Saturday, August 25, 2012

2x11 "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" (The Meaning of Christmas)

"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"
Original Airdate: December 9, 2010

Let’s take a poll, shall we? My favorite holiday is: a) Halloween, b) Christmas, c) Thanksgiving, or d) Valentine’s Day. Do you have your answers locked down? If you guessed “Christmas,” award yourself, pass “Go” and collect $200. To me, Christmas is a spectacular, wonderful, and magical time of the year. It fills me with complete and utter joy, and every year I long for the (slightly) cooler weather in Florida so that I can don a scarf and pair of boots and sing carols with family and friends. Each Christmas episode has centered around the character of Abed Nadir on Community and – obviously – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is no exception. So why do these holidays choose to focus on the character of Abed? What are viewers meant to garner from a stop-motion animated episode of their favorite sitcom? In order to answer that question in its fullest, we need to understand some fundamental truths about Abed. First, Abed does not like change. A character who is as control and detail-oriented as Abed is tends to see the world in a way that he can understand it, and only in that way. If Abed cannot make sense of something (for example, his mother wanting to spend time with her new family rather than him during Christmas), he doesn’t admit that he cannot understand it. Instead, it just simply must not be true. It’s a sobering characterization of Abed – a sad one, even, to realize that he is someone struggling to be understood, like us all. But even finding people like the study group doesn’t “cure” Abed. Even if he (and we, if we’re being honest) surrounds himself with people who know him and care about him, that doesn’t mean that they will always understand us as well as we want them to. So this episode is a journey in understanding Abed. As the study group learns more about who Abed is, so do the viewers. By the end of our journey from Winter Wonderland and back, we evaluate our own definitions of crazy, of friendship and loyalty, and of Christmas itself.

As is customary for me, let's briefly recap the plot of this episode. It's Christmastime at Greendale, which means that it's "politically correct" season, as the Dean announces that the school attributes no specialness to the time of year. So there are some nice parallels between the way that “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” and “Regional Holiday Music” open. Both begin with Abed asking about Christmas plans that the group has, and both include the film student being disappointed when his friends choose less-than-holiday-centric ways to spend their vacation. Annie announces that she'll be pre-reading for a relaxation class next semester, and Troy says that he'll spend his holiday playing video games. Abed then expresses his disappointment and notes that he thought this Christmas would be special. They all, after all, are stop-motion animated. Let me pause for a moment to express that there is such a BEAUTIFUL Pierce/Abed storyline in this episode and it’s just… so endearing to Pierce as a character, especially because he is someone who we traditionally dismiss as being the racist old goof of the group. But in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” he is the last person to stay with Abed until the very end, and the person who indulges him (seemingly) the most for his character. What I mean is that Troy and Abed and Annie are obviously close to one another so it stands to reason that they would help Abed as much as possible throughout the episode, and they do. Pierce has little to no reason to be as kind to Abed as he is, but I quite enjoy it.

Anyway, as we know later on, this is an episode that exists in a world where Duncan is partially right. Abed’s behavior (his belief that everyone is in a stop-motion animated Christmas episode) is a reflection of the unsettlement he feels by being unable to control outcomes of events. His pain manifests itself through his desire to overcompensate for a loss – he is a character so intent on making this Christmas the most spectacular Christmas of them all because he’s afraid that without his comforting familiarity and love of his mother, he has lost all meaning. This similar personality trait exhibits itself in “Virtual Systems Analysis,” briefly. Abed believes that he is only good for planning and controlling within the study group and that, eventually, they won’t need him anymore. For this reason, then, the study  group as a whole is hesitant to label Abed in the beginning of the episode. There are notably two exceptions to this: Jeff and Britta. Jeff asks if a word means the same to Abed as it does to “normal” people, which is the second indicator we have gotten in the season more explicitly regarding Jeff’s views of Abed as a person. In “Anthropology 101,” Jeff harshly criticized Abed’s inability to decipher reality from television, which wounded the film student. This dig is a bit more subtle, but it is a nice set-up for events and the relationship that will occur between them in “Critical Film Studies” later on.

