Monday, December 20, 2010

According To TV: Community - Christmas

This is my first blog about the subject of Christmas in television, but the timing of the episodes couldn't be more recent.

Of course, my investigation into Christmas on television also deals with the messages that television sends about the holiday, and I feel there's no more positive messages to be found than the ones in the Community Christmas episodes. Though they're both wildly different in structure and form -- one is focused on Shirley, the other on Abed; one is a simple holiday-gone-wrong extravaganza, one is a stop-motion claymation extravaganza -- they both communicate a consistent message about Christmas, one that is both communal (evidenced by "Comparative Religion") and existential (in the case of "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"). They're both positive secular contributions to the canon of Christmas television.

"Comparative Religion"'s large focus on Shirley is more about her superiority complex regarding Christmas. She can't let go of her strong religious beliefs even in the face of basically every other major religion in the world being important to each of the other members of the group. Jeff, of course, isn't going to let the bullying of Abed continue unpunished. In the end, both characters level with each other; Jeff's speech is similar to the Tenth Doctor's speech about Rose in "The Satan Pit" (gratuitous Doctor Who reference: check!), namely that, if he believes in anything, it's his friends, particularly Shirley in this case. Shirley also realizes that if the study group is to be her new family, she needs to treat them like a family, so she supports Jeff in his endeavors. "Comparative Religion" isn't necessarily about religion, instead using religion as a lens for examining the true meaning of the holidays -- being with and supporting the people you care about most.

"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" takes a similarly secular stance, though by somewhat different means. Abed, now seeing the world in stop-motion claymation, is looking for the meaning of Christmas. He and the rest of the study group (plus psych teacher Professor Duncan) engage in a group therapy session-slash-Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-inspired journey through Abed's mind in order to discover this elusive "true meaning of Christmas".

What does Abed find? The first season of LOST, representing lack of payoff. (That's another blog post, friends, a whole other blog post.) But after a wonderful song in which the rest of the study group fends off Professor Duncan yet again, Abed understands: the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning.

How wonderfully existential! And yet, it makes sense. Previously, Abed talked about how he enjoyed the rituals associated with the holidays. They're tedious and annoying and often seem like they're all for naught, but performing the rituals was Abed's way of giving this holiday meaning. Now that Abed's previous ritual (watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with his mom) is gone, he finds a new ritual -- spending time with his new family.

Both episodes showcase characters who, in some way, have lost something, and try to get it back in their own forms of religion: Shirley turns her Christianity on full-speed-ahead, while Abed retreats into his own mind, stuffed to the brim with pop culture. And both show the characters coming to terms with that loss by reaching out to the people who care about them -- the study group. And while I'm sure many Christians object to Shirley's characterization as a "tolerant Christian" in the show, I don't think anybody can find issue with Abed, a Muslim, discovering meaning in Christmas simply by the very fact that Christmas has meaning at all. "Comparative Religion" tries to be fair to each of the religions represented, and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is entirely secular, containing no material related to Christianity beyond Shirley's protestations that only she knows the true meaning of Christmas.

Community is a rare show in this instance: that it can present a meaning of Christmas consistent with previous episodes dealing with Christmas means that the writers understand each other, their characters, and their show better than most. Both of these episodes go to extremes, but neither of them loses sight of the importance of the holidays. That's certainly not nothing.

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