Friday, April 4, 2014

5x11 "G.I. Jeff" (Earning the Emotional Punch)

"G.I. Jeff"
Original Airdate: April 3, 2014

When I was a kid, the only cartoon I truly remember watching was Captain Planet. I wasn’t a huge Saturday morning cartoon girl, to be honest. I was much happier to be curled up with a book or outside in the back yard swinging on the swing set (a testament to my personality and how my parents never wanted us to be in front of a television set for too long, honestly). I know kids who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and I know those, like me, who couldn’t tell you the plot of any cartoon in the 80s or 90s if our lives depended on it. All of this is to say that I was never familiar with G.I. Joe. Oh, sure, I know that he was an action figure. While boys went out and bought his toy and the accessories, I was playing with my Polly Pocket and trying to keep my Tamagotchi alive for longer than a day. The most recent Community episode titled “G.I. Jeff” was an homage to the G.I. Joe cartoon.

Now, here’s where I will be brutally honest and echo what I have read on Twitter: I did not like this episode. It’s not that I didn’t admire the work and effort that was put into recreating G.I. Joe and tailoring it to fit Community. Oh, that I totally and completely admired. But as someone who has never watched a moment of G.I. Joe in her entire twenty-five years of life and doesn’t intend to start now, the homage was lacking. And the reason why, to be honest, is because every other Community homage has been broad enough to connect with viewers. Even if you had never seen a moment of Glee, you could appreciate “Regional Holiday Music” because chances were you had seen a musical episode of SOME television show in your life. “Modern Warfare” was an action-packed homage: it didn’t matter what action movie, really, but you could connect with it stylistically and thematically. I feel like “G.I. Jeff” was not an homage to Saturday morning cartoons in general – it was a specific homage to one specific show that a lot of people (like myself) had never seen. And there is something lost on you when you don’t get the characters or the plot or the purpose of an homage. The point of “G.I. Jeff” is that you can regress and go back to your childhood and cling onto that in order to give you some sort of comfort. But in the end, that’s just futile. See, I get the underlying theme of the episode. What was difficult for me was to find any enjoyment in the story when all I felt was confusion regarding the premise and characters. That is to say that I felt, for the first time, what most people must feel whenever they watch an abnormal Community episode.

Even though this episode fell flat for me because I didn’t connect with or understand it, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy some bits of it. Before we delve into an interesting internal conflict or a resolution with the real-world study group, let’s talk about the plot and the fact that – for all of our insistence to the contrary – Jeff is likely the most mentally unstable member of the study group.

Stuff happens in G.I. Joe realm. Like… a lot of stuff. The study group animated alter egos are helping G.I. Joe defeat Cobra Command and their leader Destro (my presumption is that he’s a major villain of the series but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), when Jeff – or “Wingman” as his alter ego is named – accidentally kills the villain. Since we’re doing everything Saturday morning cartoon-style and all, there’s no room for excessive violence as Wingman and the others soon learn. The study group is brought in front of a council to answer for their crimes of suggestive language, excessive violence, and mature content. When Jeff attempts to give a persuasive Winger speech about how they need to fight and kill Cobra, lest they basically be on the side of the bad… the entire gang gets thrown into jail. There they meet a character who looks oddly like Abed but is named Fourth Wall. He is, of course, the physical manifestation of the fourth wall, reminding the viewers and Wingman that what he is experiencing in “life” is merely a children’s cartoon special.

We don’t understand why Jeff Winger is having a psychotic break, a la Abed in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” but we DO begin to see and hear things that are very un-G.I. Joe-like throughout the course of the episode. Annie’s concerned voice breaks through at one point, as does Britta’s. But when Fourth Wall begins to speak of a secret Cobra site recently uncovered called “Greendale,” Jeff Winger/Wingman’s circuits begin to short out. There’s a reason that Jeff Winger is hiding in his intricately constructed G.I. Joe delusion and there is a reason why glimpses of him playing with the action figure as a child begin to filter through the cracks. The resolution is a bit weak, though, in my opinion. Nevertheless, the actual study group members begin to vocalize real concern for Jeff Winger while Wingman continues to exist within the confines of the G.I. Joe realm.