Additionally, season three isn’t the real introduction of Britta-as-psychologist. Season two offered plenty of moments where the blonde psychoanalyzed (or attempted to, at least) her fellow students. Here is a subtle example of Britta’s character – she treads lightly with Abed, and – unlike Jeff – hesitates to label or categorize him. Britta and Abed have always had an interesting relationship. These two characters had the first noted interaction on Greendale’s campus out of any other members in the group when Abed asked her to borrow a pencil. Throughout the first season, she strove to protect Abed and his feelings (“Introduction to Film,” for instance). So instead of referring to Abed as crazy, she asks how they can help with his “situation.” Again – this isn’t a character who wants to diagnose and detach from her friend; Britta genuinely wants to help.

Even later on in season three, I feel like people mistake her intentions as a Psychology student. She never insists that she has all of the right answers, nor does she (usually) diagnose people. She is eager to help people out, because she wants that to be her role again. Pop quiz time! Whose study group was it before it became Jeff’s? Who did the group members turn to for wisdom, guidance, and to ultimately let Jeff into the group at all? If you answered “Britta,” award yourself another $200 as you pass “Go”! Britta is, and will always be, the heart of the group. Is she the brightest? No. Is she the most successful in her endeavors? Not always. Is she someone who wants what is best for the study group? Yes. What I usually (and I’ve mentioned this before) find intriguing is that when Britta manages to Britta a plan, the end result turns out to be exactly what the group needed to begin with. The group may never acknowledge it either consciously or subconsciously, but Britta has helped them more than they realize.

But I digress -- the study group decides to play along with Abed's delusion for the beginning of the episode. The opening credits commence then, with the film student leaping around school and singing a Christmas-themed version of "At Least It Was Here." And since the stop-motion animation in this episode is a reflection of Abed's mind and not actually occurring, everything that the stop-motion characters do in the episode actually happens in real life. Thus, Abed gets tasered by two security guards when he leaps and sings onto the hoods of cars in the parking lot. 

After the credits, Britta, Jeff, and Abed find themselves in Duncan's office. Duncan is one of my favorite minor characters on the show, mainly because he is essentially the epitome of Greendale. Here is a professor of Psychology who is, by worldly standards, relatively unsuccessful. He has a moral compass that is usually askew, too. But he manages to teach the study group, Jeff, and others that he encounters life lessons that are actually valuable. Thanks to Duncan, Jeff needed the study group. (Chew on THEM apples, haters – you all have Duncan and Britta to thank for the existence of the study group!) Of course, his unwitting assistance aside, this doesn’t redeem Duncan’s selfishness throughout the episode, nor his willingness to break Abed’s mental state in order to get a book deal. Just so we are all clear.

So the Psychology professor insists that Abed must find the root cause for his delusion in order to be helped. He suggests therapy, which Abed pretty much balks at. When he refuses and begins to head toward the door, Britta explains that they'll kick him out of school if he doesn't get the help he needs. Abed is so insistent on the fact that he can “fix” his circumstances and his life and then things and people will work the way they’re “supposed” to. (Note the importance of the air quotations.) But what Abed doesn’t realize quite yet is that even if he tries as hard as he possibly can, that doesn’t ensure that people will do and say the exact things he wants and needs them to do and say. We see this evidenced clearly in “Virtual Systems Analysis,” again. 

Abed leaves and finds himself in the courtyard, singing a "sad, quick Christmas song" and working on a snowman -- which just so happens to be Chang. The former professor chastises Abed for fondling him (remember, none of Abed's stop-motion events actually occur as he sees them), but before the film student can fix Snowman Chang's final button, he gets a text from Britta telling him that the meaning of Christmas is in the study room. When he arrives, he's disappointed to find the entire study group and Duncan waiting for him. 

