A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece on my Tumblr about NBC’s Community and how, more than anything, it’s about people living in relation with other people, overcoming their differences to establish a sense of togetherness and discover value, joy, and fellowship in one another. In that piece (some of which Todd VanDerWerff’s latest review seems to reaffirm, by the way), I cited “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”—the stop-motion Christmas episode from last season—as being the best episode of the series thus far, managing to be hysterical, adventurous, and touching while also perfectly encapsulating the show’s thematic core. In fact, season one’s Christmas episode, “Comparative Religion,” had done the same thing on a more conventional (but just as entertaining) level, sporting the show’s first extreme display of the study group becoming a real community of friends as they teamed up to fight a gang of bullies before Christmas break. Suffice it to say that, so far, Community has a great track record in the holiday episode department, and I’ve come to associate the Christmas episodes in particular with the show’s deepest, innermost sense of earnestness and sincerity—because it’s in those episodes that its voice has sung out the clearest.

Last night’s episode—the show’s third annual Christmas installment, entitled “Regional Holiday Music”—sang out more clearly (and more literally) than ever, delivering a hilarious musical send-up of Glee (with a healthy dose of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers) while yet again managing to affirm its core values of friendship and togetherness. Like Britta, the show takes this opportunity to “sing its heart’s song”—albeit much less awkwardly.

As with many episodes of Community, there are a few different ways to understand how “Regional Holiday Music” works. The most obvious is to discuss its merit as a stand-alone story—and it has plenty of merit, being one of the funniest episodes of the season so far. I won’t list all the jokes here as I’m sure you’ll be able to find them scattered throughout the Internet over the coming months, but trust me, there were some great ones. (I will say that one of my personal favorites was when the Glee Club adviser Mr. Rad—played brilliantly by Taran Killam—warns the study group that the Christmas pageant “won’t be easy,” to which the Dean replies with a surprised, “Oh!” Great little moments like that are a part of what makes this show so brilliant.)

Another way to look at this episode is how it functions within the arc of the current season. “Regional Holiday Music” fits very nicely into the show’s ongoing exploration of evolution (introduced perfectly in this year’s premiere, which came replete with a “more highly evolved Pierce Hawthorne,” an ostensibly evolved study group taking—of course—Biology, and an homage to what else but the most thematically evolution-heavy film of them all, 2001: A Space Odyssey). This episode sports a couple interesting tie-ins with that theme, notably: 1) the idea that Glee is spreading and evolving like some kind of virus, and 2) an entire song, sung by Abed, Troy, and Pierce, documenting the “evolution” of song itself. These connections aren’t exactly mind-blowing, of course, but I still think they’re pretty neat. More significantly, the episode also plays on this season’s idea of “things getting dark,” as solidified both in “Remedial Chaos Theory” and in the real-life indefinite-hiatus situation. When Abed expresses his concern that “for a while there I thought we were gonna’ end the semester on a really dark note,” he’s not only commenting on the inherent darkness of the third act of their story,  he’s also echoing the fear of Community fans everywhere that the show’s days might be numbered. (I half-expected the episode to actually end on a dark note to reflect—in perfect meta fashion—the precarious state of the show’s future… But then that just wouldn’t have been very Christmasy, would it?)

Finally, as I suggested earlier, we can look at the episode in relation to the Christmas episodes that came before it. “Comparative Religion” saw the study group coalesce into a proud, determined, and ultimately triumphant family teaming up against an outside oppressor, while “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” saw one of them undergoing deep-rooted emotional pain and the others teaming up to help him through it. So of course it’s only natural that the third installment carry on the tradition of the group “teaming up” for some purpose (and, provided there’s a fourth season, it’ll be interesting to see how its Christmas episode handles that tradition).

This year their teaming-up is different, though. It’s less genuine. It’s manipulated. Although Abed convinces Troy that “we have to save Christmas to save our friends!,” the fact is, Britta’s right when she points out that “the stakes aren’t actually that high.” They’re teaming up for a Christmas pageant that, deep down, they don’t actually want to do. In the first two seasons, Christmas brought them together to combat something negative, to fight the darkness around them with the light inside of them. This time around, there’s no real darkness that they’re fighting—Abed just (understandably) wants them to be together for Christmas. When it looks like they won’t be, he decides—in true puppeteer fashion—to manipulate them into a Christmas-spirity situation similar to the ones they’ve had together in years past.

But it’s a forced transformation—a grotesque one, mirrored in Mr. Rad’s face when he tells Abed, “This is forever. This is what we do now. This is who we are.” It’s that intensely disturbed visage that causes Abed to have second thoughts about his plan. I mean, just look at the Glee Club’s meltdown at the beginning of the episode: as crazy as the study group can get at times, they don’t even come close to the instability on display there. That descent into insanity is a harbinger of what can happen when you force yourself to be happy all the time: at some point it’s going to stop being sincere and become an emotional house of cards instead. (Worst-case scenario, you’ll end up killing your Glee Club by cutting their bus’s brake-lines.) In the end, Abed realizes that maybe Jeff was right: that “maybe forcing things to be bright just makes the darkness underneath even darker.”

But Jeff and Abed both seem to be forgetting things. Abed seems to be forgetting that the last time he tried imbuing Christmas with “true meaning,” he ended up becoming literally catatonic (and figuratively frozen in a block of ice). And Jeff seems to be forgetting that the reverse of his statement is also true—that when the holidays seem dark, we can make them brighter… by spending them together, with friends and family. As the group declared in last year’s Christmas episode: “The delusion you are trying to cure is called Christmas… It’s the crazy notion that the longest, coldest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest. … And when we all agree to support each other in that insanity, something even crazier happens… It becomes true.”

“Regional Holiday Music” is about the group trying to evolve into something it’s not—a chorus of happy-go-lucky musical performers—only to realize that they don’t need to do that to be happy. Growth will happen, is, indeed, always happening. The important thing is to let that growth happen naturally and, in the meantime, to cherish one another for who they are. Granted, because they’re human, their growth is never perfect. Like all of us, they forget things that they’ve learned time and time again—in this case forgetting not only how much Abed needs them, but how much they need each other.

By the end of the episode they remember, of course, and surprise Abed by showing up at his apartment singing not some super-happy pop number, but a plain old Christmas carol. They’re dressed not in ridiculous, overly theatrical costumes but in more toned-down, traditional holiday garbs. And they gather not to perform and be flashy, but to watch a crappy holiday special together.

The final shot is of the group huddled together in front of the TV, having learned once again the importance of going back to basics, back to the building-blocks of evolution itself: each other. The image appropriately mirrors the final shot of “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” suggesting that, like the rest of us, these people are still in the process of learning the value of togetherness, even if they stumble a few times along the way.

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