The G.I. Joe/Cobra battle frames part of the narrative, but the larger narrative is that of Jeff Winger. We learn the reason that Jeff has constructed this dream, and it’s because of the fact that he has been lying to the study group about his age. After drinking too much scotch and taking pills to make him feel younger, Jeff experienced an actual medical crisis. His cartoon alter-ego assures the cartoon Britta and Annie that he wasn’t trying to kill himself in a state of depression, though. What I find intensely interesting about Jeff as a character is that he is the most mentally unstable member of a group of mentally unstable people. He’s had musical fantasies (“Biology 101”), he’s constructed an entire alternate universe in his head in order to have a conversation with himself (“Advanced Introduction to Finality”), and he’s taken an axe to the study room table (also “Biology 101”) among other events. He’s not as put-together as we’d like to believe, nor is he as sane as Abed. Abed may have his own neuroses, but even HE can recognize an escape tactic when he sees one. It’s his job to break down that barrier – to help people keep one foot in reality while one is out. I never used to think of Abed as being that person, you know? I always thought he was the crazy one, or – at the very least – the one with the most to gain by being with the group. But maybe Abed has evolved and maybe Jeff hasn’t, really. Maybe Jeff has more psychotic issues than just a fear of commitment and abandonment. Maybe JEFF is the crazy one, after all.

We all like to stay in our safe little confines. We all like to believe that life is somehow better on the other side, or that it was somehow greater back when we were kids and could get lost in a twenty-minute Saturday morning cartoon. We constantly long for the days of our youth, when everything was easy and the hardest decision we had to make was what set of pajamas we would wear that evening to bed. But what happens when you become trapped by your own delusions and beliefs? What happens when you box yourself in and keep yourself in the past or in a perpetual state of adolescence? I think “G.I. Jeff” seeks to answer that question. The response? Nothing good can come of being trapped in a realm you were only meant to exist in for a little while. You have to embrace the fact that a new path gives you new challenges and tribulations sure, but it also gives you new opportunities. When Wingman begins to recall the “real” world and what he will miss if he chooses to stay in his cartoon dreamland and merely drift off to sleep (or, you know, death), he realizes that even though he’s aged, he doesn’t want to give up what life out there has to offer him. Though the days of his youth were enjoyable and comfortable, the days of his adulthood have promise as well.

Jeff has a choice to make: he can choose to focus on his age (apparently he’s been lying to everyone and is actually 40) or he can choose to focus on the promise that he has people who love him in spite of – and maybe even because of – his age. Jeff’s existential crisis-turned-near-fatal-disaster is spawned by the revelation that Jeff has been lying to us for five years about his age, and he’s been lying to his friends and all of his family (“Cooperative Escapism and Familial Relations” as well as “Intro to Political Science” are two episodes where Jeff specifically tells someone in both instances that he is 35/36) too. I guess that, to me, the reveal that Jeff has been lying about his age isn’t impactful at all. I suppose in some warped way, it makes sense that Jeff would be having a midlife crisis and try to cure it with booze and pills. But… why this crisis? And why NOW, most importantly? Why two episodes away from what may be a series finale in a show that is supposedly about accepting who you are, where you are, and growing from that place? I guess that, for me, the “revelation” felt like it was coming a bit out of left field. We haven’t seen Jeff’s inability to relate to the group. We haven’t seen him struggle with his age. We’ve seen him reference things that happened in 1997 when he was 19 or when he was in 7th grade and he doesn’t miss a beat when he discusses them – there’s no trace of a lie. There’s a part of me that believes Community packed the emotional punch for the sake of having an emotional punch in a story that was all animated. When you utilize a medium THAT extreme, you need some sort of emotional connection to the main characters in order to justify it. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” was more than justified – we saw that Christmas, a time Abed once spent with his mother and that was so close to his heart, was torn away from him by her and her new family. And that loss devastated him and sent him into an emotional (claymation) tailspin. THAT was justified. We all knew that Abed held onto his relationship with his mother (“Introduction to Film”) and that it was established that he had a rocky relationship with his parents, so it made sense to us that this news would impact him. It, after all, impacted US when Duncan revealed the real reason for Abed’s Winter Wonderland.