(As an aside, I think Pierce is my favorite in this episode. Maybe it’s because Chevy translates his voice really well into a cartoon. Whatever it is, this oft-overlooked member of the study group really has some shining moments. It’s entertaining to me that Pierce only questions Winter Wonderland at the very beginning and briefly (until Shirley smacks him) and he looks around the room, pretending to be able to see what Abed does. After this point in the story, the elderly study group member doesn’t question Abed’s view of the room. It’s nice, and I’ll touch on some important moments as they arise later on.)

So Professor Duncan encourages Abed to take a trip to the magical Winter Wonderland so that his friends can be of assistance in helping him cope with his delusion (he doesn't say this outright to Abed, and instead plays along with the delusion himself). Abed agrees (Jeff noting to Duncan that the professor is playing with so much fire by allowing Abed to do this), and the entire study group closes their eyes and imagines themselves being transported into Winter Wonderland on Planet Abed. When the group arrives, Abed notes that they have all transformed into Christmas versions of themselves. All right, so now I will take the opportunity to psychoanalyze the Christmas caricatures that Abed assigned to each member of the study group:
  • Jeff-in-the-Box
    • I think this is meant to represent Jeff’s sarcastic and jester-like personality. 
  • Troy Soldier
    • Abed sees Troy as a leader and someone who should command importance. What better way to indicate this to the rest of the group than by giving him the only musical instrument?
  • Brittabot
    • Britta has a tough exterior, can be rather cold and unemotional (compared to Annie and Shirley, for instance, who are softer and usually more outwardly compassionate) and this is why I believe Abed chooses a robot for her.
  • Teddy Pierce
    • This one is just so intriguing to me – a teddy bear is something that you cuddle: something that is soft, warm, and inviting. Thoughts like these aren’t usually equated with Pierce, but it’s nice to see that ABED sees something in the elderly man that is soft and caring.
  • BallerAnnie
    • I think that Abed chose Annie to be a ballerina for various reasons: yes, she is delicate and graceful and doll-like, but she’s also a bit tightly wound, too.
  • Baby Doll Shirley
    • I wonder if Abed chose for Shirley to be a baby doll simply because of the fact that she is so mothering to others and to her own children, or because she has the tendency to be infantile in her belief systems and judgments. Hmm.

Abed is very keen to avoid discussing anything but discovering the meaning of Christmas. He believes (just like in “Regional Holiday Music”) that if he and the group can discover the joy of Christmas, life will be better. And initially, Duncan actually is willing to follow along with Abed’s shenanigans, which I find interesting. The group heads off to The North Pole where Santa's workshop (and the meaning of Christmas) is located. Duncan attempts to deter the group multiple times by insisting that they find the "Cave of Frozen Memories" in order to help Abed deal with the real reason he constructed a stop-motion Winter Wonderland in the first place.

En route to The North Pole, Shirley asks Abed why he chose to make her a Christmas baby, and believes he really meant for her to be a Christmas angel. When Britta, Shirley, and Annie begin to argue and discuss the real meaning for their Christmas doppelgangers, Shirley becomes agitated and mentions that she was nice enough to volunteer to be a part of Abed's therapy session, but before she can finish, Duncan emerges from a "rip" in the fabric of Winter Wonderland (it's amazing that you can see the library in the background of the rip) and ejects Shirley from Planet Abed using a remote control Christmas Pterodactyl, stating that anyone who isn't interested in helping Abed should leave. (I also love the sheer irony of the fact that the very things Duncan helped to create and bring to fruition [Winter Wonderland, the Christmas Pterodactyl and Christmas Wizard] become his undoing.) Abed plays Shirley off by singing a Willy Wonka-style farewell song.

Jeff begins to become snarky and Abed warns of "humbugs" -- creatures who feed on sarcasm. These creatures then proceed to "eat" Jeff as he continues to be smug and sarcastic. Once he is gone from Winter Wonderland, Annie volunteers to sing his send-off, and hers is my favorite of them all. Once that concludes, the rest of the group travels through Carol Canyon in order to approach the Cave of Frozen Memories.) As the group walks, Britta notes that Jesus wasn't really born in December, and the creation of Christmas was meant to take a holiday away from the pagans. What I think is really interesting is how quickly Britta goes from finding Abed’s delusions slightly adorable (and also wanting to help him in any way possible), to being irritated and ranting, as she is in Carol Canyon. Like I said earlier, Britta cares about Abed and is frustrated when he doesn’t admit that he has any issues. She’s gone out of her way to try and help him – the entire study group has, really. The time that could have been spent with family or friends outside of Greendale is instead invested in Abed, who doesn’t seem to want any help. Britta’s frustration, then, begins to mount.

