Seasons of Seasons: Community Season 2, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” & “Asian Population Studies”

Unlike previous entries in this series, I’m going to kick things off with the second chronological episode this time, Asian Population Studies. Not because I believe it’s superior to Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, but more close to the contrary. Whereas Christmas is one of the show’s best episodes ever, Asian Population Studies doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression. It’s a perfectly fine (and funny!) episode that comes at the midpoint of the season; it just so happens to be amongst a sea of knockout episodes that would go on to be much more memorable.

If Population Studies serves any purpose, it’s to advance whatever lingering plot threads that Harmon has put out from the beginning of the season. Namely, the Shirley-Chang mystery that began in Epidemiology, and the secret that Troy has been harboring. It all comes to a head when Shirley announces that she’s not only pregnant, but welcoming her ex-husband back into her life so they can raise the baby together. Meanwhile, Jeff sabotages Annie’s new crush on Rich (Greg Cromer), partially out of jealousy but, as the final scene reveals, mostly because he wants to be a better person so he can manipulate people more easily.

The show has always been about trying to improve ourselves and trying to find the right people that can help us do so. Asian Population Studies puts that front and center with Shirley and Jeff – and Andre (Malcom-Jamal Warner) as well. Andre’s scene with Jeff is key to understanding this, as Andre reveals his biggest regret was in how he let Shirley down. It’s actually a telling character moment for Jeff, whose immediate reaction is to run to Rich and figure out how he can be a good person for all the wrong reasons. 

But the real star off the show this week is Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, a gem of the show so far, a brilliant character study for Abed, and an all-timer of a Christmas episode of television. I don’t know what Dan Harmon’s deal is with therapy, but I couldn’t help but think of the “Pickle Rick” episode of Rick and Morty while watching this episode. Both deal with their protagonists and their refusals to acknowledge the sad truths of their lives by denying the usefulness of therapy. It’s the emotional gut-punch that Harmon is great at (he wrote the episode, along with Dino Stamatopoulos) and it fits right in with the show’s homage to Christmas specials.

Abed’s acknowledgement that they’re in a stop-motion Christmas episode starts out as a cutesy meta moment, but once we realize the true nature of Abed’s holiday blues, it belies a much darker truth. The idea that the holidays are inherently sad wasn’t a new idea by the time Community came around, but Harmon executes it brilliantly here. And he manages to throw in all the hallmarks of the holiday specials that get replayed on network TV year after year, not only by mimicking their looks (the stop-motion animation, obviously, but also the songs) but in the way it uses the conceit as a way in for casual viewers.

Does the reveal of Abed’s mother’s new family more or less come out of nowhere? The season so far has been fairly light on Abed subplots, save for when the girls turned him into a robot in Aerodynamics of Gender, and certainly nothing as impactful as what we get here. My fear is that Abed’s relationship with his mother won’t have any bearing on the season going forward, but TV has basically conditioned us to expect that holiday episodes are rarely anything more than self-contained stories. We all have our own traditions and expectations for the holidays, and Harmon understands that there’s no universal approach to the holiday spirit. Whether we celebrate it alone or with loved ones, that melancholic feeling always finds a way to creep in.

Much like Epidemiology, Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas harkens back to the days of yore in TV when holiday themed episodes were borderline mandatory, in more ways than one. The episode wouldn’t be the last holiday episode that the show would do (I remember being really taken with the third season’s Regional Holiday Music), but it was easily the most ambitious. Doing a stop-motion holiday episode would easily come off as a gimmick with nearly every other sitcom but, as with nearly all of Community’s TV and movie spoofs, Harmon managed to make it feel like a natural extension of the show’s modus operandi.

Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas Grade: A

Asian Population Studies Grade: B

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