'Community' knows Jeff Winger’s real age, and knowing is half the battle [TV recap: season 5, episode 11]

Many of the episodes in Community’s fifth season have been modified sequels to previous fan-favorite from previous seasons. “Cooperative Polygraphy” echoes bottle episode “Cooperative Calligraphy.” “Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality” has strains of “Mixology Certification.” “Repilot” and “Advanced Dungeons And Dragons” have easily identifiable equivalents. “G.I. Jeff” is this season’s attempt at a storyline similar to “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” the second-season standout that takes place entirely inside Abed’s rattled mind as he grapples with his mother’s absence.

This episode focuses on Jeff, but at a similarly fraught juncture, and takes the form of a G.I. Joe cartoon, complete with regular characters, plus others like Hat Muffs and Spit-Take.

Destro and his Cobra soldiers assault the Taj Mahal—something that Tight Ship (Annie) points out makes no sense whatsoever, because it’s “a tourist attraction with zero tactical value.” Buzzkill (Britta) notes that Annie’s costume is a bit too…revealing, which gets her reprimanded for language. And Three Kids (Shirley, the butt of yet another obvious joke about how the show hasn’t given her much to work with) isn’t helpful since she’s busy dealing with her three kids. But then Jeff “Wingman” swoops in to save the day and stop Destro—only he doesn’t stop at forcing the villain to eject and escape via parachute. He shoots holes in the chute, and Destro falls to his death. The Joes—and everyone back at Cobra—are stunned. Nobody has ever died in this world before. And thus, the odd adaptation of this world begins to take shape.

As far as spiritual sequels go, I wasn’t as easily on board with this episode as I have been with many of the others this season. I can’t quite put my finger on it, though perhaps it’s my unfamiliarity with the original cartoon, since it was before my time as a dedicated childhood cartoon viewer.

In terms of verisimilitude though, this is pretty amazing. Like I said, I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about the original G.I. Joe, but from the clips I watched and my memory of I Love The 80s on VH1, this nails the style right down to the film scratch and dirt effects. Things like the repetition of the gang popping up to slam rocks down on things—first to the guards at the Joes’ compound, then again near the Greendale dig site, and finally on the actual hatch leading underground—highlight how often the same motions were re-used to cut costs. And Abed’s existence as the at least questionable and at most purposefully ignorant stereotype Fourth Wall (a knowing insensitive representation) is a way to constantly call attention to the inherent limitations to this style, something that director Rob Schrab nonetheless uses to tell a dark story with the very tools of Jeff’s nostalgia.

That extends to the faux toy commercials as well, which instead of simply displaying kids running around excited to play with toys, inject a darkly comic streak by way of having the kids say things like “We are in a toy commercial!” Though it’s not fully clear exactly what’s going on, it’s apparent that Jeff is dealing with something related to his status as Greendale, since whenever he hears the word, he seizes up, and the noises of a hospital room appear on the soundtrack. He’s having a psychotic break, just like Abed did, and the episode takes place entirely in a fantasy in his mind.

But when forced to dig a little deeper, the episode doesn’t hold up to as much scrutiny as a more cohesive emotional journey like “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” I don’t think this episode is egregious in the same way, but I found myself thinking of that South Park episode that ruthlessly shreds Family Guy with the manatees randomly writing cutaway gags. This follows a specific formula to build a Community episode: homage gimmick plus central character plus easily relatable crisis equals existential and emotionally touching half hour.

Jeff, in a fit of panic about turning 40, went to Koreatown and bought some sketchy, bogus “youth pills” meant to make him younger, then paired it with the entire bottle of scotch Pierce bequeathed to him. That put him in the hospital, and the animation is all in his head—a coma version of Abed’s mental breakdown that turned into the Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas episode. Credit to Jeff, because he figures all of that out in one fell swoop—though the bits and pieces of the reveal make it so the audience is clued in on what’s actually going on during the first act, even if the cause isn’t clear. It wasn’t a purposefully harmful act, but Jeff is severely depressed about being a community college teacher, five years on from getting booted from his law firm. He’s made great strides in some areas, such as his desire to do good in the world instead of muckraking at his old firm, but he’s still dissatisfied with not reaching his goals.

As a concept—Jeff does something desperate out of fear that he’s getting older that causes him physical harm—this is a solid episode of Community. But there are a lot of unconnected dots here. Why is Jeff flashing back to G.I. Joe? What is it about this show specifically that makes him retreat there in his mind as a preservation of youth? Wouldn’t he want to be a teenager, or in college? I guess being a child is the easiest way to get to the innocence theme, and the attitude the Joes have toward death is at least somewhat of a metaphor about confronting the inevitability of death and putting away the toys because they can’t help confront the future.

In order to go back to the real world, and thus wake up from his coma, Jeff first has to accept that he’s going to get older, that the benefits of living in the real world (represented here by his conversation with Cobra Commander about seeing content that isn’t allowed in a kids show) outweigh the option to cower in a world where death is an exceedingly rare occurrence. Once he sees that, he goes through with Abed’s plan, rocketing from the animated fantasy, through the mid-layer of toy commercials that are fake but imagined in live action, back to the real world, where he wakes up surrounded by the people who care about him most.

“G.I. Jeff” has stylistic ambition—even if Dan Harmon did admit on Harmontown last week that he was still fiddling with things in production less than a week before the episode aired. It has a ton of jokes thrown in the script, aimed at the animation style, the flimsy logic of simplistic animated shows that end with morals, and the types each of the characters fall into. Plus, it takes Jeff and his plight as a student-turned-failed-lawyer-turned-middling-professor seriously for the first time since the second episode of the season. It fell short of the emotional transcendence of other episodes that attempt an extended homage, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely a gimmick to fit in with the other gimmicks throughout the season.

Extra Credit

• In the final fight sequence as Jeff makes his escape, there’s a delightfully sly reference to the “Fat Dog For Midterms Dance.” Garret screaming “IT’S A BEAR DANCE” forever!
• Jonathan Banks’ Professor Hickey is a character named Major Dick, who requests for “Hazard Pay” from the Dean’s Vice Cobra Assistant Commander. That’s a wonderfully oblique reference to Breaking Bad.
• “You look like some Aryan foosball player!”
• “This is Korean.” “Okay what am I?” “CHINESE!” “I swear to God I feel Korean.”