The group enters the Cave of Frozen Memories, and looks around. Troy says: "Man, it's cave-like in here" to which Pierce responds: "What do you mean, cave-like? It's a cave." This is one of my favorite Pierce moments in the episode, besides ones nearing the end. It’s so subtle and almost a blink-and-you’ll miss moment where the viewers get to see how much Pierce has committed to Abed’s Winter Wonderland. He honestly cares about the film student, or else he would not have invested effort into imagining a cave within the study room.

Duncan enters the cave and asks Abed to focus on a part of the cave and think about the reason he believes that the group is stop-motion animated. He wants the film student to harness and channel his emotions regarding the holiday, believing that something that morning unsettled him. Abed (briefly) attempts but quickly gives up and asks Duncan to show him how to properly do the exercise. Ironically, Abed turns the tables and begins to psychoanalyze Duncan. This is the turning point for the Psychology professor, who grows hysterical and then upset at what little progress is being made. He abruptly exits the cave and heads to Abed's dorm room (as he explains later on). Annie then laments that they are without a Christmas wizard. But the film major is still in denial, claiming that they don’t need Duncan and they especially don’t need a “cave of frozen memories” to reflect on. Rather than, once again, address an issue, Abed seeks to do everything he can to “fix” the issue without confronting its root cause. He notes that he is headed to the train station that will take him to The North Pole and cannot have anyone coming with him who is on Duncan's side. Annie, Troy, and Pierce agree to head with him, but Abed stops Britta from joining.

And this is why Britta’s send-off song is so heartbreaking – because it reflects how Abed TRULY feels about her, and – more importantly – what he believes she thinks about herself. And it really breaks my heart as a viewer. Because Britta tries, as I said earlier, to be what people need and want (as does Abed, really, and as do they all). But Britta has no real faith in herself, and barely any faith left in humanity. So her efforts come across harsh and cold, it’s only because she becomes frustrated.  Britta is broken (she has wires with frayed ends, people) just like everyone else, so Abed sings:“Brittabot, programmed badly – wires with fraying ends. Functioning mad and sadly, no faith in herself or friends.” And thus, Britta leaves Winter Wonderland (likely crying, since this all was occurring in real life too).

Abed, Annie, Troy, and Pierce head to The North Pole, but the elderly man insists that since the cookies have run out and he has to use the restroom, he'll see himself out of Winter Wonderland. The three left on the train discuss their holiday traditions, Annie noting that she's half-Jewish but also celebrates Christmas on her dad's side. Abed notes that his mom loves Christmas traditions and they watch "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" every year together on December 9th. Troy hesitates and then informs Abed that December 9th is that day -- the last day of classes. It’s so heartbreaking that rather than accept the fact that his mother has moved on with her life, Abed insists that something else must be wrong – the day of the week, for example – because he cannot fathom certain events and situations. It seems so illogical to the other study group members, and to viewers, that Abed cannot accept that situations exist outside of his control and desire. But, the way that Abed copes is by finding a new problem to fix, thereby diverting his attention from the original problem.

Duncan re-enters the train and insists that he knows the reason why Abed is behaving the way that he is. Abed notes that Duncan has changed from a Christmas wizard into a Christmas warlock and escapes the train car and onto the roof, while the Psychology professor attempts to stop him. Troy holds Duncan back while Annie unhitches the train cars so that Abed can escape to The North Pole. I really do love that Annie and Troy stuck by Abed and protected him from Duncan. It’s an instance of something that is harmful later on (“Contemporary Impressionists”) when their protection of Abed grows out of hand, but it’s endearing and sweet in this episode.

