TV Review: COMMUNITY 5.11 “G.I. Jeff”

The gang gets animated. Again.

"We're all just dressed like serial killers and strippers."

In addition to being a great episode one could watch to introduce themselves to Community, "GI Jeff" also succeeds in retroactively making the 2nd D&D one look even less essential - this is a (nearly) entirely animated tale that takes place in Jeff's head and spends as much time with actual GI Joe characters like Cobra Commander and Duke as our regular heroes, and yet is more essential to the show's ongoing "mythology" than last week's fully live action one. There's a huge reveal at the end of the second act (and another from Abed during the one live action scene with our heroes - thought his might be a joke, I couldn't tell), one that answers a question folks have been asking for nearly the show's entire run - proving once again that in Community, there's (almost) no such thing as a throwaway episode, even if everything about it seems to suggest otherwise.

Even as a kid I wondered why no one on the GI Joe cartoon (which I watched casually, and owned a few toys - I was never a huge fan) ever seemed to die. So the 8-year-old in me found great pleasure as the episode began (more or less) with "Wingman" (Jeff) shooting Destro's parachute full of holes and letting him plummet to his death, which leaves everyone (including Duke, one of the several real Joes that appear and are voiced by their 80s actors) in a state of shock. Jeff and his cohorts Buzzkill (Britta), Three Kids (Shirley) and Tight Ship (Annie) are immediately jailed for the crime, where they encounter Fourth Wall (Abed, of course) in the next cell. He knows that this isn't a real world, and when he mentions Greendale, Jeff has strange visions that look like a toy commercial and passes out. Once he wakes up, they realize that whatever the problem is has to do with this mysterious place, and so they bust out of prison and make their way there, hoping to find the answers they seek.

Or something. The plot is gibberish (something Fourth Wall mentions), but that doesn't matter since unlike the fourth season finale, they're up front with the fact that this is something happening in Jeff's mind. As his name suggests, Fourth Wall rarely bothers living in the Joe-world's story, rather pointing out that they're action figures for children and Jeff (not "Wingman", just Jeff) is clearly going through something he needs to deal with in reality. But rather than return to the real world once the goal is clear, Fourth Wall uses his "fourth wall penetrating powers, combined with the medium's lack of internal logic" to figure out how to save the day within the confines of the animated world that has been constructed around them. Of course, this is not unlike the classic season 2 Christmas stop-motion episode, where Abed himself was the one suffering a mental break (and yes, it's mentioned), but the reveal of WHY Jeff is going through this is much darker - he's in a (accidental) coma after drinking too much scotch while taking some pills that are supposed to help him stay younger.

Yes, this 20 minutes of 80s style animation (and a few live action toy commercials) is basically an excuse to provide the long awaited reveal of Jeff's age. Ordinarily one would just assume it was the age of the actor playing him, but Jeff was meant to be younger than McHale (who, at 42, looks younger than I do at 34, so he's got nothing to worry about), presumably to keep whatever occasional Annie/Jeff romance pops up from being too creepy. But it seems they split the difference; Jeff reveals himself to be 40, still younger than McHale but possibly a bit too old for the 23/24 year old Annie. It's a daring move, and the fact that he's been "lying" about his age doesn't quite land since he's never revealed it in an episode, but it's one of the many things that helps keep the show grounded in more of a reality than we're used to on a sitcom. For example, That 70's Show should have been taking place in around 1985 by the time it ended (on "New Year's Eve, 1979") - but it seems Community has indeed taken place in real time (they stress that they met five years ago, possibly to clear up the occasional confusion that the start of this season was over a year past the end of season 4). It's also the first time since the premiere that Jeff was the one with the crisis; if you look at this season's more dramatic stories, we've seen big hurdles for Abed (Troy leaving), Britta (the activists one), Hickey (D&D), and the group as a whole (Pierce dying), but it's been a while since Jeff was the one that needed specific saving. Now that he's fully committed to loving these people (and Greendale, by extent), he's been more of an ensemble player than the main character - it's nice to see a bit of that aspect back without actually hitting a reset and making him a selfish jerk again for the sake of an idea they had.

Oh, and it's a goddamn hilarious episode. Rob Schrab (who directed the episode) plays Cobra Commander, and had me laughing out loud nearly every time he spoke - particularly during Destro's eulogy, which he botches because he's never had to give one before now. And whether the characters were poking holes at the show's concept ("We've been shooting at each other and missing for 20 years!") or just doing their usual thing albeit in animated form (see: Britta), I found myself laughing HARD more than any episode this season since Pierce's funeral (which remains my favorite of the season). I didn't even mind when they started to address a fascinating concept (that toy commercials exist in a strange middle between reality and a fictional animated world) and more or less blew right past it, because I was laughing too hard at the next joke. It's been a top notch season in terms of concepts and character growth, but as the plots get more inspired, it tends to leave less time for big laughs (like the MeowMeow Beenz one, where I was SMILING nonstop but rarely laughing out loud). And the funniest episode was the one that didn't really break ground on a conceptual level - they were all just sitting around the study table getting mad at each other, something we've seen in a number of previous installments. This is that rare one that works as a "There is nothing else like this show on television" example of how brilliant they can be, AND keeps the laughs coming, making it a winner. Hell, down the road it might even top the funeral as my favorite one from the season, something I wouldn't have imagined at 7:59pm this evening as I assumed it would be "cute" and "fun" but overall rather disposable. I have never been happier to be wrong.