Review: Community, “Regional Holiday Music”

Note: I’m a little short on time today, so I plan on keeping it brief. We’ll see if that actually happens.

Chances are you folks know that I watch Glee. Maybe you just come to the site for my Community work, but you probably still see that just a few posts down, I have written about that week’s Glee. In fact, Community and Glee are basically the only series I cover each week. Thus, I am very aware of Glee’s massive problems and similarly aware of Community’s fairly consistent underdog criticisms of the FOX musical hit. That is why I am actually disappointed in myself for not recognizing that a Community Christmas musical episode couldn’t not take constant shots at Glee. I expected some, but not this.

You know I love Community. I adore it so much. And I liked “Regional Holiday Music” quite a bit, particularly in spots that I’ll discuss momentarily. But I also think that this episode’s constant needling of Glee didn’t work and ultimately, made Community look like the obnoxious, pop culture “parody” for popular culture parody’s sake that people who don’t like or watch it think it actually is. More than anything, the Glee riffing felt too obvious and frankly, too repetitive for me to really latch onto with much vigor. I understand that the episode was using the glee club as a virus, turning the whole story into a backdoor horror film, but the incessant referencing to Regionals that meant to comment on Glee’s similarly incessant referencing drove me nuts. It made sense later in the episode, but in the opening minutes before the “infection,” it was not as successful.

I saw a few people on Twitter talking about how it was perhaps too late to do a full-on Glee riff and while I don’t necessarily agree with that since that series didn’t become such a cultural phenomenon until early last season (ratings-wise at least), I do think that the episode worked better when the jabs at Glee were more subtle (like the bit about reverse bullying, which might have been my favorite part of the episode) and couched in the horror film portion of the episode.

Oddly, this episode had a problem with obviousness and “telling” that Community usually doesn’t and it spread outside of the Glee bits as well. By the end of “Holiday Music,” I was definitely tired of the characters talking about how dark their semester had been. I agree with them, but it felt like the script was trying to shove that down our throats too much. Maybe that writing tactic was all part of the plan, as it did feel like something Glee would and has done, repeatedly, but it still bothered me (just as it does on Glee).

Thankfully though, this episode worked much better in the second half of the running time. As I mentioned, turning “glee” into a transmittable virus that overtakes the characters was a really tremendous idea and one that was executed beautifully. I expected the songs to be relatively goofy, but I loved how they ended up being very reflective of long-standing character beats: Abed goes along with anything (especially to make his friends happy); Troy needs to think Christmas is a secret mission; Annie wants to be part of Troy and Abed’s adventures; Pierce gives in once he feels wanted by Troy and Abed, who play majestically only his Baby Boomer superiority; Jeff gets quasi-seduced by Annie’s unbelievably hilarious riff on baby-doll voice Christmas sexuality and Shirley gives in so that everyone can know that Christmas is supposed to celebrate Christ.

I think Britta didn’t actually succumb to the glee virus and decided that as a good friend, she really wanted to go along with their deluded minds. By doing so, we see how far Britta’s come in two-plus years at Greendale as well. In season one, she would have never done this for the group, if only because we know she had massive stage fright. But now, she knows what she has to do and who doing those things is for. Maybe not, and perhaps it is ultimately funnier that the song in Britta’s heart ended up being so terrible that it made all the other pretty terrible songs look even better by comparison.

The episode succeeded by using this horror movie conceit because it gave the story an additional layer of hyperreality that the series uses very well. If the group would have just joined the glee club for some other more “believable” reason and sang songs that were less reflective of some kind of character trait, I don’t think this episode would have worked at all. Many of these characters will go along with a lot of crazy stuff, but the precedent for vitriol towards the glee club required some sort of extra push to get someone like Jeff involved. Ultimately, this framework gave us songs that were very, very funny and at least somewhat related to where the characters are right now in their journeys.

Finally, I loved how Abed was trying his hardest to make this Christmas the opposite version of the last one. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” was a supremely dark episode with a warm resolution, but using Abed’s desire to stay away from traumatic events like that intentionally tied this episode to last year’s glorious Christmas outing. Whereas that episode fully embraced the darkness with the hopes of finding the light, this one ran from the darkness in hopes of ignoring in problems the characters have faced this semester. Eventually, “Regional Holiday Music” circled back around to the same destination, but it was really cool to see the series attack a similar idea from the reverse direction – while of course commenting on said direction.

The holiday-related darkness that the characters kept referring to is a great device for this series’ narrative aims. Community is a story about trying to find your identity and way in the world and despite all the surface cynicism, it is also a story about ignore that cynicism and enjoying things with your friends. The inherent sadness that can come with the holidays perfectly allows the series’ writing staff to address the big themes and reinforce that amid all the references and detached winking, this is a story about people realizing they love each other and they need each other, no matter how “dark” it gets. “Regional Holiday Music” isn’t as strong as the series’ first two Christmas offerings (again, mostly because of the on-the-nose Glee bashing early on), but it does embody similarly strong emotional and thematic beats. And despite any minor disappointment, I can’t tell you how sad I am that this series is going away for a while. #SaveCommunity.

Other thoughts:

  • The tag was tremendous. Star Burns’ insistence that he be called by his first name is one of my favorite runners the series has going.
  • Dean Pelton’s outright hatred for Britta is palpably hilarious. I know she’s the worst, but I’m guessing part of his frustration is because she’s a sexual rival in regards to Jeff, right?
  • Anytime you do a musical performance primed for Alison Brie .gifs that only exists to basically comment on the fact that it’s primed for Alison Brie .gifs, I will love you forever. That sequence was a lovely deconstruction of the baby-doll voice sexuality that frankly, has always creeped me out.
  • Troy and Abed’s rap was the best musical performance, but their through-the-decade medley was definitely my favorite. The random references to fake cheese and Twin Peaks had me in stitches.
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