have to come around kicking and screaming. So here we are. Typical holiday expectations went south, but we each coped in our own way.
Reality can be a stop-motion animated adventure through a winter wonderland of feelings and emotions that are sometimes too scary to face. The group finally come together, fire Christmas weapons at Duncan and each sing their reasons to be merry in “That’s What Christmas Is For.” And how about we carry away Christmas Wizard Professor Duncan with his own Christmas pterodactyl! Christmas miracle unlocked! That’s precisely what the holidays are for. Real-life joy, dreams and miracles.
This year’s reality was a cornucopia of struggles. There were shutdowns, the panic-buying of toilet paper, people risking their health to attend marches and vigils, a near-presidential-election-coup and all the trimmings. Some of us were able to look inside ourselves and muster the gumption to survive with our health and sanity intact. We did it because we had our safe places and each other. We all have to live mindfully in the moment every day and do things that make us happy.
Whether it was virtual or socially distanced, we adapted and became malleable with the term family. Family is a more relative term than ever before and why not? Isn’t the love we share with other human beings, related or otherwise, what it’s really about? Now, there are still many around the world who get lonely and depressed. Family can be a dirty word, or that which we do not speak of. If you find yourself in that situation, create your own family. Include pets, strangers, inanimate objects and manifest the reality you’ve always wanted.
Community truly understands what the holidays represent, especially now. It tells us, “It’s the notion that the coldest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest…And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity…it becomes true.” With that logic, call me an unhinged, flamboyantly-festooned nutcase, because I’m keeping the tree up and celebrating Christmas till July this year!!! Happy holidays everyone.