Community has reappeared on Netflix recently and for many, it’s a deeply beloved show with a rocky journey.
Through Dan Harmon’s deeply personal and meta storytelling style, came a range of characters that reflected a little bit of all of us as humans. Between Abed’s ability to better relate to fictional characters than real people, or Jeff’s faux lack of enthusiasm to hide that he cares. Or even Pierce, amidst the selfishness, casual racism and sexism, he just wanted to be included. None of them are perfect, and neither are we. This is why Community succeeded, and throughout its six-season run, it had produced some of the most creative sit-com television ever. From stop-motion Christmas specials, games of Dungeons and Dragons and paintball. All of which gave way to wonderful story-telling and deep character studies.
Amongst these many great moments are some of the best homages to cinema that episodic television has achieved. Dan Harmon knows how to homage. This isn’t just referencing for cheap laughs either. Rather elements of films are embedded into the fabric of their respective episodes and utilised to enhance how the story is told. These homage episodes don’t rely on the film it’s referencing to tell the story. Watching any of these episodes in seasons 1-3 and 5-6 as opposed to any episode in the fourth, affectionately known as the ‘gasleak’ year, quickly reveals the difference. Community’s ‘meta’ story-telling style and inclusion of a pop-culture obsessive character opened the floodgates for what could be done. Goodfellas and chicken wings, For A Few Dollars More and paintball, and My Dinner with Andre and a birthday. The latter being the most absurd, but the pinnacle of Community flexing its ability to homage.
Season 2, Episode 19: Critical Film studies. For his birthday Abed has asked Jeff to meet him at a fancy restaurant downtown for an important conversation. Jeff narrates us through the opening scene, referring back to Abed’s ‘mental’ episode at Christmas time which had sent the study group into a stop-motion intervention. When the two friends meet, Abed is acting ‘normal’, meaning not his usual self. The uncomfortable, distant, pop-culture referencing nerd had been replaced with a confident, well-spoken man who approaches Jeff as an equal. Once the two are seated Abed descends into a story of how his love for Cougartown took him to the set of the show. The director offered him a role as an extra. In classic Abed fashion, this shattered his metaphorical fourth wall. So much so, that once the director yelled cut, he couldn’t just disregard the character he had embodied. Abed couldn’t forget about Chad. He claims “Chad had lived, more than Abed” and so to rectify this he wants to sit with Jeff and have a ‘real’ conversation. So they get real. As Jeff attempts to finish the meal and get to the actual surprise birthday party the group have planned.
Community follows the My Dinner with Andre structure, Jeff has taken on the role of Wallace Shawn and Abed, Andre Gregory. Wallace Shawn defers most of the early conversation to Andre. Allowing him to descend into a never-ending story that all begins with, what Andre believes to be, a moment of fate. The existential conversation covers a range of topics from reality, experimental theatre to spirituality and humanity. A key factor comes in his time in Poland as the teacher of an experimental theatre class. That concluded with a baptismal ceremony in which Andre was renamed Yendrush. As Andre has Poland and Yendrush, Abed has Cougartown and Chad. Two absurd stories that are completely different yet, identical in meaning. Both characters confess they’d never felt more alive than they did in those fleeting moments.
As My Dinner with Andre continues deeper and deeper into its existential conversation with Wallace processing and reacting to Andre’s recount. The wonderful chaos of Community slowly begins to infect Abed’s secret homage. Jeff is now completely sold on the plan to have a real conversation. As he opens up, the cracks begin to appear on Abed’s face. Jeff has unknowingly committed to Abed’s homage and therefore broken it. Abed also knows there is no turning back. Then it comes crumbling down, Pierce storms in, the Waiter gives away Abed’s plan and Jeff realises what’s going on. At this point the My Dinner With Andre homage could be pushed aside, seen as a nod to the cinephiles in the audience, job done. However, it continues and its importance to the narrative and the characters is revealed in the episodes final moments.
Sat in the ruins of Abed’s surprise birthday party, the two friends are left alone. A frustrated Jeff explains how he had done everything in an attempt to make Abed happy but believed Abed had selfishly made himself happy instead. Abed rebuttals, he chose My Dinner with Andre because it’s about a guy who has a surprisingly pleasant evening with a friend he’d been avoiding. Other characters had been growing throughout the season, Abed had not and therefore felt like Jeff had been avoiding him. The flawed desire to make the other happy in their own unique way brings both of them to this realisation. Vulnerability, sincerity and the many flaws that make them human allows for a scenario that the audience can connect to and that sets up the homage to be successful. The nuances in performance and aesthetics are nailed every time. With its homage to My Dinner With Andre, it taps into the physical and emotional elements that work so uniquely for Wallace and Andre. But also just as well in an entirely different way for the important character and relationship development of Jeff and Abed.
Finally, it doesn’t demand its audience to know the film to ‘get’ the episode. An awareness of the film just adds another complimentary layer to an already great episode. However, the homages Community chooses to make are not an attempt at showing off an extensive knowledge of cinema. Emphasised by Abed’s explanation at the end of the episode, which reveals all the information we need to know. The priority is always to serve the characters well, which allows even the most obscure homage to compliment the story.