Once he is alone in the car, Abed sets the train speed higher. From behind him, Teddy Pierce reemerges. The next few moments are some of my favorite between Pierce and Abed. First of all, the elderly man is still playing into Abed’s Winter Wonderland without even questioning it or hesitating. Also, it’s sweet that the viewer thinks for a moment that perhaps Abed will be left alone to try and find the meaning of Christmas by himself. And we feel bad for him, for having to endure that. But with Pierce acknowledging that he doesn’t like going home to an empty mansion, a small bond is formed between him and Abed that is sweet and sincere. 

The pair travel to The North Pole and approach Santa's workshop. Pierce ACTUALLY wants to help. And maybe, just maybe, he is the most genuine out of all the study group members. Sure, he insisted he was only sticking around for the cookies. But the real reason he stayed was to have company and friendship during an otherwise lonely holiday. Additionally, Pierce and Abed enter Santa's Workshop and the elderly man asks: “Okay, so… meaning of Christmas, right? Do you see it?” This, I think, is great because it sets up the fact that Pierce has no pretenses – he doesn’t want Abed to find anything in particular, isn’t forcing him to see things that don’t exist, and isn’t trying to get anything out of Abed’s revelation, whatever that may be. For all his racist and offensive jokes, his remarks toward Abed, and his demeanor the rest of the season, this is Pierce’s shining moment as a human being (er… teddy bear).

Abed DOES find the meaning of Christmas in the middle of the room thanks to Pierce and unwraps it, only to discover that it is the first season of "Lost" on DVD. Pierce is confused until Abed explains that it represents a lack of payoff. This is when Duncan reemerges, sending Abed into a catatonic state when he reads a letter from Abed's mother that was on the floor of the film student's dorm room. The letter explains that she has a new family and won't be joining him for Christmas this year. The study group approaches, however, and bands together to support their friend. I LOVE that the study group didn’t get very far in wherever they decided to go after being ejected from Winter Wonderland. Likely, they made it as far as outside of the study room before they realized that they needed to be there for Abed, because HE needed them, not necessarily because they agreed with him or had all the answers. Christmas means being there for people you love, and the study group pulled through for one of their own.

(The study group then sings a song while they attack Duncan with their Christmas-style weapons and then eject him from Winter Wonderland via a Christmas Pterodactyl and a self-destruct button.)

Abed recovers from his catatonic state by realizing that Christmas means whatever you want it to mean, and that it doesn't have only ONE meaning. He acknowledges that, now, Christmas means spending time with his study group family. The entire group hugs and celebrates this revelation. When the group "reconvenes" as stop-motion in the study room, Abed notes that they could probably stop being animated, since he feels better. I love that Britta was the one to suggest that they all stay in stop-motion animation because she knew how much it meant to Abed.

So the group hijacks Christmas decorations from the cafeteria and settles in Abed's dorm room to watch a Christmas special together. The ending to this episode is the sweetest thing ever, as the group's real reflections are seen on the television screen. But it is also the last time the study group may ever be completely bonded together in love until season three. 


Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
- “I never understand what any of you are saying.”
- “You lied to lure me into a group therapy session?” “Surprise!”
- “Its atmosphere is seven percent cinnamon.” “Aww.”
- “Bitter, shallow hipster, sweater matching socks. Christmas needs more presence than a haircut in a box.”
- “Woah, woah! Who taught you therapy? Michael Jackson’s dad?”
- “Hey! You’re actually grabbing me in real life, delinquent!”
- “What’s your article gonna be called? ‘Worst shrink ever’?”
- “Troy and Abed in stop-motion!”

All right, folks. Remember that #CommunityRewatch and subsequent blog-reviews have moved days and times! Join me now at 8:30 PM EST on FRIDAYS for re-watches and check back here on Saturdays for reviews. Next week we will be watching "Asian Population Studies," so join me on Twitter with the hashtag #QuettleCorn, will you? Until then, have a great week. :)

1 comment:

  1. You psychoanalyzed the study group members, but can you explain why Abed saw (or chose to see) Chang as a snowman?