But the “revelation” with Jeff felt a bit too forced – like the show was trying to careen the episode around an emotional corner but ended up giving the audience (or at least this audience member) whiplash instead. That’s not to say that Joel McHale cannot act a scene. He can utterly act whatever is thrown at him with poise and dignity and believability. The problem for me in “G.I. Jeff” was that this emotion didn’t feel EARNED. I didn’t believe Jeff had any sort of problem, prior to this episode, and was startled when he almost died because of it. It was unsettling, to say the least, and if a show wants to pack that emotional punch – if they want to really make their story connect with as many viewers as possible – there needs to be some sort of set-up and a believable emotional conflict. Had Jeff’s story turned in the way I anticipated it would: had he been trapped inside of his own mind because he received a note or phone call from his father or mother; had he recently found something of his dad’s or even Pierce’s, I could have been on board with the emotional fallout. There has been plenty of set-up to convince us all that Jeff has emotional issues with his family and with Pierce as a person, even in the wake of his death. But apart from some vanity regarding his hair and his abs, we never really had to question whether or not Jeff felt like he was aging too quickly or that his life was somehow over. It’s one thing for an emotional moment to sneak up on and surprise us viewers (like in “Mars Landing” with the Nick/Jess break up or “Last Forever” with the death of The Mother), but it’s another to have the moment magically appear in thin air and then expect us to take it as seriously as we would any other fully developed and charted emotional moment. It doesn't feel real. And because it doesn't feel real or believable, it doesn't feel earned.

I guess what I’m truly saying is that if Community wants me to continue to connect to it and its characters on an emotional level, it needs to lay the groundwork for those revelations to truly hit home. Otherwise, I may end up feeling like I did at the end of “G.I. Jeff”: confused, numb, and disappointed.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode include:
  • The animation truly was cool in this episode. It really seemed to mirror an old cartoon.
  • “Look, I think I’m over-explaining this. The bad guys are the snakes and the good guys are army people.”
  • “Your outfit is three layers of racist!”
  • “What do you mean ‘you people’?”
  • “I swear to God, I feel Korean.”
Thanks for reading, folks! I'll see you back here next week for part one of the season finale titled "Basic Story." Until then! :)


  1. First, as a guy over 40, the homage was spot on for GI Joe. It was a really funny episode, I really liked it, but I agree with your basic complaint that something feels off. I still think that too much of this season is Harmon's attempt to deal with season 4. It was a fun episode to me, but it didn't do anything to push the needle forward on these people, and that is what I want. Harmon regularly talks about how he dislikes having a plan for the characters, but with the exception of crazy Chang and Dopple-Deaning, Season 3 still did more for the characters than any other season, in my opinion.

    Arguably, what made the episode a problem was the commercial toy idea that is literally sandwiched between the cartoon and Jeff's hospital bed. It made for some interesting moments, but the gang, and what they are doing, is what I am interested in most, and a conversation between Annie and Britta about their feelings for Jeff could have been perfect, hilariously awkward, and connect us to Jeff in his hour of need better.

    1. Matt: Thanks for the comment about the episode! I'm glad to know that it lived up to your expectations as an homage to G.I. Joe but also that you felt the same issues I've felt this season -- when I look back over these 13 episodes, it's hard to argue that many of them actually pushed the needle (I'm borrowing that phrase from you, haha) in character growth or development in ANY of the remaining Greendale students. How has Annie grown this season? Or Jeff, really? Or Britta? Or Shirley? Abed, I can attribute maaaaaybe some growth to in terms of having a relationship with Rachel, but I see your point and hopefully you see mine too. Also I completely agree with your assessment of season 3.

      Thanks again for the comment!